You’ve seen the movie, you’ve read the books, and now you’re feeling confident in your new found appreciation of sensory processing sensitivity. You have embraced what it means to be a highly sensitive person within your own self and now feel you are comfortable enough in this identity to tell others. Here’s the scene: you’re with a friend having lunch and the conversation is going well. She seems to be hitting on several points that tie in closely with your personality trait. You think she might even be an HSP! What better time to tell another person your newfound “secret?” You blurt out “I’m an HSP!” Quickly following that up with “That means I’m a highly sensitive person,” as your friend assumes a puzzled look on her face you’ve never quite seen before. “What does that mean? Are you gonna cry every time I say something?” “Are you easily offended?” OOPs! This has all gone sideways in ways you never imagined and you quickly try to explain how being a highly sensitive person simply means you have a specific personality trait that encompasses a depth of processing of all experience (you prefer to thoroughly process all stimuli before acting); a tendency toward overstimulation in certain, highly individualized situations; you may be deeply empathetic and emotionally responsive (more so than those without the trait); and you notice subtleties others may overlook. Your friend now seems a bit more interested, but you realize there may be a problem in divulging this “secret” to others.
To better examine this phenomena let’s look at a few of the complexities that may be causing us to misinterpret how revealing such an intimate aspect of our personality may be perceived.
When we divulge a major detail about ourselves to others we are separating ourselves from them. This is especially true if the person we reveal our trait to does not have the trait, or if the person is not self-aware or knowledgeable about personality traits. You would be amazed at how many people perceive personality traits as disorders to be classed in the same categories as actual disorders. People may react to this new information about you in ways that reveal disgust, surprise, anger, even happiness. Whatever the case we are creating a space between ourselves and “them” when we feel we need to tell someone the way in which we are different from them. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that human beings do not like being “othered,” or made to feel that they are somehow less than another person. This may be the case when we reveal that we are part of a unique 15-20% of the overall population. No one wants to be part of the other 80%. Everyone wants to feel they are unique and special in some way, especially in Western cultures where individuality is emphasized so profoundly.
Similarly it’s possible that the other person thought they knew you well and are caught quite off guard at this new information. There may be some resentment at feeling you were withholding vital information, thereby damaging the relationship (at least through hurt feelings). Not all people will react with horror at your revelation that “I’m an HSP!” Some will be quite ho-hum about it, not quite engaging you in the way you intended, which you probably wished to be excited interest so you could tell her all the details about this journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance you’ve been on. Others may be quite dismissive saying “you’ve read one too many self-help books!” In this case what they may be saying is at odds with your own deep need for self-awareness.
When we discuss anything related to mental health it is likely to be perceived through a deeply personal lens. In many Western societies awareness and understanding of mental illnesses is limited with many people gleaning their knowledge from firsthand experience with a particular disorder (a family member or friend). Often people will generalize based on one, isolated experience. For instance, let’s say your friend had a family member with bipolar depression and witnessed non-compliance with medications or mistreatment at the hands of therapists, or worse, witnessed episodes of crisis in the affected person. In some cases that single experience (with its intensely negative connotations) will form the person’s entire mental inventory related to all mental illnesses or anything related to personalities. Good luck explaining what it means to be a highly sensitive person to that type.
People are subject to intense peer pressure to ensure conformity to group norms. If a particular group (even an entire culture) is closed to acknowledging differences between people there may be tremendous pressure to deny or ignore scientific evidence supporting personality traits, even psychological research in general. In a modern age of easy access to all information (good, bad, and questionable) people may also be very skeptical about entertaining new ideas: we’ve become very jaded about the reliability of any one source (and justifiably so). The pressure to conform to group norms and beliefs is one of the strongest forces affecting behavior that is known.
“So what? You’re still a person like me who has to live her life!“ This response may make you feel devalued, but is also a pragmatic response in that we do indeed have to go on living our lives. The difference is HSPs may have slightly different needs that we must accommodate in order to function at our optimal level. It’s not news that the economic changes since 2008, coupled with a declining purchasing power of many currencies (in the US since about 1970), has made scarcity a more prominent issue for many people. When we operate on a scarcity mentality we are concerned with the basics of life: food, housing, clothing, transportation, and energy. Things that complicate or seem to otherwise hinder the single-minded pursuit of difficult to obtain resources may be construed as pointless, without merit, or counterproductive, hence, the “so what?”
Why do we feel a need to reveal an intimate aspect of ourselves like sensory processing sensitivity and how can we approach it better?
We may be excited to reveal a part of ourselves that we feel explains so much of our behaviors! This is a natural inclination and we may feel great joy at finally understanding this complicated aspect of ourselves and wish to share it with others. Admittedly, sensory processing sensitivity is a complex construct and may take any of us quite awhile to fully understand and appreciate its influence in our lives.
We should be selective in whom we choose to confide such intimate details to acknowledging the lack of awareness and acceptance that exists in the general public regarding personality traits and a general distrust of psychology and all things related to mental health.
You are under no obligation to reveal your personality traits to anyone. If you are an HSP it is likely that others already understand about you that you think and feel deeply; that you may be overstimulated in certain circumstances and situations; that you have a need to recharge in private; and that you are empathetic and sensitive to subtleties. You might be surprised at how astute others may be: HSP or not.
Be who you feel yourself to be while feeling no need to explain that to others. If you are capable of embracing who you are in a confident way it will invite others into your experience and let’s remember that HSPs do not exist in a void or vacuum. Your personality trait is simply an evolved psychological mechanism that provides you with a broader range of possible behaviors. Being an HSP does not mean you will constantly exhibit all of the possible range of behaviors, but at any point you may embody one or more.
By accepting and espousing the label, highly sensitive person (or HSP), you are placing yourself in a box. As I noted in my recent post The Homogenization of the Highly Sensitive Person it should not be our aim to think of ourselves in any one dimension, rather we should attempt to be all that we are capable of as human beings emphasizing that we are simply a segment of the species with a marginally rare personality trait evolved to meet the survival and reproductive needs of our species. In modern societies it may not seem that we are valued, understood, or appreciated, but there is a need for this trait in our world where duality (extremes of positions) seem to dominate with very little compromise in actually getting things done. As individuals capable of envisioning a broader range of complexity (coupled with our innate creativity) we are naturals for embodying complexity. Whether that is appreciated in our society is a different matter.
As a researcher, consultant, educator, and author who has spoken to hundreds of HSPs I am continually awestruck at the beautiful humanity we HSPs seem to embody, just in our being us. I’ve always been drawn to the eccentric, creative, deep-minded type of individual and I have never been disappointed in meeting an HSP. We may vary a great deal in how we express sensory processing sensitivity, but make no mistake it is a beautiful personality trait that serves to humanize our coarser edges as a species; provide creativity propelling innovation and progress; and contributes to thorough planning through reflection, contemplation, and connectivity. There is much more that makes us us, but each of us expresses that as uniquely as snowflakes in the winter.
Be yourself in the best way you can trusting that that confident embodiment is enough to invite others into your experience without any need on your part to “sell” the trait to others.
What have been your experiences in revealing to others that you are a highly sensitive person? Have they reacted positively, as if your sensitivity is not that much of a surprise or have they reacted with disbelief as if you’re embracing a nebulous concept with no scientific evidence or validity?
My experiences, though you might think I would have no problem telling others (or a need to) due to my very public exposure in Sensitive – The Untold Story or through my book Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, have been that I have felt the need to detail this aspect of my personality rarely. Others who know me know either view me as “way too quiet,” or think of me as a creative type (with stereotypical behaviors). Both are true, but the reality of who I am, and who you are, is so much more vast! To reduce us to labels (quiet, artistic, moody, etc.) is to deny the oceanic possibilities inherent in each person. Who would we seek to reduce people to mere labels, mere categories of people who will think and act in predictable ways? I suggest part of the answer is in our Western orientation toward reductionism, which is, simply put, a way of learning about something through reducing a complex construct to its individual parts trusting that by knowing each part we can see the whole.
The truth is reductivist thought often mistakes the trees for the forest. By revealing that I am an HSP (with the terribly unfortunate “highly sensitive” moniker) I would be projecting to others a narrow slice of my total being. Of course, the truth is much broader and we know that HSPs are generally curious-minded, open to new experiences, creative, and complex individuals capable of a broader range of possible behaviors and feelings (with accompanying depth of processing) than those without the trait.
Choosing to reveal to others our trait is always a calculated gamble. Perhaps they will be open to understanding, perhaps not. In some cases the advantages and risk of confusing looks and quizzical expressions (or just the nonplussed, deadpan look) are worth the discomfort because being understood by others in certain situations may be key to an effective relationship that takes into account our greater sensitivities for many things as well as our deeper processing of all experience. Understanding and allowing for those aspects can lead to better outcomes in some relationships (professional and otherwise).
If you DO choose to reveal sensory processing sensitivity I suggest you
- use the scientific term sensory processing sensitivity and not highly sensitive person.
- I also recommend articulating the fact that this trait has been well-researched by academically qualified scientists who publish regularly in mainstream peer-reviewed journals.
- You might include the recent fMRI studies showing slight anatomical differences in the brains of HSPs with greater activation in the areas controlling empathy.
- Certainly you would want to include that sensory processing sensitivity is a personality trait present in 15-20% of the total population and not a disorder of any kind with sensory processing sensitivity simply representing an evolved psychological mechanism that provides for greater survivability and reproductive success for the species.
- Lastly, you might mention that the trait is likely heritable, though no one gene has been identified yet, and is moderated by childhood environment (very important because HSPs from unsupportive backgrounds with abuse, trauma, or conflict in the household experience often lifelong issues with anxiety, depression, low self-efficacy, pessimism, and other negative trends due to greater processing of intensely negative experiences).