You may have heard or read about highly sensitive people or HSPs. HSPs are born with a higher-than-average sensitivity to physical, social, and emotional stimuli and are, therefore, more likely to notice subtleties (and also to get overstimulated from sensory processing). HSPs are, for instance, more sensitive to physical pain, bright lights, and loud noises, and they’re more apt to pick up on nuanced flavors. They’re also more likely to be sensitive to interpersonal discord and other people’s moods, as well as to notice micro-expressions.
What this means is that HSPs are more likely than non-HSPs to be tuned in and reactive to relational dynamics.
But what about someone whose relational attunement and reactivity extend beyond what’s been described here? Someone whose sensitivity to relational dynamics is so high that relational stimuli affect them the way other stimuli affect an HSP? Someone we might call a highly relational person?
Understanding the highly relational person (HRP)
In my experience working with many individuals over the years, I’ve observed that some of them seem to be what we might call highly relational. Since there isn’t empirical research to draw on, what I’m sharing here is speculative: It’s simply an exploration of a concept that may be useful to reflect on or to research at some point.
According to my description, a highly relational person (HRP)* is someone who is highly tuned in and reactive to relational dynamics and who is strongly invested in maintaining relational connection.
If you identify with this description, consider whether you relate to the following statements.
- You’re strongly affected (dysregulated) by interpersonal conflict, especially if you feel you’ve angered or hurt someone, and you tend to blame yourself for such conflicts.
- You’re so highly attuned to others’ mental and emotional states that you can sometimes identify (and often articulate) another person’s thoughts and feelings before that person has identified these thoughts and feelings themselves.
- You seem to naturally figure out what others need in order to feel secure and connected in your presence, and you automatically act in ways that fulfill these needs. For example, you can tell when someone is easily bored in conversation, so you adapt your communication to be extra engaging.
- You struggle to compartmentalize interpersonal conflict. You can’t just put it out of your mind, and it spills into the rest of your life, interrupting your thoughts and often keeping you up at night.
- You can’t relax—get back to a state of regulation—until an interpersonal conflict has been resolved (even if resolution simply means gaining clarity about the problem and knowing it wasn’t your fault). It’s very difficult for you to focus properly on anything else because you’re so caught up processing the problem with your friends, ruminating about what went wrong and how to fix it, drafting emails to the other party, journaling, and so on.
- You’re so focused on cultivating and maintaining interpersonal connections that you ignore signs of potential incompatibility or gloss over other problems in an interaction or relationship. Or you manufacture connection by, for example, saying the right things to create engagement and intimacy in a conversation when the other person isn’t asking about your experience or opening up about themselves.
- You tell yourself that you “shouldn’t” need an intimate relationship in order to feel fulfilled, but you can’t help feeling that you do.
- Because you are relationally tuned in and invested in maintaining connection, you tend to do most of the relational work, or maintenance, in your relationships.
- In close relationships, you can feel like a “relationship hypochondriac.” You’re hypervigilant around potential symptoms of disconnection—such as your own feelings of boredom or anger or the other person’s apparent distance—and you catastrophize the meaning of the symptoms.
HRPs versus HSPs
Although there’s a lot of overlap between HRPs and HSPs, it seems that not all HSPs are highly relational (though it may be possible that all HRPs are also HSPs). Some HSPs, for example, prefer independence and solitude to relationships and don’t feel the need for strong relational connections.
HRPs and anxious attachment
There is also a lot of overlap between HRPs and people with anxious attachment. However, it’s likely that many people with anxious attachment won’t fully fit the description of HRPs. It is possible, though, that HRPs might all identify as having anxious attachment.
HRPs and relational literacy
Finally, there’s a difference between an HRP and someone who has a high level of relational literacy. Relational literacy is the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating.
We can think of an HRP as perhaps having raw relational talent. And, like a person with musical talent, they need training in order to build the skills that turn that capacity into expertise and competence. The HRP can become a skilled relational genius.
The gift of HRPs
Whether HRP should be a classification of some sort remains to be seen. However, if you relate to the information in this article, perhaps you can find some comfort in simply knowing that there are others like you—and that what may feel like your greatest vulnerability can also be your greatest strength.
When you hone your relational gift and cultivate relational skills, your high level of relationality can become your superpower.
And relational proficiency is needed, now more than ever, to help heal a world steeped in the relational dysfunction that leads to widespread harm and violence against humans, animals, and the planet.
This article is more about asking questions than providing answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you think you might be an HRP, please visit highlyrelationalperson.com to take a short survey and share your experience.
For more information on cultivating relational skills, check out my book Getting Relationships Right, which is a one-stop guide to building relational literacy.