"Can't you just ignore it?"
"It's not bothering anyone else. Why is it bothering you?
Do any of these comments sound familiar to you?
If so, you may be among the 20% of the population that author and psychologist Elaine Aron calls Highly Sensitive Persons, or HSPs.
Here are some of the identifying traits for HSPs:
- being easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input
- being aware of subtleties in your environment that most people appear not to notice
- having a low pain threshold
- having a rich, complex inner life
- being deeply moved by the arts or music
- being sensitive to and influenced by the moods of others
Aron makes distinctions between being shy and being introverted, for example. She also offers self-help guidelines. Her great gift is to help individuals learn to accept that being sensitive is a positive way of being in the world.
I agree with much of what Aron writes, which is well-correlated to the foundational research done by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, whose work describing what he called overexcitabilities helped define the field of education for gifted individuals, who, as a group, tend to score high on Aron's HSP scale.
I do believe, however, there is room for further research on one point: I would distinguish the 20% of the population Aron calls HSPs as that group of people whose sensitivities to environmental and internal stimuli are highly tuned. I would submit, however, that the remaining 80% suffers not from a lack of this sensitivity, but rather from a learned suppression of the stimuli that is so obvious to HSPs.
Our culture primarily rewards those who succeed at all costs; who climb over obstacles without letting anything get them down; who are able to make the so-called hard decisions in life.
Those are the very individuals whose anxiety and depression can grow and burgeon beneath the surface, putting them at risk for blowing up at any moment when the strain of suppressing further input becomes too great.
It is to our artists and our poets, our musicians and other masters of nonverbal communication with traits of hypersensitivity, that we look when our pain becomes so great that words fail us. Talented psychotherapists can also help an HSP navigate the world in a way that encourages and supports their management of emotional and other sensitivities.
Both artists and therapists can also help those in the Sea of 80% get in touch with what stirs beneath the surface of their lives.