Sensitive revolution

“The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You,” by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. (Revised ed., 2013)

“I’m off the charts on this Highly Sensitive Person quiz,” I remarked.

A sigh issued from the other side of the room. “Ohhh, Lord.”

That was probably in the late 1990s, and I’d just read a brief about a new book about highly sensitive individuals, with a miniature version of the “Are you an HSP?” questionnaire. Up to that point, the word “sensitive” was usually preceded by “too,” and so I’d tried not to be. It had never occurred to me that sensitivity could be a natural trait, let alone a positive influence. So when I read the book, it was an eye-opener.

This revised edition adds expanded scientific research into the trait of high sensitivity and a new description of it: DOES (gotta love those acronyms). D – depth of processing; O – being easily overstimulated; E – emotional reactions and empathy; and S – sensitivity to all the subtleties around us. There is also a more extended discussion of psychiatric medications.

Aron paints no pretty pictures of sensitivity. It’s not always an advantage, and it has its costs. Feeling everything so intensely (and some of it not even ours) puts us on a path that sometimes intersects with the mainstream but more often does not. Instead, she walks us through all aspects of life as an HSP — from childhood experiences to work and relationship issues to health and spirituality. It’s not an easy road, and if we’re not careful, we can become easily offended, demanding, and difficult. Being sensitive is about what we have to offer, not about what we think the world owes us.

In the section on spirituality, Aron writes of four particular experiences she’s had with HSPs: “spontaneous deep silence creating a hallowed kind of collective presence, considerate behavior, soul/spirit directness, and insight about all of this.” HSPs are the priests and prophets, artists and poets, she says. We are the ones with the rich inner lives that help us find meaning where there is precious little in evidence — Victor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp and wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is a prime example given.

We are not necessarily smarter, nicer, or better than our non-HSP brothers and sisters. However, learning more about the trait of high sensitivity and how to manage it can help us stop perceiving ourselves as weak or inferior.

That is the primary message I’ve taken from this book, both the earlier versions and this revised edition: Sensitivity does not have to be a liability in life. Like other traits, we can turn it into a gift or a curse. If we can find a way to make it work for us and for the benefit of others, we all come out ahead.

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