Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron

At the end of sixth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Lumsden, gave out “unusual awards.”  I was awarded “Best Observer.”    It is one of the signs that I am a highly sensitive person, and it is one of the happier memories related to my trait.

Research psychologist Elaine N. Aron describes highly sensitive people, or HSPs, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person.  HSPs, which make up about 15 to 20 percent of the population, are people with more responsive nervous system, who notice smaller stimuli and react more strongly to stimuli.

Aron is careful to distinguish the physiological trait of high sensitivity from inhibition, introversion, and shyness.  Okay, HSPs are often, or appear to be, introverted and shy.  Aron reframes HSP behavior as a response to overstimulation.  Everyone has an optimal level of arousal, and because HSPs are aroused more by smaller stimuli, which are abundant and can even include our own emotional responses to experiences, they are more easily aroused more than is optimum for them.  Everyone withdraws (is shy) when faced with too much arousal, and everyone needs time to quietly process (introversion).

Let me give you an example from my own life.  When I was a young child, I was very emotional.  I was easily overwhelmed, to the point of losing self-control, by my own emotions and the experiences that triggered them.  When I was in fifth grade, I found a model for managing it: Mr. Spock of Star Trek.  He was person (or Vulcan or half-Vulcan) with intense emotions that used various practices of logical thinking, meditation, art and study to discipline himself and control his own behavior.  Yes, at that age it meant repressing my emotions and withdrawing from others to some degree.  I gained a sense of self-control and space to think.  It was a little patch of high ground above the flood.  As a kid on the verge of puberty, it was precious to me.

That challenge hasn’t diminished as an adult.  How can I enjoy the sensory and emotional richness I can experience without being carried away by it?  How can I take notice of the little things that make me pause without getting jumpy?  How can I pursue the challenging and meaningful work that attracts me without being exhausted by distractions and the social demands organizations?  These are questions all HSPs must answer.

Aron doesn’t always give a simple answer, but she does show readers how to find the answers for themselves.  Relationships and work present all manner of highly arousing situations that can drain an HSP.  Aron provides information on how to approach these challenges in ways that acknowledge your trait of high sensitivity, with its weakness and the many strengths that can be brought to bear on the problem.

These problems can be exacerbated for HSPs who had rough childhoods, which is all too common.  (I’m fortunate that I had accepting and tolerant parents.  I suspect there are several HSPs scattered in my extended family, which fits with high sensitivity generally being inherited.)  Therapy can be very helpful for HSPs who need to deal with these issues.  Aron provides recommendations on what kind of therapies may be most useful to HSPs.

I suspect most of the readers of this book will be HSPs.  If you’re not an HSP, you probably know one.  If you think your spouse, close friend, or employee is an HSP, it may be worthwhile to read this book.  HSPs have a lot of strengths they would happily bring to your relationship or business if they are given the opportunity and a little quiet space in which to thrive.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Aron, Elaine N.  The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You1996New York: Broadway, 1998.

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