Posted by: counselorcarmella | January 15, 2013

The Highly Sensitive Person aka Elaine Aron’s Important Work

I first read “The Highly Sensitive Person” by psychologist Elaine Aron about 10 years ago. The book is written for the general public but is based on research conducted by Dr. Aron and others. The original HSP book helped me understand and appreciate a lot of things about myself and other people who are HSP. This includes many of my clients, I think. The HSP concept remained of interest to me and I eagerly read articles on the subject when I ran across them. I recently got reacquainted with this “HSP thing” on a more thorough level through Dr. Aron’s website

Dr. Aron continues to study, write about, and lecture on, the subject of high sensitivity. Follow up titles have included “The Highly Sensitive Child” and “The Highly Sensitive Person In Love.” Blogs and HSP newsletters, as well as on line support communities, are easily accessed through Dr. Aron’s website and any google search. The newsletter she puts out several times a year is called “Comfort Zone.”Many of the back issues are available on her website.

In the original book and in her writings since then, Dr. Aron seeks to define and explain what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person and to explore the strengths and challenges of HSPs. HSP isn’t a diagnosis or officially recognized medical term, but there is more and more research emerging about it. HSPs make up 15 to 20% of the population and have been discovered in other types of animals, as well. Sensory processing sensitivity is the scientific term for being HSP.

HSPs have an approach to survival that involves relating to the world more cautiously. HSPs size things up before jumping into a situation. They notice and are very aware of what’s going on around them and inside them. They pick up on, and can be impacted by, things other people often aren’t even aware of and can need extra time and space to process everything they take in. HSPs can become easily depleted and overwhelmed in a world that is increasingly fast paced and where sensory overload happens to even those who are not particularly sensitive.

We have rich internal worlds in which we think and feel very deeply and we are very self-aware. We need a lot of “down time” and quiet in our lives because so much is going on inside us. After too much interaction with the world around us we want to withdraw. This isn’t because we dislike people or don’t enjoy a range of experiences. We just enjoy things differently. A little can go a long way with HSPs. We need to pull away so we can find calm and so we can experience and process all the thoughts and feelings we experience internally as a result of so much external sensory stimuli. We have to control our exposure to what are (for us at least) intense or overstimulating situations. Too many sights, sounds, noises, smells, tastes, and physical contact/sensations coming at us at once can make us want to cover our eyes and ears and hide somewhere. When we are depleted or overwhelmed, we may become self-protective and more difficult to deal with because everything coming at us is way more than we feel able to handle at one time. We may not know how, or feel able to, express our need for alittle time and space and this can lead others to misunderstand our anger or efforts to regain balance by pulling away.

We respond to subtle cues in our environment and in other people that those around us may miss. We are lovers of nature, art, music, small comforts, reading, and to the philosophical, spiritual, and cultural. Sleep, nutrition, exercise and physical health are important for HSPs because we’ll notice more quickly than others if we are feeling tired, hungry, lethargic, etc. We cry more easily when things touch our hearts. Think deeply about personal and societal concerns, want to make meaning and find perspective, and can be deeply moved by the arts and the outdoors.

It is important to understand what being a highly sensitive person is, and what it isn’t. It is not any sort of Aspergers Syndrome or autism. It is not anxiety or depression, though HSPs may be more prone to difficulties with excessive worrying and melancholy. It is not a “personality disorder,” borderline or otherwise. Being an HSP is not about being shy. Being HSP means a person is more sensitive to sensory input. We become more easily overwhelmed by our environment and other people and by our physiological and emotional reactions. We aren’t all introverts, though 70% of us are, but we all need time to reflect and regroup after various experiences that are felt much more intensely for us than they might be for those around us.

We struggle to understand how we are each uniquely impacted by the various ways of being that fall into the HSP category, and also struggle to help those around us to understand how we may seem a little “different” or less able to “deal” with things others find easy to manage. We are especially sensitive to rejection, criticism, and shame so if we are ridiculed for being who we are, this can be particularly painful. HSPs often feel “different” from others and often are misunderstood. They frequently feel that they “should” change to try and be like the 80% of people who are not HSP and this leads to their being undervalued by themselves and others. This is unfortunate because HSPs have a lot to offer in careers, relationships, and in society. Cultures differ about this, of course, but being an HSP can be particularly difficult for males as being a sensitive man can be seen as weakness.

Dr. Aron is an HSP herself so her writing is very informative, compassionate, and validating. She expresses her thoughts in ways that both HSPs and those who want to understand them better can make sense of and gives examples that are helpful and practical. Dr. Aron’s book helped me understand a lot about myself and other HSPs, and allowed me to appreciate the strengths of being an HSP. I plan to re read it and the other books she’s written on the subject. The self-assessment and assessment for children on her website are very helpful, as well. I would recommend Dr. Aron’s work to colleagues and clients, and to anyone interested in learning more about HSPs.


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