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.