High Sensitivity was first coined as an inherent trait belonging to about 15-20% of the population by Elaine Aron, Ph.D in her book The Highly Sensitive Person (1996). Characteristics of the trait had been studied and addressed by other psychologists and educators for many decades, but it was Aron that first identified it as a singular trait.
Aron’s work brings an important organizational component to identifying and de-pathologizing the collective characteristics of this trait. Which is the first step in helping individuals shift out of the “what-is-wrong-with-me” mindset.
Are You a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
- Do you struggle with overwhelm and sensory overload?
- Have people criticized or teased you for being too sensitive or picky?
- Does the world seem like “too much”?
- Is it sometimes too hard to watch (listen to, or read) the news?
- Do you empathize deeply with others?
- Do you habitually put other’s needs first?
- Can you easily read the “mood” of a room?
- Is saying “no” or setting relational boundaries difficult?
- Does it feel like you know what others are thinking or feeling?
- Are you drawn to spiritual or contemplative practices?
- Do you think a lot about the meaning of life, philosophical or psychological thought?
- Are you sensitive to loud or persistent noise?
- Do you tend to avoid or limit participating in groups?
- Do you need quiet, alone time to recuperate from stimulating situations?
- Is the texture of fabric important to you?
- Are you bothered by tags in your clothes?
- Are you detail oriented?
- Do you notice subtle smells and flavors?
- Do you struggle with perfectionism?
- Do you have a vivid imagination?
- Are you artistically or creatively oriented?
If much of this seems familiar, you may have the biological trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) and be part of the approximately 15-20% known as Highly Sensitive People. There is nothing wrong with having this trait, it isn’t a mental illness or medical condition. In fact, many HSPs feel that it’s a gift, but in our “just-do-it” culture, being Highly Sensitive can be a huge challenge. Sensitivity is not widely prized in this culture so HSPs typically don’t learn the skills they need to stay balanced. The gifts inherent in the trait are often ridiculed, shamed or overlooked, rather than being fostered. More often than not, HSPs find it very difficult to go against the social grain and ask for (or sometimes even know) what they really need for good self-care. They also tend to internalize the criticisms or even hints of disapproval they hear from others and become their own harshest critics. All of this makes it extraordinarily hard to embrace these finely tuned perceptions as anything but a curse.
Counseling for the HSP
For many HSPs finding a therapist who understands SPS is important for a safe and positive therapeutic experience.
In addition to being an HSP myself and studying extensively the temperament research of the Arons, their predecessors, and contemporaries, I have worked for over 25 years with HSP clientele, in my Inner-Awareness Movement classes, massage and bodywork practice, therapeutic movement and counseling. I searched across all of those fields for methods to weave into an approach to maintain inner balance and calm in the face of overwhelm and anxiety.
I know first-hand that it is possible to approach your sensitivity differently, learn new self-care and relationship skills and find other people who value your sensitivity. You can step out of the anxiety and fear and learn to utilize your innate gifts. By delving deeply into understanding your own unique subtle preferences and perceptions and learning to reconnect and listen to your true SELF, you can learn to trust yourself and follow your inner compass once again.
At Self-Awareness Counseling, the HSP is understood, the pace of therapy is appropriate and the particular tools and counseling methods have been specifically chosen for their effectiveness in working with SPS challenges. That being said, each Highly Sensitive Person has a unique pattern of sensitivity as well as their own history. For that reason, I have developed tools to identify the particular Sensitivity & Processing Profile ℠ for each client so that we can most effectively adapt the work to fit an individual’s needs and goals. Additionally, if a Highly Sensitive Person has experienced trauma in their life, even more finely attuned attention to pacing, response to treatment and adaptation of the therapeutic approach to fit the client’s needs is utilized.
Understanding What It Means to Be an HSP
Please understand that this research is not saying that those who are not HSPs are incapable of empathy or of being compassionate, tender and caring human beings. What it IS saying is that the brains of the 80% without the trait, process information from the outer and inner world differently than HSPs. Those without the trait seem to have more of a filter for incoming information, so they are less overwhelmed by the input.
HSPs have less of a filter. Therefore, moment by moment, HSPs are processing far more information than non-HSPs. Understandably, the sheer quantity of information can be overwhelming.
By understanding the experience of HSPs, first, we as sensitives can learn to approach ourselves and our traits with more validation and kindness. This then enables us to heal and cultivate environments and relationships that support our nature. When we thrive, we can participate fully in society by sharing our gifts. Sharing our gifts will further foster the cultural valuation of those with trait sensitivity and make it easier for Highly Sensitive Children to thrive from infancy. Hopefully some will grow into the wise, gentle, fair, creative, considerate and compassionate leaders and societal contributors that they can be, and that this world desperately needs.
The Trait of High Sensitivity—Some Background
In 1996, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a psychologist studying temperament, first published The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, it became a best-seller and has remained so for almost 20 years. Through its popularity Aron coined the phrase The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). She was not the first temperament psychologist to identify the personality characteristics of social withdrawal/ shyness, hesitation/ lack of impulsivity, high reactivity, and slowness to adapt. However, she was the first psychological theorist to piece together the biological and psychological evidence supporting the notion that these characteristics might all be traced to a single biological root of trait sensitivity. She named the trait, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
In her work, she (and her husband Arthur Aron, Ph.D.) re-framed trait sensitivity as evolutionarily advantageous. This rescued these characteristics from widely-accepted temperament research viewing them through the Western cultural lens as negative personality traits. In her books and scholarly papers, she sites biological and cross-cultural research demonstrating that being highly sensitive has its benefits.
Biologically, it’s easy to see that it makes sense for at least 15-20% of a species to be behaviorally cautious so that they will hesitate before joining the other 80% in jumping off a cliff, so-to-speak. For the individual, the advantage is most obvious when the HSP is surrounded by a culture that highly prizes the fewer more contemplative, conscientious, empathetic and creative members. However, as many of us know, it can be (or feel) disadvantageous when not valued.
The scientific research still has a long way to go to identify whether one particular gene or more than one gene or genetic permutation are responsible for SPS as defined by the Arons. But there is now brain imaging research that does demonstrate that the brains of people identified by the Aron’s HSP measure do seem to function differently than those without the trait. There is also very interesting new genetic research that supports the idea that HSPs raised in unsupportive environments tend to do more poorly than non-HSPs. However, when HSPs enter supportive environments they excel more than non-HSPs. (This may not come as a surprise to many HSPs since it seems obvious to us that we are more sensitive in general to our environments.) Along these same lines, new research also supports the idea that there is variability in sensitivity to environment. As more in-roads into genetic research are made, we will no doubt soon understand more about the role genetics plays in the expression of the characteristics of SPS.
Whatever the source of SPS turns out to be, it is clear that the trait exists. The Arons have done extensive research to identify the key groupings of characteristics common to HSPs. In her book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron organizes these dimensions into a handy acronym:
D = Depth of Processing
HSPs tend to think deeply about things. They often think about the meaning of life. They think about problems and relationships from many perspectives. Because of this, they can be slow to make decisions, or hesitate to commit to one clear answer. They are often insightful, creative and intuitive.
O = (easily) Overstimulated
HSPs can be very susceptible to stress and bothered by details that others don’t perceive. They are easily overwhelmed and often don’t like to be observed while performing a task. They often struggle with being “put on the spot.” They can have difficulty with change and with burnout and need plenty of downtime to recharge.
E = Emotionally Responsive, Empathy
HSPs often will feel their own emotions and feel for others deeply. They often cry easily, understand other’s points of view, and sense other’s needs. This can frequently lead to putting others first at the expense of their own self-care. They are also often highly attuned to how others perceive them and can easily feel hurt. They generally are polite and gentle and use indirect speech (would it be possible to…) and often have trouble setting boundaries in relationships.
S =Sensitive to subtle stimuli
HSPs notice small details, are often aesthetically sensitive and enjoy the arts and nature. They also are usually sensitive to medications, caffeine, sugar and blood sugar levels.
To take Aron’s HSP quiz and for more research and resource information go to: www.hsperson.com
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