Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2011
In case you did not see the earlier e-mail from me, the big news was that the July/August edition of the U.S. magazine Psychology Today featured (listed on the cover) a long article about being highly sensitive. I am sure that those of you who could obtain the actual magazine (the complete article is not online) had a wide range of responses to the article. I was simply happy that what reached so many people was reasonably accurate, lengthy, and featured on the cover. High sensitivity has never before received as much coverage as this in the U.S. media.
I was also pleased that Andrea Bartz, the author, included so many people who have written and thought about sensitivity: Michael Jawer, Earnest Hartmann (nice name, huh?), Jerome Kagan, Judith Orloff, and especially Ted Zeff. I especially appreciated that Andrea interviewed some actual highly sensitive people and chose successful ones, a fulltime stand-up comedian, the owner of a marketing firm, and a CEO. Nice.
So Now Everyone Knows, HSPs Are “Too Emotional.”
However, I know that this article told those who read it a lot about you, so it really mattered to you what it said. One impression it left was that we are highly emotional. The banner on the first page of the article read, in part, “They tear up at phone commercials… brood for days over a gentle ribbing… say hello to the highly sensitive person–you’ve probably already made him cry.” I did not emphasize our strong emotions in The Highly Sensitive Person, perhaps because I feared it would make us seem less rational, adaptable, healthy, etcetera. But it is true. Given the same amount of stress in your life, past or present, you will be feeling more negative emotion as a result than would a non-HSP. Bad news.
But even without stress you are more emotional than others, because your positive feelings, too, are stronger than those of others. Your empathy with others’ emotions is stronger. Your reaction to bad things is appropriately strong. Good news.
Everyone, however, reacts more to negative than positive feelings, in themselves or others. In the media, too, you read more about negative emotions–terror, rage, shock, grief, shame, and all the rest. I think it is instinctual to notice negative emotions more–these are the ones we need to respond to most urgently, whether in ourselves or others.
Given all that, HSPs who are struggling most with negative feelings are noticed more. I’m sure the people interviewed were asked about their stronger negative emotions even if they did not bring them up as a problem. Notice that two of the people Andrea interviewed said, “You won’t make me sound crazy, will you?” I think Andrea tried not to do that and did a good job. For example, at the end of the article, she wrote that the trait was essentially neutral, but with many potential positives. Still, to write well in a popular magazine, you have to use strong emotional words. “Ensconced in safe environments and steeled against the negativity of others, they can flourish.” True, but it’s an emotionally intense image of HSPs barricading themselves against their own strong negative emotions.
Some of Us Learned Not to Show our Feelings
Andrea ends the article with the CEO, who tells how she has coped by surrounding herself by supportive people, and also choosing to “respond or to let something go.” This is key: Most of us have found ways to deal with the negative side of our emotional reactivity. We always know it is there, but have a catalogue of methods to soothe ourselves. Some of us, especially men, may even over control our emotions. Often sensitive little boys cried more easily than others and were teased for it. The teasing felt horrible, and they learned how to avoid that horrible feeling again by not allowing their emotions to be seen by others.
But consider what I just said. We learn lessons from our emotional experiences. It was a horrible emotion, shame, that taught some sensitive boys not to show emotions. Psychology finally has noticed this paradox about emotions and given them a new, central role in learning and general wisdom.
Mostly, Strong Feelings Make Wiser People
Without mentioning HSPs or even individual differences in emotionality, the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have written a key article, in my opinion, for understanding us. Roy Baumeister loves to make people, and especially his fellow psychologists, think again about their most commonly held ideas. So in this article, he and his colleagues set out to show that emotions, far from interfering with making good decisions, actually play a central role. Once you hear the arguments, it seems obvious.
First, even though it seems that emotion makes us do things, it rarely on its own leads to behavior, as in “I was afraid so I ran.” We have to first perceive the threat and know it is dangerous before we can feel afraid. But that is so slow. Only a few fears are innate, and not in everyone. My husband is crazily afraid of snakes and I am not. Some people are overcome by heights, spiders, the sight of blood–these are unlearned and innate. They evolved because they saved the lives of people who went on to have children with the same fear. But these innate fears have their cost. My husband is constantly watching for snakes when he is hiking, and there are places he will not go because of that fear. Most fear reactions are learned because it leaves more room for a flexible response, but these reactions have to be learned well if they are going to get us out of danger quickly.
Baumeister says it works this way: We have “a full blown, conscious emotional experience” (p. 168) about something, but most of the emotions actually occur after the experience, so they are too slow and complex to help direct behavior at the time. It is only afterwards that the little boy ponders the way he was treated when he cried and feels the shame, anger, sadness, and much more.
These delayed, complex emotions are the ones that stimulate the processing of the experience. The more important the experience, the more emotion, and the more emotion the more processing, and the more processing the more learning, and the more learning, the quicker and more efficient our response next time. Next time we will act on emotion alone, or rather emotional arousal and a simple evaluation–good or bad. This will be far more efficient and quick than having to think the same situation through again. The first reaction will be either positive, stay and enjoy, or negative, run or fight.
For the sensitive little boy being teased the first times he cries in school, his emotional reaction to the resulting shame will help him learn the dubious lesson not to let anyone see him cry again. When he has a feeling that would lead to tears in public, it is supplanted by a stronger feeling, the fear of being shamed. This fear, now well learned, produces a simple, quick, overriding negative response–don’t do it. Don’t cry in front of them. It feels bad.
Thanks to Our Emotional Intensity, HSPs Learn More Nuanced Responses
In the case of snakes, if our fear is not innate, we learn it from experience or someone warning us. Through language and memory we do not have to be bitten or be innately afraid, but the degree of our caution and snake wisdom still depends on the strength of our emotional experiences when confronted with the fact of poisonous snakes. All of this seems to imply that people with stronger emotional reactions have an advantage the next time they encounter snakes. For HSPs, as soon as we learn about poisonous snakes we may have the full blown conscious emotional experience of a snake bite purely in our imagination, perhaps after seeing a film or hearing a story about someone being bitten by a snake, or simply reading about such snakes.
Others, less moved by an experience they have not actually had, might not bother to learn about poisonous snakes until in an environment where snakes are common. But due to our stronger experience, perhaps purely through empathy for someone who has been bitten by a snake, we may set out to learn all that we can about which snakes are poisonous and how to avoid them. We may become a font of snake wisdom for those hiking with us and even save the lives of snakes that would otherwise be killed automatically just for being snakes.
This may be more than you want to know, but Baumeister and colleagues go on to argue that our species’ success has to do with the way we are constantly deciding whether to take action as well as what action to take, and these decisions involve an elaborate set of rules that have to be constantly updated. A chimpanzee seeing a snake would just run. A ranger may be afraid of snakes but still have a more nuanced choice of responses. He may even decide to take hold of a snake in order to deal with it. A soldier may fear bullets but can also decide to stand his ground rather than run. We have a reaction to what someone says, but have to decide whether and how to say it based on our most recent experience and current desired outcome. This updating takes me back to Wolf’s idea of responsiveness. However you think about it, strong emotional reactions after an experience cause HSPs to update more than others, or you can say it makes us more responsive to a situation. But either way we say it, these reactions set us up to make better choices.
How Sensitivity Works in Action
This may be getting a bit abstract. Let’s consider a typical experience of being with non-HSPs. You and a friend are choosing a restaurant. While you are thinking about it, he says, “Let’s go to that Chinese place. It’s close to the theater. I think we ate there once and the food was fine. Yeah, I feel like Chinese. Let’s go.”
Fine? The food was fine? That’s not your memory of it. He must be kidding. It was noisy, the food was too greasy, the fish didn’t seem totally fresh, and the waiter said something to your friend that you thought was insulting. Your friend was eager that time, too, so you had kept your negative reaction to yourself, not wanting to make him feel guilty for making such a bad choice. But you vividly recall his shouting, “Can’t hear you. It’s too noisy to hear yourself think in here.” But apparently that reaction was not strong enough to make him recall any of this now.
Notice that your sensitivity to sound and taste as well as to negative social behaviors further heightened your emotional reaction, and therefore helped you never forget this place–all parts of our sensitivity work together to enable us to make better future responses. Further, after years of choosing restaurants, your stronger emotional reactions to them have caused you to think quite a bit about what makes a good one: Quiet trumps food if the food is adequate; restaurants with open kitchens are usually too noisy; you’ve only had good luck with Chinese food when it has been well recommended; not to eat in places that advertise being “gourmet”; order fish on Sundays because it isn’t delivered fresh on that day; beware of menus that only list desserts that are capable of being stored for a week, like cheesecake and crÃ¨me brulee, rather than having to be made fresh; and that there are five other places near the theater. As it happens, there’s a new one that passes all of your tests and looks interesting.
Now all you have to do is steer this poor oblivious non-HSP to a place that will be better for both of you, without squelching his enthusiasm or shaming him by reminding him of last time and, implicitly, of his general inability to attend to such things.
We HSPs Avoid Our Own Negative Emotions Too:
When It Goes Too Far and What We Can Do About It
Above all, we humans, and HSPs in particular, make our decisions based on our desire to avoid negative emotions, especially shame and guilt. We fear these emotions, and fear is yet another emotion to avoid. A good example is guilt. You fear having an intense wave of guilt. But you can’t always see it coming. In a moment of spontaneity you comment on a woman’s car: “That’s a big car–must use a ton of gas.” She says, “I know, it’s horrible, but I lost my job and can’t afford a new one.” You see that she now feels embarrassment and shame; you even empathize and feel these feelings vicariously. That leads to guilt. HSPs feel guilt, like other emotions, more strongly. We don’t like this feeling so we avoid it. You certainly will not comment on this woman’s old, inefficient, energy-wasting appliances when you come inside her house. No need to think there. This kind of learning to avoid doing what will lead to feelings of guilt gives us our reputation for conscientiousness and being sensitive to others’ needs.
Of course a major problem here is that we can try so hard to avoid a bad feeling that we can over generalize. Not only do we not comment on this person’s car or appliances, but also not on her clothes, her opinions, or her treatment of you, and maybe also not comment on anyone’s car, or any of anyone’s belongings, ever. Turning it around, if someone tells us our old car is part of the global warming problem, we may try so hard to avoid the resulting shame that we also avoid that person in the future, always park our car so no one sees us get out of it, or, of course, buy a better car, even if we can’t afford it.
The better solution is to use the spur of hurt feelings to do the opposite of over generalizing by planning better specific responses for future specific situations. HSPs are not helplessly overemotional. We often plan rational ways to avoid negative emotions. For example, in this situation, an HSP might have already considered that someone might view her car as bad for the environment. She’s thought it herself. And she has an answer for all comers: “I know the car is a gas hog, but most families have two cars and we only own one. I mostly use public transportation. We don’t drive it much. I figure we’re doing ‘recycle and reuse.’ Rather than dumping this and buying a new car that requires a lot of energy to manufacture, we’ll use this one until it is completely used up.”
An even more fine-tuned response might involve even more of the details of this specific situation. In her situation you might not want the other person to feel bad and get defensive for not having thought this out, so you might not say anything back, but tell yourself, “This person meant well, but didn’t realize how much saying this would hurt my feelings, so I will just ignore it. I have my reasons.” It all depends on the specific nuances of the situation.
The point is, most of us are constantly finding ways to avoid negative feelings for ourselves and others, and HSPs probably do it better than other people. We just have to avoid generalizing so much that we fear talking freely to practically anyone because they might say something to shame us.
My Usual Caveat: Childhood Makes a Difference
This choosing not to generalize can be very difficult, however, if you had early lessons about what leads to shame, before you were able to have a good comeback or soothe yourself in some way. If you were shamed at school for crying, what could you do? If your parents ridiculed you for things you did or felt or needed from them, what could you say? With that in our past, we are far more likely to succumb to the general negative reaction, “Of course I drive the wrong car–I do everything wrong.” Or, “I know I can’t afford another car, but that’s shameful.” Or, “I know I’m right keeping the car, but there’s no point in defending myself–no one ever listens to me.” We need to do whatever we can to climb out of this undervalued self-state.
I hope the Psychology Today article has given you a chance to explain more about high sensitivity to someone who read it, and I suspect that part of that explaining more was about how you personally cope–and cope well–and benefit very much from your sensitivity, including your more intense emotions.