Updated: Aug 4, 2021
A way to understand the challenges for a highly sensitive person.
If you are a highly sensitive person, you may often hear people say things to you that sound like these:
Just STOP being sooooo sensitive!
The world does not revolve around YOU!
You need a break!
You are over-reacting!
Many of my clients are highly sensitive people. They seem to feel things more deeply than others. They seem to be more sensitive to – well, to everything. They are often more sensitive to textures, sounds, lights, people, smells, the moods of others, and their own thoughts and emotions. In many ways these people are gifted. These special people are the artists and musicians that draw us to them because of the depth of their understanding and insight.
Elaine N. Aron, a clinical research psychologist began her research into highly sensitive persons in 1987 by first asking why she “always felt different.” Her research culminated in 1996 when she wrote a book titled The Highly Sensitive Person. This book has sold over a million copies. A documentary discussing her research and book is currently available on Amazon Prime Video titled, Sensitive – The Untold Story (2015).
In the documentary we learn that highly sensitive persons (“HSPs”) experience increased emotional reactivity and empathy. They often experience a greater depth of information processing. This increased sensitivity can lead to a greater awareness of the environment.
HSPs notice immensely more sensory input and feel things more intensely. Elaine Aron states, “It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you are out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted.”
The research indicates that the characteristics of an HSP are present in about twenty percent of the population. Interestingly, these qualities are present in some species of animals at about the same rate.
Culture is not kind to those of us that are different than the rest of the pack for this, or any reason. Historically in western culture, sensitivity has been characterized by some as a female trait that can lead to gender identity issues, bullying and shame. HSPs are often misunderstood. Without an accurate and research-based understanding of HSPs, modern culture may make negative assumptions about them.
In the documentary Alannis Morrisette, an admitted HSP, states, “On one hand these traits and qualities were seen as really positive and a boon, something people were frothing at the mouth to exploit. And then in the same breath it was something that was sort of the bane of my existence and a challenge for people to deal with.” She stated, after selling 30 million records, “Okay so you don’t like the feelings part, the intense feelings I have. I thought, so okay, I’ll be the needless robot that you want me to be.” She went on to say, “I spent most of my life thinking that how I was, was (sic) a problem for people.” Additionally, “It was an interesting combination of being loved for it and being rejected for it.”
Alannis talked about not paying attention to her needs as an HSP and stated, “My lifestyle was not very conducive to care for the HSP for a really long time. And so, I would just go through moments of having meltdowns and breakdowns. I would keep them private because I didn’t want to be a bother. Allanis came to think that understanding her traits helps her to not be so “shame ridden” about them. Allanis stated that she wrote the song That I Would be Good as a prayer that she could listen to and sooth herself in times of overstimulation.
That I would be good, even if I did nothing
That I would be good, even if I got the thumbs down
That I would be good if I got and stayed sick
That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds
That I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
That I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
That I would be great if I was no longer queen
That I would be grand if I was not all knowing
That I would be loved even when I numb myself
That I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
That I would be loved even when I was fuming
That I would be good even if I was clingy
That I would be good even if I lost sanity
That I would be good
Whether with or without you
These words are the raw, vulnerable and authentic honesty born out of painful experiences that we love from Allanis and are often shared by other HSPs.
Many people that experience the traits of an HSP are also very shy. Many HSPs become shy because they are so easily overstimulated. So, they withdraw. HSPs that are overstimulated may appear to shut down and not have anything to say. If this pattern develops HSPs can be mischaracterized as being on the autisim spectrum. HSPs can also become shy and withdrawn because they are afraid of the judgment of others. An overstimulated child that is also an HSP may act out in ways that lead to punishment for not being able to cope with the overstimulating environment. Parents must learn to set limits but only with the understanding that the overstimulated child will not be able to process or understand punishment for actions motivated by self-preservation that can appear as if they are acting out. For the HSP child, acting out can be a survival mechanism. It will be impossible for them to process the correction until later when they are no longer overstimulated.
I work as a therapist at a psychiatric treatment facility. We treat very serious mental illnesses. In my experience, I have observed that many patients with serious mental illnesses are also HSPs. HSPs are more vulnerable to the consequences of substance use to manage their sensitive and empathetic emotions. Substance and unhealthy behaviors are used as resources to manage the extreme anxieties and negative feelings experienced by HSPs with devastating consequences. More research is necessary to understand that association between HSPs and mental illness.
HSPs may be more vulnerable to unhealthy patterns in codependent relationships. HSPs that are more sensitive to the emotions of others and often fall into a trap of developing unhealthy coping skills to alleviate the impact of negative emotions. The caregivers of HSPs will often enable these unhealthy coping skills by supporting them because they provide coveted relief to their loved one. HSPs need the understanding of caregivers while being pushed to learn more healthy coping skills. Hopefully, in learning more about the HSP, caregivers will get better about accepting the HSPs limitations while offering space and motivation for the development of more healthy coping skills.
Bill Parker, J.D., M.S. is a lawyer and Florida Registered Mental Health Therapist Intern and Owner of Experience Matters Counseling, LLC.