The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron

February 22, 2023

Unusual sensitivity may be a trait, not a defect.

If this could have resonated any more with me, I would have shaken apart.

As books go, it was interesting. Organized and grounded enough that it may intrigue someone that’s not a “highly sensitive” person. (Take the test if you’re curious.)

For me specifically, this “highly sensitive” framing explains a lot of my life experience. Over and over, Aron describes behaviors, tendencies, and situations that ring true for me with startling precision. Many things I noticed about myself long ago are described with a clarity I’ve lacked, and shown in various studies to be common attributes for a subset of people.

In short, high sensitivity, or responsivity, as these biologists also called it, involves paying more attention to details than others do, then using that knowledge to make better predictions in the future. Sometimes you are better off doing so; other times it is a waste of energy or worse.

I’ve joked many times that I’ve descended from prey animals, and I may have accidentally been onto something. This increased sensitivity to stimuli is common in ~20% of a population—including other animals—possibly because every gaggle needs creatures to be on the lookout for opportunities and threats (me) and other bold creatures to rush into new terrain or fierce battle (not me). My guess is that these sensitive ones are naturally less prevalent because they’re eaten.

I highlighted a jillion passages, but this sums up the “highly sensitive person” (HSP) experience:

Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people—that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers.

Big emphasis on “whether they wish to be or not.” It can be useful, but it’s on whether it’s useful or not. I’ve been in countless situations where I seem derpy, like I’m not paying attention—when really I’m derpy because I’m doing a questionable job of focusing on whatever someone else expects. (Or I’ve blown through whatever energy I had trying to process or ignore things and I’m basically a potato.)

It continues past immediate observation.

We reflect more on everything. And we sort things into finer distinctions.

I’ve said I could be a contender in an Olympics for over-thinking, so this tracks.

But it’s not all high fives.

We are a package deal, however. Our trait of sensitivity means we will also be cautious, inward, needing extra time alone. Because people without the trait (the majority) do not understand that, they see us as timid, shy, weak, or that greatest sin of all, unsociable. Fearing these labels, we try to be like others. But that leads to our becoming overaroused and distressed. Then that gets us labeled neurotic or crazy, first by others and then by ourselves.

The self-doubt and self-criticism have been tricky for me, especially because sensitivity doesn’t make me any smarter or more correct or more sane—it’s just sensitivity.

One general rule is that when we have no control over stimulation, it is more upsetting, even more so if we feel we are someone’s victim. While music played by ourselves may be pleasant, heard from the neighbor’s stereo, it can be annoying, and if we have previously asked them to turn it down, it becomes a hostile invasion. This book may even increase your annoyance a bit as you begin to appreciate that you are a minority whose rights to have less stimulation are generally ignored.

I’m not particularly shy, but put me in an unfamiliar place with a big group of people, or onto a Zoom call with somebody that’s got loud something-or-other going on in the background, and I’ll be eager to crawl into a hole and recover.

I’m not experiencing anything you don’t or can’t, my gain knob is just cranked to 11.

While it’s a relief to feel seen and explained, maybe validated, I’m most excited to have a better understanding of how my brain works so I can take advantage of my strengths and be mindful of my challenges.

HSPs tend to fill [an] advisor role. We are the writers, historians, philosophers, judges, artists, researchers, theologians, therapists, teachers, parents, and plain conscientious citizens.

I’m grateful that a friend first introduced me to the term “HSP,” though I long put off looking into it—I think with some aversion to the self-helpiness of the term. This gave me a lot to appreciate and think about though, at a high level and in refreshingly practical terms.

The moral is that, at least to some extent, the stresses will always be there, for we bring our sensitivity with us. What we need is a new way of living with the stressors.

Aron does a great job of offering guidance in a lot of different contexts, and I’m still connecting this insight to loads of past experiences and looking forward to what I can do with it.

In the words of Tobias Fünke, “there are dozens of us!”