Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

                                 Are You a Highly Sensitive Person? 

We're exploring the world of personality, this month looking at the concept of a "Highly Sensitive Person" after discussing introverts and extroverts. You are all wonderful and complex people and are a lot more than any characterization of a personality type. I don't intend to keep writing ad nauseam about personality types as I could likely finish out my lifetime doing so. I have, however, picked out a few personalities to discuss because they are often misunderstood. You probably know that I'm an advocate for people who might be stressed and unhappy, and my goal in life is to bring peace and happiness to all. Unfortunately our society is highly critical and judgmental about personality differences from the conformist ideals perpetuated these days. You've doubtless heard from me about the Stress Monster who prowls in Chatham County and environs spewing forth his misery. The Stress Monster and his fans apparently think that we should all be happy little social personalities not looking too deeply into life issues but quick to stigmatize anyone who appears different or unconventional. Both introverts and highly sensitive people often find themselves on the receiving end of negative and uncaring criticism despite the fact that they should be understood as individuals who have a lot to contribute to society.


"Cry baby!  Scaredy-cat!... You're just too sensitive for your own good." Elaine Aron, PhD, author of the groundbreaking book "The Highly Sensitive Person," Broadway Books, 1996, began her book with these "echoes from the past." She confessed to feeling that, because of her differences, she was convinced that she had a fatal flaw that she had to hide.  Interestingly, since that time, Aron , a research psychologist, has made the term "highly sensitive person"  (HSP) into a positive attribute, at least to the individuals who have freed themselves from the stereotypes of the Stress Monster and his small minded followers.


By now you're probably wondering about the characteristics of a highly sensitive person and whether you fall into that group.  You can find out easily even if you decide not to purchase Aron’s books. Her questionnaire can be found on the Internet as well as described in YouTube presentations. Just to clarify, in this situation "sensitive" does not mean socially sensitive or empathetic, but instead means that you have most likely inherited a sensitive nervous system. The HSP has sensory sensitivities to wonderful parts of our environment such as beautiful music, art and nature, and also to unwanted stimuli such as pain, loud noises, intrusions, media violence and demanding people.  Research has found that about 15 to 20% of the US population can be accurately described as highly sensitive, with another 22% being moderately sensitive.  Aron has found that people become more sensitive as they age. Combining all these individuals, however, the majority of our population remains less sensitive. Too many of the rest of the population remain unaware about the facts of personalities differed from their own and too often are critical and unsupportive of others. HSPs are not identical with introverts. Although 70% of HSP individuals are introverts, 30% are extroverts.


Why would you want to know if you are HSP? First, you want to understand and feel proud of yourself. The essence of the HSP personality is a stronger response to stimulation. The HSP will have an advantage in terms of being able to recognize and respond to lower levels of stimulation. As an HSP you will likely process this information more carefully. All this will make you more sensitive to subtleties in your environment such as the beauty of nature, the arts or music. You are more sensitive to information in social interactions and more likely to be intuitive and have a "rich, complex inner life."  When the level of stimulation increases, however, the HSP will be more likely to be over aroused and even stressed.  While this may seem like a disadvantage, for example sensitivity to loud noises or pain, this also can be an advantage in the fact that you have an early warning system which may allow you to respond quickly and protect yourself from danger.  Coping with an HSP personality involves recognizing and adapting to appropriate levels of stimulation for your own nervous system. It's important to note that other cultures value the HSP personality more than the US. In countries such as Japan, Sweden and China, the HSP is respected for its refined sensitivity. In China, for example, children who were described as shy and sensitive were among those most chosen by other children to be friends or playmates. Aron makes an interesting distinction between the personality types she calls "warrior kings" and "royal" or "priestly" advisers. The warriors are obviously more aggressive in pursuing their goals and tend to be more admired in this culture.  They do, however, depend upon the advisor class who tend to be thoughtful counselors to the activists. The HSPs in society tend to be the writers, artists, philosophers, researchers, teachers, therapists and judges who balance off their more active and competitive colleagues.


Second, you want to understand how to cope with your HSP personality. When you understand the basic need to modulate your level of stimulation, you will understand how to cope with your sensitive personality. You become more stressed and frazzled by overstimulation in situations where others may not perceive high stimulation. It's important to know that HSP sensitivity is not the same as anxiety, although a sensitive person can become anxious living in this culture. When you learn to be proud of your sensitive temperament, you will be able to modulate or withdraw from high stimulation situations while retaining your self-esteem.


The HSP book contains a great deal of information about coping with this personality characteristic, including psychological and health issues, relationship and work issues.  If you peruse the offerings of a book dealer such as Amazon, you will discover other books about the HSP personality. Aron has composed a HSP workbook which will be very valuable for the person who needs to spend some time learning and coping with this personality style. A word of caution about Aron's books. They were written in the 1990s when psychiatric medication had not been extensively studied. My advice would be simply to skip that information in her books. Check out Aron's website. She has been writing newsletters several times a year. Some back issues can be purchased and more recent issues are available when you sign up on her site. She has obviously devoted her life to this work, helping support HSP individuals and assisting their friends and colleagues in understanding this valuable but misunderstood personality style.


Let's all take the advice of Shakespeare, "This above all: to thine own self be true."