The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Personality and Temperament:
The Highly Sensitive Person Who Is Also A High Sensation Seeker

(Including at the end the High Sensation Seeking Scale for HSPs)

In the last issue I was reporting on two new theoretical insights that bear on how science is beginning to understand high sensitivity. One theory was about the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS), which may be stronger in HSPs. The BIS was originally associated with anxiety, but now it is understood to have three functions, one of which has nothing to do with sensing danger, but with simply attending to what's going on, including making the best of opportunities. As you know, this is something I have always argued about HSPs and have demonstrated with my own research that unless HSPs have had many bad experiences, so that they see danger everywhere, they are no more prone to anxiety than those with a less active BIS. But HSPs are more aware and attentive than those with a less strong BIS.

According to this theory, if an opportunity is sensed, the Behavioral Activation System (BAS) is alerted. It wants to send us out into the world immediately to get what we want or simply to explore. Those with a strong BAS are naturally more curious, eager to "go for it." This trait is called High Sensation Seeking (HSS, or sometimes it's called High Novelty Seeking). When it was first studied, the high sensation or novelty seeking aspect was confused with impulsivity and high risk taking. A desire for anything, including anything new, will always be a factor in how much one is willing to risk, even an HSP. But if there's too great of a risk involved, in an HSP the desire is easily countered by the strong BIS.

About The Test You Are Probably About To Take

Hence I had to create a new sensation seeking scale. The revised High Sensation Seeking Test is below. This test is not backed up by as much research as the HSP test, but will give you a rough idea of your HSS tendencies. Compared to other HSS tests, this version does not have items that imply taking a serious risk, or very much risk of any kind.

For example, HSSs are known to enjoy trying "recreational drugs," since that leads to all sorts of novel experiences, and a question about this is on most HSS questionnaires. But not many HSPs would answer yes to that, even if they are an HSS too, unless the drug were safe and legal, which things called "recreational drugs" usually are not. So I worded it differently, so that it could include alcohol or even caffeine. I also included fewer items about physical risk, but even then found men scored higher than women. So I provide different norms for men and women. These also are not written in stone--perhaps in another community and certainly in another culture, different norms might apply.

Suppose you are an HSP who scores high on this test, too? What does that mean for you? As with your sensitivity, I can tell you what most HSP/HSSs are like and see if you recognize yourself. But nothing I say will be true of every HSP/HSS because each has so many other innate traits as well as a vast array of different experiences throughout their lives. But in general, again, HSP/HSSs have a strong desire for novelty and the "good stuff" in life, but are not willing to take high risks to get these. Since there's plenty of novelty and pleasure to be found without taking risks, HSPs who are also HSSs tend to do just that--enjoy safe novelty, eagerly go after pleasures that are not dangerous--and to do this pursuing more than HSPs who are not HSSs. However, it's amazing how safe an HSP can make a risky sport, for example. I know HSPs who have done hang gliding, and many like to ski, scuba dive, and ride horses. But they do these safely. They may be fire fighters or work in law enforcement, but they use their observational skills and low impulsivity to do their job as safely as possible, and hence more effectively in the long run. Obviously many people in these professions live to a ripe old age, so it's certainly possible to do.

Being an HSP/HSS almost sounds like the best of all possible worlds, doesn't it? And I think it can be. But most HSS/HSPs will tell you it's also rough going.

The Trouble With Being An HSP/HSS

I have always used the analogy one HSP/HSS gave me, which was that she felt like she lived with one foot on the gas, one foot on the brake. But in fact, both parts are drivers, with human concerns and strategies for getting their way. Hence HSP/HSSs more often feel like two people in a constant argument. And the HSS part often wins because in this culture, at least, the combination of curiosity, competitiveness (more typical of HSSs), and risk taking are all admired more than the HSP combination of traits. Hence the HSP part often feels it has less power and is more often dominated by the HSS part.

These thoughts led me to comparing the HSP/HSS to a couple in which one is an HSP but not an HSS, the other is an HSS but not an HSP. As with such couples, the person with an HSP and an HSS inside has no problem with boredom, but a lot of trouble with conflict. So, as with such couples, the following points apply.

1. Look at it as a package deal. What you don't like about the other is just the flip side of what you do like. Your HSP part is a spoilsport with all its worries? A hindrance to every plan? It's also prudent. It keeps you safe to enjoy more novelty another day. Is it indecisive, always wanting to wait and see? It's also a good strategist; it helps you win. Is it needing all of this down time, this boring doing nothing that keeps you from being able to join in when others are out doing new things? But as it processes, it discovers new insights and fresh aspects of every situation. It is finding novelty and satisfying your curiosity. It's just a kind of exploring that does not require going anywhere or taking any risks at all. Pretty neat, once you see it that way.

Now what would the HSP part of you say? Does it feel run ragged by the HSS part? Feel dragged into risky situations, rough new sports, travel to strange places where there's more disease and crime? Well, another way to look at that is that the more you, the HSP, tries these things and is successful, the less risky it will seem next time. And, you'll increasingly see yourself as very competent in all sorts of situations, as competent as any worldly non-HSP. You might even enjoy yourself.

Does the HSS never allow you a chance to rest? Well, at least your life very interesting and full of adventures, which many other HSPs might envy. Does the HSS seem to get its way too often, enjoying the support of everyone around you? At least it's keeping you, the HSP, safely hidden from those who would misunderstand you and wound your feelings.

However, you are a little right, in that since the culture supports the HSS more, you will have to learn to give it a firm NO when NO it needs to be.

In my experience, all of this is more difficult for those HSP/HSSs who have had difficult, stressful lives, so that they experience the world now as very threatening, which frustrates the HSS, and without meaning, which alarms the HSP. They feel more ashamed of whichever side of themselves they are showing, and more dominated by it, rather even imagining that the two parts can live together or even help each other. Often they use all the activity that the HSS part wants as a defense against their bad feelings, which are associated with the HSP part. The HSP part, in turn, is used to having a rough time of it ever since childhood, and even of being misused by others and powerless to stop it. So the HSP part is given little attention, which allows their HSS part to wear them out physically until they develop some illness or chronic syndrome, the only way the HSP can get its needs met, which is for rest, nurturing, less stimulation, and a chance to process. Unfortunately, that processing may lead to more bad feelings, so the troubled HSP/HSS is often out of bed as soon as possible, trying to escape the HSP part once again. If the HSP part is dominating, the person may not leave the bed after all, but the person's suffering may be more psychological--panic attacks, agoraphobia, and depression.

2. Grieve what cannot be. As an HSS who is also an HSP, you will always be limited in how much novelty, risk, and stimulation you can manage. As an HSP who is also an HSS, you will often be right at the edge of feeling overstimulated. Overextended. Over aroused. You'll have to get used to the idea. Both of them. You won't find good solutions until you've accepted your predicament fully.

3. Now, get creative. Having accepted what is, you can begin to plan ways to make both parts of you happy. You really can. Look at the happy couples in which one's an HSP, one's not. They find solutions. So can you. Does the HSS like big cities, the HSP find them overwhelming?

At regular intervals, let the HSS explore a new city--to find the most beautiful, quiet spots for the HSP to enjoy. Does the HSP want to go to the country? Let the HSS explore new places each time, those places that the HSP has a hunch will be good. Does the HSP want to just stay home? Bring in some variety. Try new foods. Watch a video the HSP would usually avoid, but fast forward through the upsetting parts. Get a pet who is just like you--a peppy pup who loves to roam with the HSS, but once worn out, will sleep contentedly beside the HSP.

4. Use each part to bring YOU what you want. There's a you who is neither HSP or HSS. Did you ever think about that? This you has talents, values, and goals that are quite specific, not just those of all HSPs or all HSSs. The HSS in you wants to display those talents, live by those values, and achieve those goals as soon as possible. Just living this way, living fully, can be a special thrill to the HSS.

But the HSP in you really wants to be sure it is all done right. No mistakes due to impulsive decisions, and hence no deeply disappointing or humiliating failures. Now, what a winning combo, if the HSS uses the HSP to notice all the subtleties and only take action when success is as certain as anything can be by studying a situation, and the HSP lets the HSS make its move when the time is right. After all, even HSPs love success. But they can't succeed if they don't try. The HSS is the one who will make it happen. As someone once said about golf, "Every shot I don't take is a certain failure." So YOU choose your goal. Then let your HSS swing. After your HSP takes aim.

The Other Problems With Being An HSP/HSS: Now That You Get Along With Yourself Better...

What about others? HSP/HSSs seem to have a harder time finding the right partner, because really they need another HSP/HSS, and those are relatively scarce. You can imagine the troubles otherwise, in both cases. Maybe the worst problem, at least for the other person, is that the inner conflict gets "projected." With another HSP, that person is blamed for too many of the problems that actually the inner HSP is causing the HSP/HSS. "You never want to do anything!" The same is true when the HSP/HSS is trying to live with an HSS. The HSS partner is the problem, as the HSP/HSS forgets about his or her own HSS part and complains, "You wear me out. Can't we stay home? You just don't understand me."

I recall a couple in which the husband was an HSS, the wife the blend of the two. They were two journalists, and they happened to be on a vacation in a remote locale when a terrible terrorist act was committed there. As newspaper reporters for the daily paper of a large city--and the only reporters who happened to be already on the scene--they had the chance and indeed the news journalist's duty to report the event to the world. The HSS husband was able to write his story about the catastrophe without too much distress, and was even glad he'd had this great career opportunity. The HSP/HSS wife could write nothing for days (although what she eventually wrote was deeply meaningful). She was too shocked, almost as if she'd been in the nightclub herself.

Talking with me, she realized that she had chosen a career in newspaper journalism because of her HSS side, but she was going to have to think twice about the kind of reporting she did in the future, given her HSP side. I am not sure how their relationship turned out, but they certainly learned something about whatever difficulties they were already having (and every couple has them).

This brings up the same difficulty with careers: HSP/HSSs find a hard time finding work that satisfies both sides of themselves. It may be the most important factor to consider when trying to find the right workplace, the right calling.

I know you would like advice on relationships and careers for HSP/HSSs, but it is truly a unique problem for each person. About careers, I have noticed that HSP/HSSs seem to make the ideal interviewers. They are very curious and like meeting new people, at least in this structured environment, and they can use their sensitivity to get into the other person's mind and ask the right question. Perhaps that observation of mine will spark thoughts of other situations in which there's some protection and structure that prevents being overwhelmed by constant change, yet new situations are always coming (new classes if you are a teacher, new patients if you are in the health professions, new customers if you are in sales or customer service, new products if you are in marketing, etc?)

Don't Hide Either Side

HSP/HSSs are often able to hide their sensitive side from others, either potential partners or employers. But even if you don't bring it up initially, don't pretend it isn't there. Bring it up as soon as it could be an issue. This was something else I learned from an HSP/HSS. She'd found she was attracting mostly HSS men because she was hiding her HSP self, fairly easy to do when you are dating, at least at first. You're just busy when you're really needing time alone, or he wants you to do something your HSP side wouldn't like. She said she was just realizing that hiding her sensitivity was a waste of her time and the men's. She was going to bring it up, the combo, right away.

I also hope that she was able to convey pride about both of her temperament traits, and to teach others to appreciate them too. Don't fall into thinking of the HSP part as a limit and talking about it that way to HSSs: "It's a drag that I can't work all day and party all night." Your HSP part adds so much to the HSS, who would otherwise miss the subtleties, just plunge into everything, and have that much less to offer the world and that much less awareness, feeling, connection, and pleasure. One thing my research has found is that HSPs feel happiness more intensely than others. So, may the HSS in your life, both outside and in, show you new experiences to enjoy, and may the HSP in you give you the extra joy to be found in them.

Now that you've learned what it is to be a High Sensation Seeker (HSS), take the sensation seeking self-test.

May 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Personality and Temperament: The Highly Sensitive Person Who Is Also A High Sensation Seeker
Coping Corner: Jet Travel And HSPs
With Depth: Good Grief

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