The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary 2010: Comfort Zone ONLINE
The Story behind The Undervalued Self

Obviously I find it hard to forget that this book is coming out March 10. To stay connected with you as I embark on this new adventure, I thought you might like to know how it came into being and how I view it in relation to my being an HSP.

To begin near the beginning, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist in high school, when I heard another student give a report about Sigmund Freud. Like many psychologists, I think I was driven by the desire to discover, through reading and doing science, "what's wrong with me - what makes me feel so different?" I discovered Jung in college. He wrote about sensitivity, although I did not know it at the time. Clearly I was being drawn to his own sensitivity, in the form of his intense inner life and understanding of dreams as our helpers. Later I was also drawn to Carl Rogers, I think for similar reasons - in this case an HSP's gentleness, empathy, and deep insight.

I entered a PhD graduate program in clinical psychology, but stopped with an M.A. "Why" is another story, all having to do with my as yet unnamed sensitivity. In my late forties I earned my doctorate and obtained my clinical psychologist license. About this time, finally, a therapist suggested the problem I had come to her for might be due to my being highly sensitive. I had no idea what that meant - later she did not even remember saying it - but I sure do know what it means today!

That Strange Dissertation on Delicate Small and Forceful Big

My PhD dissertation, completed in 1995, however, was not on sensitivity. It was on "A Cultural-historical Exploration of the Archetypal Relationship between Delicate Small and Forceful Big." Why that strange topic? I had so many things I wanted to write about (one was sensitivity), and when I put up Post-Its with each topic and tried arranging them, this is what they all fell under eventually. My dissertation more or less found me. This was the first indication that I was interested in something like power or domination of the weak by the powerful. Of course every HSP knows at least a little about that experience.

Perhaps not writing on sensitivity was reflecting my desire to approach emotional well being and pain from two directions: Nature (sensitivity, an innate trait) and Nurture (personal experience). As a new therapist, I could see that even for HSPs, those who came to see me were saying that understanding their trait, their Nature, was not enough. They needed work on the Nurture side of the equation. Happily, I like working on both sides.

Wanting Love and Seeing Power

At some point I realized that my patients who most wanted and needed love had the hardest time finding it, even when it was there. They saw every interaction in terms of power, usually with themselves one down. Self-esteem itself is about power - being lower in rank and lower in influence. When you feel this way in a dyad, you fear being left because the other has the power to do so without your permission. Or you do not trust that someone loves you, no matter how often he or she says it. Or you fear making the other angry, as if he or she were more powerful and you were supposed to submit to this person's will or expect punishment or abandonment.

In this state you will suspect ulterior motives, such as "You only say you like me because you want to make me feel better so you can feel like a good therapist." Or, "You are only nice to me because I pay you." With others it's "He brought me a gift - he must want something." Or, "She says she loves me, but I think she's just trying to control me."

A Very Rough Birth

Writer that I am, I began to think about a book about power. I brought it up with my agent, Betsy Amster, who wished I would write another HSP book. I teased her, saying, "Shall it be The HSP Makeover Book, or Getting Along with Your Sensitive Pet, or How to Cook for a Sensitive Person"? She was willing to look at a book proposal on something else, however, since I felt so strongly about this subject.

Sometime around here an important mentor in my life pointed out, in his gentle way, that I might possibly want to add the subject of love to my book. Like the therapist who told me I was highly sensitive, this man opened my eyes to the obvious.

I worked and worked on my proposal. Betsy is a wonderful agent, and she never submits a proposal to editors at publishing houses unless she thinks it will sell. This is essential, because once a book has been read and rejected by a few houses, it's dead. No one wants to buy the rights to what others decided for some reason not to buy.

I submitted a proposal to her in 2003, 7 years ago, and 8 years after the dissertation. It had a ways to go before a publisher would see it. 3 years to be exact. The title of the proposed book was At the Crossroads of Love and Power (still my favorite), but Betsy felt it did not sound like a self-help book (more on that in a moment). As I rethought and rewrote, we both tried for several years to come up with a new title. My family tried also, but in spite of two PhDs and two professional writers, we could not think of one. Betsy suggested I hire a professional title creator - yes, Dorothy, we're not in Oz but some place similar called New York publishing. For $300 dollars I got "Winners and Lovers." We went with that, for a few years.

Winners and Lovers Goes Big Time

The ninth proposal was sent out to publishers April 6, 2006. At the risk of embarrassment about all the hype I stooped to, I will show you the beginning of the proposal that sold the book:

Winners and Losers: Balancing Love and Power in All Your Relationships

Readers of self-help books are continually concerned with two issues: having more love in their relationships and more power at work. They seem to be two separate problems, but in WINNERS AND LOVERS, bestselling author Dr. Elaine Aron takes that wall down. Intimate relationships only seem to be more about love; in fact, power is the constant shadow that makes love difficult, causing us to feel inferior and controlled, or else secretly superior, critical, and irritable. And work only seems to be more about power, when in fact love is a necessary presence when grooming talent, building teamwork, cultivating allies, and just feeling good on Monday mornings.

In WINNERS AND LOVERS, readers will learn to...

  • Recognize the triggers that prevent them from knowing when to offer love, when to exert power.
  • Dissolve moments of runaway hostility within a usually good relationship.
  • Use the skills of the best psychotherapists when loved ones "act crazy" or strangers are being hostile.
  • Apply methods that actually work to get over - really over - feeling inferior.
  • Understand and cure the power issues that underlie momentary or chronic anxiety and depression - no more just treating the symptoms.

  • Generally have more love at work, more power at home.

As with the HSP book, I was having to "dumb down" (that's what they call it) my subject into a very commercial sounding self-help book. Being a bestselling author has never been my goal (although sometimes it's been fun). Nor is it about money: the advance I received did not begin to pay for the hours I spent. Rather, I think of myself as an educator writing an adult education course. I want it to be very good, not just another book on the self-help shelf, but it has to reach the "students" in need of it. I think of a pyramid, and the more I lower my book down that pyramid to include more people, the more people I help. It hurt when a Jungian scholar smugly commented to me that in writing he "takes the high road and I take the low road." Much as I would enjoy writing a scholarly analysis of Jung's ideas on love and power, honestly, how many people's lives are improved by writing from the top of the pyramid?

Betsy made the selling of the book an "auction" and we had answers from four publishers in a week, proof of her view that in many ways the proposal is more important than the book. It is what must thread through the eye of the needle (publishers) in order for your idea to reach your readers. Although, there were more "eyes" to come.

I had another week to meet those publishing houses in the running and choose one. I worried about how to dress, but Betsy said, "Dress anyway you want. They are not interviewing you - you are interviewing them." This was a strange feeling indeed for an introverted HSP. Talk about empowered.

Meanwhile, I had written another proposal for a book on psychotherapy with HSPs (coming out this May) and signed a contract for that book two weeks before, never imagining I would finally sign a contract for this book about which I had been writing proposals to Betsy for so long. Suddenly I had TWO books to write at once, each with deadlines. That became an HSP's bad dream in ways I will not even go into.

The Book Finds a Home, and Then the Fun Begins

We finally settled on a publisher who had the editor I liked, Tracy Behar. She had been my editor for The Highly Sensitive Person in Love and the Workbook while she was at Broadway Books. Now at Little, Brown, I acquired a prestigious publisher as well as a comfortable boss (in a sense that is what an editor is for an author).

Once Tracy had purchased the book, she wanted to change how it would be written, as is her right and duty. She knows what will reach people. First, she wanted a new title, to make it clearer that it was a self-help book. "My" book had been addressing the problems of having too much power as well as too little - the pain narcissists and successful overachievers have in their personal lives. However, we agreed those people were not going to read the book until they fell from power! Since my interest began with my patients, most of whom felt inferior to others, didn't I want to target the book to readers like them? For a title, she preferred The Undervalued Self.

Next the question was whether I write for those with very low self-esteem or for people with occasional bouts of it? Tracy doubted I could do both, but here I stood firm. I think the processes and solutions are the same, just deeper when the problem has become chronic.

I began to write. And write. All through 2007 and most of 2008 I wrote. Please imagine how an HSP is feeling by now, as nothing was going right. The topic was just so complicated! I was trying to present both a theory and self-treatment of the fundamental cause of human suffering. Tracy was sympathetic. She extended my deadlines over and over, and then dropped all deadlines, as she wanted the book to be as good as I could make it and she could see that this HSP was working as conscientiously as I could.

A Saving Angel Arrives

Finally it was gently suggested that I hire a "ghost writer," so I could "focus on more important things than writing this book." Academics are notoriously unable to do what a self-help book requires - cut out three quarters of their great ideas and dumb down the rest. But I was determined to be the author of my book because I knew no one else would get it right. So Tracy suggested someone to help me (at my expense), a young writer and former assistant of hers.

Into my life came Angela. She reorganized about half of what I had written and eliminated the rest. Gone were the animal examples; in came examples that would appeal to the average, not necessarily sensitive twenty or thirty year old. I'm afraid I came to call her language "mall talk," but those who spoke it were important to me.

Angela was a true angel for me. In typical HSP fashion, I had gone too far in trying to please Tracy. I had completely rewritten my book to fit the title she wanted, The Undervalued Self. It focused on low self-esteem - no more crossroads of love and power, delicate small and forceful big, or winners and lovers. But after Angela's first read-through she commented that to her the best part of the book was the end, where I talked about "ranking and linking." I was delighted. We returned ranking and linking to the beginning, center, and end of the book. Finally I had the book I wanted.

The manuscript went back to Tracy in March, 2009. We were almost home - a little more revising, but in June we were finally copyediting the final version.

What HSPs Fear Most: Unforeseen Troubles

Meanwhile, we had never settled on a subtitle. When a book is sold, part of the contract is that, while the author is consulted on the title, the choice is up to the publisher. Quite a few people became involved in this, and the result was three, yes, three subtitles on the cover. I can't even recall them all, that's how much I like them. I will say no more.

Another bad dream comes true. The HSP book was so successful in Holland that my editor there, who was the first person to encourage me to write this new book, bought the rights to it even before it was written. She set a publication date and put it into their catalogue, but the book in English was not going to be ready by that date. A deadline was back, but I did not have full control over this one - the publishers needed to read over carefully what I had written. In the end, the Dutch took the final-but-uncopyedited version and translated that, adding at the very last minute the final changes. It was considerable extra work for all of us, but I was happy to do my part for my wonderful Dutch publishers and friends.

One problem I did avoid by writing for Little, Brown was that they chose wisdom over exaggeration. A self-help book is supposed to create the illusion that between its covers readers will find all the help they will ever need. I, however, felt I would be no help at all unless I made it clear that no one can deal with their undervalued self by themselves. You have to involve others, outside the covers of any book. There are chapters on getting to know others, deepening relationships, and an appendix on how to choose a therapist along with signs when this would be a better course to take. Given the "rules" of the self-help industry, The Undervalued Self stands out in this way.

No Ending Yet to This Story

Now I wait for the world's reaction. That is very strange. Again, imagine an HSP at this point. A very introverted HSP. I fear this book is too dense and complicated, or that it won't prove all that helpful, or people will think I am just trying to write another best seller, and we have all seen a famous author's second book fail. Those books come out soon after the big blockbuster, as if the writer and publisher had gotten "swelled heads." (One of my reasons for keeping away from most of my "followers" is that I do not want any enlargement above the neck.) These poor authors think they had the perfect recipe for fame and riches and only had to repeat it with a few new ingredients.

Alas, all fame is fleeting. But among my greatest worries is that I know my publishers do hope, quite understandably, for a book that sells as well as The Highly Sensitive Person did. The two books even sound alike: "the highly sensitive person" and "the undervalued self." I do not want to fail Little, Brown, but if enough people hear about this book, so that a few people can be helped by it (and the publisher doesn't lose money on it) then we all should be well satisfied.


February 2010 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Sensitive Men: A Love Letter to Highly Sensitive Men
Coping Corner : A Few "Happy" Things Regarding Depression
New Book: The Story behind The Undervalued Self


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

February 2010 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Sensitive Men: A Love Letter to Highly Sensitive Men

Coping Corner : A Few "Happy" Things Regarding Depression

New Book: The Story behind The Undervalued Self



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