According to Wikipedia:
“ A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it[i],[ii]). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who comprise about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women), may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.[iii] This is a specific trait, with key consequences for how we view people, that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, social phobia and innate fearfulness,[iv],[v] and introversion.[vi] (…) Although the term is primarily used to describe humans, something similar to the trait is present in over 100 other species.[vii] [viii]
The discovery of this highly sensitive trait changed our lives. It helped me to understand that heightened sensory processing is not necessarily a disorder but that some of us possess a deep sensory sensitivity, a gift that should be fostered, not eliminated, since it helps us perceive the world in much more nuanced details than most . I began to research the world of sensory processing and HSPs. I decided not to ignore or “cure” our sensitivity but to celebrate them and to help my children develop these incredible qualities to their fullest.
What does it mean to be highly sensitive?
According to blogger Victoria Erikson, highly sensitive people sense life deeper than others. They are emotional chameleons who soak up other people’s moods and desires like sponges. They are deeply alive, experience sensations vividly and are moved to tears by the beauty in simple thing: the beauty of a flower, a subtle shift in the environment, the riff of a song, a scent, a taste, etc.
Of course, all are fragile, but highly sensitive are more easily stimulated due to they nervous system. As blogger Victoria Erikson, a highly sensitive person, explains, highly sensitive people:
“have the ability to see colors and feel energy the way others hear jet planes. The world takes on a rich tapestry of immense gorgeousness at almost every turn, which then fuels your imagination and makes you spin with aliveness. And aliveness is a grand thing.
“Aliveness is energy. It’s the juice, the vitality, and the passion that wakes up our cells every morning. It’s what makes us want to dance. It’s the energy that moves a relationship from the status quo to something grander and much more expansive, something that makes our hearts beat faster, our minds and our eyes open wider, than ever before. Everything is of interest to a person who is truly alive, whether it’s a challenge, a loving moment, a bucket of grief, or a glimpse of beauty.” ~ Daphne Rose Kingma
Yet, it also means that much like the spirited and hot blooded Arabians in the horse world, your alertness and reactivity may easily cause you to shy away with fright at things that shouldn’t be so scary.
Since your nervous system responds so easily to stimuli, that it can often times be overwhelming and exhausting to be so flooded with sensation—which makes you prone to bolting from uncomfortable situations, relationships, and jobs.
And sometimes your sensitivity makes life extraordinarily painful, and you want to shut down and hide your raw self from the loud chaos that accompanies this earth’s continual rotation.
Continually swimming in an endless sea of sensation can at times be exhausting, regardless if it’s beautifully terrible or terribly beautiful, and this is why your deep-rooted need for peace and self care is essential to support your superb sensitivity. ”[ix]
Deciding to understand sensory processing issues from this perspective allows for an optimistic approach to helping children. It allows to see them as people with special gifts that need to be nurtured instead of oppressed.
As the HSP researcher Dr. Elaine Aron mentions in her book the highly sensitive child, parenting a Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) brings many joys. My children do deeply appreciate me, they have made me much more aware of everything and making me see and question life in new ways. We connect on very deep levels. Their empathy and reaction to me have forced me to be much more aware of myself and to find the way to heal myself of many toxic ways in order to help them find inner peace.
As a parent I have had to learn that their discomfort in our man-made world is natural and that my role is to help them discover how to integrate in social settings while respecting their uniqueness and differences. According to the blog, HSP Health, their sensory processing sensitivities mean that often HSC get the sense at a young age that they are different. They don’t fit in. They are not interested in the same things that other people are interested in. They are not motivated in the same way. This profound sense of being different is not temporary. It does not go away, and can cause pain when the sensitive’s differentness is treated badly by family, peers, and early authority figures.
The HSP Heath blog provides a list of reasons, as to why the highly sensitive person will get the message that they are different, which resonates with my family. Amongst them, are many sensory related issues:
- Physical sensitivities like loud sounds, too much noise, light and tactile or touch sensitivity may cause discomfort or pain, which is not necessarily true of non-HSP’s.
- A highly sensitive person often needs time to themselves to rest after interacting with others. Non-HSP’s often recharge with other people.
- Social interaction can be draining unless it is for a short time, with a few people in a quiet setting. Non-HSP’s are more comfortable with big noisy social engagements.
- The highly sensitive person hates small talk, something that non-HSP’s thrive on competition and the highly sensitive person are like oil and water. Non-HSP’s are more comfortable with competition.
- Highly sensitive people are sensitive to the feelings of others and have a tendency to absorb the feelings of others causing much discomfort and unhappiness.
- HSP’s are known for their empathy. Empathy in sensitives is more than a feeling for others – it is an active way of knowing the world.
- HSP’s often feel a deep connection with nature and all the creatures in it.
- Highly sensitive people can be deeply spiritual.
- Many HSP’s will have physical conditions and allergies of one form or another.
- HSP’s can form deep bonds with animals.
- Harm and abuse of all kinds are harder for highly sensitive people to heal.
Seeing my children from this lens made me realize that their future depends on them becoming self-aware of these specificities and to be able to self-regulate their own reaction without fear or feeling somehow inadequate. I began to understand that in order to help them become healthy active participants in the world, I needed to guide them in a process of sensorial self-discovery, leading by example.
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[i] Jung, C. (1913). ‘The theory of psychoanalysis’. CW 4. And
______ (1916). ‘Psychoanalysis and neurosis’. CW 4.
[ii] Aron, E.N. (2006). “The Clinical Implications of Jungs Concept of Sensitiveness”. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice 8: 11–43.
[iii] Ketay, S., Hedden, T., Aron, A., Aron, E., Markus, H., & Gabrieli, G. (2007, January). The personality/temperament trait of high sensitivity: fMRI evidence for independence of cultural context in attentional processing. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Memphis, TN. Summary by Aron (2006): “A functional study comparing brain activation in Asians recently arrived in the United States to European-Americans found that in the nonsensitive, different areas were activated according to culture during a difficult discrimination task known to be affected by culture, but culture had no impact on the activated areas for highly sensitive subjects, as if they were able to view the stimuli without cultural influence.”
[iv] Brodt, S.; Zimbardo, P. (1981). “Modifying Shyness-Related Social Behavior Through Symptom Misattribution”. Journal of Personality and Society Psychology 41 (3): 437–49. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997
[vi] a b c Aron, Elaine and Aron, Arthur. 1997. Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Aug. 1997 Vol. 73, No. 2, pp. 345–368. (WebCite archive).
[vii] Wolf, M., Van Doorn, S., & Weissing, F. J. (2008). Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities. PNAS, 105(41), 15825-15830.
[viii] While many animals are sensitive to specific stimuli, it seems that others demonstrate a broader sensitivity, plasticity, or flexibility. For example, Sih and Bell (2008) wrote that enough examples exist “to suggest that individual difference in environmental and social sensitivity is common, potentially quite important, and worthy of further study” (p. 16). Dingemanse and colleagues (2009) provide an integrative model for observing personality traits (e.g., shy, bold, aggressive, nonaggressive) that in some species or individuals are inflexible and completely specific to context but in other cases are flexible, occurring in some contexts and not in others, according to its usefulness, so that the underlying trait in these cases would be being sensitive enough to know when to be sensitive—suggesting layers of processing.