The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary/March 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Coping Corner:
What To Say To The Professionals Who Doubt
The Whole Idea Of High Sensitivity

Some of you have asked me to write about why some medical doctors, research psychologists, and psychotherapists say that the entire subject of a trait of high sensitivity is "hype"--that is, they say or imply that the idea is not very scientific or was proposed only for the sake of writing a self-help book that would make the author lots of money. Of course you don't know how to answer someone so sure of themselves, so they go off feeling smug and you go off feeling in doubt about what was so meaningful to you, and therefore in doubt about yourself. Grr.

This article is to meant to help you stand your ground.

The first step is figuring out who you are talking to and what is their real gripe. Ask them their credentials and try something like, "What exactly do you find in the idea that makes you want to dismiss it?"

We'll take one issue at a time. Suppose they are bothered by something like this: "Here's this idea being promoted as new and life-changing, yet we all know 'there's nothing new under the sun,' especially about people. This is really introversion [or shyness, or neuroticism, or whatever term they come up with]."

It's Nothing New

A short answer: "She doesn't claim it's new. But she has done more research on whatever this trait is than others have, and she found the most accurate term for it was sensitivity." Then add the appropriate line:

  • It can't be called introversion because thirty percent of HSPs are extraverts.
  • It can't be called shyness because this is an innate trait, and no one is born shy in the sense of being afraid of social evaluation. Everyone has that fear at times, and it's through experience that it becomes a chronic fear.
  • It's not fearfulness or neuroticism because HSPs with reasonably good childhoods are no more anxious or depressed than other people.
  • Yes, Jerome Kagan at Harvard calls it inhibitedness. But HSPs are not always inhibited, and besides, that is an unnecessarily negative term.
  • True, those doing research on temperament in children have already identified the trait, but their terms are more suitable to children.

Many scientists feel it has been proven that introversion or shyness are innate because you can partially predict who will be introverted or shy from their genes. But you can partially predict who will wear skirts from their genes, but there is no skirt-wearing gene. Some other genetic trait, gender, is the real determinant of most skirt wearing, but only under certain circumstances. Anyone can wear a skirt and Scottish men wear them often. Likewise, you can partially predict social introversion and shy behaviors from some gene, but that does not mean it is an introversion or shyness gene. It's far more likely that the gene ought to be called a sensitivity gene.

So why call it sensitivity? About twenty percent of the population (and this is also true in animals) are more sensitive to sensory input, medications, stimulants, allergens, emotionally evocative situations, and so forth. Since it's not just their senses that are more sensitive (indeed, many HSPs wear glasses), the best general statement one can say about all of this is that they are sensitive, or have sensory-processing sensitivity, in that their brains and bodies process everything more fully.

The down side of processing everything so much is that HSPs become overstimulated more easily than others. That's why we sometimes seem stressed or nervous. But there are also many undeniable advantages to this trait. Dr. Aron has found that HSPs are usually more conscientious, creative, and aware of what's going on in people or situations. And when not under extreme stress, research finds that they are actually healthier and happier than non-HSPs. They can be happier because they tend to feel every emotion more intensely, including the good ones.

It's Just Another Self-Help Book (That Is, Just Written To Make Money)

Suppose the professional speaking to you is implying this: "If this is so scientific, why didn't she publish it in regular scientific journals?"

Short answer: "She has!" See below.

Long answer: Professionals have good reason to dislike self-help books, since some really are written by people who do not write from a scientific research and might really be only trying to sell books and make a living. Sometimes the advice given out is useful, but when it is not, the public is misinformed and perhaps even damaged if reading a book causes them to delay in getting the right kind of help.

However, my books really are different--they are entirely based on strong research. I don't write a great many scientific articles so I'm not well known, but what I have written is published in the best journals, which carefully review what is submitted. My work would not have been published if it was not scientifically sound. I'm also careful to discuss when readers ought to seek help--I don't explain every problem as simply due to sensitivity.

Finally, I never planned to write a self-help book. I felt I had to do it when I found so many people seemed to benefit from hearing about this trait, and I felt they needed the information to come from me directly, not filtered through others.

Speaking To Medical Professionals

This group tends to think in terms of illness, of course, and treatment, especially with medications. They have been taught that in the recent past doctors were seriously harming patients by not realizing soon enough when a patient with physical symptoms was actually depressed or anxious. Now they've gone too far, tending to think any difficulty or unusual behavior will improve with anti-depressants. Sometimes HSPs do improve with anti-depressants, but you have to be careful with them. You have to know WHY a person is not as social or confident as other people. Most doctors do not want to get that involved.

Further, doctors do sense that some people are highly sensitive--more sensitive to pain, to medications, to side effects. These people seem more inclined to notice every symptom, ask more questions, and come back more often. In other words, they cause doctors more trouble. And if an HSP had a difficult childhood, as a patient he or she will actually be more depressed, anxious, shy, and so forth, so the trait becomes associated in a doctor's mind with emotional problems. Doctors never notice the more self-confident, adaptable, calm HSPs. But there are plenty of them.

In sum, high sensitivity is often viewed by doctors as something that can be cured. When I was writing The Highly Sensitive Person and told my doctor at the time about it, he was thrilled. He said, "tell them it's like diabetes--that we now know how to get rid of this with just a little medication every day." Yeah.

The same attitude is also found in those occupational therapists and others who offer to cure children or adults of their "over" sensitivity. There may be some kind of problem needing to be addressed, but it isn't the trait I am talking about.

Then there are those who say this trait is just the healthy end of the "autistic spectrum." This confusion is due to the fact that those with autistic disorders (including the hot new disorder, Asperger's syndrom), are definitely highly sensitive to stimulation and easily over stimulated. But autistic disorders always involve a failure to read accurately social and emotional cues. HSPs are very sensitive to and accurate about social cues and what others are feeling.

In short, the trait I call high sensitivity has nothing to do with any disorder. It makes no sense for a disorder to occur in twenty percent of the population. Further, HSPs with a good-enough upbringing are often extremely well adjusted and successful socially, professionally, or both. Indeed one study of monkeys born with this trait found that, yes, they were shy and fearful if raised by unskilled parents, but those raised by skilled parents grew up to be the leaders of their group.

What About Psychologists and Psychotherapists?

These professionals are especially likely to balk at the idea of an inherited trait explaining very much of someone's behavior. For one thing, explaining away behavior as due to something innate has in the past implied there's nothing to do about it or even that it's somehow the person's fault. It's like the idea that "the poor will always be with us" so why help them? If the emotionally distraught will also always be with us, why give them more than a pill? Naturally these professionals do not want the public to have yet another argument for denying treatment to those who need it.

Further, if patients can now explain their shyness, anxiety, or whatever as just due to being highly sensitive, and if therapists think there might be other or additional explanations, like some trauma in childhood, this idea will make a therapists work even more difficult. Most people are already highly defended against such painful insights. When therapists bring up explanations from childhood, they don't enjoy being told that they are not up-to-date on the latest, "real" explanation for patient's problems. At least this is what therapists probably fear. In the 27th paper issue of Comfort Zone (May 2003, Vol. VIII, issue II), I discussed how to introduce the idea of sensitivity to one"s own psychotherapist, and what I said there applies to discussing it with any psychotherapist or psychologist.

What About the "Hard Core" Scientist?

In these cases, refer them to the three articles below.

Elaine N. Aron and Arthur Aron (1997). "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and Its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 73, No. 2, 345-368.

Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Davies, K. (2005). "Adult Shyness: The Interaction of Temperamental Sensitivity and a Negative Childhood Environment." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 181-197.

Aron, E. N. (2004). "Revisiting Jung's Concept of Innate Sensitiveness." Journal of Analytical Psychology, 49, 337-367.

February/March 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: The Highly Sensitive Parent
Sensitive Health: What To Say To The Professionals Who Doubt The Whole Idea Of High Sensitivity
With Depth: Seeing the Big Picture–What We Do as Priestly Advisors

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