Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2005.
Sometimes I think we all need a review of what’s so good about being highly sensitive. Certainly the world does not let up on giving us false reviews about what’s so odd, annoying, or limiting about our sensitivity. So here’s some thoughts on it, the gist of my talk in Holland last March.
FIRST, LET’S REVIEW
This trait is mainly about having an innate preference to process information more deeply, to compare the present situation as completely as possible to your knowledge of similar situations in the past. It’s found in about twenty percent of humans, and it’s also found in most other species, from fruit flies to primates, often in around that percentage. This is no “syndrome,” if evolution selects for it, not against it. What being selected for? It’s not a selection for being easily overwhelmed, or bothered by more things, or even for having especially sensitive sense organs. All this may be true of some of us, but there are also HSPs working in highly stimulating environments, adapting to all kinds of bothersome things, and wearing glasses or hearing aids. What we were selected for, what is mostly the difference between us and others, is that we are geared to observe the world, to reflect, to consider consequences before acting. Even our immune systems do it–we tend to have more allergies. But mainly it’s a quality of our nervous system, both central and peripheral.
THOROUGH PROCESSING DOES NOT ALWAYS MEAN SLOW PROCESSING
So you think, “Okay, we ‘like to reflect before acting.’ That means we’re indecisive, right?” Wrong. For example, our reaction time is actually faster than others, and we startle more easily–those are instances of super fast processing, thanks to a nervous system designed to do things thoroughly, so that it is also efficient. And if we enter a situation that reminds us of another one like it where a fast response was the best one, we hustle. The need for speed is one reason why our processing is not even conscious sometimes, as when we can feel a fear response, adrenaline acting on our bodies, before we even know why.
Of course we may come to an insight very slowly, too, but still not know how we got there. That’s what’s called intuition, which we have lots of. And sometimes we really do ponder all the possible consequences or outcomes consciously, as when we are making a major purchase. But the point is, we are not always slow decision-makers.
WHAT SENSITIVITY IS NOT
Being sensitive does not mean we are dull stay-at-homes or lack curiosity. As specialists in observing, we are very interested in what is new. We simply tire out sooner because every thing new is so much newer to us! And just because we can process any experience deeply, we are seldom bored, or dull and boring if someone asks our opinion. Further, there is another trait, high sensation seeking, which decides how curious we are, and HSPs can be born with both traits. Those HSPs with both are always eager to try new things (although only if it is reasonably safe!).
Most of you know that being an HSP does not mean being shy or even introverted. Thirty percent of HSPs are extraverts. Social introversion is the desire to spend time with a few close friends rather than liking to have many friends, to meet strangers, or be in a large group. Being sensitive and wanting to reduce stimulation probably causes many people to become introverts at an early age, but the two are not the same thing.
Nor is being highly sensitive something to do with being “feminine.” It is found in equal numbers in boys and girls, although men score lower on the self-test because in most cultures today sensitivity is wrongly associated with being feminine. That’s because, in this and most aggressive cultures (largely the only ones that are left), men are expected to be ready for a fight, imperious to pain, and therefore bold and “decisive.” Hey, if they thought twice about it, maybe they wouldn’t fight. So to be good warriors, they have to ignore any deeper thoughts or feelings that might interfere with being aggressive. Women are supposed to be sensitive to feelings and “related,” putting those values above competition. But mostly, in the old days, that was all part of keeping them out of the way so that they did not protesting all the fighting. What women do not like is wasting human life, given how much work they put into raising a child. (Interestingly, in France, another traditionally aggressive culture that has been involved in endless wars, the same need for good fighters led to different ideas about gender, or how men and women “really” are. There, men are thought to be the ones who develop real friendships, as they deal with the tough stuff in life side by side. Women are thought to be incapable of deep friendships because they always competing for men. So much for women being innately more related.)
Probably the majority of men in our culture and in most of the world could stand to be more related and in touch with their deeper feelings, given the violence we see all around us, much of it done by men who have ignored the feelings of others and their own feelings of compassion. So in the cultural sense, all men should be more “feminine.” Less impulsively aggressive, more thoughtful in all senses. That is, more sensitive. But if this part of being feminine is decided by a culture, not by women’s innate nature, we might as well call this way of being “it.” A sensitive man is more “it.” But “it” then has little to do with what women are or do, except that women are supposed to do “it” more and men do “it” less.
Also, highly sensitive women are not necessarily more “it” either. They may have processed the whole gender complex in our culture and have come out the other end of it expressing their woman-ness in quite atypical ways.
Finally, being highly sensitive is, again, not a “syndrome” or “set of symptoms that impair functioning.” It might appear to someone else that we are impaired in being able to function like they do, but, well, that’s baloney. So “sensitive” is not another term for neurotic, shy, depressed, or anxious. It’s true that sensitive people are more emotional, but they generally learn to keep that to themselves. And my research has found again and again that HSPs with a troubled childhood are more shy, anxious, and depressed than non-HSPs with the same degree of trouble in childhood. But HSPs with a good-enough childhood have no more of these difficulties than non-HSPs. In fact, research shows that with good-enough childhoods, we are actually healthier, physically and mentally, than non-HSPs with the same sort of good-enough childhoods.
And just to settle a related issue, being highly sensitive is not “high functioning autism” or Asperger’s Syndrome. It is not anywhere on the “autistic spectrum.” Those with autistic disorders have brains that for some reason did not “prune” the neuronal net enough or properly, a process that occurs in infancy. As a result, they are processing too much stimulation also, but all the time and for a much different reason. It’s easy to tell the difference, too. Those on the autistic spectrum have had trouble almost since birth with recognizing and responding appropriately to “socio-emotional cues”–what others are thinking and feeling, regardless of words. They have to memorize how to respond to someone who feels sad or angry. HSPs are just the opposite–they feel too aware of these cues. The only exceptions are those HSPs who have “shut down” emotionally due to events in their early childhood, but they were not born this way and their brains are not structured in the same way as someone autistic from birth.
NOW THE BENEFITS OF SENSITIVITY
FOR OURSELVES AND THOSE CLOSEST TO US
First, thanks to all that deep processing, we simply have a better sense of what is going on, right now, should we be asked or need to know. We sense more about how things got to be this way and the several ways it could all turn out, depending on what happens next. That is, we are intuitive.
Second, we are unusually creative. Creativity by definition involves putting together things that are not usually thought of as belonging together, and that requires a deeper and fuller processing of experiences, situations, and possibilities. (This is an especially valuable trait in the workplace.) Of course there are exceptions. Because HSPs easily lose confidence if they were crushed by early experiences of criticism, their creativity can be suppressed, relegated to their dreams or fantasies or to appreciating the creative products of others. But in those areas their creativity is easy to see.
Third, HSPs are very conscientious. Of course there are exceptions, and others may think that a particular HSP’s way of being conscientious is wrong–not really conscientious at all. (For example, if an HSP believes that prayer changes the world more than political demonstrations, the activists may say he or she is not being conscientious by staying home from a demonstration to pray.) Our conscientiousness is somewhat automatic, due to the fact that we think about the consequences of our action or inaction. We can’t help but consider, “What if everybody did this?” Or, “What if I don’t get the job done, don’t act?” We are also conscientious because, by nature, we reflect on and learn from our mistakes. We take negative feedback seriously, changing as a result. That’s why people complain that “we take things too seriously” or “take everything too personally.” But wouldn’t you rather have surgeons, lawyers, and elected representatives who took their work seriously? Everyone benefits from our conscientiousness. So if they say we are “just being compulsive” when we take note of where the exits are, they will change their tune if there’s a fire.
Fourth, on the average we are compassionate and empathic. We can read emotional cues. We are very emotional ourselves, so we can imagine well what the other person feels and what would happen inside if this person did not have their needs yet, did not feel understood. We communicate gently because that is how we like communication to be towards us.
Fifth, we are good at sensing all kinds of nonverbal communication and indicators of physical needs and emotions. This gives us a talent for intuiting the unconscious mind and for sensing the needs of those who cannot speak, such as animals, plants, infants, and the human body.
Sixth, since we are more emotional (for example, cry more easily), we are what I call emotional leaders. Why are we more emotional? It’s inevitable–we process everything more deeply, sensing its full emotional as well as intellectual consequences. And it’s not that we only feel negative emotions more–we also feel more love, joy, pride, awe, and all the other positive emotions. When others are not yet conscious of what they are feeling, we often are. So we can be the emotional sensors. If this is an appropriate time to cry, rage, run in panic, express gratitude, give a hug, not give a casual hug, and so forth, we often do it first–or refrain from doing it–so that others do the same. Of course we can have the wrong reaction, in the sense that ours turns out to be based on misinformation or our own complexes, which can make us feel quite ashamed. But that is the risk with any kind of leadership, and can happen whether we choose to lead or just find ourselves being followed.
Seventh, we have a strong sense of what makes for a pleasant environment. We can usually make small changes that will make ourselves and others more comfortable. That’s no small talent, given that every thing else that happens in an environment can be affected by subtle bodily states that most people do not tend to. To take a trivial example, if the lighting is poor, people may misread each others’ communications.
Finally, we are more in touch with the personal and collective unconscious. One sign of this is our vivid dreaming. Another is our sensing the nonverbal, which is often how the unconscious reveals itself. Yet another is our intuition, allowing us to sense what more is going on besides what is on the surface. There’s a great value in this contact with the unconscious, since we only have choices when we make the unconscious conscious. For example, suppose an HSP studies history and begins to note what others have missed, that wars happen in every generation (they do), whatever the silly or important issues they are fought over. Given this insight, our HSP may begin to probe his or her unconscious as well as that of the collective to try to understand why this might be so that we might have some choice about fighting wars. (I do not mean to imply that HSPs should be or are pacificists–indeed, an HSP might just as easily become conscious of the repeated times when not fighting led to a situation getting out of hand. I always point out that dreams and other unconscious material provide additional information, but not necessarily all of the information or instruction as to the right action, morally or practically, that should be taken in the situation.)
THE BENEFITS TO THE LARGER WORLD
Of course one can’t draw a clear line between the benefits of sensitivity for ourselves and those close to us and the benefits for the larger world. But it makes for a nice way to outline this material!
First, I have said many times that we HSPs are like the priestly advisors to the non-HSP warrior kings. One bit of evidence for my argument is that HSP typically fill the jobs of priestly advisors: they are the consultants to the leaders and the teachers of the princes. They are the counselors, strategists, historians, scientists, law interpreters, artists, spiritual leaders, and healers. Without them, the warrior kings would make decisions that were shallow, lacking in good strategy, and without consideration of the long-term consequences. Unpopular and unpleasant as it may be, we sense all the possible results of “turning a quick profit,” for example. We can’t help but bring up that the long-term results might be a drop in customer satisfaction, public image, or environmental health, or that this quick profit involves a large risk of being penalized for breaking regulations.
I think any historian would have to agree that when a culture does not reflect enough–does not make enough use of its HSPs–it declines. How? Non-HSPs increasingly fill the roles that ought to be filled by HSPs, such as teaching, consulting, planning, interpreting law, and extrapolating from history and scientific observations. Non-HSPs may seem better suited because they can tolerate more input and make quicker decisions–they do better under the stress (and give the answers other non-HSPs want to hear). But each of these fields changes for the worse, because non-HSPs will perform these tasks differently, and for the purpose of long-range planning, not as well.
Second, besides the benefits to a culture when HSPs do the jobs they do best, a culture can also benefit from having some HSPs in any job, even soldiering. For example, I have known HSPs who were excellent police officers. They could sense trouble before it happened. We can do almost any job well, but we’ll do it differently, and thus bring alternate strategies to meeting the same end. If one isn’t working, another may.
Third, a culture also always benefits when some people, usually the HSPs, are concerned about social justice. This is true whether the HSPs approach social issues logically or with feeling. We know that being fair and kind to all will bring the best long-term results for everyone, if for no other reason than we will avoid the wrath and the cost of suppressing those who have been mistreated.
Fourth, it is obvious from my discussion of “feminine” that I think sensitive men make an important contribution by helping to contain non-sensitive men, being of the same gender. Again, most of the violence done in the world is done by men (although often only in order to protect women or because women urged them on). And most of that is done impulsively, by those who have not taken the time to see the long-term effects of violence or to plan a long-term strategy that will eventually accomplish the same results with less cost and effort. It seems to me that sensitive men are rarely in favor of violence–not out of cowardice or even out of compassion, but because they can see the long run harm to the bodies and minds of both the victims and the perpetrators.
However, if HSPs don’t like to resort to violence, it doesn’t mean they are not good protectors. Indeed, they are better–they can better foresee dangers. They are generally better able to avoid trouble or else have already thought through how to deal with it. They’ve spontaneously processed all the possibilities. When they do act, it is quickly and effectively, not impulsively and randomly.
Fifth, another benefit to the world is our responsive to and our being at home in the natural world. We value it; with a little study of it we can sense what it needs to stay in balance; we can also appreciate the dangers in nature; and all in all we can better predict the consequences of ignoring nature.
Sixth, one of our greatest gifts to the world, I believe, is our almost obsession with finding the meaning in life or in an event, whether we explore this in spiritual, psychological, or philosophical terms. We do not easily deny the biggest emotional issues of life. Having reflected on these things more than others, we are often sought out for our opinions or just our presence.
And last but not least, since we are quicker to dislike or suffer from what is unpleasant, noxious, or harmful, everyone benefits when changes are made that make us more comfortable!
Now, what have I forgotten? I hope you will add to this list and perhaps mail me your thoughts so that I can include them in the next newsletter. Again, this needs to be an ongoing project as long as the negative comments about our trait are also ongoing.