The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneJanuary 2007 : Comfort Zone ONLINE
What HSPs Can Give and Get from Animals and Babies

In observing and talking with many HSPs, I have learned how much our sensitivity helps us know what is happening in those who can not speak in words--animals, infants, those speaking in languages foreign to us, the elderly with dementia, the human body itself, and even plants. Because we can notice the subtle signs they give, we understand them better than others and that puts us in a unique position to help them.

But I also think that we gain from these interactions, not just in the usual ways of gaining a friend or being able to feel helpful, but also by being effective. Using our trait makes us enjoy and take pride in it. Reading nonverbal signs well also gives us a window into other realms of being. Again, all of this can make our sensitivity a great pleasure, something we always need to notice.

Sensitive as we are, practicing our nonverbal skills can also develop them even further, as when a person skilled at learning languages still has to study one in order to become fluent. And nonverbal skills are important. For example, a medical professor at the University of Arizona gives a course called "Medicine & Horsemanship: An Introduction to Human Nonverbal Interaction at the Bedside" just in order to make doctors more sensitive to the feelings of cancer patients and their families. He chose horses because they have especially strong emotional reactions. (It also must help that they are big enough to be threatening to a doctor behaving like a non-sensitive oaf!)

The instructor, Dr. Hamilton, said "Horsemanship requires the understanding of body language and sensitivity. There is no endeavor that will more quickly and effectively teach you awareness of your own body language and energy level than learning the principles of working with horses. You learn patience, gentleness and a method of physically relating to patients that is nonverbal, effective and powerful."

Of course most doctors are not highly sensitive, and I doubt they can be trained to be in the way that HSPs are. But there is also something learnable here, even for us. I am sure sensitive health care providers, gardeners, translators, and many others could tell you not only the benefits of being highly sensitive in general, but also of developing your sensitivity in your specific line of work. Indeed, I can't imagine any kind of work that could not be done better with both innate and attentively developed sensitivity. But I'd like to focus on animals and infants because everyone is or could be around them. They are the "line of work" of the human race.

HSPs and Wild Animals

You might wonder if I really meant that animals as well as infants are the "line of work" of humans. I do include animals, because we humans share the planet with millions of other animal species, so humans have had to evolve innate knowledge about animals. We also must come with an innate ability to learn additionally by reading nonverbal cues about those animals and animal species that happen to be around us, whether they are predators, prey, pets, livestock, or nasty insects. And I'm sure HSPs have always been the leaders in this.

Looking to the future, however, I am thinking this is our species' line of work because of something I read once--that we should think of other animal species as other nations or nationalities. As with human nations, we must learn to get along because we share the earth. It is the work of all humans to be good world citizens, but you might say that when thinking of animal nations, HSPs are naturals for working in the diplomatic corps!

Thinking of other species as their own nations helps us keep our own borders or boundaries, as when ants, ticks, flies, or cougars would like to feed on our bodies or our food. But more important these days, seeing these species as nations helps us respect their borders, letting them live where they have chosen or where they need to be. Since they are independent nations, we don't have to feed them, give them health care, or otherwise do what they can do for themselves, unless we have disturbed their "national life." It's like the "prime directive" in Star Trek: You can visit other societies, but leave them unaltered when you depart.

The fact is, however, that we have long ago passed the point where we live on the planet as if animals were our "national equals." Even wild animals have become our responsibilities because of our impact on them. I suspect that someday we will have on computer every individual of every species of the larger wild animals. Given the pressures on their habitats, we will decide which DNA should be preserved, which can die out. And I think many HSPs will choose to be involved in the fate of wild animals, as many are already.

Still it makes sense to think of animal species as independent nations in the sense that we can visit them, try to communicate with them in their language or ours, and grow from this contact. But we must be mindful of whether they want to communicate. In some cases it can be very rewarding for both, as when you "introduce yourself" to a bird in the wild and the bird responds and hangs around as if enjoying it. Or it can be dangerous for both. For example, in getting to know each other's eating habits--very often the main topic of conversation among all of us animals--we may unwittingly cause harm to one or both, as when bears start to eat our food or we become their food.

If you are like me, you often notice wild animals before others do. You like to be quiet out in the wilds and wait until they feel safe enough in your presence to begin to speak to each other again. If there is an opportunity, you like to try to communicate with them. You are also concerned about their habitats, because you hate to hear about extinct or endangered species. You want them to be out there, whether you are there or not. It expands who you are.

HSPs and Domesticated Animals

For good or ill, our ancestors bred many animals to be dependent on us. Further, in each generation a few wild animals are captured and made dependent on someone's care. Some can and do return to the wild, but as long as they are "ours," we are responsible for their welfare. I don't have to tell that to HSPs, but sometimes we have to tell it to others. We see an animal's discomfort more clearly than others do, or care more. Intervening is difficult, but often it's the suffering of animals (or infants) that forces us HSPs to be our most heroic.

Many HSPs speak of having a special relationship with one domesticated species--dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, potbellied pigs--or with their own particular "companion animal." Of course anyone can love animals, love their pets in particular, and feel they can communicate with them. But as I said, although I have no research comparing HSPs and non-HSPs on this, I think both the love and ability to communicate with them are much more common with us.

I also realize that many animal psychics and animal trainers have weighed in on the subject of communication with animals and the importance of sensitivity for success, so I apologize in advance if I am missing aspects of this subject that are important or obvious to you. But I have my own perspective, as I do find that I am able to communicate very well with animals--even a dog passing by on a leash, if our eyes meet. We acknowledge each other and I know the dog's general state of mind. Does the dog know mine? It seems to. I do not think of this very often as psychic, but rather as nonverbal, often unconscious or preconscious. It is intuition, in that I know some things about an animal without knowing how I know it. And many HSPs say the same.

As I said before, there is a give and get in this. Being sensitive to the animals around us can benefit them--not just their physical well being but their mental health, too. And it benefits us by connecting us with individuals who are generally sensitive, subtle, discriminating, and loyal to their friends--like most of us.

Animal Intelligence

HSPs are often thought to attribute more to animals than is there--more intelligence, insight, intentional communication, emotion, suffering, and all the rest. Well, it is there. For example, I think most HSPs appreciate that each species has its particular forms of intelligence. Some can read scents especially well, others see (and understand what they see) better than we do. Some can even read the meaning in the vibrations of the earth or its magnetic fields.

The horse I ride finds my intelligence very low when it comes to dangers that might be around the next curve in the trail. I am oblivious until she "says" with her rigid and trembling body that has refused to move forward, "There could be a cougar waiting for us, stupid. What about that sound you don't even hear?" And later she may also want to say, "And while we are on the subject of your lack of intelligence, you sure can't do much with your muzzle. Hardly have one. I can tell everything about a person with a few nuzzles, lip feels, and whiffs."

We humans can get awfully huffy ourselves about intelligence, even with our fellow humans, with all our obsessing about IQ. In our culture intelligence means abstract thinking--using symbols and testing hypotheses. But other animals, and other human individuals and cultures, do not specialize in that kind of intelligence. What about intelligence regarding spatial relationships or tool use, and what about intelligence in the form of sensitivity and intuition?

What about teamwork? Look at how well dogs can work with humans. But it is not just the human being who is so smart. Predators that work as teams are able to read each other's signals and devise strategies, such as when to circle and close in, or where to position themselves over miles in order to tire prey with a fresh pursuer. Sheep dogs simply trade the alpha male for a shepherd, showing the same ability to grasp the lead "dog's" plans.

Yes, abstract thinking allows us to test out ideas in our minds and choose the best one, and it certainly seems like in domains important to them, wild canines (to stay with my example) can formulate abstract plans, test alternatives, and apply them in new ways. That's pretty good. But we think of most other complex, adaptive animal behaviors--such as knowing how to build a good nest or navigate by the stars--as merely innate, instinctual knowledge. It's not "real" intelligence because it isn't conscious and flexible. Yet either way, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. Humans would not be very smart if they had to learn everything new in every generation. Our information is simply passed down through culture and language more than through DNA.

On the other hand, we are learning that other primates have remarkably more of our idealized form of intelligence than we first thought. They can apply an idea to a new situation, take another's perspective, "lie," understand fairness, remember highly complex social relationships for years, communicate complex ideas to each other and to us when we teach them a language, and of course the big one, they can invent tools.

Dolphins and whales also show remarkable intelligence of the human sort. Indeed, there is evidence that dolphins may have a more complicated language-intelligence than we do. They have more space in the brain for it. And it has been impossible for us to learn their language because they talk about objects without the object being present, just as we do—a sign of abstraction. And they cease to have an emotional reaction to it being mentioned after they realize the object is absent, just as we do. That is the complicated message in the saying "never cry 'wolf.'" We humans can and do say wolf when one is not around, and if that is what you are doing, after awhile others will not respond.

Most people do not know that certain species of birds, especially those in the raven family (e.g. ravens, crows, and blue jays) and the various parrots, also display intelligence much like that of primates. Interestingly, their brains are quite different, so their abstract, human-like intelligence evolved along a separate line. Intelligence really is not the special domain of the great apes.

I suggest you learn more about animal intelligence and communication for your own enrichment. It also will help if you have to defend these other nations. You probably don’t want to be categorized as an animal rights' "extremist," but I always point out that we are not talking only about animal rights. Anything cruel we do to an animal seems to mean we are never far from doing it to those humans whom someone has declared to be "less than human." Think of "horse whipping," cattle prods, and cattle cars.

Emotional Communication

HSPs have stronger emotional reactions than others, and also are affected more by others' moods. This makes us more like other animals and better able to communicate on their channel, which is mainly emotional. We sense what pleases, scares, or angers them, and we notice when they have sensed our emotions. A highly sensitive rider, for example, knows all too well how quickly fear passes back and forth between horse and rider.

Emotions are automatic responses that get us moving in circumstances that have been judged--often very quickly and usually by evolutionarily older parts of our brain--to require a strong response of a particular type. So we can rather automatically do everything involved in being angry, afraid, or whatever. The judgments to display that emotion are often as built in as the response. Something in us just knows, "Be careful, you're on a cliff." "Watch out for that snake." "Don't you dare hurt my baby." "What's that? Let's go see." "Don't cross that line or you're lunch." "Relax, the others are back." Emotions really are a form of intelligence, and a form much older than abstract-frontal-cortex intelligence.

Emotional life took a great leap forward with mammals (and birds, along a separate evolutionary line), probably because mammals raise their young in such an intimate way, and they usually live in groups. So not only do mammals show fear, anger, sadness, curiosity, contentment, disgust, and joy, but also the social emotions of pride, shame, guilt, grief, compassion, fear of abandonment, dread of banishment, joy at reunion, and so forth. They also have a wide range of built-in emotional reactions that arise in their various social bonds--as parent and child, mating or child-rearing partners, and friends. For example, when very young mammals are separated from their parents, they react with several strong, automatic emotions. In humans there's a loud protest, hopefully bringing the parent, followed by deep despair that amounts to giving up, which saves their energy. And romantic love can give rise to all the emotions--fear, anger, elation, sadness--and yes, animals do fall in love and can suffer as we do when that longing for the other is thwarted.

Emotions do more than energize an individual. They also energize and communicate to others, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Animals, including humans, are designed to be sensitive to the emotions of others. There's information there, but also an urge to feel the same. We look down on this, calling it giving into "mass hysteria." But look at it as prey animals do, or domesticated animals that were once prey. Zebra, antelope, and horses, as examples, evolved to be extremely sensitive to emotional communication from others. If one of them is afraid and starting to run, it is wise for the others to do the same. Or if one is angry and ready to fight back when cornered by a predator, it helps if they all feel the same. Horses much prefer to go out on a trail ride without another horse. Otherwise, they are stuck relying on the emotional reactions of their rider for additional information.

Predators also have to know the emotions of their prey as well as of each other. Humans, who have been both prey and predators, tend to have all of these characteristics.

Alas, many people mistake the quick emotional responses of animals for stupidity. But we are not receiving all the information that they have, or are not processing it through the same innate concerns. Very few dogs are born randomly vicious, but being predators, they can quickly lunge and bite something they should not. They do it because some sort of cue was there that told them to make their move.

Cats are not "lazy" because they sleep so much (so do lions) or "scaredy cats" when they hide themselves. These behaviors evolved--they are a form of very old intelligence.

Horses are very often scorned as stupid because they are very afraid of anything new, of walking close to anything such as the fence around a riding ring, of flapping things that brush their bodies (it might be prey leaping at them), of having their feet not on solid ground, and so much more. But they can plan rather nicely--when my horse sees me coming, she does her elimination in the pasture so she does not have to in the stable area or on the trail. These animals are NOT dumb and are not making stupid responses. They just have different concerns.

Facial Expression and Speech

Darwin showed that the same facial expression is seen for the same emotion in many species, especially primates. It's easy to see fear, anger, pain, curiosity, surprise, and so forth being expressed in some way by most animals. And it's true of social emotions too, although maybe only HSPs can see when an animal is ashamed--for example, a dog or cat in a silly costume. Or see them glow with pride, when a dog is freshly groomed or a cat brings in a mouse. Then there's their disgust when you make the same mistake over and over--I can see that in the raised head and glowering eye of my horse friend when I do something clumsy around her. And she expresses disagreement with a vigorous shake of her head, should I choose a route not to her liking. We who are sensitive are not imagining these communications, even if most people do not notice.

Of course animals do communicate through sounds, but rarely through words found in any human language. We have to translate those sounds. When annoyed my horse snorts; when pleased she blows loudly through her lips, making that sound children try to imitate when playing horse. Again, I suspect HSPs are able to notice more of these meaningful sounds and also can make more and better sounds that communicate back.

You and Animals

HSPs with any fondness of animals should get to know as many as possible, as intimately as they can safely do. Perhaps the first signs to learn, and the easiest for HSPs, are those that signal that an animal wants nothing to do with you right now. We know all about needing to be left alone, and we are also sensitive to signs of rejection. The rest the animal will help you with.

Still, each animal species has unique communication signs. You can learn these from keen observation, chatting with someone familiar with the species, books, or DVDs. You will also need to know the species' evolutionary history and details of how they lived in the wild. Above all, you will want to observe the personalities of the various individuals (they vary considerably) whom you meet. You will be drawn to some more than others--often to the sensitive ones.

As you know better than anyone, in every species some animals are more sensitive than others. The sensitive ones are slower to approach you and are very sensitive to touch. As a horse trainer showed me about sensitive horses, their skin is actually about five inches out from their bodies. (How far out is yours?) You'll know by how the horse behaves when your hand has approached that invisible outer skin. Reach inside that without warning the horse and you'll see a strong reaction.

Sensitivity in each species may look a little different, but you want to be able to recognize it as a trait, and to distinguish it from fear due to past abuse. At first meeting, sensitive animals hang back but look curious and meet your eyes as an equal. When they get to know you, the two of you are friends for life. An abused animal will look afraid, avoid your eyes, and slink up, looking submissive. And you have to go through this over and over. It is surprising how many people cannot see the difference and call sensitive animals fearful. There's a familiar story.

One other point, so you aren't surprised: If two or more social animals live together, they will have a hierarchy. When it is forming or shifting, they squabble a lot. When it is settled, the top animal may insist on taking whatever you have to offer, be it food or attention, and not allow the others to have any. Do not be disillusioned if you see what looks like "selfish" behavior. It's perfectly normal. These hierarchies serve many important functions. You can deal with it in various ways, but one of the easiest is to accept it as it is. You can still greet them all. And you can arrange to interact with an animal when others in their group are not around. Trying to feed the "poor beast" not getting anything may lead to it getting far too much in the way of aggression.

Potential Friends are all Around You

You do not have to have a pet to get to know animals. Neighbors often have pets that they would love to have walked or watched when they are away, or you can just visit when you pass them. Cats are often all over the neighborhood and quite sociable when you know their language. (I draw the line at city rats, although when I saw one in a Manhattan health food store, my husband was surprised that I was not more pleased at discovering some wild life in my neighborhood.) I know people who have developed interesting acquaintanceships with squirrels and ravens as well.

If you are in the suburbs or country, animals are often in nearby pastures. Horses usually love attention and a chance to communicate (except the cynical ones kept in stables too much or rented out to strangers). If you bring them apples and carrots or pick them better grass than they have inside the fence, they will come right to you of course. But I prefer to wait for them to come to me without bribes. Animals are curious (if they have not become fearful), so that is often enough to bring them to you. Then the "conversation" can be a little more far ranging than "do you have any more of that or if you don't would you please get some?"

How do you introduce yourself? Begin by thinking about the mood you are in, because animals will sense it. Usually you want to be in a good mood, although some animals love to comfort troubled humans. Most like to be talked to, in our speech or theirs. They also like to be touched--it is part of their language-- if you obtain their permission and know how to do it in ways that please them. Touch communicates a great deal to animals about your feelings. They especially like certain places scratched or rubbed. Most also like to be groomed if you take the trouble to learn how they like it done. And they like to play--the young ones or the young-at-heart sorts especially. But you probably know all of this.

Don't be limited to pets. Livestock are equally interesting and smart. For example, pigs being raised for meat are often kept in indoor group pens with heaters they can turn on themselves when cold by leaning on a lever. So the pigs take shifts during the night, each doing it for the others for a while. I'm sure a pig would enjoy meeting you. I became familiar with an entire herd of beef cattle--the personalities of each and what each wanted me to know about them. I would talk to them as a group, and then chat with my particular friends. They seemed to enjoy my visits. Of course they were gone one day...

The point is, animals are all around us. They do not know if you do not own them. They may have their first loyalty and strongest bond with someone else, but we all like to have other friends as well as our best friends, and animals like it, too. The only exceptions are those who have grown cynical about humans because of having seen too many come and go, are afraid of strange humans because they usually arrive only to hurt them, are furious with our entire species, or very busy with their other animal friends.

In sum, animals are worth knowing. And equally important, if you take the time to observe and communicate, your sensitivity will be sharpened in this important domain.

HSPS and Babies

Much of what goes for HSPs and animals goes for babies as well. They have their rights to their own boundaries, which HSPs can especially appreciate. As with animals, we can sense their extraordinary intelligence and nonverbal ways of communicating. They want to make friends, and we are innately interested in them, too. They like to be touched and they like to play--easy for an HSP to do well. Each has a unique personality, so that you are bound to hit it off with some better than others, the sensitive ones in particular.

All humans are designed to communicate with babies--to be interested and responsive, to coo and make baby talk. Humans do the same silly things with babies all over the world. It helps babies and adults bond and prepares the babies to learn their home language. But I am certain HSPs, men as well as women, are better at this communication. You will be surprised how quickly it comes to you, especially if you are not feeling self-conscious because of those around you. And don't try to imitate the non-HSPs' loud baby play. We do it differently. For example, babies sitting on the floor and playing love humans who are doing loud and crazy things. But they seem to like just as well someone quietly watching them, giving them something new to do when they are bored, but not interrupting or over stimulating them.

A Very Short Course on Babies

Learning just a little about babies makes you a far more effective friend. Tiny babies are newborns, and you'll find them either asleep; having a brief, quiet, alert time; nursing; or crying their lungs out. They cry so much because they are really in their "fourth trimester." They ought to still be in the womb, but because we humans come with such big heads (in more ways than one), we have to be born before we are fully ready.

Even before you know you will be meeting a newborn, watch the video by Harvey Karp called "The Happiest Baby on the Block." Don't try to read about this. You must see the video, which is probably found at most libraries. This doctor has figured out nonverbal communication in his line of work, and his video has revolutionized the parenting of newborns. I am not exaggerating. The first three months can be agony for parents and infants. But this video could turn even a not-at-all-sensitive bachelor truck driver into an expert at soothing crying infants. As for HSPs, it can make us into parenting Einsteins. But the point is, there are still things to learn about how to communicate nonverbally, even for the highly sensitive.

More information: Some human emotions "come on line" later than others. An infant's general negative emotion, expressed by crying, does not divide into anger and fear until about two months. A cry is a cry. Most babies are smiling and communicative by three months. They can sit up on their own around then too. At about six months they begin to want only certain familiar people to hold them. Even if you were holding the baby a month earlier, you may find you are not on the list any more until you are around and trying to communicate for a few days.

Real locomotion arrives around eight, when they start to crawl. Imagine how it must feel to be able to go where you go, more or less, for the first time. At about a year, they walk or are trying to walk. This is when they are the most trouble, in a way. They sleep less. They are into everything. They want to walk but are too slow. You pick them up and they are too heavy. This is an age when you can really help a parent just by entertaining a child in the grocery line for a moment when he or she is on the verge of fussing out of sheer boredom, or offering to carry a bag so the parent can carry the child.

They do not start to really talk until they are two years. But they understand quite a bit before then, so it is best to assume they do know what you are saying. And at every age they like to be talked to. It doesn't have to be silly talk. Babies also seem to like seriousness. My grandson will not take his eyes off Grandfather Art when he's on the phone giving a lengthy explanation about statistics to a student.

One value of knowing all of this is that when you see a baby in one of these stages, you can start to gain a mother's confidence by, for example, saying to one with a crawler, "Oh, must be about eight months, hey?" The more babies you see, the better you will become at guessing ages and other important baby miscellany that impress mothers. But try to avoid saying the baby's gender until you hear it. Some mothers can be insulted by a gender miscall--we humans are so touchy about gender.

Babies as Good Friends

Do not be limited in your friendships with babies just because you are not a parent or a close relative of one. There are always babies around--on airplanes, in restaurants, or at your neighbor's. If they are awake, they generally make themselves known. And parents are often very glad to have someone to hand them off to, once they trust you. Next time you are seated near a mother on a plane with a nine month old crawling all over her and wanting to get down in the aisle, don't wish you could change seats. Consider this to be an opportunity. Make some funny facial expressions or play peek-a-boo. You will quickly have two friends.

I hope you have a baby whom you can expect to know over the years as well--one you particularly love. That way you can watch all the changes. In a year a newborn becomes a walking, sort-of-talking person. From there, it is only about ten years--only ten--until they are for conversational purposes adults. The effort you put in over the years will pay off. There may be a period during adolescence when you are just a dopey adult, but around twenty seven there's a dramatic change and age becomes far less relevant. If you meet an infant when you are thirty, in twenty-seven years, you'll be fifty-seven. A twenty-seven year old and a fifty-seven year old can easily be friends. So a baby is just a friend who has not grown up yet.

Clearly I'm writing mostly for HSPs who are not parents. I'm especially thinking as I write of sensitive men. Sensitive men make amazing caregivers of infants. Whether the child is sensitive or not, when the mother is not an HSP, it is often the sensitive father who can resolve situations just because he senses better what is going on at the moment. But any sensitive man can built a strong rapport with an infant, once he has gained the parent's trust and learned some rudimentary skills.

Gaining a close connection to a baby is a very rewarding enterprise, for you and the baby. For you, it will both develop your sensitivity and make good use of it. For the baby, you will be an adult who truly gets this little being. So start looking for a baby friend.

As for sensitive babies, often it requires a sensitive man or woman who is not a parent or even a relative to spot the sensitive ones and fully understand them. Sometimes by meddling just a little you can make a great difference in their futures. Maybe mention high sensitivity and that it's normal. You have it, as do many successful people. But it can be tricky raising a sensitive child unless you understand what's going on. Then maybe you give the parents The Highly Sensitive Child.

So I can't resist ending with "It takes a village--with some HSPs in it--to raise a child." Another reason we are here.


February 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Latest Research : What HSPs See: Our Brain Is Not as Easily Confused by Culture and Context
HSP Living: What HSPs Can Give and Get from Animals and Babies
Book Review : Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior - by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Harvard University Press, 1998

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