The first time I heard the term “highly sensitive person” as a personality designation, I felt it sounded like me. When I read the chapter on the highly sensitive in Reading People, I knew for sure that was me. On the self test I scored 25 out of 27. I wanted to learn more, so I looked up the book which started it all: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron.
Actually, people have been writing about this personalty type since Jung, according to Aron, but she is the first to study and write about it in a major way.
A highly sensitive person is not someone who is extra touchy or prickly. The scientific name Aron coined is Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, not to be confused with Sensory Processing Disorder or Sensory Integration Disorder. SPS or HSP is not a disorder at all, but an innate personality characteristic summarized by the acronym DOES:
D is for depth of processing. Our fundamental characteristic is that we observe and reflect before we act. We process everything more, whether we are conscious of it or not. O is for being easily overstimulated, because if you are going to pay more attention to everything, you are bound to tire sooner. E is for giving emphasis to our emotional reactions and having strong empathy which among other things helps us notice and learn. S is for being sensitive to all the subtleties around us.
HSPs tend to be more aware of subtleties and process information more deeply. As a result they can be easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by things like bright lights, noise, too-busy schedules, too much social interaction. HS is not introversion, though many introverts are highly sensitive. HSPs are also not neurotic by definition: one difference Aron found was that neurotic people tended to have a troubled childhood, which, combined with their sensitivity, made them more depressed or anxious.
Aron spends a lot of time discussing how higher sensitivity can be negatively perceived by others, especially when an HS companion gets overly aroused. Aron encourages what she calls reframing memories in light of this new information: when someone was impatient with you for being afraid or needing to leave, now you know you had good reason for your reaction.
She also emphasizes the good aspects of being highly sensitive: conscientiousness, being better able to “spot errors and avoid making errors,” “to concentrate deeply,” to process material deeply, being “deeply affected by other people’s moods and emotions, being “especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed, and the detection of minor differences.”
She likens society to being divided into “warrior kings” and “royal advisors.” The warrior kings are aggressive, conquering, competing. They show initiative, expand territory, crush the competition. The “priest-judge-advisor class” provides balance and “is a more thoughtful group, often acting to check the impulses of the warrior-kings.”
HSPs tend to fill that advisor role. We are the writers, historians, philosophers, judges, artists, researchers, theologians, therapists, teachers, parents, and plain conscientious citizens. What we bring to any of these roles is a tendency to think about all the possible effects of an idea. Often we have to make ourselves unpopular by stopping the majority from rushing ahead. Thus, to perform our role well, we have to feel very good about ourselves. We have to ignore all the messages from the warriors that we are not as good as they are. The warriors have their bold style, which has its value. But we, too, have our style and our own important contribution to make.
Aron goes on to share ways to find balance between avoiding or dealing with over-stimulation yet not becoming a hermit to do so. She also discusses relationships, work, medication’s pluses and minuses, and different types of psychotherapy for those who might be interested in that route.
Personally, though I found much that was helpful, Aron’s style rubbed me the wrong way many times. For instance, she talks about picturing your highly sensitive personality as an infant and learning how to “reparent yourself.” Then she refers to the reader’s “infant/body self” so often the term began to have a fingernails-on-chalkboard effect on me. Some of her approaches are too New-Age-y for my tastes. For instance: “Perhaps the greatest maturity is our ability to conceive the whole universe as our container, our body as a microcosm of that universe, with no boundaries. That is more or less enlightenment.” She suggests an exercise in which the reader is instructed (in more detail) to curl up like a baby, breath from your diaphragm for three minutes, and then “become yourself as a baby.” Another is to imagine “your infant/body self” as a young baby and ask it what it needs. I guess some might find these exercises helpful, but they put me off. I also disagreed with the Jungian concept she describes as an inner helpmate or anima figure or spiritual guide. Discernment is needed in wading through the spiritual aspects of the book.
I disagreed with her about the nature of shyness as well. She says shyness is different from sensitivity, which I agree with. But then she goes on to say “Shyness is the fear others are not going to like us or approve of us. That makes it a response to a situation. It is a certain state, not an always-present trait.” I have been shy all my life, but my reactions weren’t related to fear of not being liked or approved of. When I panicked over being drawn into a conversation, it wasn’t because I feared others wouldn’t like what I had to say: it was because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Probably a lot of that had to do with an introvert’s penchant for being slower to process things. She prefers the term “social discomfort” to shyness, which I could go along with.
The edition I read was updated from the original with new research. Though I would have preferred a more straightforward style, I did benefit from the information and practical tips.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)