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November 9, 2010

Are You Too Sensitive?


Photo Credit: George Doyle/Stockbyte

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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.

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