It’s movie night on the couch with a friend. Perusing the Pay-Per-View options, American Sniper comes up as a popular choice. My friend is enthused; I am bemused. Why, I ask her, do people still make movies glorifying war and death? We move on to documentaries. “Oh, let’s see The Cove!” she enthuses. “Remember? It’s about activists stopping the slaughter of dolphins, and it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.”
She looks at my horrified expression and sighs, “Okay, moving on…” We settle on a repeat viewing of Pride and Prejudice.
This friend, who has known me since college, is puzzled by how I’ve changed in recent years. A former tomboy/tough girl who had trouble sharing feelings or showing vulnerability, I’m now, in middle age, someone who experiences joy and sorrow in equal (and huge) measures, notices everything in tiny detail, showers the people and critters I love with incessant attention . . . and suffers, at times, from a cracked-open heart.
I’ve learned that I have become an HSP—a highly sensitive person—and while at times I may feel a bit freakish, in fact I’m not alone. Research tells us that HSPs make up 20 percent of the population, and that there are just as many men as women. I’m not sure if it’s genetic, but my daughter (now in her thirties) was not only a gifted child—she was a highly sensitive one. It was definitely a mixed blessing. A pacifist and vegetarian practically since birth (I jokingly used to call her “my little Buddha”), she cried easily, crumpled at the rare bad grade, and got so worked up watching the TV news at age four that I had to ban it. But she learned to cope with the perceived harshness of her world in order to discover her true gifts—which would seem to be the mandate for HSPs everywhere.
According to psychotherapist Elaine Aron, PhD, who in 1997 literally wrote the book on the subject, The Highly Sensitive Person, these are the defining characteristics of HSPs:
- They feel things more deeply than their less-sensitive peers, processing on a deeper, more intuitive level.
- They’re more emotionally reactive and also have extreme empathy and concern for the problems of others.
- It takes longer for them to make decisions because they tend to weigh the many subtleties of any choice.
- They’re extremely detail-
- oriented—always the first to notice the décor or lighting in a room, the new shoes that you’re wearing, or a change in weather.
- They’re not necessarily introverts. Aron claims about 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts.
- They’re more prone to anxiety or depression (especially if they’ve had a lot of past negative experiences).
- They’re extremely sensitive to loud noises, violent films, and criticism.
- They have better manners than your average person (being so empathetic to others will do that to a person) and they cry more easily.
The good news is that they tend to be more creative than average, thanks to heightened senses and emotional awareness. Many writers, actors, and musicians tend to be HSPs. And having greater empathy makes us great managers, therapists, and teachers.
The bad news is that sensitivity can be a curse in our culture. HSPs are used to hearing, “Don’t take things so personally” and “Don’t be sensitive!” That’s why, says Ted Zeff, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, it’s important to get a perspective. In his research on the subject, Zeff found that highly sensitive men from other countries like Thailand and India were rarely teased, while highly sensitive men from North America were frequently teased.
“So a lot of it is very cultural,” he writes. “In other countries it’s considered an asset.” So it’s important for highly sensitive people to put themselves in situations where they won’t be made to feel embarrassed or wrong for expressing their sensitive side.
In addition to feeling out of step with our culture, other negatives about being an HSP include being easily overwhelmed or overstimulated, needing a lot of space and time alone, being too perfectionistic, and being too much affected by the emotions of others—even on TV. As actress Amy Brenneman (a self-identified HSP) once noted, she can’t even watch reality shows because “it’s too painful for me.”
But it’s also been suggested that claiming HSP status could also be what we ex-hippies used to call a cop-out. Says one friend, who has had a lot of HSPs in his life, “Labeling yourself as sensitive can be a free pass to total self-absorption. When is one’s sensitivity insensitive to others?”
It’s a valid question, and one with which I have struggled. Spirituality is a great river that flows through and past us, and our sensitivities can prevent us from jumping in and taking a swim. Speaking from personal experience, HSPs can also become easily offended and critical when their sensitivities are breeched.
If compassion for all is a goal, is it possible to get past one’s highly sensitive nature and try to live and let live? If I didn’t at least try, I’d berate my elderly father for ordering veal (something I haven’t eaten in 40 years) instead of keeping my mouth closed, even as my stomach squirms. And there are a million of these compromises every day—from getting anxious about a crying baby in the checkout line and wanting to tell her mother that all she needs is a little attention!, to wanting to turn off the baseball game when my team starts to lose because it hurts to hear it, but leaving it on because my sister is still engaged.
So HSPs continue to cope, despite being out of step and overstimulated. But there are ways of coping and living the gorgeously detail-rich life we’re meant to.
Get creative. Channel those emotions into painting, writing, sculpting, filmmaking—anything that pops the cork on that nervous anxiety and puts it to good use.
Don’t take on negatives you don’t need. Turn off the news if you find yourself sinking by watching it. And realize that everyone has to be around angry, negative people sometimes; the trick is to not absorb their anger.
Find your fellow HSPs and bond. In my own life, I revel in the time spent with others involved in animal rescue, feeling safe, empowered, and productive in their company.
Make “me time” an important part of your life. More than the other 80 percent, we critically need time to retreat, replenish, and rejuvenate. Take a nature walk, meditate, do some yoga, hang out with animals, be by the water, find your peace. Above all, choose to live as if the world is waiting for your gifts to manifest.
Is Medical School a Cure for the Highly Sensitive Person?
A few years ago in this magazine, we published a piece by psychiatrist James Duffy, MD, titled “Reopening the Eyes of Compassion.” He wrote, “Some claim that our current doctors are insensitive because they were recruited into medical school on the basis of their science smarts rather than their people skills, but the reality is quite different. Research has shown that students entering medical school score higher than their peers on scales of empathy and altruism! Unfortunately, recent research has also found that empathy diminishes as these students progress through their medical training!”
That reduction of empathy among physicians seems unfortunate, and so Dr. Duffy, now a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, has worked to help restore the practice of compassion to his profession with a list of eight powerful steps that are now taught in medical schools.
- Check Your Intention: What defines my relationship to my work—e.g., always be compassionate.
- Create Safe Space: Say a prayer or recite a mantra that has meaning for you.
- Initiate Presence: Take three deep breaths before you see the next patient.
- Talk at Eye Level: Pull up a chair and make eye contact with your patient.
- Use Nonverbal Supports: Be mindful of tone of voice, facial expressions, touch.
- Imagine Yourself in Your Patient’s Shoes: Ask yourself, “How would I feel if I was in my patient’s situation?”
- Practice Tonglen: Tonglen is a Tibetan contemplative practice of exchanging self for other.
- Practice Gratitude: Each evening, recite a brief prayer of gratitude for being allowed to do this important work, and dedicate your work to the benefit of this patient and all sentient beings.
Now, here’s what’s really fascinating. Further research has shown that medical training makes doctors empathetically less reactive: The mirror cells in their brains don’t fire as much at certain stimuli compared to the rest of us. And if you think about it, this makes sense. If you have been badly injured in a car crash, you don’t want your doctor to look at you and faint. Instead, you want a highly sensitive and altruistic person who has chosen to undergo extremely arduous training to become both highly skilled and less reactive—and therefore capable of saving your life. And, ideally, that same person is also following Dr. Duffy’s eight steps to create a compassionate bond to further improve your healing.
That’s a tall order for any human but something important to consider for us all. Sensitivity is a gift and a curse that can be shaped by intention and serious effort.
— Stephen Kiesling
Jane Ganahl is a frequent contributor to S&H.