What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

I read a book recently that was mind-blowing. It was called The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron.

I probably should have read it years ago but I only discovered it the other day. When I read a summary of the book I knew I had to read it straight away. It wasn’t in my local Waterstones so I had to order it on Amazon and wait.

The book is about highly sensitive people. Aron says:

the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.

Highly sensitive people (or HSPs, as Aron calls them) are uniquely blessed and cursed. Due to their more sensitive nervous system, they are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by daily life.

This can result in chronic stress, anxiety and health problems. They must deal with other non-sensitive people’s lack of sympathy, telling them they’re “too sensitive”. The world is not a sensitive place.

How I felt when I read the book

When I read this book, a lot of things fell into place. Facts about my childhood took on new meaning, as I slowly realised the thing that was “wrong with me”.

I knew I had always been sensitive. But I viewed it more as a ‘defect’, than a simple variation of the nervous system.

I’ve always wondered why my body doesn’t just naturally know how to adapt to the environment. I react more strongly to emotional stimuli than others.

Highly sensitive childhood

I was a highly sensitive child who generally had good support from parents and teachers. I remember being happy enough.

But secondary school was a totally different game to middle school. My parents’ tumultuous separation also probably meant my sisters and I had to fend for ourselves more, and I felt depressed.

I ended up a complete loner, fully introverted and dreading every day of school. I couldn’t cope with the transition to secondary school – all the noise, so many students, people who bullied you.

I felt deeply affected by other people’s actions. Being in the world was debilitating. I had no defense against the whims and hurtfulness of other kids.

I spent all my time alone watching anime, playing games, drawing and reading. No one ever asked me if there was anything wrong. I guess my parents were busy fighting with each other and dealing with the post-separation fallout. Life was pretty much hell.

Eventually, I decided to come out of my shell. I forced myself to talk to people at school and go out into the world. Slowly, it started to work. I made some friends. I had fun.

In that process, I learned to completely suppress my sensitivity in order to survive socially. I don’t know how I did that. My teenage response was to shut down completely so nothing could affect me. It worked for a time. I never, ever reflected on anything. I always kept busy. I suppose I could do that since I didn’t have the responsibility of looking after myself yet.

Since sensitivity is so core to my personality, it meant I wasn’t using my internal faculties properly. I wasn’t reaching my full potential academically. I was socially clumsy and very thoughtless of others. I regret that now. But at the time, I didn’t have any other choice.

Forced to change direction

So, I pretty much carried on that same path of mild self-destruction until just after university.

I didn’t really feel sensitive anymore. In many ways, I felt cold and ruthless, inclined to use other people for my own interests without much thought for how my actions would affect them. Well, the only way to get ahead was to feel nothing, wasn’t it? It was a necessary sacrifice.

But if you take this approach, you cut yourself off from feeling good things, too. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I also didn’t feel things like love and joy.

Worst of all, suppressing your sensitivity is not a real fix. All you’re doing is shoving it all down into your unconscious depths. Eventually, you have to deal with it – one way or another.

It took me by surprise when so many years’ worth of sensitivity came flooding back into consciousness. I had to cope with it all again – all at once. First, I just felt a bit depressed. Then, I wasn’t feeling anything. One Christmas, my sister asked me if something was wrong. That opened the floodgates into a world of darkness. Nothing was ever the same again.

I couldn’t calm down. I didn’t remember who I was. I knew I was supposed to be Catherine, but she felt like somebody else – not me. I was no one.

Sensitivity coming back

I had regular panic attacks. Very tiny things would set them off – like sitting on a crowded bus, or witnessing something mildly distressing. Anything could be a trigger. The blood would start pounding, my head span, and I couldn’t think. There was nothing I could do. I was afraid to go anywhere or do anything in case it happened again.

I thought I was literally going mad. This didn’t happen to other people. It must be my mind short-circuiting. I had failed to be normal – yet again. It didn’t really occur to me to go to a doctor (that’s for illnesses and stuff, right?), and no one I knew could help. I was afraid to talk about it to anyone.

Looking back, it all started after I moved to London. I found the move totally overwhelming, dislocating and stressful. I had no friends, loathed my course, and struggled to cope with the constant busyness. Some people left London and went home after a few months, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

There were points when I thought it would never get better. But the funny thing is, it always does. And sometimes, the only way is… up.

Over time, I learned how to control my anxiety. I could eventually stop it spiraling to the level of panic and catch it at the first signs. Nowadays, I am surprised to ever have a panic attack – it’s usually when something absolutely awful has happened.

I have learned new life skills. The hard way.

Becoming a new person

Despite learning to cope with my sensitivity, the whole experience turned my life upside down. I don’t think I ever really got back to the being person I had been before the darkness set in.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I miss that person sometimes. Life was simpler and easier.

Now, the whole world is a nightmare – for a sensitive person like me.

Loud noises. Hunger. Fatigue. Emotional trauma. Disturbing sights. These all seem to affect you disproportionately compared to other people. You’re completely at the mercy of your nervous system. There’s no such thing as just ‘pushing through’. There’s just collapse – and tears.

I’ve blamed myself for being ‘too sensitive’. I’ve searched for ways that I could be more like other people, better. This is an exhausting struggle. It’s also futile.

Coping strategies

I had always viewed the path I took as inevitable – a necessary survival tactic in a harsh world not made for sensitive people.

But Aron says that children who are valued for their sensitivity are more likely to grow up into happy, confident adults. By punishing children for being sensitive, you’re making it harder for them to cope with their sensitivity effectively. You’re giving them negative beliefs about themselves that drain their self-esteem. Well-adjusted sensitive children are no more likely to have problems than non-sensitive children.

Aron advises embracing your sensitive qualities, honouring them, and – more importantly – not letting them defeat you.

It’s okay to possibly even view your sensitivity as an advantage.

Ignore other people when they laugh at you for saying you’re tired and needing to stay at home. Make preparations when you go out by bringing snacks. Ensure you can make a quick exit if you feel overwhelmed. Give yourself enough time to calm down after meeting lots of people. Seek out the company of like-minded people who understand you.

The workplace is an especially potent minefield for sensitive people. There’s a feeling that you can’t get away or it will be ‘notice’. Becoming self-employed has helped me to manage my feelings better because it allows me to avoid having burdens placed on me by others.

There is a dark side to all this. I started to feel worried about how you could ever block out the entire world.  There’s always something to disturb you. Rock the boat. Cause distress. You can never avoid interacting with others. And you can’t shut your ears to every sound.

The answer is to be kind to yourself and get plenty of rest. Be as healthy as you can be. Things always seem a lot worse when you’re tired, and even worse when you criticise yourself (I do this a lot).

Emotional sensitivity

I’m interested in how being a Highly Sensitive Person affects your emotional sensitivity, which was only briefly touched on in Aron’s book.

Emotional sensitivity is the most obvious sign of my ‘condition’. It can also be the most destructive because it affects my relationships so negatively sometimes. The consequences are more difficult to move on from or hide from.

Since feeling sensitive again, any perceived slight against me or rejection is like knives into my heart (there was a time when I was blissfully, obnoxiously oblivious). But even though sometimes I suffer more, feelings of joy have come back, and even euphoria. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions.

This means the inevitable life problems can hit me really hard. This is combined with my inclination to worry and overthink everything. People often don’t understand why I get so upset about things, and why should they?

It’s rare that I can ever find someone who truly empathises and connects with me. That’s why I’ve always been very particular about who I choose as a friend (not that I am always overwhelmed with choice).

I’m so emotionally sensitive that I can feel other people’s emotions. This is a nightmare – not fun at all. Their unhappiness becomes my own.

Another therapist I follow says children develop this ’emotional sponge’ trait in response to unpredictable caregivers – unstable parents. Reading emotions quickly becomes a survival tactic.

So it’s important to protect yourself from people who are likely to have a negative impact – even a slight one.

The world for sensitive people

Overall, Aron argues there are not that many respected roles in modern society for Highly Sensitive People. We are often measured against the extroverted ideal of the “warrior” who explores, takes action, and is brave and fearless. And usually found wanting.

This is a shame, as HSPs make up an estimated 10% of the population. Another 30% or so are “mildly sensitive”. The rest of the population are – gulp – “not sensitive”. So HSPs are in the minority and often struggle to fit into the world.

Happily, the UK is not that much of an extroverted society (compared to, say, the US) so I can blend to the background most of the time. Having an Asian family is also a bonus, as Chinese people seem to value bookishness and a quiet temperament too.

She says that HSPs should view themselves as the “Royal Advisor Class”, which means that their temperament would be valued for its own sake. They should try to seek out roles where their powers of deep reflection and introspection would be beneficial and useful. For me personally, being a freelance writer is a role that fits the bill.

Final remarks

Aron’s book is useful because she tries to reframe being highly sensitive in a more positive light than it’s usually seen. She knows that many HSPs have to endlessly battle to survive and especially struggle with self-esteem issues. Misconceptions produce needless suffering.

As part of the maturity process, everyone has to learn about themselves and work on their traits that are destructive or limiting. For HSPs, that means embracing sensitivity when it is useful, and finding ways around it when it’s not so useful.

I’m focusing on letting myself be naturally sensitive, but at the same time not using it as an excuse not to participate in life or take risks. Of course, seasonal changes and my workload do affect how sensitive I feel. It’s important not to beat myself up for those limitations.

Ultimately, no one can tell you how you feel is wrong, but it’s futile to expect the world to accommodate you. The best thing about being an adult is getting to do whatever you want, and not having to justify yourself to anyone.

CatherineCatherine Heath is a freelance writer in software and marketing. She’s obsessed with the field of personality systems theory. She also likes drawing and being in nature. 

Photo by Michelle Spencer on Unsplash

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