I have been reading a self-help book recently by Elaine N Aron – an American clinical psychologist who has spent her career researching, writing about and providing therapy to Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs). Aron discovered this group and set about testing her theory that some people are more sensitive than most – she believes HSPs make up about 20 per cent of the population. Her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, is written for HSPs like herself, as she is an unusually sensitive individual too.
I must admit that this book has had a huge impact on me. Not only does it describe at least 90 per cent of the people I work with, but it also describes me with eye-opening accuracy. HSPs, according to Aron, have an unusually sensitive nervous system. This means that they pick up on far more of the information in their environments than less-sensitive people. They are affected by bright lights, loud noises, crowds and strong smells. If there is tension in a room, they will pick it up and find it uncomfortable. They will intuit which people in a group are friends and who dislikes each other. They are like tuning forks for subtle interpersonal vibes.
Aron is quick to point out that being an HSP does not make us superior to our less-sensitive friends, family members or colleagues. This sensitivity is a trait – largely genetic but also affected by our life experiences – that is neutral. In some ways, it is a real advantage – I always tell my clients that I could not be a schema therapist without a high level of sensitivity. Being this sensitive makes me, and all other HSPs, more thoughtful, empathic, attuned to other people and their needs, as well as a whole host of other good things.
Sensitivity is no bad thing
But perhaps the most important point that Aron makes – and one I really want you to take on board – is that being sensitive is in no way a bad thing. I don't know about you, but all my life people have told me I should be less sensitive. 'It's just a joke – stop taking things so seriously!' Or, 'Why do you always make such a big deal about things? Just man up and toughen up, for God's sake.' Don't be so shy/introverted; be the life and soul, speak louder, be more of a 'character'.
For men especially, sensitivity is often seen as a weakness, or something to be ashamed of. Many HSPs get bullied at school, for precisely this reason. And extra-sensitive women are often told they are crazy, or over-emotional, because they feel things deeply and cannot just lighten up, or get a grip, or let it go. So if this describes you, please understand that there is nothing wrong with you – and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. You are just genetically, temperamentally, a bit different from most other people. This probably means that you have been very much affected by difficulties in your childhood, or family of origin.
You may have an anxiety disorder, or get depressed. You may even have personality problems, or struggle with addiction. All of these things need help, from a professional like me or one of my colleagues, who are trained to help sensitive people (and less-sensitive ones, of course) become happier and healthier. I would also strongly recommend reading this book. And if it describes you, give it to your partner, friends and family, so they can better understand you and why you behave as you do.