What Gives Your Life Meaning?

Fall is in the air here in Southern Missouri.  Leaves are starting to have that dry, faded look that tells us they are preparing to drop from the trees.  Likewise, the beginning of fall whispers to us that another year is passing by quite quickly and we might take a moment to reflect on what gives our lives meaning.  Most people do better when their lives have a sense of meaning, that much is a given.  For highly sensitive people the need is even more profound because our need for meaning is more deeply felt within us and reflected on as an internal need.  For high sensation seeking highly sensitive people the need for meaning in life changes from moment to moment as we seek novelty, new experiences, and/or thrills.  We also collectively (HSPs and HSS/HSPs) feel a strong need to stay ahead of boredom and will make changes in our lives to place us in situations and circumstances where we may experience new stimulation.  Everyone is different, of course, and some may seek less stimulation (or different stimulation) than others but it is the experience of the moment, whether that has meaning for us, that determines how we feel about it.

Many of our day to day routines are mundane and simplistic and we generally will do them, as a matter of necessity, but we derive little meaning from them other than meeting a need.  The deeper need is to feel a sense of alignment with our intrinsic interests leading to potential growth and development.  Those activities can be deeply meaningful to us and may even feel quite profound as we feel them more deeply and spend more time processing them in our minds.  There are health benefits to such an orientation as well with improved outcomes across the health spectrum.  As a middle-aged soon to be 51 year old with my last child graduating high school and off to college the prospect of shifting my sense of purpose to focus less on parental duties to what intrinsically motivates me is quite real.  Fortunately, the existential issue of meaning and purpose in life has always been an object of reflection throughout my life and I have strived to arrange my life in such a way as to allow my daily energy budget to be expended on those issues I am most interested in.

I also take the long perspective and have the additional example of observing how my mother seems to be aging at 73.  She’s now living in a seniors-only apartment complex but is still independent.  As time has worn on I have weighed whether her situation will become my situation.  I have also considered how very different our paths in life have been and how my proactive actions to afford myself certain opportunities has resulted in what will, in all likelihood, be continued opportunities for engagement with issues I feel a personal connection with.  So many of the seniors I see fall into oine of the two camps: either they seem to exhibit a sense of purpose and focus on things that keep them mentally active, socially engaged, and experiencing life in a sense beyond themselves or they seem to exhibit an intense inner focus where their purpose appears to be much more narrow and anxiety-filled with greater attention to every ache, pain, and shortcoming (real and imagined).

Barry’s story below of feeling a desire to “just relax” countered by a need to “be a good person” through doing things (feeling productive) is probably typical of most people.  For the sensitive person the need to care for ourselves increases as we age, not just the need for self-management but the way we live our lives overall.  As the demands of parenthood decrease for most of us (though more seniors are now raising grandkids) our focus can shift to the incedible sense of freedom and opportunity we should feel to realign our lives to become more satisfying in a personal sense.  Too many of us simply continue on as we always have without taking advantage of the opportunity to really “shake things up.”  Obviously, some HSPs will cringe at the notion of “shaking things up” but many would benefit from a complete change of scenery and routine.  High sensation seeking highly sensitive people live in a state of continual “shakeup” so our focus is usually on what comes next.  In both cases, we should focus on what gives our lives meaning.  It is a fallacy to focus on what makes us happy, as happiness is, at best, a fleeting state.  The more we engage in activities that give our lives a sense of meaning so why focus on an illusion (happiness)?  The more your daily life aligns with your intrinsic interests the greater the likelihood you will feel “happy.”

Lastly, we might ask our selves how do I know what gives my life a sense of meaning?  What if you have simply spent your life in pursuit of your daily bread?  When daily existence has prodeominantly occupied your time you will likely need to pull back and do some explorations to find things that give your life purpose.  I’m not suggesting hobbies here, as that implies superficiality.  Rather, focus on where your deep down interests lie and seek ways to explore those more fully.  This may involve moving beyond your comfort zone…  To contextualize this let’s consider that life is always uncertain and unpredictable, if you don’t believe this simply wait until the next hurricane hits, the next car repair is a priority, or someting simply happens you could have never imagined.  The nature of life is flux, to believe otherwise is an illusion.  What we can predict is that we will age and that our time is finite.  Far from being depressing this reality should envigorate us to explore ourselves, to do things we have never done, or to experience a sense of meaning through a hundred small acts we can do where we live.

This approach to living actually applies across the lifespan.  Finding meaning in life through choosing how we spend our time is the great opportunity we have, the responsibility is to honor the gift of life by continuing to grow and develop in every way.  As fall begins I invite you to consider what gives your life meaning and how you might rearrange it to be more fullfilling, satisfying, and purposeful.

-Tracy Cooper

Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career

Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

Soul Purpose: Seniors With Strong Reasons To Live Often Live Stronger

August 31, 2017

“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” says Patricia Boyle, a researcher and professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. (RooM/Getty Images)

After making it through the maelstrom of middle age, many adults find themselves approaching older age wondering “what will give purpose to my life?” now that the kids have flown the nest and retirement is in the cards.

How they answer the question can have significant implications for their health.

Over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.

Now, a new report in JAMA Psychiatry adds to this body of evidence by showing that older adults with a solid sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds — key indicators of how rapidly people are aging.

Why would a psychological construct (“I feel that I have goals and something to live for”) have this kind of impact? Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health, some research suggests. Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can fuel dangerous inflammation.

“Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health,” said Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t associated with the study.

But what is purpose, really? And how can it be cultivated?

Anne Newman, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Hartsdale, north of New York City, and Delray Beach, Fla., said she’s been asking herself this “on a minute-by-minute basis” since closing her psychotherapy practice late last year.

Building and maintaining a career became a primary driver in her life after Newman raised two daughters and went back to work at age 48. As a therapist, “I really loved helping people make changes in their lives that put them in a different, better position,” she said.

Things became difficult when Newman’s husband, Joseph, moved to Florida and she started commuting back and forth from New York. Over time, the travel took a toll, and Newman decided she didn’t want a long-distance marriage. So, she began winding down her practice and thinking about her next chapter.

Experts advise that people seeking a sense of purpose consider spending more time on activities they enjoy or using work skills in a new way. Newman loves drawing and photography. She has investigated work and volunteer opportunities in Florida, but nothing has grabbed her just yet.

“Not knowing what’s going to take the place of work in my life — it feels horrible, like I’m floundering,” she admitted, in a phone interview.

I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life.

Barry Dym

Many people go through a period of trial and error after retirement and don’t find what they’re looking for right away, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California-San Diego. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”

“People don’t like to talk about their discomfort because they think it’s unusual. And yet, everybody thinks about this existential question at this time of life: ‘What are we here for?’” he noted.

Newman’s focus has been on getting “involved in something other than personal satisfaction — something larger than myself.” But that may be overreaching.

“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” said Patricia Boyle, a leading researcher in this field and professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

“Even small goals can help motivate someone to keep going,” she continued. “Purpose can involve a larger goal, but it’s not a requirement.”

Older adults often discover a sense of purpose from taking care of grandchildren, volunteering, becoming involved in community service work or religion, she said. “A purpose in life can arise from learning a new thing, accomplishing a new goal, working together with other people or making new social connections when others are lost,” she said.

Tara Gruenewald’s research highlights how important it is for older adults to feel they play a valuable role in the life of others.

“I think what we often lose as we age into older adulthood is not a desire to contribute meaningfully to others but the opportunity to do so,” said Gruenewald, chair of the department of psychology at California’s Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University. Her research has found that people who perceive themselves as being useful had a stronger feeling of well-being and were less likely to become disabled and die than those who didn’t see themselves this way.

“In midlife, we contribute to others partly because it’s demanded of us in work and in our social relationships,” Gruenewald said. “As we grow older, we have to seek out opportunities to contribute and give to others.”

Some researchers try to tease out distinctions between having a sense of purpose and finding meaning in life; others don’t. “Practically, I think there’s a lot of overlap,” Boyle said.

After Barry Dym, 75, retired a year ago from a long career as an organizational consultant and a marriage and family therapist, he said, “I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life.”

Answering that question wasn’t difficult; certain themes had defined choices he’d made throughout his life. “What gives meaning to me is helping people. Trying to have an impact. Working with people very closely and helping them become much better at what they do,” Dym said in a phone conversation from his home in Lexington, Mass.

In retirement, he’s carrying that forward by mentoring several people with whom he has a professional and personal relationship, bringing together groups of people to talk about aging, and starting a blog. Recently, he said, he wrote about discovering that he feels freer now to “explore who I am, where I came from and what meaning things have to me than at any other point of my life.”

And therein lies a dilemma. “I feel of two minds about purpose in older age,” Dym said. “In some ways, I’d like to just shuck off that sense of having to do something to be a good person, and just relax. And in other ways, I feel deeply fulfilled by the things I do.”

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

KHN’s coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation.


My Work…

The ability to think critically and creatively are more in demand than ever before as our world becomes increasingly complex and as thinking skills continue to decline.  The MLA program that I oversee at Baker University seeks to engage students in a lifelong practice of critical, creative thinking that can immediately find application in their careers, communities and personal lives.  I can’t think of a better way to simultaneously spend several years exploring fascinating topics taught by passionate teachers AND gain the type of critical, creative thinking skills so desperately in need by industry, organizations, and our society.  As highly sensitive people it is incumbent on us to push our limitations, develop our capacities and engage our creativity in ways that allow for a fuller blossoming of potentialities in service to our often deep need for meaning in life.

I am very proud and humbled to lead this program as the chairman and I challenge any HSP considering a masters degree to consider this wonderful program.  We highly sensitive peoplee must move beyond the simplistic wrangling we so often see with simple descriptions of what it means to be an HSP and on to what it means to apply and embody it in a complex world.  In hindsight, the MLA at Baker University is the degree I WISH I had sought when I was in graduate school!

On a personal note the MLA program is one of the endeavors I engage with on a daily basis.  I teach in the program as well as lead and though it took many years to find a place in life where the challenges were sufficient and recuring (due my being a sensitive, sensation seeker) I feel a sense of placeness with this program that makes me think my contributions are meaningful, necessary, and generative beyond myself.  My path to teaching and administration (like the paths of many sensitive, sensation seekers) was unlikely and fraught with obstacles and setbacks but through resilience, perservance, and a belief that my capacities mattered I completed what became quite an organic journey.  The journey would have been much richer and fuller in the MLA program.              -Tracy Cooper


Why Growth Most Often Occurs When We Fall Apart

The avoidance of pain and discomfort seem as natural a pursuit as may be imagined but in doing so we may deprive ourselves (and others) of the opportunity for real personality growth. Kazimierz Dabrowski proposed that disintegration can be a positive event when the individual uses the experience to advance to a better version of self. In that sense, disintegrative experiences, though painful and chaotic at times, may be thought of as positive. Positive disintegration is the process by which we learn from the negative events that take place in all of our lives. Though few wish to suffer on purpose when we face times of disintegration we can use them to our advantage as we work to reach our fullest potential.

In the following article, by Michael Aaron, we learn more about positive disintegration. My book, Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person, also contains an entire chapter on how Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration applies to highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people.

6760230467_2816bfbaa3_bIn many ways, our current society is set up to avoid as much pain as possible. Whether it is new technology, new medical or pharmaceutical advancements, or the self-help industry, everything is set up to make our lives easier, simpler, and more uniquely tailored to our every individual need. Even the names of products such as the iPhone and iPad nod to the symbiotic merger of products and people.

But the question remains, does all of this avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure really make us any happier or more resilient? Obviously, new technological and medical advancements have helped millions of people rise out of poverty or overcome disease, but overall our social levels of happiness haven’t risen. Indeed, studies have shown that use of social media such as Facebook is correlated with depression and unhappiness. Other studies have shown that there is some increase in levels of happiness when individuals rise out of poverty, but material possessions beyond that don’t make much of a difference.

Anyway, this avoidance of pain isn’t just relegated to technology and consumerism but has also seeped into other areas of society such as education, team sports, and parenting. Such media outlets as the New York Times have bemoaned the rise of participation trophies for all kids, arguing that kids lose out on meaningful life lessons such as the value of competition and working hard for achievement, and are instead saddled with a growing sense of entitlement. The Atlantic has published such articles as “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “The Overprotected Kid,” and “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” criticizing the safety bubble that our society has created around young people to seemingly protect them from even the slightest threat of pain. Indeed, in “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” the author, Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist herself, states that many of her millennial clients “just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose” and “their biggest complaint was they had nothing to complain about!” These were all folks with doting parents, no trauma whatsoever in their past, but still unable to create an adult life for themselves.

I would argue that many, if not most of the preventative measures, used to protect our young people from pain are actually counterproductive and go against sound psychological principles. Adversity is often the catalyst for growth and personal change. Just as evolutionary forces operate on the macro level, adversity forces individuals to adapt to challenging circumstances, furthering their own evolution. Now, when I speak about adversity, I don’t mean extensive trauma, as is assessed by such instruments as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey, which has demonstrated negative life outcomes correlated to the number of adverse childhood experiences. Rather, I’m talking about painful and challenging life experiences that don’t necessarily qualify as trauma (although as I’ve written about before, trauma is not a fait accompli and everyone responds to trauma differently, sometimes without any symptoms at all).

Disintegration | by edwin_young, labeled for reuse, Flickr
Source: Disintegration | by edwin_young, labeled for reuse, Flickr

Indeed, one prominent psychological thinker believed that adversity was the instrument of growth and centered his entire career around this central idea. Let me introduce you to the work of Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, and his theory of positive disintegration. Dabrowski theorized that individuals that were born “gifted” needed to go through several existential trials in order to reach their potential and free themselves from social indoctrination. This process, which takes five distinct levels, can only be catalyzed by adversity and challenging life events that force the individual to re-examine his or her every belief and will, in conclusion, lead to the kind of self-actualization written about by other humanistic thinkers such as Abraham Maslow.

Let’s take a brief look at all five levels to give you a better idea of the core concept. The first level is called Primary Integration. People at this level are often influenced primarily by either prominent “first factors,” such as heredity or “second factors,” such as the social environment. Dabrowski believed this level was marked by selfishness and egocentrism, justifying all pursuits through a kind of “all about me” thinking.

According to Dabrowski, the shift to level two, Unilevel Disintegration, occurs as an initial, brief and often intense crisis or series of crises. Unilevel Disintegration may often occur as a result of developmental crises such as puberty or menopause, in periods of acute stress from external events, or under “psychological and psychopathological conditions such as nervousness and psychoneurosis.” Ultimately, the person is thrust into an existential crisis, in which one’s pre-determined beliefs no longer make any sense. During this phase, existential despair is the predominant emotion.

Level III, Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration, describes a subsequent process of coming into awareness of multiple levels of understanding. In simple terms, it’s a dawning realization of what “ought to be” versus “what is.” The individual begins to contrast their behavior with higher, imagined ideals and alternative idealized choices. Dąbrowski believed that the authentic individual would choose the higher path and if their behavior fell short of the ideal, then internal disharmony would drive the individual to review and reconstruct one’s life. In this way, the individual is propelled by existential angst from Level II to come into contact in Level III with higher ideals to which he or she then aspires to.

In Level IV, Organized Multilevel Disintegration, the person takes full control of his or her development. The spontaneous dawning of Level III is replaced by a deliberate, conscious and self-directed review of life from a multilevel perspective. The person consciously reviews his or her existing belief system and tries to replace lower, automatic views and reactions with carefully thought out, examined and chosen ideals, which increasingly become more reflected in the person’s behavior. In this way, behavior becomes less reactive, less automatic and more deliberate as behavioral choices fall under the influence of the person’s higher, chosen ideals.

Art of the Brick | by wiredforlego, labeled for reuse, Flickr
Source: Art of the Brick | by wiredforlego, labeled for reuse, Flickr

And finally, the fifth level, Secondary Disintegration, involves an integration of the lessons learned in the previous levels into a cohesive, stronger, and more authentic character. At this highest level, one’s behavior is guided by conscious, deliberately weighed decisions based on an individualized and carefully chosen hierarchy of personal values. In this stage, the individual reaches higher levels of authenticity and congruence.

I find this theory to be a very elegant explanation of human potential and the process of growth and change. Fundamental to this framework is that no change can occur without some sort of conflict or distress that interferes with the homeostasis of the system. Adversity is an essential ingredient that throws the individual into an existential crisis, forcing him or her to go through an awareness of operating in low consciousness and a subsequent process of self-examination leading to further growth.

Dabrowski’s work can be dismissed as highly theoretical, but extensive evidence suggests that protecting individuals from pain or adversity only serves to hamper their development. Instead, I propose that we must continuously strive to find new ways to expose ourselves to hardship that places us outside of our comfort zones. Indeed, as I’ve written about in my book Modern Sexuality, the edges right outside of the comfort zone are where most learning and growth occurs. Instead of seeking safety in comfort, we need to seek out opportunities to expose ourselves to the possibility of falling apart and remaking everything we once thought we knew. In short, we need to expose ourselves to positive disintegration.

About the Author

This Is Your Brain on Trauma


Remember the old 1980s commercial “This is your brain on drugs?”  Here we have your brain on trauma.  For many highly sensitive people (HSPs) early childhood trauma creates real differences in the way our brains function as compared to those who suffered no trauma.  The following short article by Jennifer Sweeton offers us a quick view of the three main areas of the brain that may suffer as a result of trauma.

Highly sensitive people, or those who have the innate personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity, process all stimulation in a more elaborate fashion in the brain.  Negative events, in short, affect us more deeply and for a longer period of time than they might for those without the trait.  Early experiences with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can impart lifelong issues with anxiety, depression, shyness, antisocial behaviors, and self-destructive tendencies.  Perhaps half (or more) of HSPs suffer from mutliple ACEs and may benefit from mindfulness training or other brain retraining practices that serve to strengthen the thinking and emotion regulating centers of the brain while quieting the fear center.  My advice to HSPs suffering from ACEs is to work on learning to quiet the brain before seeking psychotherapy.  Psychologists can only be of real value if one is calm enough to engage the thinking center of the brain and not be overly dominated by fear and anxiety.  This is not an easy task and you should not feel like there is a pill to cure your problems.  It will require that you do real work on yourself to quiet the “monkey chatter” in your brain.  Humans are primates and subject to the same tendencies for anxiety and fear as any other member of the great ape family.  The difference is that humans have a greater capacity to reason and think through why we are feeling fear or anxiety and take action to improve our lives.  

Concurrent with learning to recognize and control our emotions and moods is the desperate need to control our thinking (fair-minded crititcal thought).  Most people operate on an unconscious or automatic thinking level where they fail to apply effective thinking strategies to the demands of modern life.  The more we are able to apply critical thinking to our lives the more we are able to understand why we may be feeling fear or anxiety.  Once we know why feel a certain emotion we can choose to let it pass or focus on resolving it.  Emotions are there to serve as activators of survival behaviors.  Fear and anxiety are there to alert us to a threat or danger to which we may need to take possible action (run away, defend ourselves, etc..).  When we experience ACEs in childhood (and beyond) our fear center is overactivated and alerts us to threats that may not be real or as severe as we are feeling.  Combine that with lessened connectivity between the thinking and emotion regulation centers of the brain and you have a recipe for reacting to normal stimuli with unwarranted fear and anxiety.  

Let’s be clear: anxiety and fear are no fun!  They can be paralyzing and defeating to those who are experiencing them.  For people with an overactivated fear center life is full of threats and anxieties that serve to very effectively limit their ability to realize their potential; even hold a job and support themselves.  This isn’t always true and many people with ACEs are able to function well in life and in their careers but not without work on their parts to mitigate the overactivated fear response and emotion regulation.  Indeed, research has shown that having even ONE caring, safe relationship can lead to better outcomes in life.  Would you believe that some people do not have that ONE safe relationship?  It’s true and they struggle mightily if they do not give up altogether.  

I implore you to carefully examine how you respond to life’s demands.  Do you overreact with fear, seeing threats and danger at every turn while others seem to register nothing unusual?  Do you feel extremes of mood and emotion in normal circumstances where others seem to be more balanced?  Do you act out of fear or anxiety without thinking any of it through?  If your answer is yes you may be able to help yourself through beginning to work on your inner life through exercise, meditation (in whatever way works for you), and seeking the skilled help of a therapist who specializes in trauma and PTSD.  Understand and be prepared for the reality that the single best indicator of improvement will be your willingness and desire to get better.  There is no magic pill nor can a therapist heal you.  It is on you to do the work and take the journey to greater well-being and well-functioning.  Take heart though in the fact that you are probably more resilient than you think, more aware of your issues than you give yourself credit for, and desirous of improving the quaility of your life for yourself and your family.

Tracy Cooper, PhD

This Is Your Brain on Trauma



Approximately 50 percent of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, and not everyone will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways that everyone should be aware of, especially if you or someone close to you is struggling to cope after trauma. With increased awareness, you can seek treatment to address your symptoms and learn skills that could actually rewire your brain for recovery. Additionally, knowing what’s going on can be immensely helpful because it may help you realize that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person. Instead, you can think of a traumatized brain as one that functions differently as a result of traumatic events. And just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can also change in response to your future experiences. In other words, the brain is “plastic,” and you can change it.

3 Areas to Know

Trauma can alter brain functioning in many ways, but three of the most important changes appear to occur in the following areas:

1. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), known as the “Thinking Center”

2. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), known as the “Emotion Regulation Center”

3. The amygdala, known as the “Fear Center”

The PFC, or thinking center, is located near the top of your head, behind your forehead. It’s responsible for abilities including rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others. When this area of the brain is strong, we are able to think clearly, make good decisions, and be aware of ourselves and others.

The ACC, or emotion regulation center, is located next to the prefrontal cortex, but is deeper inside the brain. This area is responsible (in part) for regulating emotion, and (ideally) has a close working relationship with the thinking center. When this region is strong, we are able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to send a snarky email to a coworker, the emotion regulation center reminds us that this is not a good idea, and helps us manage our emotions so that we don’t do things we regret.

Finally, the amygdala, a tiny structure deep inside our brain, serves as its fear center. This subcortical area is outside of our conscious awareness or control, and its primary job is to receive all incoming information – everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – and answer one question: “Is this a threat?” If it detects that a dangerous threat is present, it produces fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive, and vigilant.

What’s Going on in a Traumatized Brain

Traumatized brains look different from non-traumatized brains in three predictable ways:

1. The Thinking Center is underactivated,

2. The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated

3. The Fear Center is overactivated.

What these activations indicate is that, often, a traumatized brain is “bottom-heavy,” meaning that activations of lower, more primitive areas, including the fear center, are high, while higher areas of the brain (also known as cortical areas) are underactivated. In other words, if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation. You may also have a hard time feeling safe, calming down, or sleeping. These symptoms are all the result of a hyperactive amygdala.

At the same time, individuals who are traumatized may notice difficulties with concentration and attention, and often report they can’t think clearly. This, not surprisingly, is due to the thinking center being underactivated.

Finally, survivors of trauma will sometimes complain that they feel incapable of managing their emotions. For example, if someone spooks them, they may experience a rapid heart rate long after the joke is up, or may have a hard time “just letting go” of minor annoyances. Even when they want to calm down and feel better, they just can’t. This is in large part due to a weakened emotion regulation center.

What You Can Do Now

Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time. The best gift you can give yourself toward this goal is psychotherapy. If you’re ready to start that journey, look for a psychologist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, and who uses evidence-based methods that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.

Also, consider adding a body-based or mindfulness-based technique to your daily routine, to help begin deactivating the fear center. This is a vital first step to healing, as when we are able to quiet the fear center, we are better able to work on strengthening and activating the thinking center and emotion regulation center. Two such exercises include diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training. (Access free, guided practices of these techniques HERE.) The recommendation is to practice these techniques, or similar ones, for short periods of time multiple times per day. Remember, practice makes progress.

About the Author

Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper provides consulting services on a one on one basis to HSPs in career crisis or transition.  He also appeared in the documentary Sensitive-The Untold Story.  His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.

Why Men Commit Suicide: The Three Warning Signs Most People Miss


The singer from the rock group Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, passed away this past week due to a postulated suicide.  High profile performers pass away every year and we take little notice but Cornell’s suicide has hit many of us deeply because he was not an angry young man with a death wish nor was he apparently exhibiting signs of being depressed or suicidal.  When I heard of his passing early in the morning I was dumbstruck because of his status as a statesman of rock who had already passed through the gauntlet so many young men face just starting out in life where intense pressures to perform, achieve, and “be a man” become real and ever-present.  I considered Chris Cornell to be well-adjusted for a rock star.  He had a great marriage, two beautiful children (a preteen and a teen), plus an older daughter from his previous marriage.  By all accounts, he was devoted to his family first and career second, which makes suicide nearly inconceivable (at least that is how I felt and still feel).

My family has also been touched by the suicide of a male member when I was a young teen when my uncle decided to end his life after learning he had cancer.  That was my first experience with death and I was terribly confused about why he would choose to end his own life and leave behind so many hurt and wounded family members (a feeling that persists to this day).  My father also attempted (or at least dramatically stated that was his intention) suicide when he yelled at everyone to “get out” because he was going to shoot himself.  We waited outside in complete horror for the gunshot that thankfully never occurred.  Ironically, he was to pass away just a few short years later in 1982 (his outburst had been several years earlier in the late-1970s when men bottled it all up until they exploded and seeking mental health care was considered a sign of weakness for a man, in fact, it still is).

While I was serving in the US Army in 1984-85 in Germany there was a time when overwork and stress were contributing factors to a period of intense feelings of hopelessness, despair, and anger.  I was likely in an episode of what could have been diagnosed as major clinical depression but, again, mental health is and was a taboo subject for men and I never sought treatment (I did get better as it was mostly situational).  Depression, anxiety, and battles with self-esteem, self-worth, and low self-efficacy have been near-constant companions throughout my life, much as for Chris Cornell, and at the age of 50 I very oddly feel myself entering an age of statesmanship similar to Cornell where others look to me as a realized human being with valuable experience and insights.

The reasons why a man might decide to commit suicide are many and vary from man to man but some of the underlying motivators are similar as pointed out in the article below by Jed Diamond.  For highly sensitive men (and, yes, it is okay to be a man and  highly sensitive) the challenges are many with regard to feelings of aloneness, being a burden and not feeling afraid to die.  HSPs, as we know, are prone to depressive and anxious thinking due to more elaborate processing of experiences on many levels.  Over the course of years/decades, the wearing effect may take a tremendous toll on our bodies, minds, and spirits.  Sometimes it may seem impossible (or implausible) that we serve as vessels capable of containing so much emotion, feeling, and thoughts.  Some of us do so only with the aid of alcohol, drugs, or other crutches or coping mechanisms, while others develop a deep spirituality or self-care practices that sustain and calm us in a sea of swirling forces threatening to pull us apart at the seams.

However we face life, the awful challenges of developing real friendships that can sustain us, feeling as if we are productive and pulling our own weight, and not subscribing to an overly hegemonic ideal of manhood as not fearing death or pain weighs on every man, indeed every person alive.

As highly sensitive men perhaps one of the purposes we may serve to the world is to embody and exemplify deeper understandings of life and what it means to be truly alive in a world that seems hell-bent on the mindless pursuit of efficiency and productivity at the cost of our humanity.

I don’t believe we can arrive at the answers through the loss of one person but we can and should begin the dialog around what it means to be deep feeling, deep thinking, and creative in mind and soul in ways that empower populations, sustain and nurture our families, and enhances our communities.  We, as highly sensitive men, are imbued with a gift that may be difficult to navigate in our dualistic world but that offers the potential of a broader definition of real humanness than would otherwise be possible without us.

Stand up and be counted sensitive men!  Stand up and be who and what you are with no apologies to anyone.  Embrace and embody your true strengths of character for a world desperately in need of compassionate leadership.  Your strengths of empathy, creativity, and sensitivity far outweigh their weaknesses of single-mindedness, superficiality, and lack of emotional depth.  Your strength is your heart, your creative soul, and your fortitude in the face of untold days that could have claimed you anywhere along the way.

This world needs men who will stay around and teach the children, support and grow others to their full potential, and pass on what we have learned about getting through life as complex beings riding the knife-edge of sanity/insanity, riding the emotional waves rather than being swallowed in the undertow, and leading societies that have long ago lost their way in favor of crass, materialistic idols of gold and silver.  Sensitive men, the challenge for you (and me) is to lead through a quiet strength of character that others feel no fear of because it is open, inviting, warm and human.  That, my friends, is worth staying alive for…

~Tracy Cooper, PhD


Jed Diamond, P.h.D, looks at suicide in men from both an individual and societal vantage point and gives ways to prevent it from happening. 

Recently I received a review copy of the book, Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success by Thomas Joiner, Ph.D. I was happy to offer a review. Dr. Joiner is one of the world’s leading experts on suicide and has published two previous books, Myths about Suicide (Harvard University Press 2010) and Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press 2005).

Dr. Joiner and I share a professional interest in suicide prevention. Suicide is a major world-wide epidemic taking the lives of over 1,000,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization. Estimates suggest that 10 to 20 times more individuals attempt suicide.

Self-harm now takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.

Our personal lives have also been touched by suicide. My mid-life father tried to commit suicide when I was 5 years old. Although he lived, our lives were never the same.  I grew up wondering what happened to my father and was terrified that the same thing would happen to me. My life-long interest in men’s health grew from my desire to help men, and the women and children who love them, to understand what causes men to give up on life and what we can do to keep them engaged.

Dr. Joiner’s father, also named Thomas, killed himself when Dr. Joiner was in his third year of graduate school. Although the senior Thomas was depressed, he didn’t seem like a suicide risk. As reported by Tony Dokoupil in a recent article, The Suicide Epidemic, “the 56-year old Joiner was gregarious, the kind of guy who was forever talking and laughing and bending people his way. He wasn’t a brittle person with bad genes and big problems. Thomas Joiner Sr. was a successful businessman, a former Marine, tough even by Southern standards.” As it turned out, these “manly” traits may have contributed to his demise.

Joiner remembers the day his father disappeared. “Dad had left an unmade bed in a spare room, and an empty spot where his van usually went. By nightfall he hadn’t been heard from, and the following morning my mother called me at school. The police had found the van. It was parked in an office lot about a mile from the house, the engine cold. Inside, in the back, the police found my father dead, covered in blood. He had been stabbed through the heart.”

The investigators found slash marks on his father’s wrists and a note on a yellow sticky pad by the driver’s seat. “Is this the answer?” it read, in his father’s shaky scrawl. They ruled it a suicide, death by “puncture wound,” an impossibly grisly way to go, which made it all the more difficult for Joiner to understand.

Suicide is a Primarily Male Problem

In his latest book, Lonely at the Top, Joiner asks, “which cause of death stands out as affecting men far more than women?  Given their privileged financial and society status, perhaps it has something to do with the dark side of wealth and power such as the cardiac or stroke-related consequences of influential but stressful jobs, or a taste for expensive but unhealthy foods?”

“No,” he says, “It’s suicide.” Approximately 30,000 people commit suicide each year in the U.S. and 80% were men. Overall, males kill themselves at rates that are 4 times higher than females. But in certain age groups men are even more vulnerable. The suicide rate for those ages 20-24 is 5.4 times higher for males than for females of the same age.

In the older age groups suicide is even more a “male problem.” After retirement, the suicide rate skyrockets for men, but not for women. Between the ages of 65-74 the rate is 6.3 times higher for males. Between the ages of 75-84, the suicide rate is 7 times higher.  And for those over 85, it is nearly 18 times higher for men than it is for women.

A New Understanding of Why People Die by Suicide 

Joiner is 47 now, and a chaired professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. He’s made it his life’s work to understand why people kill themselves and what we can do to prevent them from taking their lives. He hopes to honor his father, by combating what killed him and by making his death a stepping stone to better treatment. “Because,” as he says, “no one should have to die alone in a mess in a hotel bathroom, in the back of a van, or on a park bench, thinking incorrectly that the world will be better off without them.”

Dr. Joiner has proposed a new theory of why people commit suicide which he believes is more accurate than previous formulations offered by writers like Edwin Schneidman, Ph.D. and Aaron Beck, MD. According to Schneidman’s model, the key motivator which drives people to suicide is psychological pain. In Beck’s understanding, the key motivator is the development of a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Dr. Joiner suggests that these are correct understandings but are also too vague to be useful for predictive purposes and not capable of offering a complete motivational picture.

Joiner proposes that there are three key motivational aspects which contribute to suicide. These are: 1) a sense of not belonging, of being alone, 2) a sense of not contributing, of being a burden 3) a capability for suicide, not being afraid to die. All three of these motivations or preconditions must be in place before someone will attempt suicide.

Although women, too, can take their own lives when they suffer at the intersection of  “feeling alone, feeling a burden, and not being afraid to die,” this is clearly a more male phenomenon.  Throughout our lives males take more risks and invite injury more often.  We are taught that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and “no pain, no gain.”

We often invest so much of our lives in our work, when we lose our jobs or retire we feel worthless, unable to contribute.  It’s a short step to feeling we are a burden on those we love.  We also put less effort into developing and maintaining friendships so we can come to feel more and more alone.

Preventing Suicide In Men

I’ve found that Joiner’s model, what he calls the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, can be very helpful in understanding suicide risk in men. The three overlapping circles help alert us to the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves if we want to prevent suicide. Joiner and his colleagues have developed a questionnaire that addresses these issues. Here are a few of the items they assess:

Thwarted Belonginess:

These days, I feel disconnected from other people.

These days, I rarely interact with people who care about me.

These days, I don’t feel I belong.

These days, I often feel like an outsider in social gatherings.


Perceived Burdensomeness:

These days the people in my life would be better off if I were gone.

These days the people in my life would be happier without me.

These days I think I have failed the people in my life.

These days I feel like a burden on the people in my life.


Capacity for Suicide:

Things that scare most people do not scare me.

The sight of my own blood does not bother me.

I can tolerate a lot more pain than most people.

I am not at all afraid to die.


Like most people, I’ve had thoughts of suicide at numerous times in my life, but the one time I felt at high risk of actually killing myself was when all three sectors overlapped. I was lucky that my wife was smart enough to remove the guy from the house until I saw a therapist and got into treatment for my depression and my suicide risk subsided.

Some people believe that if a person is going to kill themselves, there’s nothing one can do. If you try to stop them, they’ll just bide their time and do it later. However, we now know that suicidal intention is transient. If we can get support to get through those times when we feel disconnected, a burden to others, and having the means and mind-set to actually kill ourselves, we can begin to develop the social supports to turn things around.

I suspect the difference between James Joiner’s dad and my dad wasn’t their level of  “thwarted belongingness” or “perceived burdensomeness” but my father’s lower capacity for suicide. Disrupt one of the risk circles and we buy ourselves more time to heal.  Making a connection can be as simple as a smile. I read the report of a man who left a note as he walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. It said, “If one person smiles at me, I won’t kill myself.”  The note was found after he had plunged to his death. We can all reach out, in our own way, and touch someone who may feel disconnected, disrespected, and useless.

We can also let in the love when we are feeling down. I remind myself, and my clients, to take heed of the lines from the Eagles song Desperado.  “You better let somebody love you, you better let somebody love you, you better let somebody love you…before it’s too late.”

If you’re dealing with feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide, help is available.  800-273-TALK (8255) is on-call 24/7 if you need to talk, or reach out to a friend or health professional in your life.


Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper provides consulting services on a one on one basis to HSPs in career crisis or transition and to high sensation seeking highly sensitive people on general topics.  He also appeared in the documentary Sensitive-The Untold Story.  His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.

Buy a Franchise or Start from Scratch? New Business Considerations

Starting any new business requires a tremendous effort to put together a viable business entity, as a consequence, many first-time business owners take a serious look at franchising.  Franchising is purchasing a turnkey business system already proven to work by a parent company.  They often provide training to new franchisees, ongoing support, and expertise.  In return the franchisee is obligated to follow their business model, providing the services or products according to a strict protocol.  In effect, a franchisee operates a somewhat independent branch location of its parent company and remits a percentage of profits to the franchisor.

Seems like a good idea right?  Buy a franchise where someone else has already worked out how to succeed?  Just follow their roadmap to success and fortune!  The flipside of this is a different story and one that HSPs need to be fully aware of before treading down the franchisee road.  In the following article, by Jason Daley, we learn about the real survival rate of franchised businesses.


This story appears in the August 2013 issue of Entrepreneur.

“Imagine you’re thinking of leaving your job to open a business and decide to do a little research into franchising. A Google search may lead to an evenly balanced sermon on the pros and cons of franchise ownership. Or you may land on this gem from About.com: “Some studies show that franchises have a success rate of approximately 90 percent as compared to only about 15 percent for businesses that are started from the ground up. The increased probability of success usually far outweighs any initial franchise fee and nominal royalties that are paid monthly.”

Most experienced franchisees would laugh themselves hoarse after reading that statement. But what about a novice entrepreneur who is considering going it alone? That’s the type of thing that might get their heart set on franchising.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that About.com is not alone in espousing such numbers. That claim and myriad variations are all over the internet, from business articles written by people who should know better to puffery put out by franchise brokers and consultants. It’s known as “The Stat”–the notion that franchises have a success rate of 90 to 95 percent–and it has helped fuel franchise fever for decades. It’s also completely unproven.

As an industry model, franchising has been poked and prodded and analyzed by economists since its inception. There are figures on how much franchising contributes to the economy, ownership rates among various demographics, loan performance and a monthly index that shows the strength of the sector as a whole. But that one stat, the success rate of franchised businesses vs. independent shops, has had the biggest impact, even though its origins are dubious. In the absence of solid data, The Stat, which is based on a discredited study, has stepped in to fill the void.

Bad information is the bread and butter of the internet, but this particular nugget is especially troubling. Franchising is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the U.S. for a reason–it has suffered from high-profile cases of misrepresentation and fraud. Critics point to The Stat as a willful misrepresentation and an attempt to sucker people into buying franchises. In many ways it really does lure people into franchising, even if a franchisor has never made the claim. The ubiquity of The Stat means that many candidates come into their businesses thinking franchise ownership is practically guaranteed success.

Robert Purvin, who believes his 1994 book The Franchise Fraud was the first to cast doubt on The Stat, contends it has had an even bigger impact. “Even if the success rates were true, focusing on franchising as a path to riches instead of small-business ownership has caused the industry to evolve in ways detrimental to franchisees,” he says. “They’ve become less and less protective of franchisees over the years.”

The Stat was not just created from whole cloth. In the 1980s, the U.S Department of Commerce published the results of a voluntary survey of nearly 2,000 franchisors who submitted data disclosures. Some analysts interpreted the data to say that over a five-year stretch, 5 percent of units closed. Flip that around, and you have the stat that franchises have a 95 percent success rate over a given five years. Here’s the catch: The data was not audited, and since franchisors chose whether or not to answer the questions, it is likely that the pool of respondents included more successful franchises than unsuccessful ones.

The Stat, with the imprimatur of the Commerce Department, took on a life of its own. Even after the survey was discontinued and the International Franchise Association sent out a letter asking franchisors and brokers to scrub the stat from the web–a request it has repeated several times since–it has been difficult to close Pandora’s box. The SBA has also put out numerous calls over the years to disregard the data, making its latest plea last fall.

But many in the industry haven’t gotten the message. “It’s amazing the number of franchise brokerages still putting it on their website,” says franchise consultant Joel Libava, who has written several articles critical of The Stat. “It gives prospective buyers a false impression. There’s enough spin out there telling people to buy a business in a box or turnkey business. The Stat welcomes them to take a risk and make bad assumptions about their chance for success.”

The main reason The Stat has survived a quarter century of rebuttal and criticism is that no credible number has emerged to replace it. The SBA has released papers showing that in the early 2000s, defaults on its loans were higher for franchised vs. independent businesses. But the most comprehensive study was conducted in 1994 by Timothy Bates, professor emeritus at Wayne State University. His analysis of more than 20,500 small businesses found that 65.3 percent of franchises survived after four years, compared to 72 percent of independent businesses. Retail franchises fared worse, with a 61.3 percent survival rate, vs. 73.1 percent of independent retail businesses.

Brian Headd at the SBA’s Office of Advocacy points out that all these studies are long in the tooth and don’t represent the current economy. More broadly, he questions the overall usefulness of calculating franchise success rates at all. “Survival isn’t everything,” he says. “Business owners have to make up startup costs and try to break even. Just existing for five or six or seven years doesn’t necessarily mean success.”

So why has no ambitious economist or franchise maven taken on the research? Jania Bailey, president of franchise brokerage FranNet, says looking at franchising as a whole would be extremely difficult, and the results would likely not be useful. “You’d have to look at the FDDs [Franchise Disclosure Documents] of 3,100 companies in 80 industries,” she says. “There are new franchises and mature franchises. The success rates between the two are going to be night and day.”

However, her company did want to investigate the success rate of its own clients, so last fall FranNet looked at 1,500 individuals it had helped get into franchised businesses between 2006 and 2010. According to the internal research, 91.2 percent of the businesses were still open after two years, and 85 percent were operating after five years. But Bailey is quick to point out that those stats don’t extend to franchising in general–she attributes the high success rate to the FranNet system. “Arguably, the time period we studied had the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression,” she says. “That success rate speaks volumes about our ability to match a person and their skill set to the right franchise concept.”

Libava, a former FranNet franchise broker, is skeptical of any studies that attempt to quantify franchising as a whole. Each case is unique, he argues, and success is mediated by the performance of individual franchisees, not by the strength of the franchising model. “Here’s how I look at it: The perfect franchise candidate is in the perfect time of their life, has funds and chooses the right franchise for his geographic area,” he says. “A lot of things have to line up, and if they do, I feel in my heart a franchisee has a better chance of success than an independent startup. But there’s no guarantee of that.”

Headd at the SBA takes a more practical view of success. His research has shown that bigger fish tend to survive longer, whether they are independent or part of a chain. “The bottom line is, the larger you are at startup, the more likely you are to stay open,” he says. “It helps to start larger and faster, but it has a cost. And it’s up to the individual to decide if franchising is the right formula for them, or being independent.”

Purvin agrees that research that lumps together thousands of unrelated business concepts, from gyros to muffler repair, into one statistic is ultimately meaningless. “Franchising is just a way of doing business; it’s not a script for success,” he says. “The world is constantly evolving, and all of those ‘proven’ systems have to evolve, too. Proven success does not guarantee success tomorrow. Look at McDonald’s: Thirty years ago it was focused on burgers and shakes; now it’s a coffee shop. It has constantly innovated. Any company standing still and focused on its ‘proven method’ is a company that will be a dinosaur. Buying a company that holds back from change is not a path to success.”

So are franchises more successful than independent businesses? Bailey at FranNet believes franchising can have benefits over going it alone, but she’s not willing to put a number on it. “I think the crux of what we do and the reason we’re so committed is that franchising works,” she says. “You have the support of the franchisor and the experience of other franchisees. You have a back room you don’t have when you go out on your own.””

Source article: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/227394

Franchise consultant Joel Libava uttered perhaps the best line in the article when he stated “Here’s how I look at it: The perfect franchise candidate is in the perfect time of their life, has funds and chooses the right franchise for his geographic area,” he says. “A lot of things have to line up, and if they do, I feel in my heart a franchisee has a better chance of success than an independent startup. But there’s no guarantee of that.”  The implications for the aspiring HSP-entrepreneur are that timing is crucial (one is more likely to succeed if the timing is right in one’s life); money is available beyond the startup costs, and the business idea can find a market niche in one’s area.

My feeling is buying a franchise can be a good way to get into business but don’t expect that it will provide all of the answers or that it will remain a viable business model in our changeable world.  It’s also obvious that some HSPs would wish to avoid excess worrying about business matters by buying a franchise.  HSPs are excellent planners but may also be excessive worriers fraught with anxieties and what-ifs.  The resulting “analysis paralysis” can be too much for some and they drop the whole idea.   My advice is to investigate the franchise’s business model with a critical thinking eye looking for inconsistencies in their story and flaws in their model.  Use the Socratic method to ask questions, questions, and more questions.  If a franchise cannot stand up to intellectual scrutiny how can we expect it to be flexible enough to survive in a rapidly changing business climate?  Do you really want to pin your wagon to that star?  Couple that with what may be the actual success rate and you may be just as well off (perhaps more so considering your absolute flexibility as an independent business) going it alone.

Highly sensitive people have a marginally rare personality trait (Sensory Processing Sensitivity) that may facilitate thinking and feeling from a complexity perspective with a broader possible range of behaviors and thoughts but that only means potential not promised.  Use your deep-thinking capacities to engage on a logical level with the problem of starting a business and weigh the pros and cons of each side (franchise versus independent).  You may say “But, I’ll just use my intuition and gut-instinct to guide me!”  Good luck with that!  You’ll be served far better with logic and careful thought informed by instinct than instinct alone.  Creativity requires that we approach any new endeavor from a complexity perspective.  The root of creativity is critical thought!  Once you move beyond thinking of creativity as being associated solely with an end product (artwork, performance, or the realm of artists) you see that creativity is for everyone but it does demand leaving behind neat little boxes of thought in favor of ambiguity and the unknown.  Through the use of careful, fair-minded thinking, informed by feeling and instinct, you may arrive at a consensus regarding whether you are better off buying a franchise or being an independent businessperson.

For more considerations on starting a business for the highly sensitive person see my article Entrepreneurship for the High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person? You Betcha! or Considerations for the High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Entrepreneur.

Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper provides consulting services on a one on one basis to HSPs in career crisis or transition.  He also appeared in the documentary Sensitive-The Untold Story.  His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.

Are Highly Sensitive People Mentally Tough?

The current popularity of concepts like grit, hardiness, and mental toughness seem determined to popularize the notion that if we only learn to suppress the finer parts of ourselves that feel, think, and thoroughly plan we can live up to an illusion of “toughness.”  Applying the conceptualization of mental toughness to highly sensitive people in this post I carefully examine the major aspects of mental toughness and suggest ways Sensory Processing Sensitivity not only may provide certain advantages but may be uniquely suited to the overall description of mental toughness.

Mental toughness might be interpreted as stigmatizing sensitivity but let’s look at the definitions from two major groups of researchers:

“Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.” (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002, p. 209).

Here, the part about being “more consistent and better than your opponents…in control under pressure” could as well apply to sensitive people as not. We know that many sensitive people make fantastic performers (including in sports). While we may not be the most vocal of people all the time when we choose to step into the spotlight we may have spent a great deal of time thoroughly considering the nuance of a given task or role before performing.

This more thorough processing (considering of pitfalls, risks, etc..) would actually place sensitive people at an advantage over those without the trait. Similarly, being in control “under pressure” would be more likely the more thoroughly we have considered the ways it could all go wrong. It is true that sensitive people do less well when being observed performing a task but I think that is generally due to absorbing the judgemental energy we might feel in such a situation and being unpleasantly stimulated by such energy.  It’s just as likely a sensitive person would be able to ignore that energy as not because we are so variable in how express the trait. It is a huge disservice to all sensitive people to generalize what we may be like in a given circumstance.

Performance depends on the individual with each individual choosing to react differently. Moreover, “remaining determined, focused, and confident” does not seem to imply that sensitive people would be less so than anyone else. Determination is primarily a measure of commitment to completing a task. Sensitive people are known to exhibit a deep sense of conscientiousness thus we would be more likely than average to want/need to complete any task we undertake. Within that determination sensitive people are also known to be able to focus quite intently on the task at hand and would likely do well at remaining focused unless distractions arose that served to interrupt that intense focus. We do focus better in reasonably distraction-free situations which if you consider the nature of many sports (especially individual sports like running, golf, archery, cycling) allows the individual to control his environment or at least to work within a controlled environment (quiet golf course, minimal noise from observers, etc..).

Confidence is another matter and arises as a matter of feeling that we are matched to the task (not overly so), that we find the task interesting in some sense, and that we are intrinsically motivated. When these align any person (sensitive or not) would feel a fair degree of confidence.

“Mental toughness in Australian Football is a collection of values, attitudes, behaviors, and emotions that enable you to persevere and overcome any obstacle, adversity, or pressure experienced, but also to maintain concentration and motivation when things are going well to consistently achieve your goals. — Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2008, p. 278”

This conceptualization of values, attitudes, behaviors, and emotions is quite different in that values attitudes, behaviors, and emotions are primarily a product of culture. Culture imparts to us everything from what it means to be male or female to what emotions that culture has defined as acceptable to express (including behaviors). As such, how sensitive people would perform under such a construct would depend on how deeply ingrained they are in a culture and how much they choose to subscribe to notions of acceptability for each aspect.

Many sensitive people prefer to live outside the norms (not necessarily by choice) because they inherently occupy a greater possible range of emotional expression and potential behaviors than in those without the trait. In a sense, it is probable that sports (and many other activities) demand a specific range of behaviors that are associated with a lack of emotional expression (not just on the outside but a suppression of emotion inside) that sensitive people find to be superficial and limiting.

This is not true for all sensitive people of course and I am sure many find sports to be a way to decrease stress, increase dopamine, and enjoy the outdoors. There is also the potential for any task to become a flow experience which is always a plus. If there were one aspect of the above model I think sensitive people might struggle with it would be suppression of feeling emotion. We do feel emotions quite deeply and that leads to a need to cognitively process those feelings (and the myriad thoughts that often arise) quite thoroughly.

We sensitive people are very good at learning from the past (or should be by the way the trait is conceptualized) with emotions serving as the cognitive triggering mechanism leading to thorough processing in the brain. Nevertheless, sensitive people who have matured and lived long enough may be as adept at understanding why they’re feeling an emotion (and subsequently thinking it over or not) as anyone else. Sensitive people who have not learned how to process their emotions and control how they react may be at a disadvantage.

How we process emotions is determined by a number of factors but I’ll focus on just our historical precedent for dealing with emotion. For those sensitive people who learned early in life that others are not to be trusted (people who have suffered abuse, neglect, trauma) processing strong emotions may always pose a challenge because their brain architecture (hard-wiring) is different due to trauma and the need to remain hypervigilant to avoid injury or threat. When we are hypervigilant the fight or flight response is prematurely activated, we intuitively leap to conclusions and react before thinking it over. In that regard, and for those sensitive people with a traumatic background who have not sought effective healing and recovery, the ability to process emotion (including how we react) may be impaired making them less able to encounter strong emotions and address them with an effective skillset. That being said, I have encountered a number of sensitive people from such backgrounds who perform in professions such as nursing where patients die in front of them and they do as well or better than others. Perhaps they are able to compartmentalize emotions or possess a dedication to being conscientious or simply are more accustomed to dealing with high intensity situations and do not register the depth of feeling for the moment. It is a strange paradox.

Overall, mental toughness as a cumulative construct does not seem to denigrate Sensory Processing Sensitivity if we consider each aspect of the two constructs carefully. On a superficial level, we might assume “sensitive” people would be fragile, unstable, or less capable of handling demanding circumstances but that would be a gross overgeneralization that cannot possibly apply to over a billion people (15-20% of the overall population).

It is imperative to bear in mind that any personality trait may only represent a possible set of potential behaviors. One thing we know from human history is that anyone is capable of anything at any given time, thus limiting our ability to categorize sensitive people in a lesser category when it concerns potential performance or mental toughness. It is also worth noting that sensitive people’s broader possible range of feeling, internal processing, and behaviors uniquely qualify us as more capable than those without the trait (in some ways) because we may simply move further down the continuum of possible behaviors in a given circumstance and display adaptive behaviors.

All personality traits were evolved to solve two problems: problems of survival and problems of reproduction.  Sensory Processing Sensitivity has some obvious advantages in greater attention to details (especially visual), greater empathy (being able to read other people), thorough processing of stimulation before taking action (think first act later), and greater emotional responsiveness in general (always felt but not necessarily acted on).  Keep in mind that a personality trait need not have provided a massive advantage to have escaped the evolutionary sieve.  Even a minor advantage might have enabled the continuation of a trait and they still exist simply because nothing better has evolved to replace them.  Nature also works by varying a theme, not reinventing the wheel every time.  The binary quality of two eyes, two hands, two legs (in all their variations in animals, fish, birds) simply adapts a theme.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity provided an advantage to our ancestors in survivability and reproduction and still exists today though in specific cultural contexts today that may inhibit or limit its effective expression.  Culture is the water a fish swims in without knowing it is in water.  We exist within culture and espouse views we are sure are our own but are largely products of cultural conditioning.  Mental toughness is such a construct that is rooted in the western societal notion of efficiency, productivity, and perseverance at the cost of our humanity.  Certainly, it is important to exhibit goal persistence in striving to achieve but it is precisely through the very qualities that highly sensitive people embody in the trait that we may reach those goals.


Jones, G.; Hanton, S.; Connaughton, D. (2002). “What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers“. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 14 (3): 205–218. doi:10.1080/10413200290103509

Gucciardi, D.; Gordon, S.; Dimmock, J. (2008). “Towards an Understanding of Mental Toughness in American Football”. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 20 (3): 261–281. doi:10.1080/10413200801998556

Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper provides consulting services to those in career crisis and transition at his website: drtracycooper.com.

The Value in Bad Moods

Is the baseline of human emotion constant happiness?  Should it be?  What effects does a perpetual state of happiness have on cognitive abilities?  On empathy?  In the following article by Kira Newman we learn how pursuing a perpetual state of happiness can impair our ability to connect meaningfully with others, how it can affect our ability to analyze situations, and how others manipulate us to feel good so they can exploit our temporary inability to analyze and discern a good deal from a bad one.

We highly sensitive people process emotions more deeply than those without the trait (sensory processing sensitivity).  This deep processing of all experience can be a heavy burden to bear as we feel the emotions in our bodies and minds.  Often we may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of an emotion, especially when we reason that it may be out of proportion to the stimulus.   We know from the research that HSPs tend to dislike superficial conversations, instead preferring the deeper, more meaningful discussions of greater importance.   This likely has as much to do with wishing to avoid overloading on stimulation as a desire to connect more deeply with others.  I submit to you that positive emotions certainly are a good thing that we should cultivate but neutral states are also perfectly acceptable, even desirable many times as we seek to rest and recharge.  As HSPs we experience more complex states of being with a broader possible range of emotional expression.  Many of us have learned to hide these away from a world that neither understands nor values this emotional depth but I suggest to you that you hold that part of yourselves to be precious and indispensable to who you are as a sensitive being in a world of madness.

In a sense, HSPs may serve as the torchbearers for empathy leading to compassion, positive action in the world fueled by an appreciation and understanding of complexity, and a willingness to remain open where the world constricts and seeks to revert to harsher, crueler times.  Your variety of moods, thoughts, and feelings are the finer senses of the species and should be treasured as such.

Tracy Cooper, PhD

In a Bad Mood? Studies Show Why That Can Be a Good Thing

Five reasons why the quest for constant happiness is misguided.

Like many seekers of happiness, I once aspired to feel good as much as possible. There’s probably a part of everyone that would prefer to avoid life’s more difficult, or even mundane, feelings—and self-help books assure us that we can, if only we adopt the right attitude.

Perpetual joy is not a practical goal.

Yet most of us know that perpetual joy is not a practical goal—and recent research is starting to suggest that it may actually be a harmful one. Scientists are discovering that feel-good states can be detrimental to our problem-solving, judgment, morality, and empathy in the moment.

The upshot? Context matters.

On the whole, it’s absolutely beneficial to be someone for whom feeling good comes easy, who can appreciate a good meal, connect warmly with others, and dream up sunny possibilities for the future. But our whole spectrum of different feelings, from anger to elation, evolved for a reason: to help us confront and handle challenges to survival. There are times in life when feeling positive won’t help—and could even hurt.

1. When you’re working on critical reasoning tasks

Research suggests that positive feelings can help us be more productive at work overall and more adept at creative tasks, particularly those that involve brainstorming responses and ideas. But a positive mood isn’t conducive to the best performance on certain analytical tasks.

In a 1989 study, researchers induced a positive mood in half the participants by either giving each of them $2 or showing them a funny video. Then, everyone read an editorial they disagreed with—except some editorials contained strong, thoughtful arguments, and others contained weak arguments.

Under time pressure, the amused participants were equally persuaded by the strong and weak arguments, couldn’t remember as many of the points made, and relied on shortcuts more in their evaluations (whether the author was a scholar or not) compared to the control, non-amused group. (When amused participants had more time, these patterns disappeared: They read for longer, and then they were more likely to be persuaded by strong arguments, remembered more details, and didn’t tend to rely on shortcuts.)

Serious focus may not be pleasant, but it may be the optimal mood for certain tasks.

In a 1995 study, a group of around 60 undergrads solved syllogisms—logic problems that ask you to deduce conclusions from statements like “All A are B” and “Some B are C.” Again, a group that had been induced to feel amused performed worse. They spent less time working on the syllogisms and drew fewer diagrams to help solve them. They also gave riskier “all” or “none” answers (rather than “some”), perhaps indicating that they were overoptimistic about their problem-solving abilities.

The authors of a different study from 1994 offered this interpretation:

“Happiness is a kind of safety signal, indicating that there is no current need for problem solving. … Unhappy people will think more deeply about their social environment (in an effort to solve their problems), whereas happy people can contentedly coast on cruise control, not bothering to think very deeply about surrounding events unless they impinge directly on their well-being.”

A 2000 study complicates the picture a bit, though. Here, students read moral dilemmas and had to pick the best arguments to solve them; their performance was rated more highly if they chose arguments that were more principled and abstract, rather than concrete and simple. In this situation, amused people took longer and performed worse. But this wasn’t always the case: When students imagined themselves in the moral dilemma, or when the moral dilemma was serious and disturbing, involving war or racism, the amused students performed just as well as those in a neutral mood.

In the end, the type and even the content of the task we’re working on matter. For some parts of the work we do, particularly tasks that involve logical reasoning and critical thinking, positive emotions may not be the best helper. In other words, don’t expect yourself to feel joyful proofreading a document or formatting a spreadsheet; serious focus may not be pleasant, but it may be the optimal mood for certain tasks.

2. When you want to judge people fairly and accurately

Cognitive psychologists classify stereotyping as a form of “heuristic processing”: using general knowledge about a group to efficiently make predictions about individual members. In this sense, stereotyping is a kind of superficial thinking—and people in a good mood may be prone to it.

In a 1994 study, participants were asked to make judgments about student misconduct; some had been induced to feel good by remembering and writing about a happy event from their past. The researchers were trying to find out if participants feeling good would make more stereotyped judgments: judging the Latino student guilty of assault or the track-and-field athlete guilty of cheating.

People who are in a good mood are sometimes more likely to jump to conclusions about others.

And so they did. (Notably, researchers were able to overcome this bias by telling happy participants that they would be held accountable for their judgments and should be able to justify them—effectively increasing their motivation to make good judgments with external accountability, and eliminating stereotypical reasoning in the process.)

People feeling amused also made more stereotypical judgments in a 2000 study: Here, they were more likely to (incorrectly) identify African-American-sounding names as belonging to criminals or basketball players. They didn’t make the same mistakes with European-sounding names. Participants in a neutral mood weren’t as likely to fall back on stereotypes.

However, other research has shown that white people in a happy mood show less implicit bias toward African American faces—so, again, the effects may be complex. Perhaps it matters whether we come face to face with the people we’re judging, where a happy mood may help dampen our fear response to unfamiliar faces.

In any case, it’s still true that people who are in a good mood are sometimes more likely to jump to conclusions about others—and less likely to consciously correct for any stereotypical notions they harbor.

3. When you might get taken advantage of

The 2000 study also found that feel-good participants were prone to applying European American names to politicians—a (theoretically) positive bias.

If feeling good inclines us to see certain people in a positive light, does that mean it might make us more likely to be manipulated? Maybe.

In a 2008 study, nearly 120 students were induced to feel amused, neutral, or sad (by watching a comedy video, a nature documentary, or a film clip about cancer). Then, they watched interrogation videos where other students lied or told the truth about stealing a movie ticket. Overall, the negative-mood group was better at detecting deception than the neutral or positive groups, correctly identifying the liars more often.

A negative mood makes us process information in more detailed, systematic ways.

Researchers believe this is because a negative mood makes us process information in more detailed, systematic ways, and also makes us more likely to recall other negative information (like when our roommate lied about stealing our Pringles).

People intuitively seem to realize this: When we express high levels of happiness, research suggests, we are perceived as more naive and are more likely to be targets of exploitation than when we express moderate happiness. This explains why we wait for people to be in a good mood before we ask for favors, hoping that they won’t be as critical and careful in considering our request.

4. When there’s temptation to cheat

In some cases, feeling good may also compromise our morality.

In a 2013 study, 90 students were induced to feel either positive or neutral by watching clips from a cartoon or something resembling a screensaver. Then, they were instructed to complete a crossword-puzzle-type task, grade their own work with an answer sheet, and compensate themselves 50 cents for each correct answer. Although the worksheets appeared to be anonymous, invisible ink let the researchers figure out who was honest and who wasn’t—and the amused group stole more money than the neutral one.

In some cases, feeling good may also compromise our morality.

In surveys, the amused group reported being more morally disengaged—more apt to come up with justifications for immoral actions without judging themselves harshly. In this case, for example, they might think, “I’m not getting paid enough for this boring experiment, and I could have found more words if I tried harder.”

Interestingly, these effects disappeared when the researchers put mirrors in their workspace, making them more self-aware.

“Although conventional wisdom would suggest that happy people are less likely than unhappy people to be dishonest, our work suggests that anyone who buys into this simplistic cliché might be blindsided by the stealth behind the smile,” the researchers write.

5. When you’re empathizing with suffering

Research suggests that being happier in general makes us kinder and more generous. But people who try to feel good all the time, at all costs, can miss some opportunities to connect with others.

A 2014 study, for example, found that positive people less accurately empathize with certain negative emotions. Over 120 young adults watched four videos where people described good or bad events in their own lives (e.g., winning a scholarship or having a dispute with a landlord). During the videos, the participants continuously rated how they believed the storyteller was feeling on a scale of one to nine, changing their rating any moment they sensed an emotional shift. Those ratings were compared to the storytellers’ ratings of their own feelings over the course of the video.

In general, positive participants—those who reported experiencing positive emotions more in general—were more confident in their empathic skills but weren’t actually any better at identifying the storytellers’ emotions than other participants.

In fact, when the storyteller was describing a high-intensity negative event, like the death of a parent, positive people were less accurate than their peers. For whatever reason, they seemed unable or unwilling to engage with such difficult emotions.

“It perhaps takes more sacrifice to ‘drop down’ and focus on another person’s high-intensity negative emotions, and this may be particularly difficult to do” for positive people, the researchers explain.

People who try to feel good all the time, at all costs, can miss some opportunities to connect with others.

If there’s anyone in your life with inveterate positivity, you’ve probably experienced something similar. When I share my anxiety or sadness with a hyper-positive friend of mine, he usually insists that the situation doesn’t merit despair, or reassures me that everything will turn out okay—neither of which make me feel better (or understood).

Should we give up on feeling good?

Clearly, while feeling good does feel good, it doesn’t always bring us the success and connection we desire. It doesn’t seem ideal in all situations for all outcomes, meaning—as evolutionary psychologists could have already told us—that other, less-blissful feelings serve a purpose.

Indeed, according to a survey of more than 35,000 people, those who reported high levels of positive emotion weren’t as protected against depression as those with high emodiversity—those who experienced many positive and negative emotions, from awe and amusement to anger and sadness.

And that’s another point worth making: “Feeling good” doesn’t always refer to the same feeling. Much of the research focused on amusement, induced by watching a cartoon or a standup comedian. And none of the studies looked at warmer, more interpersonal feelings like love and compassion.

In a quest for more happiness, I once tracked my mood every hour for a month, hoping to identify the downers in my life and try to eliminate them. But instead, I came away from that experiment a little less concerned about my negative moods—because they never lasted! Each hour brought a new feeling with a different cause, and I realized I didn’t have to stress so much.

Similarly, this research might help you relax about yesterday’s bad mood—and give you a greater appreciation for all sorts of feelings.

This article was originally published by Greater Good. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism, consider subscribing to YES! today.

Kira M. Newman wrote this article for Greater Good. Kira is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter @KiraMNewman.

Considerations for the High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Entrepreneur


So, you want to go into business for yourself.  You want to be your own boss, call your own shots, and set your own schedule.  What kind of considerations should you take into account before going into business for yourself?  There are at least a hundred but here let’s focus on just three: making sure your inner house is in order, your business idea is sound, and your commitment is long-term.  Without any of these three your chances for success will be greatly diminished.

Spring Cleaning Your Inner House

Being in business for yourself may seem like a great idea because it offers many aspects that may be attractive to the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person like opportunity for new and novel experiences, a sense of personal control that allows you to potentially stay ahead of boredom, and a certain bucking the system of wage slavery and corporate malfeasance that you find compelling.  In order to have a reasonable shot at success we must first ensure that we have done the personal, inner work on ourselves that sets up the conditions we will need to be successful on a sustainable basis.

By inner work I mean we need to be aware of the factors in our lives that limit us like Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs).  ACEs occur in childhood and may deeply impact brain development in ways that cause us to overreact to ordinary stimuli, experience less connectivity in important parts of the brain regulating emotional control, and deal with the world on a perpetual fight or flight stance.  ACEs need not have been severe or long-lasting to have had a profound effect on us as highly sensitive people.  Highly sensitive people may have been significantly affected by domestic violence in the household, personal experiences of neglect, abuse, or trauma, or similar events in the school experience.  The more ACEs we have the worse our anxiety, depression, and fear may be at taking risks, feeling confident we can master new tasks, or tolerating ambiguity which abounds in small business.

To heal from ACEs, and other events that have scarred us in life, it is important to first acknowledge that they occurred and that we may have been powerless during those times.  It is also important to learn to practice self-care in a way that places emphasis on our needs.  Too often self-care is sacrificed to satisfy the harsh demands of a society that neither feels nor values those who do.  Learning and appreciating that we are whole people with particular needs that need to be met before we can perform at our best isn’t whining, it’s winning!  If you cannot or will not take care of yourself (mind, body, and spirit) you will crash and burn under the weight of starting and running a small business.  Get your inner house in order first before tackling the demanding world of small business.  By ensuring that you have sufficiently addressed your inner issues you decrease your own anxiety and stress thereby enabling you to be a more effective entrepreneur.

Tips for spring cleaning your inner house:

  • Reconcile any issues you may have that may be contributing to limiting your ability to function well in the world. This may require a great deal of reading, research, even booking sessions with a good therapist but will pay off in the long run.
  • Set personal boundaries and learn to stick to them. If you let people run all over you now, what will be different when you’re in business for yourself?  Know how and when you allow people to unreasonably cross boundaries and work on being more firm.  This means learning to say no and not feel guilty about it.  You’re a highly sensitive person, not a pincushion.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps you are fabulous on the telephone dealing with customers (and, yes, many highly sensitive people make awesome performers) but don’t do as well in face-to-face situations.  You can choose to either work on your face-to-face skills (and, yes, they can be learned by even the most reclusive hermit if the desire is there) or find ways to get around it (choosing a business with less face-to-face for instance or hiring people who are good in those situations).
  • Know and appreciate that inner work is never finished. There are always bits and pieces that crop up from time to time and will remind us (sometimes unpleasantly) of past ACEs.  In these times it is important to acknowledge how far we’ve come, how capable we have been in dealing with obstacles, and how we are doing our best at any given moment.  Never give up on yourself even if you are down for the count at times.  Tomorrow is always a new day.
  • Develop a self-care practice that you take as seriously as your spiritual life. Our bodies are very simply biological organisms capable of providing a finite amount of clear decision-making time on a daily basis.  We need to know how our bodies work, when our peak times are (and they may be completely off-cycle with the world), and work with that instead of against it.  Get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, get enough exercise and sunshine, and keep your emotional well-being in tune by developing one or more practices that calm the mind and keep you in tune with your body.  We enjoy good health as we age because we work at it, not because it’s a right.

Sound business idea

One we have effectively addressed spring cleaning our inner houses we need a good business idea.  There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of business ideas.  Anywhere there is a human need there is a business idea waiting to be filled.  Even where a need does not exist currently but will there is a need waiting to be filled (though we may need to obviously do some education).  Of the hundreds of business ideas you will note that some come with more inherent control than others.  Purchasing a franchise for instance may be a low risk way to get into a proven business winner but you will also cede a great deal of control to the franchisor and will likely be required to work in the business a set number of days.  Not for you?  Perhaps you’d be better off inventing a new business or adapting an existing idea.  We do not need to reinvent the wheel just to be in business.

Some great businesses are simply variations on a theme.  I once worked for a printing company whose business strategy involved not going after the big clients.  Rather, they chose to go after all the “leftovers” the big printing companies didn’t want to deal with (not enough profit, difficult customer, etc.).  They are a perfectly successful and thriving business yet started as a franchise that grew too big to constrained by the franchisor rules.  They rebranded, relaunched and today do very well.

There’s much talk in HSP circles about “finding your bliss,” “working from the heart,” or other feel-good catchphrases but I’d like to throw cold water on most of that by informing you that business is tough and few people care that you love what you’re doing.  Your potential customers come to you because you can fill their need (or at least they perceive that you can).  If you also like/love what you happen to be doing for a business that’s a bonus.  Life doesn’t have to be perfect and you shouldn’t expect that being in business will be easy or necessarily pleasant all of the time.  It shouldn’t be defeating otherwise why not just work for someone else and forget the hassle?  Be realistic about self-employment and don’t let your intuition take you from A-Z without understanding there’s a whole world of complexity from B-Y.

What makes a sound business idea?   A sound idea is one you can quantify as holding potential.  That means you have data showing there are potential customers or you have experience working with these potential customers in a previous capacity.  Some ideas are time-tested and will always hold good potential, ie., the trades (car mechanic, HVAC repair, construction remodeling, cleaning, etc.), healthcare-related concepts (because people will always be sick at some point, perhaps you can prevent this in your idea), or require a service you can provide (notary public, pest control, home inspector, or home organizer).  The point here is you do not need a million-dollar idea because you don’t need to make a million dollars.  You just need to make enough for yourself and your family.  Perfectly viable ideas exist that you can build up into very good businesses that will allow you to escape from wage slavery, no control over your waking hours, and the madness that can be the modern workplace.

Your business idea should:

  • Be doable given your financial means. Ideally you will start a business with no money borrowed from any source.  If that isn’t feasible you will have done your homework and have taken a well-calculated risk on your ability to pay back your loans.
  • Be realistic given your skills, experience, and geographic area. You may have always been told that you can “do anything you want if you just try.”  I’m here to tell you that you won’t be becoming a lawyer without years and years of education and training beyond school.  If your dream doesn’t fit your skills, experience, and capabilities you don’t have a good idea.  Within that reality we must be realistic and admit that growth is an inevitable part of starting a business.  You may not know everything at this moment (even in the first few years) but you will learn.  You will make mistakes but you will learn and, in time, you will be a seasoned businessperson who has hopefully taken on a challenging idea (but not completely out of your realm of possibility).  The best business idea is one that works for you given your unique characteristics as a person.

Where you live may also play a crucial role in choosing a business idea.  Will your business cater to local people, will it be internet-based, or otherwise not bound by your location?  If it is a local business you will need to know your market, where the gaps are, and how you will fill them.  If your business is non-local you still have to know your potential customers because your marketing efforts will have to key into their needs and convince them that your business is worth a try.  Internet-based businesses suffer from many issues but one of the chief issues is the fierce amount of competition.  Think you have a great idea?  Check the internet and make sure there aren’t already a million others doing it better.

  • Be something you do not absolutely hate. You may not love but if it works well enough you’ll find ways to either improve on it or find fulfillment outside of work.  No one ever said work is the end-all and be-all of life.  If it comes down to working in your own business as a way of not having to work somewhere else you find more unpleasant you have a winning situation.  Be realistic though, you do not need to love what you do.  It helps if you like it but love is optional and perhaps unrealistic in many areas of the world.  Acknowledging that this blog is read by HSPs all over the world I am sure many are shaking their heads in agreement.  Loving what you do is a luxury of countries with high qualities of life where people do not necessarily live hand to mouth.

Lastly, a good business idea is one with potential for growth.  Few things will end your business over time like stagnation.  If you’re cutting edge today you will not be in five years.  Entrepreneurs know that business concepts are constantly evolving to keep up with customer needs.  To do that you need to be in it for the long-term.

Long-Term Commitment

Depending on your age when you enter your new small business you may not think about the long-term but realistically business changes, customers go elsewhere, and you bore of treading the same pathway every day.  People quit businesses out of boredom and as much as desire to do something different as any other reason.  Some people will undoubtedly find being in business will alleviate many of the problems that brought them to entrepreneurship and be very grateful for what they have been able to achieve while others will need to move on to other things.  Regardless, once you have one business going it is relatively simple to set up another business and over time juggle several at once.  I am doing this very thing right now managing drtracycooper.com (a career consulting business for HSPs), a “real” job as a Program Chair for a Master of Liberal Arts degree at Baker University, and my newest venture ProHealth Advocates, llc which is a patient advocacy consulting business I will run the business side of but not otherwise work in.  I do expect to have to devote varying levels of time, effort, and energy to all three, plus continue to push for new angles and possibilities.  It’s likely I’ll start other businesses as well.  You should too.

You might think “this all sounds kind of rough and tumble for an HSP!”  Not at all, you have it wrong!  Highly sensitive people are emotional powerhouses who may use their emotional energy in creative ways to do whatever they like.  As an HSP you certainly have the qualities that would make a decent entrepreneur: more elaborate processing of stimulation in the brain, sensitivity to subtle cues, high empathy (possibly compassion too), high creativity (not just the art kind), and a keen sense of curiosity.  Put those to work for yourself and you can do quite well no matter where you are or what your situation.  You are an innovator, so go innovate!  Even if you don’t feel like you have a grasp on the above qualities you are likely deeply conscientious which can still take you far in many circles.  However, you choose to look at Sensory Processing Sensitivity what you really have is a marginally rare personality trait shared by over one billion people.  Don’t get too stuck on it and don’t let it define your life.

Long-term commitment to your new business/s means you are willing to:

  • Face failure when it happens, laugh in its face and try again.
  • Invest your life energies into something that matters to you and not be an observer.
  • Work to overcome your fears and anxieties while also working to embrace your creative nature. Business is scary but so is wasting your life in a job you hate.  You only live once and for a finite amount of time; make the most of it.
  • Tolerate some ambiguity to allow for a space in which your business can grow. As a creative person, you know ambiguity is necessary to facilitate room to grow.  Linear thinking will only take you to C from A and B.
  • Develop friendships with other entrepreneurs HSP or otherwise. Nothing will sustain you more than knowing you’re not alone.


Starting a new business requires that we know ourselves, that we are not needlessly hauling harmful emotional baggage behind us, and that we develop sound business concepts that we can commit to for the long-term.  As creative, sensitive individuals HSPs and HSS/HSPs may be in a unique position to innovate, create, and occupy a position in the world that is unique to us.  Though your business need not be the next great idea it may be one in which you can thrive in the fullest possible sense of the word.  To thrive means you have found a balance and work hard to maintain it in all facets of your life.  Thriving implies engagement with challenging tasks and, as such, means you take on risk.  Minimizing that risk through careful research and planning coupled with a flexible, creative approach to concept evolution will keep you in balance no matter what happens in the world.

If you are astute and refuse to allow yourself to be defined by a label you will transcend yourself and become a new possible self; one that may potentially exceed your dreams.  Starting a business is a complex task, or series of tasks, but HSPs are used to complexity.  We live and breathe complexity in our daily lives as we process the whirlwind of stimulation that modern life surrounds us with.  It is through a desire to engage meaningfully with our capacities in a calm, rational way that we may find entrepreneurship offers us the greatest opportunities for growth and development.  To be an entrepreneur means we assume all the risks but we also enjoy all the rewards and if life has led you to self-employment you should endeavor to do it with all the creativity, energy, and enthusiasm you can muster.  You may just find that you’ve found your best path in life.

Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper also offers consulting to HSPs and HSS/HSPs on career transition and many other issues.  His website is drtracycooper.com

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