Monday, 9 June 2014

Yup, that's me: "Highly Sensitive Person"

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I didn't know there is a label for what's “wrong” with me, but I'm happy that I can give a name to it now. Yes, I am a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP), which means that I'm extremely sensitive to sensory input.

On Dr. Elaine Aron's list of 27 indicators, I ticked of all but five indicators, and of those five that I didn't tick off, a number of them used to be part of my sensibility, for example a high sensitivity to pain and startling easily. The only reason I didn't tick these off as well is because my decades of martial arts training has “conditioned” me to endure pain, and not to startle so easily anymore.

Wikipedia summaries the attributes of HSPs as follows: depth of processing; over aroused; emotional reactivity and high empathy; and sensitivity to subtle stimuli.

Here are some HSP examples about me: 

I hate bright lights. My apartment is always dimmed to a mellow ambiance, as the bright lights disturb me. I'm constantly dimming the brightness of my computer screen and mobile phone, as the bright lights bothers me, to the chagrin of other people trying to use my digital devices.

I similarly hate loud noises. Loud music to me can be torture. Seriously, sometimes when I'm at a cinema I have to put in my earphones to dampen the sound and at concerts I cover my ears. I've went to church with earplugs numerous times, finding the excitedly loud voice of the preacher overbearing, and the only way I can sit through the sermon and listen at it is by dampening the sound to a subdued conversation. A few weeks ago at a work event where there was a musical performance I had to walk out the venue to the other side of the building. The loudness of the event put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. A gaggle of children playing and shouting makes me anxious. I admit to not liking children, and I realise now that a major reason for this is that children are too noisy and haphazard for my sensibilities.

I hate strong smells. In fact, while I'm not prone to headaches, some of my worst headaches ever have been triggered by overwhelming smells. Yet I'm constantly sniffing at things: flowers, wood, books, spices. Different aromas bring me great joy.

I'm also very sensitive to taste and am often capable of distinguishing subtle flavours in dishes, this has enable me to recreate dishes I've tasted before without a recipe, purely based on remembering the different tastes.

I find the textures of certain fabrics uncomfortably rough. I have in the past bought some warm, woolly shirts, but I struggle wearing them as it feels like they are scratching my skin and since there I was a child there have been certain blankets under which I cannot sleep, as the feeling on my skin is too rough and disturbing. On the other other, soft textures like plush blankets can make me giddy with joy. I love touching silk and polished surfaces like marble or smoothed wood.

Visually, I can get enthralled by colours and textures. A small flower or colourful autumn leaf can make stop in my tracks to take in the moment and feel blessed for having witnessed such beauty. I sometimes crave to see certain things like other people might get a craving for certain foods: for instance I might crave to see bamboo in a bamboo forest, or crave to see a diamond on black velvet, or crave to see cobalt blue. Thankfully such cravings can in part be suppressed by quick image searches on the internet.

I'm also unusually attuned to people's emotional vibes, and can sometimes tell that someone is upset while they are still far off. Actually, awareness happens at an unconscious level, so that it feels like a form of telepathic empathy, although I'm guessing it to be my subconscious picking up on faint body language cues, if a more logical explanation is necessary.

HSPs tend to be very sensitive, empathetic and cordial. This is very true of me. They are likely creative (check), imaginative (check), and intuitive (check).

One writer on the topic stated something that I found quite profound: “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that in order to develop as people, we must meet certain needs in a certain order, starting with physiological needs. Well, I find that HSPs actually start at the top with transcendence needs and work down to the physiological needs last.” 

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How literally true this is I don't know, but it sure does feel to be the case with me sometimes. I'm often more preoccupied with the higher level needs, and have been so even during times when I was concerned about my physiological needs such as not having money for food or being stressed about where I will stay, or while in pain or discomfort from an injury or illness. Even during such times—or sometimes particularly because of such discomfort—my thoughts are taken up with matters of philosophy and spirituality.

This discovery, this new label brings surprising comfort to me. It confirms that it is not just in my imagination, that I do experience certain stimuli more intensely than most other people, that there is nothing wrong with me; my senses and nervous system are merely acute, more than the average. And now that I have a term, it is much easier to research it. I've already found some excellent coping strategies, some of which (like dimming lights and avoiding caffeine) I've discovered through the years by myself; but there are other suggestions as well, which I'm sure to test out.

If you think you are an HSP as well (about 15%-20% are), or if you suspect someone in your life is an HSP, listen to the following talk by Dr. Aron that she gave last year.


gordsellar said...

Hey, Sanko!

So, I found this interesting. I think it was about in about 2009 that my ex introduced me to the idea of HSPs, and gave me a copy of Aron's book, which I immediately read about half of, and was certain described me. I even posted about it briefly, as a partial explanation why some expats go bananas trying to understand Korea while others don't:

(I've sort of abandoned the HSP component of that explanation since, mind.)

I did a little more reading, inspired by some of the comments about Aron and her HSP designation, which... well, I'm a little more leery about whether it's a clinically valid differentiation, or maybe lacking some necessary complexity to be creditable; but surely people have different degrees of sensitivity, that it's probably linked to temperament, and that society tends to skew toward the middle of the bell-curve, as with so many things.

It's just that while I found it comforting to be told I was part of a special group who are more sensitive, and more creative, and more likely to make great contributions to the world (which is something Aronson suggests at some point in her book). It's all very, well... emotionally rehabilitative, but maybe also seductive in a way where I'm not comfortable letting ti become too big a part of how I self-identify, if that makes sense.

That said, I share a lot of these traits, especially the whole overstimulation and extreme sensitivity to pain and discomfort... which brings me to an interesting observation: there's a genetic predisposition to very different and higher pain sensitivity among people with red hair:

And, maybe like with other traits, a recessive gene for red hair may affect temperament and particularly sensitivity:

It may well be that there's some connection between pain sensitivity and other kinds of sensitivity. It may also be that there's a complex interaction going on, and that I only got part of it myself, because about half of the traits you list apply to me, and about half don't, or only apply in a limited way. Certainly by Aron's definition I'm an HSP, and in fact I suspect a lot of writers are--indeed, I imagine a lot of "geeks" are and was considering doing some research to see whether SF fandom in general might have some degree of HSP overrepresentation.

At the time, I noticed that the whole HSP paradigm hadn't spread beyond Aron's diagnostic practice, generally speaking, and that her book itself felt more like a self-help book than a critical, nuanced discussion of human temperament. But there's more research going on, now, and... well, anyway. Just thoughts, I guess, and certainly not debunking or bashing, by any means! :)

Skryfblok said...


Thanks for the nice long reply.

What I like about Aron's theory is that it helps me understand why some things seriously bother me, like the volume at the movie theater and the rest of the audience seem utterly content, or why I can hardly stand the brightness of the light in a room, while other people are quite oblivious to it. And as I mentioned, it opened up some coping strategies for me.

As you mentioned, it doesn't seem to be an official clinical description, but it does offer me a framework to cope with.

I like your idea of "geeks" likely being HSP. Makes sense.

The concept of certain genetic traits going together also resonate with me -- I have noticed for instance in my own immediate and extended family how those with red hair (particularly the men) have a predisposition to becoming alcoholics; most of them are alcoholics. (Hence my own avoidance of alcohol.)

Keep well!