The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneNovember 2004: Comfort Zone ONLINE
The Highly Sensitive Child (and Adults, Too):
Is Sensitivity the Same as Being Gifted?

Last summer I was the invited speaker at a conference on developing gifted children, and I have been promising you a report on it. As I discussed my talk with the organizer, Linda Silverman, I realized that in her opinion high sensitivity was the same as being gifted. In the past others have also wondered if more sensitivity might be the same as being more intelligent, generally or in some special way. So I would like to address this question.

Why Not To View Sensitivity As Giftedness

Aside from the considerable problem of just defining giftedness or even intelligence (for example, is it global or is any talent a gift or form of intelligence?), I have resisted viewing sensitivity in these highly positive ways for three reasons. First, in my experience, not all gifted people are highly sensitive. I know too many non-HSPs who are highly gifted. In fact, I wonder whether each temperament trait, at its extreme, might yield a type of gift. For example, my brilliant non-HSP husband is extremely persistent. He works on a problem until he solves it. Period. Surely that is a gift of a different type, but what a “rage to master.” Or how about those non-HSP high sensation seekers? They explore endlessly and seek novelty and novel solutions–surely that makes them or some of them creative, or appear to be.

Second, it is my experience that not all highly sensitive people are gifted. That is, at least as adults, many HSPs are not expressing some talent in a way that others would recognize as outstanding. Further, most people like to think of giftedness as special and rare, saying it only occurs or should be said to occur in 1, 3, or 5% of the population. If one accepted that definition, all HSPs definitely could not be gifted. High sensitivity occurs in 15 to 20%.

Finally, third, I think I did not even consider equating it with giftedness, intelligence, reflectiveness, awareness, or other positive spins because I wanted a neutral name for the trait. I also wanted it to apply to all levels of the body, from skin and immune system to neocortex, and to all species, from fruit fly to human. Of course “sensitive” is not a neutral term either. Indeed, I wonder if there are any terms that are truly neutral to everyone. But at least its positive and negative connotations seem to be balanced!

However, there are two sides to every question, and sometimes the two sides are fairly even and certainly interesting. So let’s begin with the main question, what does it mean to be gifted? And then, the bigger question, is your HSC gifted? Are you gifted?

Who Is Gifted?

Some would say a person has to have an IQ over 130 to be gifted, or at least be “academically gifted” by showing great talent in math or verbal skills. This definition has been useful in order to acquire funding for special education of the gifted (something that was once very “big” and now is not). Giftedness was seen as a national resource to be developed.

Some would say that definition is too narrow, that giftedness is a global quality. But most these days feel it is too narrow because it is enough to be very talented in one area, which could be anything from chess or Latin to music or gymnastics. But how do you compare all these different “gifts”? I like the view of psychologist Ellen Winner (funny how sometimes a person has just the right name for their career, isn’t it?). Winner wrote Gifted Children: Myths and Realities (Basic Books, 1996), a very scholarly book for lay persons. She defines giftedness as involving three traits:

  1. Precocity. Gifted children began to master some domain much earlier than most children–reading, drawing, mathematics, chess, gymnastics, or whatever. Others have also commented on this, saying that to be gifted a child must, in some area, evidence a different “developmental trajectory” than other children.
  2. Creativity. In the sense that they do things their own way. They learn in a qualitatively different way in that they need little help from others. They are creative in the sense of making discoveries on their own and having their own “rules” or ideas about their domain of talent. (To be creative in the “Big C” sense, which Winner defines as altering your chosen field forever, she would say that one has to have worked at least ten years in that area, and that seems right to me as well. But “small c” creativity is very important, perhaps more important, to us personally and to society. I will discuss it in the next newsletter.)
  3. “A rage to master.” The gifted are intrinsically motivated to make sense of the domain in which they are precocious. They are in a state of “flow” as they focus on their interest. They are passionate about it.

What The Gifted Are Not

Winner also identifies several myths about creative persons: They are not necessarily gifted in every way, and may not even have a high IQ. They cannot be “made” by an enriched education or overzealous parents. And contrary to the famous work of Stanford Professor Terman, they are not necessarily well adjusted. His sample were first nominated by teachers, then tested for their intelligence. No doubt teachers picked the better adjusted students, as they were having the most academic success. But Terman found that those with IQs of 170 or above were actually struggling socially. And Leta Hollingsworth’s study of the profoundly gifted found that they had twice the rate of social and emotional difficulties as other children. In particular they have great difficultly getting along with their peers unless they are in just the right social environment. We will return to their emotional problems in a moment.

Dabrowski’s High Excitabilities

One reason giftedness has been equated with sensitivity is the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, who developed a “Theory of Positive Disintegration” to describe gifted persons. In brief, he thought that personality disintegrations, as he called them, are due to inner conflicts. These are often mislabeled as psychoneuroses or other mental illness, but in fact are necessary to synthesize contradictions and achieve higher stages of development. (He did think there were genuine mental problems, however–not all neurotics are simply on their way to their higher potential.)

In his opinion, people with certain “excitabilities”are more likely to experience these conflicts and hence are seen as more disturbed, and their traits seen as “excessive,” when in fact they are born with more “developmental potential.” He described five of these supposedly excessive excitabilities. HSPs will recognize them:
1. Psychomotor. There is an excess of energy, either physically or mentally. The physical type leads to a love of movement, fidgeting, impulsiveness, restlessness, and distractability, which is not very typical of most HSPs, although true of some. But rapid thought sounds very much like an HSP, and rapid speech as well, when they are in a safe situation for sharing their ideas.
2. Sensual. They have a heightened sensory awareness. We know all about that.
3. Imaginational. Vivid imagery, dreams, metaphors, fantasies. Creative in a poetic way.
4. Intellectual. Passionate about knowledge, either about gathering evidence and data or thinking theoretically. They are independent in their thinking. This is not so much the ability to solve a problem as loving to do so.
5. Emotional. We know this one, too–I wrote about it in the last newsletter.

These five do sound exactly like five facets of being highly sensitive. And at least one study (by Cheryl M. Ackerman, Roeper Review, June 1997). has found a correlation between these five and giftedness in adolescents. And thus, if these are the hallmarks of gifted persons, HSPs are gifted, for certain. They are the same concept. But when I first looked at Dabrowski’s work, while I was studying anything relevant to sensitivity, I declined to pursue the equating of sensitivity with giftedness. Or did I?

My Own Research Points To HSCs As Gifted–Or Does It?

Not only are HSCs gifted by Dabrowski’s reasoning, but in my own empirical research on HSCs, if you look at the questionnaire for parents on this website, most of the questions that identifies HSCs would also be true of gifted children–for example, “asks deep questions” and “many questions,” “uses big words for his or her age,” and “has a subtle sense of humor.”

So why did I not notice that I might be measuring giftedness? Because I have seen too many HSCs and HSPs whose depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem prevent them from expressing whatever talents they have. The gifts are there, in the sense of more vivid dreams, for example. But is a person gifted if they are unable to live out their gifts? How can we tell if a child is gifted or say he or she is if that child is too afraid to ask questions, too upset to learn big words, or too depressed to have a subtle sense of humor? More about that in a moment.

I fear that my questionnaire for parents to identify if their child is highly sensitive is biased in favor of equating sensitivity with giftedness because it was also biased in favor of emotionally healthy children--for two reasons. First, I had no way to statistically partial out “neuroticism” from sensitivity by asking my subjects, the children of these parents, if their children were depressed, anxious, or had bad childhoods! (Asking parents this about their children would not have been ethical or valid for several reasons.) So I simply had to avoid items that might also be caused by a non-HSC simply being depressed, anxious, or traumatized, such as “is your child shy?” Or “does he or she cry easily?” I also wanted positive questions, so that parents would understand the trait really is positive.

Second, while I did not simply choose these questions–these were the items that seemed to identify HSCs among the kids we were looking at–still it’s a fact that my interviewers sought out parents in parks, playgrounds, and at other recreational sites. These were parents who were involved with their children and willing and interested in answering a questionnaire about them. Their HSCs are, as a group, undoubtedly growing up under better-than-average conditions, making them more mentally healthy than HSCs in general.

I think those who study gifted children are, like I was, almost always looking at children from healthy families. Otherwise these children would be too upset to be expressing their abilities in a way that teachers or researchers would notice. Indeed, Winner devotes an entire chapter to the families of gifted children, praising them for setting high standards yet allowing independence and providing emotional support. Such a family does not make a child gifted, but a child may not appear gifted without one. Good teachers can help enormously, of course, and many HSPs have commented on how they were happiest in school. But others were miserable there, too shy to be noticed or attracting attention because of their unusual behaviors.

So while those who study the gifted are looking at an innate trait that was able to blossom, I am looking at one that manifests almost no matter what the child experiences. If I have made a mistake so far in not appreciating that these two traits might be the same thing, I think I am glad. Especially because I began my research by studying adults, I discovered how much we are impacted by a difficult childhood. So I think my “mistake,” if it is one, adds to the chances that HSCs who are born with gifts will actually be able to express these because more will be raised properly.

What I told the conference audience was that before a good curriculum or the right school environment, gifted HSCs need good parenting. I talked about all the usual well intentioned parenting behaviors that can do harm: Harsh punishment, not believing children when they say it hurts or they don’t like something; trying to make them get over it; and also making them feel that they are only loved for their gifts. Or parents being too critical or pushy in an effort to help children manifest their gifts. You can probably write the list as well as I can.

What About Your Child–And You

Are all HSCs and HSPs gifted? You have the criteria. Did you or your child manifest unusual talents very early? Did you or your child “march to the beat of a different drummer” and work in a unique way with these talents? Was there this “rage to master”?

If your child seems gifted in these or other ways, you might want to spend some time on the internet and in the library learning more about giftedness. One thing you will find is that gifted children have specific social problems. They are easily bored with “normal” kids, for example, and either have to give up who they are and hide it in order to have friends, or end up spending a lot of time alone. This solitude is not out of shyness, at least at first. But of course gifted kids can be teased, too, especially if they are not athletic or attractive by other kids’ standards. Some will learn to use their gifts to protect their social status or even be popular, some will not. One hopes someone–a teacher if not a peer–will value their talents and that will offset these problems, but you may need to be involved to see that that happens.

I Was Gifted, But What Happened?

If you are an HSP thinking back on your childhood, you might be wondering what happened? No one thought you were gifted. As I said, depression, anxiety, or shyness may have masked your giftedness. But perhaps it came through in other ways. For example, if you lacked confidence and a sense of self-worth, you may have used your giftedness to please others, which would have inhibited your creativity and “rage to master” anything besides what it took to make people like you or not dislike you. Or you may have been angry and used your gifts just to be excellent at being difficult! Whatever may have blocked your giftedness, I hope just knowing that you are gifted will help you to bring it to the fore. So please, equate your sensitivity with giftedness if it helps. I am all for it. No one owns the definition of it, myself least of all.

November 2004 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: “Worry is Faith in the Devil”--Containing Fear the HSP Way
With Depth: Healing the Split
The Highly Sensitive Child (and Adults, Too): Is Sensitivity the Same as Being Gifted?

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