Highly Sensitive Persons

Summer Service Speaker:  June Hopkins
Music: Jim Gish
Sermon: Highly Sensitive Persons
The reason for this talk is that in the 1990’s I read a book about this subject by psychologist Elaine Aron. It was titled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms Us. A month ago I attended at workshop at Kripalu given by Aron. It was attended by over 100 who described themselves as highly sensitive persons. Most were women, but there were a few men. When we broke into small groups I found it easy to talk with the others in the group. We were excited about meeting with one another. We didn’t need to explain ourselves to one another. We made plans to get together in the future.
She is self described as highly sensitive person (or HSP), a term she coined to describe this trait. Years ago she had to undergo a medical procedure from which she assumed that she would recover in a few weeks. Instead for months her body seemed to resound with both physical and emotional reactions. Throughout her life she had experienced times of “over reaction” to stimulating situations and thought of this as a “fatal flaw.” A psychotherapist with whom she sought treatment said that in her experience there were real differences in people’s tolerance for stimulation and also their openness to the deeper significance to experiences, both good and bad. Knowing about her trait and seeing it in a more positive light, Aron designed a research project in which she recruited forty persons who were self-described as highly sensitive and from this sample developed a questionnaire that was send to thousands of people across the country. From the results of her research, Aron learned that about 20 percent of the population are HSPs. And later she learned that this is true for at least 100 other species in the animal world as well and that the reason is genetic. Because it is found in only about 20 percent of the population, there are too many persons for this trait to be a disorder but not enough to be well understood by the general population, that is, the 80 percent.
Aron found that HSPs are more aware of subtleties than others, because their brains process information differently and reflect upon it more deeply. Additionally, HSPs are also more easily overwhelmed because they notice everything and are naturally overstimulated when situations are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time. Loud noise and crowds are a perfect example. When HSPs are overstimulated they can lash out and then feel guilty. This has happened to me when another person keeps asking the same question over and over hoping that I will give them a different answer.
HSPs are often skilled, but when being watch, timed, or evaluated, they often cannot display their competence often because of overarousal. Aron recommended the following prescription for giving a talk: practice, practice, practice.
Anneli Rufus writing in Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto describes this phenomena. Though she describes herself as a loner, from her comments I surmise that she is an HSP. Her comments may seem extreme to most of you, but make a point. She writes: “What the mob requires for its sanity is what whittles away relentlessly at ours. Because nonloners far outnumber us, their prescription for soundness of mind stands as good medicine. Contact! Chat! Cell phones! Spending as few hours as possible alone! To us it is not medicine but a dangerous drug at best – it numbs, it drains, it blinds, it depresses, it requires extensive recovery. At worst it is poison. If loners comprised the majority, we would decree our own prescription. Work at home! Turn off the ringer on the phone! Avoid crowds and loud noises!”
I am attracted to Aron’s book because I believe that I am a highly sensitive person and, like Aron, thought of it as a “fatal flaw.” I took the self test in her book and scored high on the scale of sensitivity. As a child I looked at the world differently from my friends and my parents. I could not understand their prejudices against other ethnic groups or religions, nor could I accept their religious beliefs. In the larger world, I wondered how persons who described themselves as Christians believed in capital punishment. None of it made sense to me. But I learned to keep my thoughts to myself in order to avoid being overwhelmed by arguing or causing tension in the family. I also knew that I was different from many of my friends because I was very shy and overly sensitive to criticism.
As I stated earlier, only 20 percent of persons are highly sensitive. Aron says that this is because the trait is genetic and the evolutionarily there is no benefit to having more than 20 percent of a population be highly sensitive. Therefore, two separate strategies have evolved: Those who are :

  • Cautious: Think it over and do it once and do it right.
  • Quick to Act: Do it over and over again until you get it right.

Or another way of stating the differences: We hear the lion in the forest, and the others go out to kill the lion. Both strategies are needed.
Some cultures value HSPs more than others, for example, Asian cultures and from my experience Finland.
At the present time our world is increasingly under the control of aggressive cultures, and perhaps this is because when cultures come in contact, the more aggressive culture seems to take over. For aggressive societies to survive Aron surmises that they need a priestly-advisor class as well. They are needed in order to see the big picture. Think of the Presidency and the Supreme Court.
HSPs are often the poets, the writers, philosophers, artists, researchers, theologians, therapists, teachers, etc. Aron recommends that whenever possible HSPs should be self-employed.
In order to survive in my work environment, rather than joining my coworkers at lunch, I shut the door to my office, put up my feet, and read a book while eating lunch so that I could recover from the morning’s work and be ready for the afternoon’s work. For a while I led a dream group one day a week during lunch hour with three other women. It was a wonderful way to have a total change of pace in the office, and by sharing our dreams week after week we became very close to one another and quite adept at helping each other understand the dreams.
Aron maintains that the true treasure of the HSPs lies in their spiritual lives. In 1992, she held a lecture at UC Santa Cruz on the results of her study. She invited her study participants as well as other interested persons. Aron wrote: “What I noticed first was the silence in the room before I began. I had not thought about what to anticipate but polite quiet made sense. This was even a little more than mere quiet, however. There was a palpable silence as in a deep forest. An ordinary public room had been changed by the presence of these people.” Aron learned from her survey that most HSPs consider themselves spiritual but not necessarily religious. In fact their feelings about “organized religion” were very strong. There were a few who were committed, but the rest were dissatisfied, even disdainful. About half followed some daily practice that took them inward to the spiritual realm. It seems to me that many people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism are HSPs. We do not want to be told what to believe. We want to find our own spiritual path that works for us personally.
The reason that I am talking about the trait of high sensitivity and the genetic differences that separate us from the 80 percent of the population is so that we can better understand one another. To understand one person’s need for calm and quiet, while another needs the excitement of a group. To put it in personal terms: understand that if I do not accept an invitation to an event with a large crowd of people or if I leave an event early, I am not being anti-social, rather I am trying to protect myself from overstimulation.
In closing I want to say that both HSPs and non-HSPs are needed in this world. So no matter which group you belong to (the 20 percent or the 80 percent), we need to honor our unique strengths and not underestimate the value of each group. Humankind needs both to survive.
Closing Words – June (by Nancy Wood)
Hold on to what is good
Even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
Even if it is a tree, which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
Even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to my hand
Even when I have gone away from you.