Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person is a book that was written for the 30% of highly sensitive people who are also high sensation seekers. I identify as a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person and have sought ways to learn more about my strong emotions, my need for new and novel stimulation, my susceptibility toward boredom, and my deep empathy.
Discovering Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person, and her peer-reviewed research papers, was the start of a long journey that would involve coming to terms with the entirety of what it means to be “highly sensitive” and its effects on my life. At first, I was put off quite strongly by the phrase “highly sensitive,” but, as I read and reread Elaine’s scientific papers I realized the construct was much more complex and meaningful than what at first glance appears to denote a person who is constantly overwhelmed, fragile, probably weak, and incapable of functioning in the world. Moving beyond that impression to an understanding of the construct as including strong, quick emotions, more elaborate processing in the brain, high empathy and emotional responsiveness, a sensitivity to subtleties others may overlook, and the vaunted sensory overstimulation, became key to unravelling the true complexity and beauty of the trait. The tendency for overstimulation I began to understand as highly individual with no two people experiencing a sense of overwhelm in quite the same circumstances. What bothers you may not bother me at all (or I may choose to block it out for the sake of the experience) and vice versa.
Once I was able to get beyond “highly sensitive” as sensory overwhelm, which it does include, but is so much more (as outlined above) it opened a doorway through which I was able to begin reconciling the research findings against my lived experiences. One aspect I especially connected with, in the research, was the inclusion of narratives from actual highly sensitive people. Being able to read their words was very helpful in relating to their realities. In some cases, I did not relate to their experiences at all and still wondered if I was on the right track. I had already studied introversion quite a bit and read about the thick and thin boundaries of Ernest Hartmann but felt that big pieces were still missing for me. The highly sensitive person construct tentatively brought me closer to a fuller explanation. Still, I was not convinced.
I had always been someone who needed new and novel stimulation, seemed to thrive on new activities and challenges, but burned out on them more quickly than others, and, consequently felt bored and ready to move on to the next thing before others. That sense of boredom had been palpable and painful to experience in work situations where the road ahead was simply “more of the same.” I had been forced to leave several positions due to this boredom, lack of challenge, and static nature of the work. There were costs to be sure and suffering aplenty. These may seem like objective explanations rooted in cold science, but, for me, and many HSPs making our way through life is quite a difficult task that is isolating, lonely, stressful, depressing, and exasperating at times. Why couldn’t I just be “normal?”
The more I learned about “normal” the more I realized how very arbitrary the notion is and the very different nature of people. Culture creates neat predefined boxes of expected behaviors, beliefs, and norms that we are supposed to fit ourselves into and live our lives based on the contents therein. In some regard, culture is a useful invention in that it allows us to pass on ways of being that are uniquely suited to a region, but culture also becomes dysfunctional and limiting in many cases serving to effectively suppress individual potential. For those of who feel marginalized by our cultures, the answers will not be found within them. We must go in search of deeper answers that are derived not through arbitrary means, but through deep self-reflection, logic, creativity, and with the help of others who are also on this journey.
When I discovered the construct of sensation seeking it was a moment of easy realization that I was a sensation seeker. Unlike high sensitivity I could relate easily to the explanations of boredom susceptibility, disinhibition, novelty and experience seeking, and thrill and adventure seeking. Each aspect seemed to manifest throughout my life intertwined with aspects of sensitivity. Unraveling that spider’s web of associations and influences would take far longer.
After writing Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career I was convinced that I needed to write a book just for high sensation seeking HSPs. I had encountered a number of sensation seekers during my study for Thrive and felt an immediate kinship with them that demanded further exploration. I dove in and conducted a qualitative study where I interviewed people who identified as high sensation seeking highly sensitive people (I had them take short versions of the sensitivity and sensation seeking tests as a verifying step), followed by a lengthy analysis phase where I identified common themes. In writing Thrill I wanted to avoid repeating myself and, instead, approach aspects like self-care and childhood experiences from a different perspective. I also wanted to find a way to contextualize our often difficult, chaotic lives.
I found a way to do just that in a theory of personality development by the Polish psychiatrist/psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski and his Theory of Positive Disintegration. Tackling something as broad as the theory of positive disintegration, in one chapter, is quite an undertaking as entire books have been written on it and there are conferences that meet to discuss the numerous ways positive disintegration applies to human life. In the end, I ended up presenting a strong introduction to positive disintegration that I think many high sensation seeking highly sensitive people will identify with. The context it provides for our lives moves beyond the limitations of psychological research. One of the major strengths of positive disintegration is in its conceptualization of inner struggles such as depressions and anxieties as something other than disorders to be medicated away. Psychotropic medications may be of utility to some people who are on the extreme edge of balance but otherwise are an abdication of other forms of therapy as ineffectual. In effect, what we are saying is “here, take this, we can’t help you.This pill will not fix your problems, but you won’t care anymore.” Going through life with half our brains numbed or otherwise shut off from normal stimulation is in many ways fast-forwarding through life without ever experiencing what it means to be alive. Certainly, some people benefit from medications (and from being extremely carefully medicated along with therapies), but I sensed that many of us don’t subscribe to the western cultural notion of an approved range of normalcy as a fitting or adequate explanation. Positive disintegration contextualizes our chaotic inner lives, often accompanied with strong emotions, curiosity, and creativity as necessary components in loosening inferior structures within ourselves to make way for higher and better structures (called levels in positive disintegration).
If you would like to better understand yourself as a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person Thrill is a great, broad-based survey of life book that will do just that. Thrill is the only book of its kind and the first to explore those of us who are highly sensitive and high sensation seekers. Even if you are not a high sensation seeker I am confident you will find Thrill to be of great value in illuminating your experience of life because our experiences are not so very different in the end. I intentionally avoid the tendency to homogenize what it means to be highly sensitive or high sensation seeking because to do so would be to create the same neat, predefined boxes our societies already have prepared for us. Instead, I advocate for each person becoming the fullest realization possible of inner instincts and drives guided by a personal set of ethics and morality.
At its beating heart Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person is a guide to the start of a spiritual journey of self-discovery and exploration that, at best, can lead us to greater altruism, less egoism, and greater well-functioning in the world in ways that acknowledge and privilege our need for reinvention, greater complexity, and fulfillment through service to others. At worst, we simply know ourselves better with greater clarity moving forward in life. I offer no quick fixes, no “8 steps to happiness,” or other superficial platitudes. What I do offer is solid research that is well-grounded in the best traditions of scientific research and aimed at providing you with good information you can read, reflect on, and decide how to act on in your life. My mission is consciousness-raising in others at a time when humanity seems to be devolving into anti-intellectual, anti-creative, deeply anti-social and militaristic ways of being and thinking.
It is through knowing ourselves and being at peace with who we are that we can stop projecting our insecurities, fears, and self-loathing out onto an innocent world. Self-knowledge, combined with altruistic action in the world that enhances connection to community and connection to ourselves is the goal of my research. I invite you to join me on the journey.
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and the new book Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. He provides consulting on a one-to-one basis from his website at drtracycooper.com.