When most people ask me what I specialize in, I give them a list of certain issues I work with such as eating disorders, anxiety/depression, and relationship issues. But if I was to name it succinctly, I would say that my specialty is helping Highly Sensitive People to love and appreciate their unique and sometimes challenging personalities and nervous systems.
The Highly Sensitive Personality
I wanted to share with you some valuable information that I give to a lot of my clients when they come to me with labels like, “depressed” and/or “anxious”. What I am about to share with you has made a HUGE difference-for the better-in my own life and for many of my clients who have lived in this world their whole lives feeling ‘different’ and often misunderstood by others. It comes from a fabulous book I recommend you run out and buy called, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.The author is a psychologist named Elaine N. Aron, PhD, who along with her husband, has studied the highly sensitive personality for over 40 years.
In short, Ms. Aron explains in her well researched and beautifully written book that 15-20% of the population is “highly sensitive”. These are the folks who are often given the clinical diagnoses of “depression” and/or “anxiety disorder”. I’m not ashamed to say I’m one of them myself. What does being “highly sensitive” (or HSP for short) mean you ask? In short, it means that 15-20% of us have highly attuned nervous systems. I describe this state as “wearing your skin inside out”- we are like cats with big whiskers that reach far out and our ‘antennae’ are always “on”. Aron calls this a “difference in arousability” in that HSPs notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others. This can be a plus as HSPs tend to be visionaries, highly intuitive artists, or inventors, as well as more conscientious, cautious, and wise people.
On the down side, being highly sensitive means being stimulated more intensely by everything around one which can often feel overwhelming. Ms. Aron puts it this way: “What is moderatelyarousing for most people is highly arousing for HSPs. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to become very frazzled indeed…until they reach a shutdown point” (p. 7).
Many of my HSP clients describe situations in which they feel frazzled and overwhelmed. Recently, a woman described working as a teacher all day at an elementary school and coming home feeling frazzled and worn out. She said she just needed a night in with the phone off and curled up with a good book. When she woke up the next morning, she felt that her batteries had been recharged and was ready to face another day. Her non-HSP colleagues found this odd as they recharge their batteries by going out after work with their friends and shooting some pool and listening to loud music. That’s a big difference between HSPs and non-HSP’s- they recharge their batteries in completely different ways- the former by retreating and being quiet and the latter by going out and being in a group with lots of outside stimulation (like loud music).
To end, I’ll leave you with Elaine Aron’s self-test from her book (pp. xxi and xxii) for determining whether you are an HSP. If you answer true to 12 or more of the questions, you’re probably highly sensitive. If this is the case, I highly recommend you read Ms. Aron’s book(s) to learn how to thrive in the world being an HSP.
True or false?
I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
Other people’s moods affect me.
I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
I have rich, complex inner life.
I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
I am conscientious.
I startle easily.
I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
I make it a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
Changes in my life shake me up.
I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.
I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse that I would otherwise.
When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy
Also, be sure to check out her other incredible book, Highly Sensitive People In Love which I reviewed in this article.
Lastly, I highly recommend Susan Cain’s book, QUIET which I reviewed in this article. This book is about introverts; a word I find synonymous but not as empowering as highly sensitive.
I’d like to leave you on an upbeat note on being an HSP however:
Why Esther Thinks HSP’s are Crucial to Our World
- We are the “thinkers” of the world and don’t act on our impulses. We tend to think things through before taking action, and thus make good, healthy decisions for ourselves as well as our communities and the planet.
- We have so much to teach non-HSP’s about being creative, the beauty of nature, and spiritual matters which are so important to us
- We are great listeners and do others a wonderful service just by listening to what they have to say and express
- We are solid, grounded and emotionally available and can be present for others in healing and transforming ways
- We are kind and often give greatly to others and teach them to do the same
- We are good at taking pause every day and meditating and thus, being observers of our own experience and the world around us and can share the wisdom of slowing down and reflecting to others who don’t do that on a regular basis
- We are in touch with our emotions and have a keen sense regarding what others are feeling and can therefore create meaningful, rich connections and intimacy
- We tend to be open-minded and inclusive of all; regardless of our differences and can teach others how to work with differences in a peaceful way
- Because of our creativity, we can teach others creative arts such as writing, crafting, playing music and expressing ourselves through our creative gifts
- We enjoy and crave time alone every day and teach others how to be more comfortable spending time alone