809 words // 10 min. read
I want to talk about being a highly sensitive person.
I want to talk about this a LOT actually. It has been difficult for me all of my life to feel and see so deeply – most of my social memories until a certain point are quite negative, with me being blatantly outcast, rejected, shamed, shunned, and/or misunderstood. It was only recently when I learned about high sensitivity as a scientifically-researched phenomenon that I came to see it for what it is – a superpower.
A friend turned me onto this book by Elaine Aron. You know those books that when you read them you reframe your entire existence in the context of their insights? This one has been one of those for me. It’s about the growing body of research on this topic where Highly Sensitive People (or “HSPs”, though I call them simply “sensitives”) are defined as a portion of the population with a gene predisposing them to heightened sensitivity, making up only about 15-20% of the population, equal for males and females. Interestingly this same gene is also present in over 100 different species.
The implications are enormous!!!
Sensitivity, the author explains, pertains to both a heightened reactiveness to stimuli as well as certain cognitive tendencies such as processing information more deeply and picking up on subtler information underneath the surface of events. Thus if you were an HSP you would be unable to avoid reading into situations more deeply than others – indeed more deeply than would 80% of the population – as perhaps seeing the depression hanging behind someone’s smile or sensing the discomfort someone has with your success or picking up on the subtlest of cues such as a raised eyebrow or a furtive glance or a nervous tapping of someone’s foot – all which give away certain things about the person’s emotional or psychological state.
I have felt this sensitivity all my life. And I have become so painfully aware of how few people understand it! Well the author makes this overarching point about the western world denigrating and devaluing sensitivity, citing a study wherein school kids were surveyed – “What makes the popular kids so well liked?” And in the west, the common descriptors were “outgoing”, “talkative”, “energetic” whereas in the east the descriptors were “reserved”, “composed,” “mature”….
Well this devaluation pervades our culture, including Western psychology. Sensitivity has been negatively attributed to people under various terms (“neurotic”, “introverted”, “shy”, etc) since our imperialist origins require the “superior” paradigm to be externally oriented – fighting and screaming and competing, essentially penetrating outwards. Well sensitive people tend to lean toward the inner worlds. As Carl Jung put it, sensitive people are “educators and promoters of culture”… they live “the other possibility of the interior life which is so incredibly wanting in our civilization.”
For even more sociological context, Aron also suggests that throughout history, HSPs were known as members of the “royal advisory class” which cultivated power in the esoteric realms for survival, as opposed to the “warrior-king class” which cultivated power by brute force. This “royal advisory class” pertains to such archetypes as the shamans, witches, healers, priests, etc which have influenced every society in various roles since the Neolithic revolution (the point at which humans began agricultural practices and thus developing settlements).
I could write for days about this and I’m sure I will in time, but for now I will bullet point the key points as I see them:
- The author makes an overarching point about the negative bias the imperialist West places on sensitivity which programs HSPs to have low self-esteem from the get go
- There is no spectrum of sensitivity – you either have the gene or you do not
- The parts of the brain more active in HSPs are the insula, known as “the seat of consciousness” (moment to moment processing center) and the mirror neuron system which is how empathy works
- HSPs have a greater capacity for both sadness and joy, a concept called “vantage sensitivity”
- Trauma has a much more devastating effect on HSPs than others, especially childhood trauma
- As a survival strategy we process so thoroughly the implications of what occurs and we are thus less likely to make the same mistake again
- HSPs are extremely affected by their environment, called “differential susceptibility”
- HSPs have a hard time displaying their competence when being evaluated or watched (they are keenly aware of the judgment & scrutiny)
- Sensitivity is inherited, and if two HSPs reproduce their child is even more sensitive (studied in dogs)
- She also gives concrete techniques for managing the trait and its downsides
- The spiritual term for it is “empath”
Basically, if you feel misunderstood, constantly deeper than most you meet, often tired for no apparent reason, read this book!
Holy moly what a gem!!!