Many years ago I had a falling-out with a girlfriend that proved so painful, I can hardly talk about it today. My friend (let's call her Mary) was a colorful television personality and had the world at her feet. She was engaged to a handsome European, and her face was plastered across the newspapers. I was working for 60 Minutes at the time, and we often met for lunch. Then one day her show was canceled and she asked me — casually, as though it didn't really matter — if I'd put her forward as a reporter for 60 Minutes. Thinking she was as tough as she seemed and that she hardly needed my help anyway (I was certain she had many other job offers on the table), I answered that I was just a minion at 60 Minutes and that besides, they had millions of people hankering to work there. I suggested she instead call another friend of hers who I felt was in a much better position to make such a pitch.
Mary never spoke to me again. I called and called. I even sent her a present for I don't know what, but a wall had gone up. At the time, I remember being completely baffled — what, exactly, had I done? Today, I would have understood completely. Mary is an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), and was simply behaving in a way that's consistent with that personality's characteristics. Too emotionally cautious to come out and say she needed the job (lest I reject or judge her), she acted as though it didn't matter. Years later, I heard through friends that she thought I couldn't be bothered to help and that I hadn't cared how vulnerable she clearly felt. It was a complete misunderstanding, and it cost me that friendship.
Though I didn't know it then, I too am an HSP, and have since learned to identify a range of HSP behaviors and responses, both in myself and in others. What's more, people in general are becoming increasingly aware of this condition, allowing HSPs freedom from having to hide their sensitive natures behind a veneer of hostility or self-assurance. Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco and author of The Highly Sensitive Person, first identified what she calls the "Highly Sensitive Personality" in an academic paper in the early '90s. She spent the next two decades getting her message out. According to Aron, what all HSPs share is an uncommon ability to pick up on subtleties that others might miss — a look, a feeling, a message embedded in a seemingly straightforward statement. "It's like they're wearing an extra pair of glasses," she says.
HSPs are hardwired differently than the rest of the population. Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York and Southwest University in China have found that people with the trait take longer to make decisions, need more time alone to think, and are generally more conscientious about things like remembering birthdays. Their study, recently published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, also found that HSP subjects undergoing an MRI have greater activity in areas of the brain concerned with high-order visual processing, with participants spending longer examining photographs given to them while they underwent the test, and in general paying closer attention to detail than non-HSPs. What's more, a significant percentage of other species — including dogs, fish, and various primates — also display this sensitivity trait.
Once upon a time, HSPs might have been written off as shy or even neurotic, but Aron believes these labels are demeaning and inaccurate. Shyness, she says, is a learned response; HSPs are born with a heightened sensitivity meter. She also points out that there are a lot of us (it's estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the population suffers from the condition, a percentage split equally between men and women). The trait shows up early on, with infants and children exhibiting signs — a possible explanation for why some babies tend to cry more than others.
I should confess that when I first heard about HSP, it reminded me of the first time I learned about ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), which I felt was just another way of saying "bratty child." This time, my thinking went something like, "They're trying to turn those irritating people who force others to walk on eggshells into bona fide victims." What does being an HSP entitle you to? Instant upgrades on airplanes? The corner office? Extra-kind report cards?
But I kept reading, and the more I read, the more I began to think that the HSP label explained a lot — about me, about my siblings, and about many of my friends. Aron's argument is that there are a lot of us whose feelings get hurt easily, and that this huge sector of the population is mistakenly being written off as weak and thin-skinned. But as with ADD (attention deficit disorder) and even ODD, sooner or later society catches up with science and accepts that these terms are more than a fashionable excuse for being difficult or neurotic. Though not currently classified as a disorder, HSP will, I suspect, soon become a part of the psychological lexicon.
Still, not everyone is buying. My personal physician, Dr. Martin Scurr, whose busy medical and psychological practice in London is filled with self-identified HSPs, is opposed to the new label. "It takes all sorts," he says. "Why should we have to label everyone who doesn't fit like clones into the mainstream? How do we define 'abnormality' or 'disorder' anyway? How many new words can we come up with for good old anxiety?"
Certainly anxiety is a big component of the HSP's experience. According to experts, HSPs suffer from what is called sensory-processing sensitivity and are more susceptible than ordinary people to both internal and external stimuli. "They have an innate tendency to process things more carefully," says Aron, who has devised a test to gauge where one falls on the sensitivity continuum (see her quiz on p. 228). "They tend to be aware of subtleties and are therefore easily overwhelmed by their feelings." An HSP doesn't just cry while watching a film like The Notebook — she experiences actual grief symptoms. She also reacts strongly to things such as noise and light, and is particularly sensitive to stimulants such as coffee. Typically an HSP demonstrates greater caution and reluctance than the non-HSP population with things such as taking risks, trying new experiences, meeting new people, even venturing to unfamiliar places. Then there is the other extreme — roughly 30 percent of HSPs are thought to be extroverts and sensation seekers.
Ted Zeff, Ph.D., an HSP expert based in California and author of the recently published The Strong, Sensitive Boy, says the trait was previously linked with leadership. "Wild animals with HSP picked up the energy around them and headed for the hills, becoming the leaders of the pack. It's just in America where sensitivity is not valued and where we think of it as a weakness," he says.
Though HSPs are often intuitive and conscientious, the trait can come at a cost. Jill Capobianco, an art dealer living outside New York, recalls that when she was as young as 3, "I had trouble sleeping because I was always thinking about things. And because I was so sensitive to hurt, I closed off easily." As a result, her childhood was a lonely one. "I was never one of the gang," she says. Today, she acknowledges, her "brain is always looking for rejection." And, because she fears being "herself," relationships have proved difficult.
To protect themselves, HSPs often withdraw or attack. According to Aron, they have six main methods of self-protection: minimizing, blaming, overachieving, inflating, projecting, and choosing not to compete. All of these behaviors are defensive in nature and tend to exacerbate the condition further, as they often lead to an HSP's getting wounded twice — first when she feels the pain of a perceived slight (prompting her defensive response), and again when the other person responds aggressively to that reaction. "HSPs should carry a warning card," says Capobianco.
But HSPs are not just people who get their feelings hurt easily. Part of the condition is having a complex inner life and an active imagination. Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, found that during the Holocaust, sensitive people tended to fare better than their outwardly tougher counterparts. He writes, "Sensitive people ... may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution) — but the damage to the inner self was less. How else to explain the paradox that prisoners of less hardy makeup were often able to survive life in the camps, whereas those of a more robust nature were not?" Given this, it's not surprising that HSPs tend to be creatively gifted, and that a large percentage have become famous because of their particular talents (many HSPs consider creative types as diverse as Michael Jackson, Johnny Depp, and Winona Ryder to be one of their kind). And given how beautifully they describe the pain that comes with feeling so intensely, both Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf were almost certainly HSPs.
But the message that Aron is intent on sending to all HSPs is to "stop trying to pretend you're not an HSP." At times, of course, pretending not to feel so much may be necessary. But by being selective with our surroundings, minimizing stress, managing our nervous systems through things like yoga and exercise, and by carefully choosing whom we spend time with, HSPs can play to their strengths. Cognitive behavioral therapy (where you challenge your negative thoughts with logic), as well as antidepressants, can also help. What's more, when an incident occurs that you find hurtful, Aron suggests clearing the air by sharing your reaction.
Fifty thousand years ago, an HSP would have been happily cocooned in her comfortably appointed cave (from which she ventured only when the coast was clear). Contemporary life, however, is all about being forced out of our caves, which means exposure to the elements. As a psychotherapist friend remarked to me recently, "Once upon a time, HSPs would have been the safest people on the planet, and now they have to see someone like me to deal with modern society."
Helen Kirwan-Taylor is an American writer living in London. Her piece on the murder of her sister appeared in the February 2010 issue.