Dr. Aron’s Research
Dr. Elaine Aron (MA Clinical Psychology, PhD Clinical Depth Psychology) began researching high sensitivity in 1991 and continues her research today. The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP for short, also known as Sensory-Processing Sensitivity) was coined by Dr. Aron in the 90s, and is now part of our common vernacular. Did you know that the famous singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette is an HSP?
Below are some questions, cited from Dr. Aron’s website, to help you determine if you might be an HSP. You can also find her more in-depth self-test here.
- Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
- Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
- Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
- Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
- Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
- Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
- Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
- When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?
Dr. Aron emphasizes that:
- Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population — too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you.
- It is innate. In fact, biologists have found it in over 100 species (and probably there are many more) from fruit flies, birds, and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of HSPs actually work a little differently than others’.
- You are more aware than others of subtleties. This is mainly because your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply. So even if you wear glasses, for example, you see more than others by noticing more.
- You are also more easily overwhelmed. If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time.
- This trait is not a new discovery, but it has been misunderstood. Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy’. But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion. It has also been called inhibitedness, fearfulness, or neuroticism. Some HSPs behave in these ways, but it is not innate to do so and not the basic trait.
- Sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told “don’t be so sensitive” so that they feel abnormal.
Identifying as an HSP
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking ‘that’s me!’ and feel a sense of relief and validation. Or maybe you’re thinking ‘great — I’m different — now what?’ Speaking as someone who identifies as an HSP, I can relate to the mixed feelings of discovering you’re an HSP. On the one hand, I was so relieved to read about a trait that perfectly summarized what I had experienced since childhood. I didn’t feel so alone anymore; indeed there were others like me (15 to 20% of the population in fact). I also admit I felt somewhat vindicated after a lifetime of being told that my sensitivities were a character flaw or something I was making up.
On the other hand, I also felt feelings of sadness and resignation because this innate, genetic trait was not likely to change — and, believe me, there were many times I wished I was just ‘normal’. But I had to ask myself: am I going to accept this trait and learn to make the best of it, or am I going to wish I was different and miss the opportunity to learn about myself? I’d like to say I went for the first option, but the truth is I’ve danced between the two. I realize now that that is part of the journey towards self-acceptance. Like most things in life, it’s anything but a linear process!
Learning to Make Empowered Choices
I’d like to share with you some of the most profound learnings I’ve gathered along my journey as an HSP. Though I may not be able to change my highly sensitive nature, I can make empowered choices around:
- Caring for myself. I used to expend a lot of energy fighting my sensitive nature or pushing through overstimulation. Nowadays, I use that energy to honour my boundaries/needs and rest. I am more attuned to those early signs of overwhelm or overstimulation — busy or foggy mind, a buzzing feeling in my body, feeling easily agitated — and I seek the earliest opportunity to tend to myself. This helps modulate the cycle of overstimulation followed by crashing, which was the norm for me for decades.
- Sharing my sensitive nature. There are countless gifts of being an HSP. For me, personally, it has meant a life rich in reflection and learning; a knack for organizing and creating systems; a deep appreciation for music and art; and deeply empathic relationships both personally and professionally. Part of my journey as an HSP has been to find and discern the right people and environments to share these qualities with. Though I can say from personal experience that not every person or organization embraces the HSP, there are some who do and they are worth searching for!
- How I view myself and my sensitivity. When you’re wired a little differently and need more downtime to ground and rest, others might make assumptions that you are antisocial, boring, lazy, or selfish. Indeed, the HSP is often misunderstood. When we hear this kind of messaging growing up, it is hard to not internalize it and play it back to ourselves. It is not an easy process to identify and challenge these negative labels, but it is an essential step towards self-acceptance and reclaiming our self-image. What has helped me to reclaim my self-image is learning more about the HSP and normalizing this trait in myself; talking to trusted friends, family, and practitioners about my experience; and making a continual effort to notice the positive aspects of being an HSP.
Whether you or someone you care about identifies as an HSP, I sincerely hope that this article has helped you to learn more about the unique gifts and challenges of being highly sensitive. As they say, knowledge is power. Knowing that sensitivity is a genetic, innate trait is a first and necessary step towards harnessing the gifts of being an HSP and setting oneself on the path to self-acceptance.
Want to Learn More?
I highly recommend checking out Dr. Elaine Aron’s website and her book The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You.
Aron, Dr. Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person. 2022. https://hsperson.com.
Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash