The word “sensitive” means many different things to many different people. For psychologist, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., “highly sensitive” has a quite specific meaning. Her research, which draws on biological, cognitive and personality findings, suggests that about 15-20% of the population qualifies as “highly sensitive.” This term refers to people whose nervous systems are easily overwhelmed, whether by harsh sounds, unpleasant lighting, having too much to do, or violent films. Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) are usually introverted and reflective; they need a lot of time to dampen down their environments, and may even need to retreat into quiet, darkened rooms to get their nerves settled and functioning again after being severely stressed. When faced with jobs that exhibit loud noises, chaotic environments, large crowds, or violent situations they may experience considerable discomfort and and steer away from these activities. Nevertheless, their emotional awareness and highly-tuned sensitivity does not prevent them from contributing a great deal to our world. In fact, many of the great thinkers and artists have been HSPs.
Dr. Aron’s research, and her books for the general reader, talk about how to know if you, or people you are close to, qualify as HSPs. She also writes about how the HSP can adapt him or herself to life, making the most of what are limitations and not feeling bad about them. It is not worthwhile for the HSP to try to “toughen himself up,” since the condition is constitutional, temperamental, the way he is made. Rather than trying to force himself to change his spots, the HSP can seek out situations that suit and encourage him. One young HSP woman decided to train as a librarian although she reported still being upset, six months later, by a horror film she’d seen at Halloween.
If you are interested to see if the term applies to you, check
www.hsperson.org, and take the Self Test. Like most other psychological traits, being highly sensitive is a continuum: you could be an extreme type, a mild type, or an almost type. For many people who feel bad or inadequate about being highly sensitive–what’s wrong with me?–understanding that up to a fifth of other people share this quality can be encouraging. He or she will probably seek out a partner who is OK with their need for a low-key life, and maybe someone who is better at coping with the rougher aspects of life.
HSPs can benefit greatly from meditation on a regular basis. Still, being an HSP is not always a clear-cut matter. One can be an HSP, and also a sensation seeker: someone who enjoys risky, fast, intense experiences. People with both traits presumably take long, calming breaks in between their high-sensation experiences. John Lennon, for example, often spent many hours a day staring at the wall, lounging, reading, daydreaming, and watching TV with the sound off.
HSPs sometimes have to learn to be assertive in a world that may assume gentleness means weakness. Other people may find HSPs to be unusually sympathetic and good listeners. The HSP is someone who can come into a stimulating environment and make the adjustments–lowering the lights, rearranging the seating–that render everyone more comfortable.
Some substance abusers are HSPs who use their substance to keep their nervous systems soothed. The self-aware HSP knows just how much stimulation she can take before needing to shut down for the day, and will retreat to her place of calm and refuge to refuel. The most important thing for the HSP is to accept and value his or her unique sensitivities, and make use of them.