At long last, I’ve written the post on Elaine N. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person.
When I went through my first round of counseling back in 2011, my counselor gave me a book to read entitled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. I was initially a bit hesitant to read the book because, well, it sounded cheesy. However, I was desperate enough to try just about anything at that point, so I went ahead and read it anyway.
It was a breakthrough for me. Suddenly there seemed to be an answer about why I was having problems holding myself together, why I couldn’t function in the chaos at work, and even why I cried so much as a child: I was a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
What is a HSP?
Being highly sensitive actually has a straightforward explanation. According to Dr. Aron, who coined the phrase “highly sensitive”, it simply means, “you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations. It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted in a nervous-system sort of way,” (xiii). Basically, HSPs is more effected by their environment because their nervous-system picks up on more in its surroundings. Because of HSPs’ sensitivity to their environment, they are likely to be more affected by things like loud noises, other people’s moods, and having to do too much at one time (for a self-test about being highly sensitive, go here). My personal favorite sign of being a HSP is sensitivity to hunger because I turn into a terrible monster when I skip meals or snacks.
However, high sensitivity can also be hard to define in relation to shyness/social anxiety and introversion because many traits of HSPs are also found in shy people and introverts. So what makes being highly sensitive a distinguishable trait and not just an outcome of being shy or introverted?
HSPs Aren’t Necessarily Introverts
Admittedly, HSPs’ style of socialization is very similar to introverts’ style of socialization. However, the motivation behind these social styles can differ. While the defining characteristic of an introvert is the need for alone time in order to recharge, HSPs “avoid people who come in the overstimulating packages–the strangers, the big parties, the crowds,” (97). HSPs will prefer small groups or being alone so that they won’t feel overwhelmed by their environment. This certainly explains why some introverts can handle a crowd without going comatose while some introverts become frozen like small animals facing an oncoming car when entering the din of a large party.
Since 70% of HSPs are introverts (98), their motivation for quieter socialization may be a combination of the need for alone time and avoiding being overstimulated. However, that leaves 30% of HSPs falling into the extraverted side of the spectrum. For extraverted HSPs, “you have a large circles of friends and enjoy groups and strangers. . .You still find other sources of arousal difficult, however, like a long work day or being in the city too much,” (98). Consequently, the terms “highly sensitive” and “introverted” cannot be used interchangeably.
HSPs Aren’t Necessarily Shy
Many of HSPs’ social habits can make them seem shy. In fact, it is not uncommon for HSPs to actually be shy. However, they are not the same because, “Shyness is the fear others are not going to like or approve of us. That makes it a response to a situation. It is a certain state, not an always-present trait. Shyness, even chronic shyness, is not inherited. Sensitivity is,” (91). So while a shy person can work on being less shy, a sensitive person can only change their reactions to being sensitive.
The reason many HSPs appear shy is because of their reactions to arousing situations. They may hang back in a crowd or not talk much. But Dr. Aron explains, “Remember, overarousal is not always due to fear. Thinking it is fear can make you feel shy when you are not,” (91-92). Take my experience on vicarage for example. The social time between the service and Bible Study was extremely crowded and very loud. When people tried talking to me, I couldn’t understand what they were saying because of the bombardment of surrounding conversations and the distraction of people milling around. Since I couldn’t contribute to any sort of small talk, I had several members say things like, “You don’t have to be afraid of us” or “You’re very shy.” Then I felt self-conscious about my inability to converse, making it more difficult to talk to others. It also saddened me that a vibrant church community and large Bible study were things to be celebrated, but only brought me torment.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m once again adding a disclaimer to my shyness after demanding that shyness be accepted a few weeks ago. It’s because Dr. Aron succinctly describes the negative aspects of being called shy:
Unfortunately, the term shy has some very negative connotations. It does not have to; shy can also be equated with words such as discreet, self-controlled, thoughtful, and sensitive. But studies have shown that most people on first meeting those I would call HSPs considered them shy and equated that with anxious, awkward, fearful, inhibited, and timid. Even mental health professionals have rated them, more often than not, this way and also as lower on intellectual competence, achievement, and mental health, which, in fact, bear no associations with shyness. Only people who knew the shy people well, such as their spouses, chose the positive terms. Another study found that the tests used by psychologists to measure shyness are replete with the same negative terms. Maybe that would be all right if the tests were of a state of mind, but they’re often used to identify “shy people,” who then bear a negative label. Beware of the hidden prejudice behind the word shy. (93)
She eventually suggests using the term “social discomfort” instead of the word “shy.” I’m not trying to stop from thinking of myself as being shy, I’m trying to explain that there many reasons that people appear shy and that shy people shouldn’t necessarily be written off as socially incompetent.
The Cons of The Highly Sensitive Person
While I highly recommend this book for people who constantly feel overwhelmed by the world around them, there are some aspects of the book that I didn’t particularly relate to. First, there is an entire chapter devoted to spirituality. I find when books try to cover all aspects religious practices by calling it “spirituality”, it generally comes off as seeming trite and flakey. While there are some little nuggets of useful information buried in the chapter, for the most part I would have preferred that she left her audience to make their own deductions about how their personality trait may affect their religious practices.
Secondly, there was a lot of discussion (and an entire chapter) about “healing wounds,” especially the emotional wounds from a misunderstood childhood. While I certainly had some rough years growing up, for the most part I look back on my childhood as a happy, healthy time (Good job, Mom and Dad!). While I’m sure many of her readers did have difficult childhoods, it just didn’t pertain to me.
The Pros of The Highly Sensitive Person
However, there was a plethora of helpful and insightful information presented in Dr. Aron’s findings. She had great insight into handling social situations as a HSP (something I found particularly helpful because the tips from my introversion books didn’t always help). Since she is a HSP herself, Dr. Aron understood the struggle an overarousing situation can create.
Likewise, she had an entire chapter devoted to healthcare and the HSP. She explained the sensitivities HSPs can have to medicine and the difficulties they may face when interacting with doctors. I especially enjoyed her insights into the use of antidepressants and antianxiety medicine, something doctors can be overeager to prescribe to HSPs in order to “fix” their personality problem. She was very diligent in weighing the pros and cons of these medications and left it up to readers to decide what was best for them.
Finally, I enjoyed reading The Highly Sensitive Person because it shows that people are complex. After spending months reading about introversion, it was interesting to look at some of my behaviors from a different perspective.
Are you a HSP? What do you like most AND least about your trait? Are you a non-HSP introvert? What do you see as similarities and differences between introversion and high sensitivity? Are you an extroverted HSP? How do you handle your personality trait?
My sister linked me to this comic the other day. Her depiction of introversion is spot on and her drawings are, well, actually drawings instead of doodles. And her character even has red hair!
In other news, I finally bought The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. I’m very excited to reread this book! I hope to highlight some of the important points from her findings and share them with you.