I am not sure that I have written enough about differential susceptibility, which is a key to understanding HSPs and for HSPs to understand themselves. Differential susceptibility is the well-researched idea that HSPs are deeply affected by their environments, “for better and for worse.” With poor childhoods they are more likely than others to be depressed, anxious, or shy, and with good childhoods they can do not just as well but even better than those who are not so sensitive—more confident and less likely to be depressed or highly anxious.
Why exactly is differential susceptibility so important for you? I could list many reasons, for example how it changes the way sensitivity is viewed by science, but I limit myself to three.
First, most of the research shows that HSPs receive more benefit from interventions, so especially if you are one of those HSPs with a childhood that weighs in more negative than positive overall, you should also heal better. This might be through psychotherapy, but probably extends to reading the right self-help books or just having kind people around you. This is because, overall, HSPs are very sensitive to positive stimuli. Every human has to notice threats, but HSPs add to this an awareness of opportunities and positive feedback. Indeed, even one or two kind people in your childhood probably made a noticeable difference.
Second, differential susceptibility explains why HSPs can be associated in the public’s mind with people who are worriers, pessimists, “too sensitive” to criticism, complainers, and so forth. Those showing these problems are the ones with a troubled past. Those with good-enough childhoods adapt and almost disappear unless you know them well—for example, know their need for downtime and preference for low stimulation. Otherwise they are only noticed for their creativity, empathy, conscientiousness, and so forth. We can all work to explain differential susceptibility and these less visible, very effective and endearing HSPs. Perhaps you are one of them.
Third, understanding differential susceptibility can help in relationships. I will discuss that more below.
Differential Susceptibility and the film Sensitive and in Love
We are about to unveil this film Sensitive and in Love about HSPs in relationships, and I am all too aware that after watching it some of you may say, “These were not typical HSPs.” My answer is that you are right–the main characters are not typical HSPs. There really are none, of course. The question was, what message did we want to give through the HS characters we wrote about? We decided we had to deliver the message of differential susceptibility, including of course a happy ending due to some good interventions.
Our HS characters, a brother and sister, have experienced serious trauma and early attachment insecurity which deeply affect their relationships. (One is dating; the other is married.) We realized the risk that these two characters could give the impression that all HSPs are distressed. Indeed, there will be one or two scenes that are very, very intense. (I am sure some HSPs will see them as too much, but if there is one thing I have learned, it is that no book or film will please everyone. Also, as I have joked, two HSPs just being happy in their relationships could quickly have an audience yawning!) The reason for these bits of high drama was to really get across differential susceptibility. We were able to express the idea itself through a therapist, also an HSP, who explains to our two characters that they were more affected than others would have been by the kind of upbringing and trauma they have experienced, and also that as adults they can heal, perhaps better than before and better than others would have.
How Good is Good Enough? And What about Relationships?
While many HSPs had good-enough childhoods—no serious trauma, abuse, neglect, bullying, or the like—most of you had parents and teachers who had no idea about high sensitivity. They may have tried to ignore it or even to eliminate it from you. (This also happens to the main characters in the film—we loaded it on!) This failure to be understood makes it easy to grow up feeling there is something wrong with you. When you live that feeling, even if you hide it, it is easy for others to think something is a little off or odd about you. Even in an otherwise good relationship, it might be easy for a partner to accept that sense of you also.
The research shows that, in general, one of the biggest reasons for relationship failure is the poor mental health of one or both partners. That may be obvious, but we wanted this film to speak especially to those touched by this issue–to speak to you if this is you. It seems crucial that those interested in HSPs and in their relationships realize that many of the problems that can occur may be due to the HSP being more affected by a difficult past than others. It may seem like the HSP’s family or school life was not that terrible, so why are they are so troubled by it or in need of therapy? Differential susceptibility.
What can be done with differential susceptibility? Quite a bit, beginning with those around the HSP understanding how any trauma or early childhood problem may still be affecting the HSP and the present relationship. If both partners have these sorts of issues (even if one is not at HSP), help is even more urgent. Both people in the relationship should be aware of what to watch for—for example, seemingly irrational emotions or behaviors triggered by things resembling something in the past. Both should be on board about getting help for the HSP and the relationship. Attachment issues, by the way, are the specialty of Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy. As the interventions work and the relationship becomes more positive, I predict that the HSP will soak up any resulting positive experiences and be more positive toward his or her partner, creating a positive feedback loop. All positive!
In short, we hope many partners of HSPs, especially those who are not highly sensitive themselves, will gain from this film a gut-level understanding of high sensitivity, but especially this theme of differential susceptibility, and through that better grasp any problem their partners may have, even if it is “only” not being understood better in childhood. And of course we hope the HSPs who watch it are touched by this story and healed a little more just by watching it.