This blog on research needs a long introduction before coming to the studies themselves. After receiving questions about the research article “Do highly sensitive persons display hypersensitive narcissism?” that came out in February, I knew it was going to be an issue for HSPs. Hence the first half of this blog.
As a heads up, the second half of this blog is a discussion of three research articles on HSPs as parents, published in 2019-2020. But my “bottom line” for each is for non-parents too, because each study’s findings relate to any job in which an HSP is caring for or managing others, especially on a daily basis. I was planning to discuss these studies anyway, but doing them now demonstrates that I do not simply discuss research that is all positive about HSPs until I was forced to discuss this article on narcissism. I report to you any studies that seem to be sound research.
Actually, if it were not for the subject matter of narcissism, I would not have bothered even to write about this article for you due to its flaws in terms of its interpretation of results and missing a key variable. I do not mean to be hard on the authors. But, in particular, I do not report articles that discuss HSPs having more of some problem than others do (e.g., burn out, low self-esteem, feeling stressed, having various disorders), as these researchers did, without taking into account differential susceptibility—that HSPs vary widely in their physical, mental, and social health depending on their childhood experiences. More on that in a moment. Many researchers make that mistake, but it was unfortunate in this case.
About the Lead Author and “Public Discourse”
The lead author of this study is a postdoctoral researcher (a normal step between earning one’s doctorate and gaining a university position) in Graz, Austria. He and another of the authors have published several articles on narcissism, so I think we can call them experts in that area. The trouble is, researchers tend to see their specialty everywhere, right? So while the authors understand narcissism and see it everywhere, they know less about high sensitivity, also called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). But having done considerable reading of the “public discourse” by HSPs on the internet, they have naturally seen narcissism there sometimes.
I realize this public discourse about HSPs can give the impression of narcissism (that we feel we are different and special), but I think the authors failed to cut some slack for those groups (including HSPs) who have felt mistreated as a minority. I think some members of ethnic and racial groups also try to find ways to express that they are really quite amazing (e.g., the popularity of “Black Excellence” as a term), and it seems like an important stage in healing sometimes. One also has to realize that those speaking up on social media are not representative of all HSPs, but often are those who have felt particularly mistreated, perhaps echoing a personal history of trauma and abuse.
A few good media articles dealing with this research study and the “public discourse” have come out, making my job easier. One is a well-balanced discussion at Psychology Today by psychologist, Scott Barry Kauffman, who is featured in the upcoming film Sensitive Men Rising. (A less helpful Psychology Today article is by Preston Ni, simply describing the way that narcissists can sometimes be hyper or “highly sensitive” to criticism.) Meredith Kavanaugh also rushed to our defense arguing that we are basically the opposite of narcissists. She is not a researcher so misses some of the arguments being made, but her thoughts are comforting and accurate in other ways. I’m sure there will be more articles and blogs.
An Interview of with the Lead Author
The study I am discussing is now being more widely read because of a recent article, with an interview of the lead author, on Psychpost, “Study Suggests that Highly Sensitive Persons Exhibit Characteristics of Vulnerable Narcissism.” (Psychpost publishes readable stories about research in psychology and neuroscience.) He said in the interview that “Our study showed that high sensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism are not the same thing, but they do have significant overlaps.” I will discuss the use of the term “overlap” shortly. He said his article was not an attempt to “pathologize” high sensitivity, but rather “to study all aspects of high sensitivity and narcissism — including the favorable and unfavorable aspects,” and “we wish to emphasize that we try to regard neither of the constructs as ‘pathological’ or ‘normal’ in nature.”
Hm. That feels a bit insensitive! Two of the study’s authors actually did a study of how the public views the term and found “Narcissism is often portrayed one-sidedly and overly negative, rendering a picture of narcissistic individuals as “toxic people” or “evil characters.” That is quite an admission when you then associate the term with a group of people who already feel misunderstood.
Whatever his intentions, he is admitting that the public hears “narcissism” as pathology, and therefore anything “overlapping” with it is also pathologized. That is, his interview is his apology. “Didn’t mean it.” Okay. So now we must deal with this.
A New Front in the Continuing Struggle to Educate Mental Health Professionals
More serious perhaps than this fresh “public discourse” is that the journal that published the article is highly respected and widely read by clinical psychologists, meaning that some therapists will return to their view of high sensitivity as a “personality problem” at best, not an innate trait. In the abstract the authors state that the “Nomological networks were similar [high sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism] and pointed to a neurotic‐introverted personality profile with reduced personality functioning.” And for therapists, “this points to the importance of being attentive to narcissistic self‐regulatory strategies in individuals presenting as highly sensitive.”
Oh geez. But again, all is okay. There are ups and downs, and as HSPs make themselves more visible on the internet in a wide range of ways (some of which I would not choose), there are bound to be reactions.
If you read the full research article, you will see more troubling statements. For example, that HSPs “do share self-regulatory mechanisms which likely counteract personal growth in the long run.” And again, “One of the main suggestions for clinicians working with patients who consider themselves highly sensitive, or for readers who see aspects of high sensitivity in themselves, could be to critically evaluate aspects of a high sensitivity mindset with respect to the extent to which they really benefit the individual.” What “self-regulatory mechanisms” are threatening the HSP’s personal growth? What “mindset”? I fear they are referring to the fact (not imagined) that HSPs need to develop a lifestyle that takes advantage of their creativity and deep thinking without exposing them to high levels of stimulation. Perhaps such a lifestyle/mindset appears to inhibit personal growth if personal growth means learning not to be overstimulated when doing all the same things as those without the trait.
I think we are seeing the usual human tendency to assume everyone is like us, and when someone is different from ourselves, we tend to doubt the reality of that. “They are just making it up.” Or, “since this does not look normal to me, this is really a disorder.” It is true that some HSPs over-regulate or are too “in,” avoiding stimulation. But this is usually due to trauma in the past that needs to be worked on, not the trait itself.
What is especially unfortunate is the authors quoting a researcher who studies truly pathological narcissism and is talking about “hypersensitivity” in that disorder, not at all about SPS, when she says, “overwhelming hypersensitivity and reactivity (visceral, psychosomatic, or affective) [in pathological narcissists] tend to supersede or overpower actual awareness of and ability to verbalize internal experiences.” The authors of this paper, not the author of that quote, conclude from this that HSPs could in a similar way develop “self‐sustaining dynamics of overwhelming experiences and a sense of being fundamentally different from others.” There it is again, the subtle implied question: “How could any normal person feel fundamentally different than ‘normal’ me?”
The message to therapists seems to be that instead of appreciating that HSPs are unusually aware of internal experiences, they should be watching for HSPs being unusually NOT aware of internal experiences or able to verbalize them, so that they are feeling overwhelmed for no reason. Therefore whatever they are verbalizing is not accurate, and they could need considerable treatment to rectify this. Well, I will not say more. It will raise my blood pressure! Let’s look at the research itself and give you some take-aways to use in conversations should “HSPs-as-narcissists” ever come up, especially with a therapist.
1. Do highly sensitive persons display hypersensitive narcissism?
Jauk, E., Knödler, M., Frenzel, J., & Kanske, P. (2022). Do highly sensitive persons display hypersensitive narcissism? Similarities and differences in the nomological networks of sensory processing sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1-27.
Let’s begin with the obvious fact that some HSPs ARE narcissists. This is not because the traits overlap or are somehow similar at a deep level, but because narcissism is a personality trait (not innate like a temperament trait) that is thought to arise due to a troubled childhood. At its extreme it is a personality disorder, a real problem for the person and those around them, although the article under discussion is supposed to be more about “normal” narcissism.
The point is, differential susceptibility immediately enters in, which this research article does not mention. That is, HSPs with good childhoods will be more free of mental, physical, or social problems than those without the trait with similar good childhoods. There is no “overlap” in the sense of similarity with any disorder. But those with poor childhoods could be even more liable to develop something like the kind of narcissism described in this article (or develop chronic depression, anxiety, shyness, etc.) than those without the trait.
We need to be clear, however, that psychologists talk about two kinds of narcissism (and neither kind are considered disorders until they reach certain levels). The first is the grandiose, outgoing, sometimes even charming type, but full of a sense of entitlement and willingness to use others. This is what everyone thinks of as narcissism. No one (including the authors of this study) is claiming that HSPs are that type. But there is a more vulnerable “covert” kind of narcissist, involving shyness, defensiveness, and low self-esteem.
These vulnerable narcissists are “hypersensitive” to social stimuli. For example, in a social setting they feel stressed because they think others are watching them. They are not particularly bothered by physical stimuli. The authors admit the difference, that HSPs are bothered mostly by physical stimuli, but see both as likely to lead to irritability, a sense of differentness, and a sense of entitlement to an environment without such stimuli. (In fact, HSPs did not show much of that sense of entitlement, although it is seen in some HSPs’ “public discourse” quite a bit, that the world is not designed for HSPs and it ought to be.)
Again, no one is arguing that SPS “overlaps” with the grandiose kind. But by focusing on the contents of the self-report measures of SPS and “vulnerable” narcissism, one does see an association of a certain type, which the article then interprets as a “nomological” overlap, in that the items on one measure had some similarities to items on the other (although statistically there was actually little overlap). But an association does not mean that being an HSP overlaps with being a narcissist. An association in research refers to a statistical association, or a “correlation.”
Pardon me for the statistics lesson about to come, but everyone should understand a little bit about correlation. It is expressed as a decimal and can run from a negative one through zero to a positive one. A and B are somewhat positively correlated (.32 .56, etc.) if, for example, on a questionnaire people who answer yes to A are also somewhat more likely than others to also answer yes to B. If people who say yes to A are somewhat more likely to say NO to B, there is a negative correlation (-.45, -.60, etc.). If how A is answered by people appears to have almost nothing to do with how B is answered, the correlation is essentially zero. (By the way, correlation does not mean causation—that A causes B or B causes A. Watch for that in advertising when it is implied that using A causes less of B. That using A is associated with less B does not mean that A is what is reducing B. Experiments are required to demonstrate that.)
In the narcissism study the HSP Scale correlated around .50 with measures of vulnerable narcissism, but this correlation dropped to .30 when items measuring “neuroticism” or “negative affect” were statistically taken out–“partialled out” or “controlled for.” Because of differential susceptibility, in most of our research we also control for neuroticism whenever we use the HSP Scale. This is mainly because the HSP Scale has too many negatively worded items (we are currently revising it to add items on depth of processing, empathy, and perceiving subtle positive stimuli). We know that some people who are not HSPs but had a bad childhood and therefore are high on negative affect will also score high on the HSP Scale and be counted as HSPs if we do not control for negative affect.
Please understand that a correlation does not mean there is an “overlap” in everyone. It does not mean that everyone who answered A a lot or a little also answered B a lot or at least a little bit. The results in this article mean that a small to moderate percentage of people, not all, who appeared to be HSPs also appeared to have characteristics of vulnerable narcissism. Very likely those are also the HSPs who had poor childhoods.
To see it more clearly, think of what we have learned about SPS and high sensation seeking (HSS). Yes, some HSPs also have the trait of HSS. But that does not mean there is any “overlap” between SPS and HSS. It just means that some HSPs score high on both measures. Both. But statistically the measures of the two traits are not even correlated. Zero correlation. There are just as many HSPs who are low on SS (when it is properly measured, without items related to high risk-taking and high impulsivity).
Bottom Line: First, when HSPs are seen as similar to narcissists, they are referring to a type of narcissism that has nothing to do with being grandiose, entitled, or using others. It refers to “vulnerable narcissism,” which means just that–feeling self-conscious and vulnerable. This is not at all what narcissism means to most people in the general public.
Second, do not forget differential susceptibility, a central fact about all HSPs: Raised in a reasonably good environment they do better than others, but in a poor one they do worse. Hence this misnamed narcissism, “vulnerable narcissism,” which is caused by a troubled childhood, will certainly show up in some HSPs. But it does not mean that high sensitivity and even vulnerable narcissism “overlap” in the sense of being similar traits. There are plenty of HSPs who are not even slightly narcissistic in any of the senses used by psychologists.
Third, in designing their study and interpreting their results, the article relies considerably on impressions from “public discourse,” but does not consider how many HSPs may completely ignore all of that, including the self-help books that portray sensitivity as a superpower or that treat it as a special burden, all of which understandably sounded to the authors very narcissistic (and commercial). I doubt that most HSPs think much about their trait as either a superpower or a burden once they have integrated it into their thinking, so that other people rarely hear them talk about it.
What follows are studies on parenting dating from 2019 and 2020, but my “bottom lines” will relate the research to all forms of professional care giving (in that I include parenting and teaching) and management.
2. Sensory Processing Sensitivity and the Subjective Experience of Parenting: An Exploratory Study
Aron, Elaine N., Arthur Aron, Natalie Nardone, and Shelly Zhou. “Sensory Processing Sensitivity and the Subjective Experience of Parenting: An Exploratory Study.” Family Relations (2019).
This was an online survey of more than 1,200 English-speaking parents, both sensitive and those without this trait. The basic results were that highly sensitive (HS) parents tended to find parenting more difficult, but they were also more attuned to their children and more creative.
There were two survey samples. The first was mostly mothers, so we could not look at mothers and fathers separately (and mothers in both samples had similar results). In the second, there were 802 mothers and 65 fathers, a little better for analyzing fathers. On average, the HS fathers found parenting a little more difficult than the fathers who were not HS. But this was a small effect and not statistically significant, and that they were smaller than for mothers was probably due to the mothers usually being more directly involved with caregiving. Compared to fathers without the trait, the HS fathers did report greater attunement to their children, just as HS mothers had, and this was strong enough to be statistically significant in spite of the small number of fathers and even smaller number of HS fathers within the sample.
Bottom Line: HS parents and probably teachers, caregivers of all sorts, and managers—anyone dealing all day with people of whatever age—probably feel more attuned to those under their direction than those who do not have the trait. They are probably more creative in solving all sorts of situations, given that HSPs are in general more creative than others. At the same time, like parents (I have often heard this from HS teachers and managers), they report finding managing others on a daily basis more difficult than others find it. So, I hammer home the same message always—your wonderful attunement requires that you stay rested! Or, it may devolve into something you are less proud of, as found in the next two studies.
3. Sensory sensitivity and its relationship with adult attachment and parenting styles.
Branjerdporn, Grace, Pamela Meredith, Jenny Strong, and Mandy Green. “Sensory sensitivity and its relationship with adult attachment and parenting styles.” PloS one 14, no. 1 (2019): e0209555.
This study of parents with children aged 4-12 found that, on the average, HS parents were not performing as parents quite as well as those without the trait. This was indicated by their self-reported parenting styles. You may have heard of these styles. There are three. At one extreme there is the authoritarian style, emphasizing obedience and strict limits (high standards, low communication). At the other extreme is the permissive style, few limits and mainly trying to please the child (high communication, low standards). In the middle, the ideal is authoritative, giving children structure and limits, but in a caring, listening way (high communication, high standards). HS parents tended to say they were using one or the other of the extremes, strict or permissive, more often than they described themselves as using the middle, ideal authoritative style.
Of course, parenting style varies all day long, but the authors of the article saw it the same way that I do. The extremes probably do not represent parenting philosophies associated with being an HSP, but that HS parents are reporting one of these two styles, and possibly using both at different times, because they are so often overwhelmed and are just admitting to how they usually handle their child’s demands during those times.
You can imagine how this goes. Maybe the parent, desperate for rest, decides strict limits are the only answer right now. The parent says, “This is quiet time. I need to rest. Go to your room and play there. Or rest. But I don’t want to hear a sound out of you.” Child starts to protest. Parent interrupts. “You know the consequences if you don’t do as I say, right now. No story time tonight. Now I’m counting to three. No, I don’t care if you want to play here ‘real quietly.’ I will come and get you when I’m done resting.”
The other scenario is that, again, the parent just has to have quiet time and will do anything to get it, so starts out with, “This is quiet time. Please go to your room to play so I can rest.” The child says, “But Mommy, I want to play here!” (starting to whine, then sob). “No, when you play with those toys you are often too noisy.” “No, I will be real quiet.” “If you go, maybe we can play together later.” “No! I hate you!” (Screaming now.) So, the parent caves in. “Okay. Yes, I know, you feel terrible. Okay, play here then, but keep it quiet. I mean it.”
Bottom Line: With children or any other group you must manage daily, again, stay rested. Watch for a tendency to be too lenient or too strict to save yourself stress. Or, if or when you have a choice, maybe you do not want the stress that comes with constantly working with/for people! HSPs can be very, very good at it. But it takes its toll. Watch out for when the quality of your work with others slips into “Just listen to me” or “Sure, do whatever…”
4. How do highly sensitive persons parent their adolescent children? The role of sensory processing sensitivity in parenting practices.
Goldberg, A., & Scharf, M. (2020). How do highly sensitive persons parent their adolescent children? The role of sensory processing sensitivity in parenting practices. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(6), 1825-1842.
This study looked at parenting practices with adolescent children and parents’ attachment “style,” specifically insecure attachments–anxious or avoidant. One hundred twenty-one parent–adolescent dyads completed self-report questionnaires assessing parents’ sensitivity and attachment style and their parenting practices. (Self-reports have a problem, of course, as HSPs as a group might be more honest or aware of their parenting or their attachment than non-HSPs, and thus come up “worse,” but we cannot assume that.)
The results showed that being highly sensitive while parenting a teenager was associated with inconsistency, psychological intrusiveness, and an “anxious” attachment style (not the avoidant attachment style). It seems that having an anxious attachment style might lead to HS parents being overly attached to their child, not wanting to lose them, which can be a real challenge when children are seeking autonomy in adolescence. Hence both harsh parenting and intrusiveness might arise as ways for the anxious parent to try, unconsciously, to keep the growing child from developing independence.
The authors conclude that “Interventions focused on regulating high-SPS parents’ stress and on facilitating parents in practicing separating their own and their children’s emotions could promote their use of more positive parenting practices.”
Bottom Line: People of all ages can act like teenagers sometimes! One day or minute they want to be independent from you, maybe more than they are ready for, and the next they are being clingy, wanting comfort and guidance from you. Especially if you are tired, these swings can trigger your own attachment style, how you felt as children about your caregiver. In particular, if someone is pushing for independence or more distance or separation from you, and you have an anxious attachment style, that can trigger some behaviors in you that the other might see as intruding or obstructing. But if you are aware of it and rested, you can control it.
Thank you so much for the information!!!! I appreciate what you do for us…HSP’s. I always feel better about myself after reading your books and posts. 💕
Sunni Shadow says
Sounds a bit narcissistic to me … 🙃😇🏻👆👈👉👇🤷but who knows it’s a confusing fine line and complex topic when you really think about it in depth.
Michelle Williams says
Right, I was thinking the same, it takes a narcissist to call out such exaggerations! Having lived with a narcissist for 17 years, I can see, but then again, what I see are behaviors that may look alike but are motivated and stem from different places, which makes them different. Overlap is only speaking to the behaviors, not the trait or disorder in the case of narcissism.
Ken Rubenstein says
As a retired biomedical resarcher, consultant and non-retired HSP, I detected a strong skunk-like odor when I read the Jauk et al. summary. It made no sense whatsoever, and I think the journal editors and referees of the paper could benefit from an intense postmortem.
Ken Rubenstein says
I should have mentioned, it’s the narcissim paper I’m referring to.
Bobbi C. says
Wow, this is so disappointing to hear, as it places High Sensitivity in a category of defect or abnormality, and that’s the last thing any HSP needs to “learn” about themselves, particularly young ones or those who are only beginning to learn about being HSP themselves. I know I felt an enormous amount of relief in finding out I am a HSP, as I’d spend my entire life previously believing there was something wrong with me and high sensitivity was simply just a manifestation of it – “proof in the pudding”, if you will.
Additionally, indeed, it seems to me that one of the hallmarks of sensitivity is possessing a greater amount of empathy than the average person, which is what allows us to be so much more attuned to those around us, and that alone would seem to stand in stark contrast to narcissism in any form.
Amen Bobbi 🙏
Alexander Riley Beavers says
I could not agree more Bobbi! It was like my whole life made sense once I learned. Not to say I didn’t have my doubts that what I was feeling and experiencing was still “wrong” or that I was “overly emotional.”
‘I doubt that most HSPs think much about their trait as either a superpower or a burden once they have integrated it into their thinking, so that other people rarely hear them talk about it.’
Thank you for this statement! It took some time, a lot of awareness, and developing new coping skills, but I don’t view being an HSP as being better than others or worse than others. Truly, from the beginning of discovering why there was this discrepancy in perception, I didn’t like the posturing/sides that were taken by some. For me, it explained why I experienced the world differently from most people I knew. Some of my family and friends understand, some just accept and others will never get it, and that’s okay. Most importantly, I accept myself, and my own experience of a situation, even when it doesn’t match with others around me.
Patricia Bravo says
A simple note of gratitude expressing appreciation for your tremendous contributions and ongoing clarity.
S Mandel says
Excellent analysis and writing. I’m surprised such a highly regarded journal of psychology was so irresponsible as to overlook the flaws in the authors’ analysis that you point out, and the negative impact it would have on already beleaguered HSPs (like me). I was married to a person (a doctor) with full blown narcissistic personality disorder for 14 years. I haven’t researched but I’m thinking that HSPs may be attracted to narcissists and vice versa. It took more than ten years for me to realize that is what he was manifesting. I do worry I may have narcissistic tendencies but I’ve been told if you worry about that, you probably aren’t a narcissist! That’s my view and I’m sticking with it! (for now).
Laurie Yankowitz says
So insightful and intelligently expounded upon. As a 26/27 scorer on the HSP scale, so much of this resonates for me! Especially my extreme need for rest…I am capable of handling a great deal with unusual empathy and insight when I am in good shape, but tired me can be quite a disaster. I chose not to pursue marriage and children, and understand this choice as very related to my HSP trait. I’m curious if what percentage of HSP’s compared to non-HSP’s have made this choice – is there any research on this, Elaine?
I have never had the desire for marriage or kids the way most others do. It’s been hard enough taking care of myself! Difficult to grow up in the south as a white straight woman with this outlook but I’m 40 and haven’t regretted the decision yet! You’re not alone:)
OMG I totally agree. I”m in my 50s. Single, no kids. I used to wonder “what’s wrong with me” but now I think I wasn’t cut out to be a parent… I get overwhelmed way to easily. I have close friends and a great social life and really don’t mind being alone!
I have thought about this topic a lot as an HSP & introvert. I did choose to be a mother and I spent years of reflection before making that choice (along with my partner whom I’d known for a decade). I feel like my motherhood experience is SO different than my peers. I’m in the process of digging deep for tools and resources to help me be a better parent by not becoming so constantly depleted. I honor and admire the decisions of other HSPs to not have children.
Tasha Harrell says
I too have made this decision. In fact, I’m 33 and have never been in a romantic relationship. I decided a few years back that I wasn’t interested in dating and wasn’t interested in having children. I have dogs and feel like that is the perfect balance for me. I innately knew I was “different” and had no desire to have children, I have always worried too that if I chose to have them I would be a bad parents because I can’t tolerate consistent noise, especially loud noises, and that’s not fair to children.
Chelsea Moore says
I relate to and appreciate your attention given to HS and going it alone. I am 57 and single as well.
Barbara Moffett says
I am a rather new widow with two adult children, but learning about SPS and high sensitivity in myself and knowing how hard it was for me as a parent, and the difficult childhood I had, as well as unconsciously modeling my parenting style after my own parents’ styles, it probably was very hard on my kids. I wasn’t aware enough to make a kinder choice to not have children. I grant that this is easy to say when I can’t change it, so I appreciate the impact of such a big decision.
Jen Foxley says
I remember reading this article on the overlap between HSP and covert narcissism. I think they mentioned the research was done via multiple choice questionnaires- which they admitted was not a real deep dive into the subject. As an HSP formerly in a long-term relationship with a covert narcissist, I was intrigued by the researcher’s connection between us. I am not a researcher, but intuitively know we could not be more different – though we may initially seem similar on the exterior – quiet, more reserved for instance. I would offer that the “sensitivity” to criticism is the *hotpsot* in the research. Vulnerable narcissists will actively put others down around them… especially if you give them feedback (even positive), they will blame you, gaslight you among many other tactics to make sure they are “on top”.
As far as HSP’s are concerned, yeah, we can be sensitive to all sorts of things in our environment: noise, temperature, feedback, etc. but I don’t think we react disingenuously through lying and the like to attack other people to feel superior. I suppose some could put themselves on a pedestal and insist others treat them better especially in our recent “woke” environment. But perhaps it is those with both traits that are filling up the social media feeds? The correlation gives food for though.
Great blog– I liked the parenting portion as I am an HSP parent to a teenager.
Tony I says
Thanks for sharing. I dated an HSP vulnerable to narcissism and the amount of gaslighting really struck me. I couldn’t quite get my head around it since, on the one hand, I understood his needs as an HSP but then, on the other hand, couldn’t get over how much the communication of them was painful. We are all learning and growing, that’s for sure, but the way he spoke had me fearing he’d never be able to share authentically with me and negotiate our relationship since everything just boiled down to phrases like “I’m just following my intuition”. I mean, yes, as an HSP, I get it, that’s very important. And yet, it all ended up sounding so immature and uninspiring. I ended our relationship because I had to stop getting trapped in circular arguments. I could never trust what was being said and the amount of contradictions I heard became too much. I don’t blame my ex, I just wish we could have learned to share better.
Alexander Riley Beavers says
When I read the article advising that some HSPs could be covert narcissist’s I was deeply upset; the one I read approached it more with a “You may not be as special as you think you are” as it relates to being sensitive. I was up all night thinking how did I overlook this? How did my partner and friends not know what a horrible person I am? Also before knowing that even if I did have narcissism, it is not about morality but is a disorder that should still be addressed and worked on. I have since come to be comfortable being sensitive and different, and knowing that it is not narcissism cloaked or hidden secretly under the guise of something else.
I am so tired of people undermining the whirlwind of emotion and turbulence that comes with being an HSP. I often ask those who criticize me, “Do you not realize I would give anything to be like you?”
Sometimes it’s very daunting to try to get through to people. They can’t possibly take you seriously if they don’t understand your reaction to a situation being heightened. I used to shut down and spend nights awake overanalyzing a break up, for example. I used to notice everything around me, until it started giving me major depression to be so hyperaware all the time. I stopped reading the news. I consciously forced myself to not be aware of what is happening around me with the result that I suddenly started talking too much and overanalyzing many situations and ideas. I warned people for many years that my trauma was felt severely (not only am I an HSP, but I am very empathetic and suffered serious abuse since childhood). If people could not take my PTSD seriously, how could they take ah HSP’s response to anything seriously? Please don’t question and feel worried about whether you’re a narcissist. Practice self awareness and differentiate between your needs and that of others. Clearly define your own emotional boundaries, as well physical boundaries that you can use to respect others. Sometimes you may not get it right, and that’s okay. Stop apologizing for being vulnerable and in pain around others. If somebody cares – wholly and truly cares – they will not hurt you for being who you are. You didn’t do anything wrong by being yourself. If you have experienced rejection for the millionth time, as I have, take the lesson and move with it. I know it’s going to hurt. It hurts so much. But it also feels so wonderful and infinitely beautiful when it doesn’t. You’re not a narcissist. This word is being thrown around like candy at a kid’s party. Don’t fall for it. As an HSP, you have brilliant reasoning if you don’t let your thoughts carry you away. Use every resource you have to make your life as rich and beautiful as you deserve. And know this: you will never be alone, because you have yourself. And you are more than enough. Being “too much” is a compliment. You are never empty, and that is amazing.
Wow, I can’t tell you how much I can relate to what you wrote. I am noticing everything around me, and I’m hyper-aware. I have also stopped watching the news. I have been overanalyzing and talking too much. I’m finding regular meditation and alone time are helping a lot. I do a body scan to help me. I also find after I do things that are too stimulating, it helps to make sure I have alone time, Even if it’s fun; if I’m overstimulated, I need alone time. I’m finally grasping how to care for myself, and I’m in my forties. I still have got a long way to go. Any suggestions would be helpful.
There is a great journaling technique i use that I love. You basically vomit anything you’re feeling that you would not want the rest of the world to hear onto paper, for 20 minutes – it can be “I wish my son wasn’t marrying that bitch” or “why do I always feel so jealous whenever I see my friend XYZ”, “I’m so anxious planning for this big vacation”, whatever it is that you think you’re not entitled to feel. You get them out, and then….you tear it up and throw it away. And soothe yourself for 10 minutes. It has been life changing for me!! I type mine but you can hand write. It works very well for reducing stress overload for HSP types and is really eye opening too. Nicole Sachs talks a lot about it for treatment of chronic health problems that are usually caused by stress.
Holly, thanks for this! I am going to try this.
David Shatzman says
Beautiful, brave and appreciated. Thank you💚
Raeesa- your comment resonated deeply within me.
Years and tears over the rejections l, the you are too much to handle; create a bubble around you – feeling toxic feeling nadequate. All the while draining my energy trying to appease others, trying to become what I thought they wanted. I am also a mother to a 21 yr old( 17 yrs raised him as a single)
Thank you all for the clarity and providing an understanding of who I am.
At 55, it’s been a long uphill battle …
Manu G Enterprises says
Thank you, I am delighted by your use of articulated words. I just discovered Hsp this month.
This is so interesting. I am so grateful that we are talking about this. I identify as HSP with ADHD and CPTSD/childhood trauma stemming from a mother who displayed both Borderline and Narcissistic traits: in particular the rage, idealization-to-devaluation and the splitting were very pronounced in her character and parenting styles. I love Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s work on Narcissism and it has helped me a lot, as has Elaine Aron’s work, as it has helped me to reframe some of my struggles in terms of my sensory processing sensitivity combined with childhood trauma. However, I have always had a nagging sensation that I have the trait of grandiosity, even if I don’t have other Narcissistic traits: I think that part of this comes from growing in New York City and being the “golden child” of my Narcissistic family due to my singing abilities (I felt objectified, like they exploited me and didn’t see me as a person, but I also got used to the attention), but part of it was also a coping mechanism for feeling alone and confused by my volatile and rage-infused family home: when I felt most alone, I had to retreat into my head and become my own best friend and as a result I became one of those people who had to give herself pep talks in the mirror like: “you are a beautiful princess; you are facing adversity now but you are destined for greatness someday.” Becoming my own cheerleader was sometimes the only way to cope, and I think I have a naturally confident disposition, but sometimes I worry that developing some degree of grandiosity (can there even be “degrees” of grandiosity?) was the side effect of having to retreat into my own head and give myself pep talks. I wonder how many other people feel this way. The ability of HSPs to develop a vivid inner life can be a superpower–I actually believe that this trait of sensitivity was the main thing that saved me from developing a full-blown cluster B personality disorder like my mom; however, it’s a fine line to walk sometimes. And of course there are many apparent overlaps between BPD, Narcissism, ADHD, Autism, and SPS: I think that the important thing is that we are all aware of these overlaps and the risk of being misunderstood or misdiagnosed. Thank you for encouraging us to have that conversation! Here’s to more conversations like this in the future!
Wonderful wonderful wonderful blog! I had read that research article recently and was infuriated and felt “attacked “and a gut feeling that it was just off. Thank you for your clarification, looking at the many different layers
As an HS parent, I agree with this 100%. I recall being a parent to 3 children (ages 1, 3, and 5) and being in management, and then the pandemic began, and that was it. I really had to get back to nourishing myself so I could show up for my children in a more regulated state. I eventually let go of the management position after much self-reflection. I’m glad to be where I’m at now. My children get their mommy in her best parenting moments.
Kelly Houlton says
Wow. This is so thought provoking. As a retired developmental math professor, I can see how this could really help teachers who are HSPs put burn-out into perspective and perhaps help save some of their sanity. Wish I had seen this when I was still teaching and dealing with way too much overwhelm. Thank you, Dr. Aron, for this summation and explanation. Your work continues to help me put high-sensitivity into perspective.
Kate Michaels says
This was SO interesting! Thank you for highlighting it and drawing attention to some of the clinical points as well (although as a normal lay person, I wasn’t clear about what all the comparisons actually meant;) But enough to keep a perspective.
Recently I was interviewed by a very rigid and cold psychiatrist for an insurance/medical-legal process I’m in the middle of here in Switzerland where I live. I am an American- so there are already a lot of cultural differences there to contend with. It was a horrible interview and the conclusion he drew was that I was diagnosable as a narcissist- which was painful to read afterward and I didn’t understand. Neither did my regular therapist, family, friends or daughter I shared the report with. Fortunately for me, my daughter gave the most supportive feedback on this diagnosis. She just laughed and said: Mom- who cares what a Nazi-psych person thinks about you?! You have friends and are loved! You love and care for others! That’s all that counts! Screw the insurance people!
But I bet that his thinking was somehow along the lines of this study, etc. It really helped me put it more into perspective as to how someone could draw the conclusion that HSPs are naturally sitting on a narcissism scale somehow. I’m sure the fact that he kept focusing on my abusive childhood also kept him there. He did not at any time factor in any personal work or growth I have done and continue to do.
Your article helped give me some additional peace of mind and understand how other cultures take this information in- and may not have all the information available. It also helped me understand some of my students/clients better and give them some tools as well. As a singer and artist I work with a LOT of HSPs! (probably like everyone else here) Because they are also performers and sometimes have had troubled childhoods, and have therapists- they have also often been accused or mislabed. Thanks so much for bringing this study up and making a good commentary on it!
Mallika S. Iyer says
Thank you so much for your valuable information and time. I look forward to all your e-mails. Your research is God sent for HSPs. I have read all your books available in India. I am hoping to be able to read more of your work… Warm regards ma’am
Jeannine Vegh says
I work with survivors of narcissists. I am an HSP, a survivor of a NPD (both parent and partner) and I am an Empath. Clear differences between all of these things as well as between overt vs. covert. It is just like with PTSD, which certain well-respected clinicians are now trying to push as a dx for infidelity. Apples and oranges. I specialize in PTSD as well. Infidelity doesn’t even meet Criterion A, as we all know, so why don’t these well-respected clinicians know this? People want to jump on bandwagons and this distorts the real issue at hand. I have worked with many HSPs. Like with a gay person coming out of the closet, they get excited when I have them read Dr. Aron’s book and realize they are not crazy and want to tell the world. They also begin to set boundaries with people – which their friends and family don’t like. I can see how people would react to this and think – narcissist. If you are used to someone being a people pleaser and suddenly they set boundaries, people are going to react.
You totally nailed it with your ending statement.
I just want to say thank you for your research, your blog posts, and your activism for HSP’s. I suspect the authors might be conflating poor attachment styles with high sensitivity, and the development of personality disorders, namely narcissism, but I imagine they also include the other cluster b personality disorders, and trait narcissism. I wonder what overlap there is between insecure attachment styles and HSP traits. In other words, does HSP trait lead to greater susceptibility to insecure attachment? I can imagine if the caregiver does not know how to respond to such a sensitive child, the tempermental fit could lead to poor attachment, which is a precursor to personality development and narcissism. But it is unfair to lump all trait HSP with narcissism if that is the case and this type of thinking would likely prevent appropriate and timely interventions. Like parenting skills for kids with high sensitivity. Also, most psychiatric patients I’ve encountered along my career trajectory I would classify as highly sensitive, and I don’t think they all have innate hypersensitivity. I think some of that is learned from adverse childhood experiences and perhaps that is the route to personality disorder. Not all HSP’s are narcissists, and not all narcissists are HSP’s by innate nature.
Anyway, I guess I just find myself wondering about the overlap between attachment disorders and HSP, and whether that could lend any guidance to mental healthcare providers about where to focus their understanding. I will say I personally separate the two – as an HSP myself I recognize the high sensitivity as a strength but also a vulnerability for patients, and for myself. And a lot of patients, and myself, have poor attachments to caregivers and difficulties with interpersonal relationships. I don’t think that’s automatically narcissism, and usually the sensitivity with narcissism is about rejection. I focus on depth of processing with my sensitive patients and try to help them integrate and embody their sensations without labelling them as wrong or abnormal. I think the danger in assuming that highly sensitive folks have underlying narcissism is that they won’t be treated appropriately and they’ll be mislabeled and funnelled through corporate psychiatric medicine for no reason other than poor science, and an inability for the 80% without the trait to understand that there are nuanced differences to be appreciated. Thanks again for the work you do. The world needs it.
Kate Maloney says
This is interesting to me. I work with women who are victims of narcissists and believe that the Highly Sensitive Parenting book is HELPFUL for them as they try to navigate parallel parenting with a Narcissistic Ex. Do you think that this style would be counter intuitive then for VICTIMS? Should I rethink my parenting suggestions??
Roundball Shaman says
“Research: High Sensitivity Wrongly Identified with Narcissism”
High Sensitivity has absolutely nothing to do with Narcissism. High Sensitivity is a form of natural physiology while Narcissism is a personality malfunction/deviancy of extreme self-centeredness and lack of empathy. High Sensitivity individuals usually have an enhanced degree of empathy for others as we know how the environment and our actions can have a deeply powerful and profound effect on other people.
“I do not mean to be hard on the authors.”
There is nothing wrong with being hard on authors who lack basic understanding about the matters they are writing about.
“A less helpful Psychology Today article is by Preston Ni, simply describing the way that narcissists can sometimes be hyper or ‘highly sensitive’ to criticism.”
Calling narcissists ‘highly sensitive’ to criticism is a miss-applied labeling. What narcissists display is a total lack of ability to tolerate any form of criticism at all. This does not come from HSP-type sensitivity but from a lack of maturity on the part of narcissists. Narcissists are essentially overgrown little kids who never grew up. They believe the World and everything in it is about Them. When one matures into true adulthood, a person leaves this kind of arrested thinking behind.
Again, these authors appear to have little to no understanding of what the HSP Nature truly is and from their observations they appear to have little desire to find out. They appear to be in love with their own misguided ‘scholarship’. And when you know the mainline academic community, you quickly realize that when they publish and make certain assertions they will almost never back down from them or correct themselves later with greater understanding and better research. They just double-down on their bad conclusions and shabby scholarship. They do not want to admit error.
“Let’s begin with the obvious fact that some HSPs ARE narcissists.”
Yes, some HSP individuals are. But not to the same percentage as those in the general population for the reason I stated above.
“The basic results were that highly sensitive (HS) parents tended to find parenting more difficult, but they were also more attuned to their children and more creative.”
This is absolutely correct. This is exactly how it is.
I might add that Highly Sensing People generally can find almost everything more difficult… but the great benefits of being extremely sensing and deeply in tune with our internal and external environments brings benefits beyond measure.
In conclusion, we who have been blessed with the HSP nature are very fortune to have someone like Dr. Aron shining a light on the truth of what it is to live as an HSP individual. It is disappointing and concerning that those others who purport to be researchers and authors have such a profound lack of understanding of these subjects they are making assertions about.
We who have been blessed as HSPs already have enough challenges dealing with Society and the outside World. We do not need additional misunderstandings about us and our nature from people with fancy titles and degrees but who come to deeply flawed conclusions about people they clearly do not understand at all.
What we as HSPs need is what Everyone needs… greater understanding and empathy for all people.
Perfect. Each point accurately and precisely expressed.
Heather Ripley says
Thanks so much for addressing this in such a timely manner Dr. Aron. I’m 4 months in to understanding the trait, so have not fully integrated the knowledge yet…and admittedly I do see it as a superpower…I also ascribe to the notion that everyone has a superpower…I just now know mine:) I am a therapist and this will likely come up with HSP clients…can you direct me to other writings that explain the overlap with HSP and vulnerable narcissism? I’m having some difficulty conceptualizing these 2 in the same person. Thanks!
Jason R says
Hi Elaine, thank you so so much for addressing this study and helping me (and others) understand the discourse around it (as well as it’s flaws!). Psychology not being my area of research (I’m in the nutrition field), I nevertheless suspected something was amiss when I read it. But the HSP in me, of course, was beset with worry with how it was being discussed. Thank you for sharing Meredith’s post as well, I found it very comforting–she writes about why some of the questions that measure “vulnerable narcissism” might also resonate with HSPs (albeit for very different reasons). For example, of course we feel more self-conscious when entering a room! We’re more conscious of everything when entering a room (including ourselves!), especially if it’s among a group of strangers! Which also makes me wonder if the correlation could also be related to how an HSP would tend to think about and process these questions.
I’ve recently had this sense that with the some of the popular articles describing us as having “secret superpowers,” there was going to be a reaction of sorts. I saw one person in a forum say something to the effect of “they talk about HSPs like they’re some kind of saints, we need to take them down a peg!” And I’m thinking–most of us have already been down a peg–or a few pegs! We’re already well aware of the downsides of our trait–it’s finding the beauty and the strengths that have given us something to celebrate! I know for me, finding out there were positives to the trait DID make me feel like I had a bit of a superpower, but I’ve never been blind to the downsides (after all, even Superman had kryptonite!) I just now have so many more tools in my toolbox to mitigate them, thanks to you and the work you’ve done. I know that I show up better for the people in my life thanks to the work you’ve done and shared. I think that’s what makes the author’s point about limiting personal growth so troubling to me. I used this knowledge to grow! I suspect many other HSPs have, and will, too.
Your point about integration made me think about what you’ve written about the discovery process for us HSPs–when we first learn about the trait, we want to tell everyone, shout it from the rooftops–I know I certainly did! But eventually we integrate this information into our daily lives, sharing it selectively. From the outside, that “shout it from the rooftops” phase could come across a bit like narcissism, which might be where some of this is coming from (along with popular discourse that doesn’t understand the trait). But, after spending so much of our lives wondering what if there was something wrong with us, who could blame us for wanting to shout a little when we learn there are upsides?
Fiona Healy says
Hi Elaine, thank you for your work in this area and making it so readily available. Without that I wouldn’t have come to realise I am a hsp…so knowing this has been very helpful to me. I grew up very shy, my sensitivity was not accepted in my home growing up so the freedom now to understand it and allow space for it is very freeing.
On the subject of narcissism, I can’t help but feel that the whole arena that this topic is being viewed and dissected is a bit like a witch-hunt??…it really has blown up into something where everyone has shown up with a stick to beat the living crap out of it….I find that very interesting. As Dr Gabor Matè refers when he speaks, to his own narcissistic traits, I’m sure we all have a bit of it going on in us…I would imagine that’s very normal and few people are exempt. Is the need for people to jump on it with a stick the shadow of shame?? And the need to reject it?
I’m not sure about that, but it seems very strong…I’ve been watching the world stage through podcasts and interviews for sometime, and as some of my friends are phycologists and counsellors I’ve engaged in conversations around it, with some of my friends and myself having left the somewhat narcissistic and or addictive marraige. An interesting topic…again just struck by how it’s been met on the world stage…there appears to be something frantic about it?? Or so it seems.
Thank you again for all your work,
Regards and best wishes,
Jennie Floyd says
Hi Elaine – I’m so glad you addressed this research immediately. I saw the article last week and immediately felt distressed that the trait of high sensitivity was being wrongly equated with narcissism, even if it was “vulnerable” narcissism. It’s helpful to know where the researchers are coming from so that we can better understand the points they are making and be prepared to discuss/defend as HSPs.
Thank you for this article. As an empathic HSP, I know that what I’m feeling inside of me (positive or negative) is rarely experienced and understood similarly by any non-HSP person outside of me.
Which adds to my distress — “I am the only person that knows how overwhelmed I feel!”
About a year ago I met another HSP through an online meet-up group. Through emails and texts and phone calls we have developed a beautiful friendship that neither of us have ever had before.
Having an HSP friend is a blessing that I pray for all HSPs, especially children.
Fred Eriksson says
One thing missing in the argument is that a narcissist is both vulnerable and grandiose. Showing the vulnerable side gains sympathies and attension. For empathetic HPS this can be effective. Later on the narcissist show the grandiose side and you are certain it is a narcissist you are dealing with.
Tony I says
Thank you, this makes a lot of sense. I appreciate knowing more how to distinguish the different narcissisms.
Tony I says
Hi Elaine, thank you for discussing the article on narcissism. I found it enlightening and humbling. I recently broke up with an HSP who did not have a good childhood. I’m an HSP who did have a relatively good childhood. During the relationship, I found it increasingly difficult to deal with his – what I thought was – narcissistic mentality. This went beyond needing his environment to be a certain way (which I completely understood) and entered into territory that I found troubling, such as assuming my intent when having discussions, getting angry at me when I shared my needs and story, and accusing me of trying to hurt him by being egoistic or a down right liar. I grew angry with him for this attitude and our relationship did not recover.
My question/comment concerns the idea of vulnerable narcissism. From my limited experience, it can be both completely understandable and part of the healing process while also being a total burden. I fear a major problem is that HSPs are at risk of getting “stuck” at vulnerable narcissism because they don’t know how to share kindly what they need and how they are feeling, that they are inexperienced with boundary-setting, owing to all the past issues and difficulties with growing up as an HSP. And because he was learning about his HSP trait, he couldn’t/wouldn’t hear me when I would bring up the painful way we communicated. Everything boiled down to: “I know my mind and body”. Well, that may be true but I wonder how much was excuse and how much was authentic. My question then would be how can HSPs introspect in ways that respect their journey through vulnerable narcissism and learning about their trait while at the same time leaving one open to hearing and respecting others?
I think my relationship could have gone differently if I had know about this particular issue and we could have really worked on sharing and boundary setting. It didn’t help that both of us are intelligent and so vulnerable to liking our own ideas a little too much. I tried to share more of my feelings rather than opinions when our conversations became arguments, but as I pointed out, this led us faster toward the end. I wish we could have found a way to support each other along our journeys. I suppose I’m writing because I want to understand more how HSPs can authentically grow and learn and interact well with others. And I wanted to share to make sense of the end of my relationship and give support to anyone else experiencing a similar situation. Many thanks.
Roundball Shaman says
“…I’m writing because I want to understand more how HSPs can authentically grow and learn and interact well with others.”
We as HSP natured-beings are not that much different from the general population on this matter. All persons need to find supportive and understanding people to be in their circle of Life in our various relationships.
Of course, our Life Partner has to be especially aware of our nature and considerate of that in our relationship with them. But the reverse is just as true. We are HSPs need to be just as considerate and understanding of them as we would like them to be with us.
Growing and interacting well with others is the same. You take a risk with someone. You put yourself out there and do it honestly and without restraint. The other person needs to know right off that we have a fundamentally different way of being in the World with our highly sensitive nature and our ways to co-exist in the World from what most of the population experiences. If they are understanding and respectful… we might have a future with them. And if they aren’t… then the relationship has much less chance of being a success.
We also need understanding people in other areas of our Life. Our family, friends, and workplace must be respectful if not totally understanding of how we are and how we find ways to navigate Life with our sensitivities. If we have family members or friends that are not understanding of us then we need to limit our contact with them (or cut them off if it’s really dissonant). We need to find comfort in our workplace or we had better find another job or workplace pronto.
HSPs need to have good ‘People Skills’ just like anyone else to be grounded socially. It comes down to how well we have communicated our core nature to the outside world and then how have the people around us responded to that.
And we always must be the final referee as to what we allow into our Lives as we alone are responsible for our growth and peace of mind.
Oh my goodness, that parenting scenario “This is quiet time. I need to rest. Go to your room and play there. Or rest. But I don’t want to hear a sound out of you.” Child starts to protest. Parent interrupts. “You know the consequences if you don’t do as I say, right now. No story time tonight.” – this is me!! 🙁 So I’m authoritative in my parenting style here, and needing that time/space/quiet. Bit of a wake up call here. I’ve got some loop earplugs I use sometimes. In the above scenario, I’ll try and use them instead, as I feel awful reading and recognising myself in that section.
I had been in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for about ten years. After years of ending, it occurred to me that cognitive therapy might help me more concretely. After analytic therapy I understood myself better, but I did not have many practical ways to ease my anxiety symptoms.
I found a cognitive therapist. After seeing her a few times and telling her about my life and background, I expected her to take a more active stance. I was waiting for that cognitive side of therapy to start. Finally, I asked when she had planned to start the actual therapy. She replied that it was going on all the time. In my opinion, nothing happened, we were just talking, and that’s what I had already been doing for ten years. I did not need it anymore, and told the therapist as much. I was disappointed with her and I believe she was annoyed with me.
Then, during a health check-up I was found to have cancer. After that I did not question what kind of therapy this was. I was just grateful to have the extra support in a difficult life situation.
When the cancer treatments ended, I realized that I had found a good supportive therapist to help me during my illness. However, she was not the kind of help I had originally sought. But health insurance would still cover the therapy costs for a year. Changing the therapist was out of the question, because two years had already passed due to illness and treatments.
I thought things over and then took Elaine Aron’s book The Undervalued Self to the therapist. I suggested that she spend every other paid session reading a chapter from the book and we would discuss it in the next session. I almost had to force her into this arrangement, but finally she agreed, and the therapy became more rewarding for me. Unless I’m completely wrong, even the therapist eventually became very interested in the book.
Why did I write this? Because in the beginning, when we were “fighting” about what the therapy should be like, this therapist told me I was a narcissist. Exactly the kind of sensitive narcissist that has been discussed in this blog and its comments. I did not believe her and still don’t. But it amuses me when I remember our relationship – it does sound pretty big-headed, maybe even narcissistic, to think you have to train your therapist 🙂
Kath Sargent says
Dear Dr Aron,
I hope this finds you well(rested).
I defended my dissertation at Pacifica on Tuesday and used your research and writing in my work. I imagined you might be pleased to be represented at your soma mater.
The work changed my life. Thank you. 🦋
Heidi Connolly says
Elaine, you opened the door to such amazing work on HSPs!
One thing that’s really changed my life–and helps many kids and/or HSP parents I work with–is the idea of the Psychic Sponge. A sponge overloaded with water needs to be wrong out, just like an HSP when we become so overwhelmed by the energies of other people, places, and things around us that we want to scream or hide or even lash out.
When I feel that overload coming on, I picture myself like that sponge, wringing myself out. It’s an easy image to share with kids especially because they can dip a sponge in water until it absorbs and overflows with water, and then wring it out and feel the release in their own bodies.
Freaking out? It’s time to wring out your Psychic Sponge: a magical antidote to HSP overwhelm!
I believe that what a lot of HSP survivors of narcissistic abuse/complex trauma can display when their attachment wounds are still unresolved is “narcissistic injury.” They are not narcissists themselves, but because of being raised in dynamic with a narcissist, who leaves them feeling unseen, unheard, devalued, dehumanized, and worthless, they are narcissistically defended as they go into the world and into relationship, persistently searching for someone to see them, hear them, value them. And on the outside, that can look a lot like the behaviors of a narcissist, but the motivations and genesis are completely different. It’s just that these behaviors are intrinsically tied to the dynamic with a narcissistic abuser.
I would also like to add that once HSPs with a narcissistic injury do have corrective experiences, seek therapy, resolve their attachment traumas, and/or feel heard, seen, and valued, they are able to thrive. And in thriving, they can then re-engage with the world, environment, and others in a healthy, nurturing, compassionate way, just as their innate sensitivities have always motivated them to, without all of the narcissistic-abuse-junk in the way.
Roundball Shaman says
Melodie: “I believe that what a lot of HSP survivors of narcissistic abuse/complex trauma can display when their attachment wounds are still unresolved is ‘narcissistic injury’.”
What cannot be overlooked today is seen from a bird’s-eye perspective.
ALL people today are under mental and spiritual attack. We are being lied to… gaslighted… conned… manipulated… and under duress from multiple directions and sources. There are those who live to take advantage of us and see humans merely as a resource to be mined for personal gain and profit.
This is all taking a toll on all of our mental and spiritual health. And with HSP people the effects of this are intensified as is everything that we experience.
Most people today are being dehumanized and treated without respect and tolerance.
Everyone is under pressure and on edge. And we humans were not designed to function this way. We cannot tolerate the release of stress hormones into our bodies at this level of frequency and length of time.
While we can and need to seek outside help at certain times… we must be our own ‘doctor’ and advocate. We must meet every mental and spiritual and physiological challenge that comes our way with discernment and a powerful protective response. While we share the HSP nature we are still all individuals and only we ourselves can come up with the right responses to our daily challenges.
Our HSP nature gives us an advantage in being able to discern the right responses and strategies for ourselves.
Linda Lee says
I think where narcissism can come into play is when a Highly Sensitive Person uses their sensitivity to control and curry favor from those around them. I know of a fellow sensitive whose mother did just that – she tried to manage her sensitivity by stifling the activity and expression of those around her. They had to tiptoe around her. Ultimately, they were forced to seek counseling over this dysfunctional arrangement.
I once had a Highly Sensitive co-worker, who, despite my many attempts to accommodate her, still outwardly and aggressively expressed her pleasure when “it” became too much for her. I try to check my own tendency to unnecessarily burden others with my preferences.
So yes, while High Sensitivity itself is not synonymous with narcissistic tendencies, it can express itself by morphing into highly-sensitive-based narcissism in the right individual. Thanks for drawing attention to this topic!
Linda Lee says
I think where narcissism can come into play is when a Highly Sensitive Person uses their sensitivity to control and curry favor from those around them. I know of a fellow sensitive whose mother did just that – she tried to manage her sensitivity by stifling the activity and expression of those around her. They had to tiptoe around her. Ultimately, they were forced to seek counseling over this.
I once had a Highly Sensitive co-worker, who, despite my many attempts to accommodate her, still outwardly and aggressively expressed her displeasure when “it” became too much for her.
So yes, while High Sensitivity itself is not synonymous with narcissistic tendencies, it can express itself by morphing into highly-sensitive-based narcissism in the right individual. Thanks for drawing attention to this topic!
This is important, and I agree nuance is needed.
First I consider there can be natural variations within human temperaments and HSP represents one such temperamental expression.
Let’s imagine a well-adjusted HSP, with a supportive childhood, they may not even care for labels like HSP. They might read an article and say “Hey, I share these experiences” but for themselves its just a curiosity, quickly forgotten. They don’t experience daily suffering, and don’t feel isolated or alienated from people they want to get close to.
Then we can imagine a more troubled HSP, someone who grew up ina family that was not understanding and supportive, and they may find ways to compensate and fit in, adapt the the world, but also experience periods of deep suffering that no one else can understand.
So when they discover HSP, they not only can identify with it, but it gives them immence release, to know nothing is wrong with them, and they can learn strategies to help them cope with their temperament and not let themselves fall as easily into their negative emotions. Again that’s all good.
But then I consider this second person perhaps has experienced deep trauma and learned ways to cope that were the best she could do as a young child, but now act out unconsciously and prevent her from well-integrating the lessons from HSP.
So this is a sort of dual problem. There’s one side which is just a temperament, and there’s one side which is a set of life long strategies to cope with that temperament which can’t be easily overridden by conscious attention. That is a trauma itself can contains a sort of autopilot that takes over and causes her to act out in ways that makes her feel shame later, and feels outside of her control.
So a lot of that might look a lot like a Vulnerable Narcassist, and might indeed be a pathology on top of HSP, and in part caused by HSP in a nonsupportive environment.
So rather than asking “Are some HSP actually VN?” but “Is VN often a pathology that arises from an invalidated HSP?” And since HSP can be on a continuum, it could be the sensitivity expressions are well correlated. Maladaptive HSP of any degree can become VN if untreated.
There’s no shame in establishing if such a correlation exists. And it may be our understanding of HSP is a good first step to helping to cure people with pathological VN, or lesser degrees.
But of course there IS shame, and HSP are especially prone to shame, so maybe it is best to avoid all negative pathological labels if you want them to get help.
But a maladaptive HSP has a problem, two problems, one problem of improving ordinary adaption, and one problem of self-awareness of maladaptive strategies as they happen. And if it is trauma based, perhaps no self-awareness is enough, and all treatment of narcissism shows this problem.
I understand an ordinary narcissist creates a false self to protect herself, I mean a self-identity they don’t even drop in private. And self-esteem requires they value some very traits that cause them to alienate others, and so maladaptive yet in denial, so can’t be treated.
A maladaptive vulnerable narcissist might be more willing to seek help, although they may be equally lost in a false self identity to protect themselves. And my final fear is that by presenting HSP as purely a neutral or positive temperament, to justly compensate for a societal judgment, but I just see how hard it must be to carry that pain, and trauma that hides the pain, and want HSP to raise them, while it might effectively say “All my maladaptive behavior is just an expression of who I am” rather than defensive systems which ill-serve them.
I see HSP may prone to withdrawal and blame themselves to protect themselves and that causes pain, and I see HSP may be prone to outward rage and blaming others and aliening others.
Or we can consider if HSP actually attract narcissists who abuse them, and then blame is justified, but if the real issue is a HSP has maladaptive ways of defending themselves, then the blame-games can be avoided with care, and only consider better adaptive strategies to keeping good boundaries, whether others are good or not.
Sorry, too long, and I don’t claim any knowledge. I just see a friend who self-diagnosed HSP over 15 years ago, and she still struggles, and I don’t know how to help her. In fact, I’d do anything for her, but I try to listen and understand even when I don’t.
Roundball Shaman says
Tom: “But of course there IS shame, and HSP are especially prone to shame… I see HSP may prone to withdrawal and blame themselves to protect themselves and that causes pain, and I see HSP may be prone to outward rage and blaming others and aliening others.”
An HSP person has no reason to ‘blame’ or ‘shame’ themselves for anything for having that Nature. It is a birthright.
HSP Nature is a physical and psychic manner of interacting with the World — a framework from which we experience Life. There is never any shame in that. No one has to ever apologize for who and what They are. If a person has shame (and we all do)… that shame is mostly coming from something other than from our HSP nature itself. An HSP person may feel shame more intensely than a non-HSP… but then we experience EVERYTHING more intensely so there is nothing unique in that.
“I just see a friend who self-diagnosed HSP over 15 years ago, and she still struggles, and I don’t know how to help her. In fact, I’d do anything for her, but I try to listen and understand even when I don’t.”
All you need to do is just be aware that anything and everything that your friend experiences feels more intense to them than it would to most of the World’s population. Use care in the public social situations you enter in to. Avoid overstimulations and anything negative in the environment. And use care in your choice of language.
Give your friend plenty of time to process and de-compress during the day. The physical toll that lights and sounds and stresses and people in general play upon the HSP person are intense and relentless. Give your friend the support and understanding that you would give any friend and you will have done well for them.
Sharon Pearson says
Thank you so much for this information as it finally confirms what I have been trying to get through to the medical professionals for most of my life (just turned 60 this year!!!). I finally gave up when I was sent to a “specialist”, waiting 6 months for my appointment, only to have him cut me off after 10 minutes of talking with a very rude and disrespectful reaction of “oh I know what your problem is, you have too much time on your hands (which in truth was a joke), get a good therapist, here is a prescription and us professionals will work it out”. This man never laid a hand on me, no tests or paperwork from the referring doctor and was able to diagnose me as an attention seeking woman in need of “handling”. I have had to “go it alone” on my healing journey back from the land of what felt like the dead to do what most people believe is impossible. Become the Healer, healing thyself, with the strong wisdom, courage and strength of my own body, mind and soul. The silver-lining to this “gift” is that I can predict the weather, as well as other things, with better accuracy than the weatherman, which is very helpful in navigating a rather up-side down world we all find ourselves living in. Much Love and Many Blessings to One and All.
As a young child I was actually sprayed in the face with a water bottle by the teacher when I cried. I was never able to control the tears. The next year my new teacher came to my house and brought me a bird (to replace the one I said had died…not a lie, just not why I was crying..). It matters how we all treat each other and remain aware that all perception is subjective and is uniquely personal.
I have been labeled with a lot of dysfunctional diagnoses, mostly by your average jerk.
The one so-called “professional diagnosis” was from a therapist who was to determine my mental health for DCFS.
This both devastated and angered me.
I TRUSTED THIS PERSON – THIS PROFESSIONAL –
I told them the horror of what my husband had done, was currently doing and my fears regarding what harm it all could do to myself and my children.
I genuinely and completely honestly shared EVERYTHING!
Only to have it as a permanent legal record that my emotions were a ploy to gain attention.
I have spent the better part of half a century with people telling me and with my believing that I was mentally insane and unfixable.
We must do better to stop this type of thinking and harm that comes from such outrageous mindsets and labels.
And it starts with our own understanding by doing the research and learning what is fact, opinion, theory and what is just plain B.S.
And as stated in a previous comment about those who author or publish such writings being unmovable/defending…
WHATEVER we conclude from the information as individuals, professionals, authors and humans it should ALWAYS be changeable as we aquire new data, experience’s and awareness.
To do otherwise is arrogant and self serving.
It was not long ago believed that the mother was responsible for determining the sex of a child.
Imagine if fathers still put their lack of having a son on the mother despite it being an absolute fact that only males carry the chromosomes that are responsible for their child’s sex.
That is how being unmovable in your beliefs especially with regards to such things as HSP, Emotional expressions and the internal workings of our minds would look if science could isolate a tangible and provable cause of such a subjective and individually unique construct.
Thank you to all who question everything and do your part to educate yourself and share your knowledge with those around you.
I am NONE of the label’s placed upon me. I am an intelligent being who continues to learn about myself every single day.
No matter what anyone else may believe.
Having read the article on HSP/narcissism, I do see their point that the HSP scale questionnaire (which people use to ’define’ their trait) does not actually contain any questions relating to empathy – yet empathy is a part of ‘DOES’, so this does make it all a little confusing. If there are physical brain differences in the brains of HSPs, some which relate to empathy, how can it be possible that some HSPs are actually narcissists, which equates to having no empathy other than ‘cognitive’ empathy? I would really like to see some clarification/research around this topic! As logic would make it seem that HSPs could NOT also be Narcissists… but having said that, Hitler was a sensitive man apparently, who enjoyed art and was a vegetarian – yet also had no empathy. I would really like to understand this better, if any neurologists would please do some deep research into the physical brain differences please!!! (I have also met a definite sociopath who is a talented artist – how does this equate!?… sociopath as defined by having no empathy (other than cognitive), guilt or remorse… surely the ‘opposite’ of an HSP – but I’m sure he’d claim to be an HSP!…)
(To follow up from my last comment, which I think came across a little confusingly – my argument/hypothesis would be that you CAN’T be both, – Hilter COULDN’T be an HSP, nor could the artist I know without a conscience – and I think further research would be able to demonstrate this. I think the problem lies in the HSP questionnaire, PRECISELY BECAUSE it does not include any questions that relate to empathy – but in my opinion empathy is a KEY part of being an HSP – so those scoring low on empathy must not be HSPs. ALSO, LOTS of research is now concluding that ‘personality disorders’ NPD and Antisocial Personality ARE actually innate – family members of such people usually say the condition was evident from childhood – I think that it’s problematic that there ARE some overlapping ‘qualities’ because it’s enabling these abusive, non-empathic people to hide under the label of HSP, and giving HSPs a bad rep, when, GENUINE HSPs really are the opposite. IMHO. The empathy part to the equation needs to be emphasised!!)