Psychologist Elaine N Aron began exploring the personality trait of high sensitivity in 1991, no doubt made more pertinent by the realisation of her own heightened sensitivity. What followed was a vast amount of research, which led to her publishing a number of books including ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ and ‘The Highly Sensitive Person In Love’.
Now with its recognised scientific name of ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’, the trait of sensitivity is finally being recognised by the mainstream and has refreshingly found its way into psychological journals.
15-20% of the population are born with a highly sensitive disposition. It is an innate personality trait, rather than a disorder or pathology.
Unfortunately, the idea of being sensitive has often received bad press in society, people presuming that those of a more sensitive temperament are simply over- emotional, weak or ‘cry babies’. Likewise, sensitivity is often misconstrued as someone being shy or introverted.
So what actually does being Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) mean?
Firstly, HSP’s are born with a highly sensitive nervous system, which innately primes them to be more influenced and reactive to their environment. Consequently, their brains also work differently, as evidenced by brain imaging. These are the observant, watchful and cautious individuals, preferring to observe first and act later, rather than precariously jumping right in. Due to these keen observational skills, they tend to be more aware of subtleties and nuances around them and in turn, process everything more richly and deeply. We could argue that that society needs to have a collection of people who are more watchful and observant, more attuned to their surroundings and environment in order to survive.
Due to their brains processing stimuli more deeply, it is very easy for an HSP to become exhausted. Their brains soak up sensory stimuli much like a sponge, which can often leave them feeling uncomfortably over-stimulated, leading to difficult to contain feelings of overwhelm.
Although exhausting at times, this ability to be so in touch often leaves them with an heightened sense of awareness and perception and a feeling of just ‘knowing’ that plays into their intuitive natures.
Many HSP’s are highly creative individuals. They have rich inner lives, are often imaginative and are more inclined to want to find their inherent ‘purpose’ in life. They are more drawn to religion, spirituality or what some might call ‘new age’ philosophies and also more interested in discussing and debating the existential conundrums that life offers, rather than indulging in general chit chat – though due to arousal levels, don’t expect them to necessarily want to talk for hours.
Although not the main feature of being highly sensitive, being easily moved and in touch not only with ones own emotions but also the emotions of others does often go hand in hand, Some HSP’s take this one step further by identifying themselves as ‘Empaths’, as the name suggests, being highly in tune and able to consistently and deeply walk in another person’s shoes.
Many HSP’s take great pleasure in spending time alone, in fact it could be said that it is something they need, everyday. However, they will still need or wish to step out into the world (it can be easy to want to hide away) and how they navigate this, will perhaps be one of the most fundamental aspects of their sensitive nature.
What is imperative to remember is that HSP’s are a diverse bunch and although they may share commonalities with each other, how their particular blend of sensitivity manifests will also be different. Above all, if you think you may be A Highly Sensitive Person, then please, take the next step and explore Elaine N Aron’s work – it just may change who you think you are!