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November 9, 2010

Are You Too Sensitive?

Do you take things too personally? Overanalyze the situation? Feel defensive? Then you are almost certainly among the group classified as Highly Sensitive People.
Find out if you're highly sensitive, take the quiz.

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Photo Credit: George Doyle/Stockbyte

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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?"


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