About 18?years ago, when I first discovered Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You?(1999) I realized that I had been given a tremendous gift.
Growing up, I’d often been told that I was “too introverted and sensitive”. These conversations left me feeling that there was something wrong with me. ?Finally, there was an alternative way to think about how I operated?in the world–as well as research that explained why I behaved the way that I did, and tools to cope.
Over the years,?I’ve often recommended this book?to family, friends and clients. ?Dr. Aron has gone on to write The Highly Sensitive Child: ?Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them (2002) and the The Highly Sensitive Person in Love (2000). ?While I’ve found all of the books to be useful, The Highly Sensitive Person is my favourite.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
There isn’t a simple definition of an HSP, and?this concept is all about arousal. ?Everyone has an optimal level of arousal–we want to be neither too bored nor too stimulated. ?The difference between an HSP and others is that their nervous system becomes more aroused than other people who are in the same situation. ?This different arousal level may lead HSP’s to spend more time recharging their batteries by spending time alone in quiet environments. ?They may frequently feel overwhelmed.
An example: ?while on vacation, a long day of sight-seeing, followed by dinner at a noisy restaurant may be enough stimulation for an HSP. ? He wants nothing more than to return to?his room and?read a book. ?Meanwhile his?friend may be ready to head to the bar and continue the party. Neither way of being is better than the other, just different.
This book is a wonderful primer on the world of HSP’s. ?Right at the beginning there is a useful questionnaire to help you to determine if you may be highly sensitive. ?What follows is a description of the positives and negatives of sensitivity. ?If you are reading the book from the perspective that “there is something wrong with me”, seeing a list of the benefits of high levels of sensitivity can feel freeing.
This book also addresses where HSP’s fit in western culture–a place where extroversion is seen as the ideal.
“You and I are learning to see our trait as a neutral thing–useful in some situations, not in others–but our culture definitely does not see it, or any trait as neutral. ?The anthropologist Margaret Mead explained it well. ?Although a culture’s newborns will show a broad range of inherited temperaments, only a ?narrow band of these…will be the ideal.” ?
“What is the ideal in our culture? ?Movies, advertisements, the design of public spaces, all tell us we should be as tough as the Terminator, as stoic as Clint Eastwood, as outgoing as Goldie Hawn. ?We should be pleasantly stimulated by bright lights, noise, a gang of cheerful fellows hanging out in a bar. ?If we are feeling overwhelmed and sensitive, we can always take a painkiller.” (pg. 15)
Once Dr. Aron has laid the ground work regarding HSP traits and possible causes (genetics, brain development) she goes on to describe the experience of high sensitivity in infancy, childhood and adolescence. ?She provides?very clear explanations about the connection between high sensitivity and infant/youth attachment to caretakers–especially how high levels of sensitivity can be more easily managed?by having needs met by caretakers.
The book goes on to examine HPS’s in social relationships, work life and intimate relationships. ?Each section is structured on the concepts?of self-knowledge, re-framing (looking at something in a different way), healing and tools or coping strategies.
There is a chapter on the?specifics of HSP’s experience when dealing with the medical profession (doctors and medications). ?As a psychotherapist, I was especially interested in the role of psychotherapy in supporting individuals who identify as highly sensitive. ?Dr. Aron provides an overview of specific therapies that may be beneficial for HSP clients.
The book concludes with thoughts on spirituality and HSP’s–ultimately the search for meaning.
Why I Recommend This Book
You probably have noticed that?I am a big fan of The Highly Sensitive Person, but why have I recommended it to so many people?
- Dr. Aron has written the book from a very ‘strengths-based’ perspective. ?While she is realistic about the downsides of having highly sensitive characteristics, she focuses much more on the positives enjoyed by HSP’s. ?The book is entitled “Highly Sensitive People“, not “Overly Sensitive People“!
- The book is full of questionnaires, exercises and stories that encourage the reader to engage with the book and learn about themselves in the process.
- After setting the ground work of basic knowledge, and helping the reader to place themselves in the information, the following chapters explore the HSP experience in different areas of life.
- There is a wealth of tools provided to help the reader deal with specific situations that they may be encountering.
- ?The book is written in clear, concise language. ?The author has found a way to explain the concepts in such a way as they are easily understood, while recognizing the intelligence of the reader.
- An information section has been included for health-care professionals, teachers and employers working with highly sensitive people that spells out specific tips and recognizes strengths of HSP’s that may be overlooked?in busy environments.
My One Pet Peeve
When I read the book from the perspective of a psychotherapist, I am a bothered by the perception that it’s HSP’s and the rest of the world. ?I believe that high sensitivity isn’t at one extreme with extroversion at the other–instead there is a continuum–both between groups of people and each?individual. ?Where we fall on the spectrum is based on health, circumstance, stress levels, etc. ?However, as the book is setting out to explore the world from the perspective of highly sensitive people, and encouraging them to feel powerful in their position, my concern is a small one.