Reframe your past. Those times as a child when you “overreacted” when you fell down or did not enjoy a surprise party on your behalf. Those times in adulthood that seems like you made a bad decision, one you still hate yourself for.
As part of my Here Is How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Aron. She is a psychologist and author. Her 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person, about individuals with high measures of sensory processing sensitivity, sold over a million copies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Aron. It is an honor. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I am a research psychologist, a somewhat unwilling now-well-known author, and a licensed clinical psychologist — although, I do not have much time for a clinical practice anymore! I call myself a “civil servant in the High Sensitivity Empire.” When I began researching this trait, it was simply out of personal curiosity. I never expected the subject of high sensitivity to impact so many lives. But I became curious enough to conduct interviews with those who, responding to notices around town, though they might be “highly sensitive.” Then the local press heard about my research and people began phoning and writing to me, wanting to know more this sensitivity trait, for themselves or their sensitive children. I did not plan to write a book about it, but a book seemed like the easiest way to meet their apparent need. Maybe I was in blissful denial that there had to be some impact of a book about something that was always there in 20% of people, just grossly misnamed (seen as shy, inhibited, neurotic, or introverted — 30% of HSPs are extraverts, etc.). To sum it up, I like to say that it was as though I had been walking down the street, quite alone, and a parade formed behind me. Uncomfortable for a highly sensitive introvert.
To add to the plot, my husband of 56 years, Art Aron, has become quite well known for his work as a social psychologist studying love and close relationships. He has his own relationship with fame since his “36 questions” went viral a few years ago. (They were designed purely for research purposes, to create closeness in the laboratory quickly, between strangers.) We collaborate with each other quite a bit on each other’s research, which we thoroughly enjoy, except I am not sure he always loves being another “civil servant in the Empire.”
The good news is that I seem to be helping many people. My latest book, The Highly Sensitive Parent, serves a group much needing some help. This is not a book about how to parent. There are too many of those and HSPs will try to read them all. It is just for them.
There are other books: The Highly Sensitive Person, The Highly Sensitive Child, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love (about relationships), The Highly Sensitive Person Workbook. (No, not yet The Highly Sensitive Dog. Someone else is working on that. No Highly Sensitive Cook or Gardener either.
Plus there are two great movies: Sensitive, The Untold Story, and Sensitive and in Love, soon to be followed by a documentary, explaining the science behind the scenes in this love story.
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I understand how hard this is. Can you help define for our readers what is meant by a Highly Sensitive Person? Does it simply mean that feelings are easily hurt or offended?
Thank you for your sweet concern, but actually it requires no bravery from me and it is not difficult. Just time consuming, as there is a lot to clear up here. This trait has nothing, or almost nothing, to do with having one’s feelings easily hurt. It is an innate trait found in about 20% of the population, equal numbers of men and women. A similar trait of keen sensitivity to one’s environment is found in at least 100 other species, always as a minority. (If everyone were highly sensitive, there would be no advantage to it as a survival strategy, which it is — just as if everyone knows a shortcut around traffic, it isn’t one anymore.)
The trait (in the scientific domain it is called Sensory Processing Sensitivity, unrelated to Sensory Processing Disorder) has four key aspects. This is all well supported by research — see the “Research” tab at www.hsperson.com. Readers can also take at that website a well-validated self-test to see if they are highly sensitive or their child is.
First of those four key aspects, highly sensitive people (HSPs) process all of the information that comes to them more thoroughly than the other 80% do. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they are observing and reflecting. Second, they are more emotionally responsive and have higher empathy. The reasoning is that no one processes information for long unless they have some motivation (emotion) to do so. Grades, good or bad, are meant to motivate students to study for exams. No one listens to others for long if they lack empathy. And listening can mean learning about others’ worlds — sometimes extremely valuable to process. So to be deep processors, HSPs must also be deep feelers.
Third, they notice the subtleties that others miss. For example, walking into a hotel room, they will immediately notice the pictures on the wall, the lighting, the temperature. They notice nature and love to be in it.
Finally, because of the other three aspects, they are taking in a lot and become overstimulated more quickly than others. This is the only aspect of the trait that can seem like a frustrating disadvantage, but it is simply the price paid for the others. HSPs need downtime to process all of this coming in (much of that processing is unconscious or barely conscious). In the end, it is not even necessarily a disadvantage. They are more creative than others because of the first three aspects, and incubation during downtime away from a problem is well known to foster creative solutions.
One other key aspect for HSPs is “differential susceptibility.” (You can learn more about that through Google Scholar.) It means that with a difficult childhood, in particular, they are more likely than others with the same type of past to be depressed, anxious, shy, or “easily insulted.” Alas, these are the HSPs most often noticed by others. With a good-enough childhood, they are often more socially competent, creative, mentally healthy, successful, and so forth than others. These are the HSPs we only notice because of their accomplishments, they’re being good listeners, and they’re often ducking out of extracurricular stuff to get their downtime.
Brain studies show that HSPs are more affected by positive experiences than others (everyone needs to be affected by negative ones), explaining differential susceptibility. They really notice even small good things — may be just the smile of a loving parent or a pleased teacher. Happily, research also shows that HSPs receive more from interventions, such as positive psychology instruction, presumably good therapy, but also just reading something helpful — probably just reading this! They will thank you for this information, as it can help HSPs reframe their past.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others? Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
I know I have covered these two, I think, but I can provide some details. In a brain study comparing HSPs and non-HSPs when looking at the photos of the faces of their loved one and of a stranger, each with happy, sad, or neutral expressions, the empathy-related brain areas of HSPs were more active for all photos showing emotional expressions, but even more for positive expressions, and even more for emotional expressions of their partners, and most of all for positive emotions of partners. (Seeing the negative expressions led to activation in areas associated with planning action!)
HSPs pay attention to feedback (possibly a “hurtful remark”) more than others, being motivated to process it deeply. However, their reaction depends on their past histories, not their trait. With a good-enough past, they will be able to look at feedback objectively after taking time to think it over, which they would.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
I would say that the popular culture is designed for the other 80%, so of course, it is less popular with HSPs. Of course, they are more affected by seeing injustices, thoughtless greed, pain, details of the climate crisis, and so forth. But we should be grateful that they are affected, as what is good for HSPs usually turns out to be good for everyone. We were surely the ones to first complain about second-hand smoke, to wish for quiet areas on trains (now more common), try alternative medicines, and worry about the advancement of carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
HSPs need meaningful work. When I was young and had to support myself doing what for me were drudgery jobs (being a sales clerk, even social work) — well, I still have nightmares that I am having to do those jobs still.
I think office politics are harder on HSPs. They usually are keenly aware of petty gossip and aggressive competition, and just wish it would stop so they can do their job. The physical environment and hours, especially including a computer or a 24/7 work culture, are usually poorly suited for them. They are designed for the other 80%. This is why so many companies lose their most creative employees. More and more HSPs are self-employed, often becoming highly successful entrepreneurs. That way they are captains of their own ship, where they avoid obnoxious people and shut the door on the stimulation whenever they need to.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
I never did. After I “overreacted” to a medical procedure, a doctor referred me for a few “medically related psychotherapy sessions.” In the second session, my therapist said she thought there was nothing wrong with me at all. I was just “highly sensitive,” as was she, her husband, and most of the people she liked to be around! That started my research, and I never saw myself as “too” sensitive again. I hope to eradicate that very idea.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
These are all research-based:
- More empathy
- High levels of creativity
- Rich, complex inner life
- Aware of subtleties that others miss
- HS parents see themselves as more attuned to the children
- Supervisors see them as more productive than others
- “Emotional leadership,” feeling what others should be and soon will be feeling
- Excellent team leaders
- More interested in spiritual questions
I think that is enough.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I think “actually an advantage” implies usually it was not. I think I’ve said enough about how much it has been almost always an advantage. The story is the story of my life.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
“Empathic” is one quality among many, one that those without the trait can have too. HS is an innate trait with four aspects — see above.
Social Media can often be casually callous. How does Social Media affect a Highly Sensitive Person? How can a Highly Sensitive Person utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it?
I cannot really answer this. I think it depends so much on the particular HSP. Plus, I do not engage in any social media at all. I have no time for it, and time is very precious to me. So I also cannot speak from personal experience.
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or affects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
I would have to think about whether I really am being petty. Can I tolerate it if others are happy with whatever it is? Or can I leave? If I think it is bad for them or the work they are doing, not just bothering me alone, then I am in a quandary of course. Do I speak up and possibly be a major help to them, or possibly be hated for it? Or be quiet and know I may have allowed them to be harmed. I like to say that, given their empathy and creativity, HSPs should be able to think of a way to solve such situations. Perhaps speak to one person at a time, alone, and win them over to your point of view. Or just start slow — you can’t teach algebra to a student until they know basic arithmetic.
What strategies do you use to overcome the perception that others may have of you as overly sensitive without changing your caring and empathetic nature?
I’m struggling with understanding the question. If I am being kind, listening, and showing caring, why would they think I am overly sensitive?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I think everything I have written above should make that clear.
As you know, one of the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the harmful,and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that it just doesn’t work that way?
I suppose the work I am doing. Here’s what I tell individuals to say when they are asked that: “What exactly about my sensitivity is bothering you?” Get down to specifics. Or, “Funny, I enjoy being so sensitive.”
Ok, here is the main question for our discussion. Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
Certainly. I mention them frequently, “The Five to Thrive.”
- Learn enough to know that your trait is real. Read the research if you need to.
- Reframe your past. Those times as a child when you “overreacted” when you fell down or did not enjoy a surprise party on your behalf. Those times in adulthood that seems like you made a bad decision, one you still hate yourself for. For example, maybe you “illogically” turned down a big, big promotion, one that made you so important that it required long meetings and very frequent travel. Why did you do that? Now you know you sensed how overstimulating it would be for you. Bad for you. The mistake is reframed as real wisdom.
- Heal your emotional wounds, whatever they are. Usually, that means some good psychotherapy. Thanks to differential susceptibility, you have been more affected by the same level of trauma than others would have been, and you will heal faster than others would.
- Change your lifestyle to take advantage of your trait. In particular, avoid prolonged levels of highly stimulating situations and provide yourself plenty of downtimes. Meditation can be very helpful, especially TM (one reason, because it is so relaxing — you are even allowed to sleep!).
- Be in a group of other HSPs at least once. There are weekends and such, some listed on my website under “Events.” Being a minority, you cannot help but feel different than others. What helps? Good old fashioned “solidarity.” You need that validation that you are fine.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can subscribe to my email newsletter and read my blog at www.hsperson.com. Otherwise, don’t follow me!!! ☺
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for the opportunity to express myself.