A Research Paper created by Justin Rayne Nash
(Executive and Life Coaching, INDIA)
We all have, or would have, known someone who seems very sensitive, someone, who often gets disturbed or upset about what people say to, or think about, him or her. Such persons might even come across as shy, aloof and often withdraw from social interactions, preferring a lot of time by themselves, or with nature. They are the proverbial ‘thin skinned’ person, the ‘touchy’ or quite simply the ‘too sensitive’ kind.
Often these people are also gifted with creative abilities.
Research has now revealed that there is a indeed a whole category of people who are very sensitive and so understandably are called Highly Sensitive People, or HSP for short.
Definition of an HSP
The term ‘innately sensitive’ was first used by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, in the early 1900’s
Decades later, Elaine N. Aron (Ph.D.) and her fellow researcher, as well as other researchers, discovered that there were indeed people who experienced sensory information, more deeply and intensely. Elaine Aron’s work especially resulted in the following definition of the term HSP.
HSP are people who have sensory and emotional excitabilities, more than what is found in the normal distribution of population. This makes the persons highly sensitive to touch, sound, visuals, as well as to emotions, their expressions and their nuances. They are sensitive, not only to external stimuli, but internal stimuli, inner emotional weather and so on.
It is now estimated that as many as 1 in 5 people are what may be called a highly sensitive person. That is large 20 % of the total human Population!
Hypersensitivity and Childhood
It is not completely understood what creates or contributes to hypersensitivity in individuals. It is a mix of vulnerability and susceptibility to stress, as well as environmental factors , especially early childhood experiences.
Hypersensitive individuals as children tend to be highly impressionable. They tune into their environment, pick up words, non verbals, moods of parents and teachers. They tend to be more open to feeling and suggestion from their environment than other children. An HSP child is, what the psychologist Alice Miller calls, a ‘gifted child’. The gifted child has a capacity for feeling and intuition that is often not recognized and supported by the environment. And so, HSP children tend to internalize the feelings of their parents, caretakers`, as if they were their own. They tend to develop a self image of themselves that is based on the feelings and judgments of those around them, especially their parents and they are not able to meet expectations, or if their behavior is met with rejection or punishment, they tend to feel abandoned or flawed.
Vulnerability and Stress in HSP
Once this pattern is established, it is repeated in adulthood, unless there is sufficient self awareness. This means that as adults too, they take in the criticisms, the disappointments, the judgments, the evaluations of significant others – their spouses, bosses, colleagues etc. – as their own. This creates a sort of a mirror or image, they use to evaluate themselves and calibrate their self worth. However, since this mirror is based on others judgments, it does not always match their own experience of their self and its values.This creates conflict and fragmentation between what they feel they are and what they think they ‘should’ be. This results in a lot of insecurity. This makes HSPs very sensitive to the evaluations of others.
HSPs often deal with this fear and insecurity by the adopting the attitude of perfectionism. They try to be perfect, to be ‘good’, to be in control of everything, to know all the answers, to win all the time. In short, to be the embodiment of ideals and expectations of those around them.
Failing to live up to these standards means being open to feelings of failure, guilt, fear, self blame and so on. They can easily feel that no one understands them and they easily become self absorbed and preoccupied with themselves or become aloof, withdrawn and ultimately suicidal.
Since HSPs tend to take in the feelings of others, they also tend take care of, and feel responsible for, others, a lot. They are often helping, taking care of others, solving problems, supporting others and so on. To this extend they tend not to take care of themselves. And so they tend to have health problems more than others. When others are not as supportive of them, as they are, they tend to feel resentful or hurt. They often feel that people make impossible demands of them, or that the people around them are impossible to please, to satisfy or are just plain unreasonable.
HSPs are also sensitive to sensory stimuli. The world is vivid, bright, intense and dark for them. One has to think of the colors in Van Gogh’s paintings to know how it feels for the HSP’s, from the inside. Colors, sounds, forms, scenes, ambiences all have a powerful effect on their psyches. They tend to evoke memories and recollections in the HSP more than in others. And so often, HSPs need to withdraw from these stimuli, into a quite place where their senses can recover.
HSPs tend to take the entire responsibility of the maintaining harmonious relationships. And so when disharmony in relationships happens, it troubles them a great deal, and that is another reason why they tend to be socially aloof.
HSPs are also prone to addiction more than others. They may become addicted, not only to substances for desensitization and coping, but also to emotions such as anger and aggression or to certain relationship behaviors such as compulsively rescuing or ‘saving’ people, or seducing, or the ‘high’ of repeatedly falling in love or sex.
For all the above reasons, HSPs are particularly more vulnerable to stress, than others.
The vulnerability (and the often, strengths) of the HSP is best summed up in the following quote by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Pearl S Buck. She says:
The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:
A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.
a touch is a blow,
a sound is a noise,
a misfortune is a tragedy,
a joy is an ecstasy,
a friend is a lover,
a lover is a god,
and failure is death.
Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create —— so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating. Pearl S. Buck