Basics of Highly Sensitive People

From an interview earlier this year with Planet Mindful:

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

People who identify as highly sensitive have the naturally occurring personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.  Sensory Processing Sensitivity is present in at least 100 other species, is evenly distributed between males and females, and present in about 15-20% of the overall population.  SPS was first identified as a distinct personality trait by clinical psychologist Elaine Aron in 1996, further researched in the intervening 22 years by Aron and other researchers around the world and is the subject of the 2015 documentary film Sensitive-The Untold Story.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity may best be encapsulated as the following four key aspects:

Depth of processing of all stimulation.  Highly sensitive people (or HSPs) process everything they see, hear, smell, feel in a more elaborate way in their brains.  All personality traits serve the purposes of survival and reproduction in the ancestral time in which they evolved and SPS likely allowed those who thought more deeply about events, sensory stimulation, and people a slight advantage that likely translated to better survivability for their respective groups.  HSPs may be very deep-minded individuals who spend a good deal of time in self-reflection and considering the what-ifs of a given situation.  This propensity makes HSPs potentially very good planners, leaders, and counselors.

Overstimulation in certain highly individualized circumstances.  HSPs may feel overwhelmed by certain smells, lighting conditions, fluctuations of temperature, scratchy fabrics, certain types of noises, and strong interpersonal energetic interactions.  SPS works by the triggering of strong emotions leading to the depth of processing previously noted.  HSPs experience these emotions as particularly intense and may find it difficult to remain in overstimulating circumstances.  They often prefer to “get away” and recharge in quiet.  It is vitally important to note that HSPs are not a homogenous group.  Indeed, what bothers one HSP might not even register with another.  The sources of overstimulation for HSPs vary tremendously from person to person with males sometimes experiencing little to no overstimulation from sensory sources, but possibly from emotional sources.

Emotional responsiveness and High empathy.  Highly sensitive people have a broader possible range of emotional expression than in those without the trait.  A person without the trait may feel happy at, say, a child’s graduation, while an HSP may feel happy, sad, anxious, scared, confident, and ecstatic all at the same time.  This is not to say that HSPs are fragile, weak, hysterical, or emotionally unstable but they do have a broader possible range of emotional reactions.  Intertwined with this emotional responsivity is generally higher empathy.  HSPs may be good at identifying with the reality of other people more readily than in those without the trait.  Being able to step into another person’s shoes and see the world (or a given situation) from their viewpoint, without judgement, means HSPs may be very good at “reading” people.

Sensitivity to subtle stimuli.  Highly sensitive people notice visual information more acutely, pick up on subtle smells or sounds more readily than those without the trait, and generally are more sensitive to a range of subtleties than in others.  This keen sensitivity may make them very good at planning, developing alternatives, or noting details.

There is another personality trait about 30% of HSPs have; it’s known as Sensation Seeking.  Sensation seekers may identify with any of the four aspects below:

Thrill and Adventure Seeking – seeking physical thrills (roller coasters, rock climbing, fast cars, etc).

Novelty and Experience Seeking – seeking new experiences that provide a similar rush of dopamine in the pleasure pathway of the brain.  This may be going to new museums, new countries (or places one does not know) and doing new things for the sake of doing them.

Disinhibition – indulging in hedonistic experiences for the fun of it: parties, differing sexual partners, experimenting with drugs, going outside normal behavioral parameters for the thrill of doing it.

Boredom Susceptibility – propensity to become disinterested, lethargic or unmotivated at repetitious or uninteresting activities.

Being both highly sensitive and a high sensation seeker is quite a push-pull dynamic between the more cautious approach of the sensitive and the bolder approach of the sensation seeker.  Often, the sensation seeking side wins out and overwhelms the sensitive side resulting in exhaustion.  It is extremely important for sensitive sensation seekers to know themselves well and strike a balance between the two traits.  Sensation seeking is a naturally occurring personality trait (just like SPS) with several identified genes controlling its expression in the brain.  Being a sensitive sensation seeker, if one can strike an appropriate balance, may be the best of both worlds.

Are the brains of HS people different to other people’s?

There has been research conducted utilizing fMRI brain scans administered to highly sensitive people while they attended to various tasks.  The same scans were made of the brains of people without the trait and the results show that there is greater activation for HSPs in certain areas of the brain related to visual processing (specifically there is more activation in making fine visual distinctions in a scene), emotions, emotion processing and emotional memories.  There is evidence of sensory processing in the secondary visual system and the inputs to the autonomic nervous system/emotional responses being moderated by SPS.  HSPs exhibit greater neural response to happy and sad states of others especially in the insula and mirror neuron areas and show greater neural response to positive and negative images.  One study conducted to determine whether culture moderates brain response to basic sensory information showed that HSPs tend to ignore cultural biases in processing information.  The brains of HSPs work in a slightly different way with regards to the way they process stimulation of all kinds in a more elaborate way.

If someone if HS, what can they do to ensure they are not overwhelmed by their environment? (For example, noise, bright lights).

First, they will undoubtedly encounter overwhelming environmental stimulation from time to time and it is important to take steps to minimize the effects of overstimulation where possible.  It is important for HSPs to speak up and ask for less light, adjustments to temperature, or for distracting noises to stop.  In some cases, an HSP simply needs to take matters into their own hands and get up and move; if in a noisy restaurant or other public place where this is possible.  Where it is not possible, it’s important for the person to know they may need additional downtime to recharge after a particularly overstimulating event.  Developing and maintaining a rigorous self-care practice is key to managing overwhelm in our modern world.

There are many small ways we can manage overstimulation (or unwanted or unpleasant stimulation), such as using earphones or a headset to listen to something more pleasing, or simply to block out the noise to a comfortable degree.  One may also intentionally search out quiet spots to sit or bring along aromatherapy oils like lavender or eucalyptus for a quick sniff of comfort.  Similarly, it is important for HSPs to spend time in nature and recharge in the best ways that work for them.  As for all people, it is advisable to eat a healthy diet (though there is no one best way to eat or diet that is specific to HSPs), hydrate with enough liquids, and self-monitor and self-correct our thinking and emotions.

There are some big misconceptions about HSPs that we should bear in mind:

  • That HSPs are somehow weak or fragile in overstimulating conditions. Overwhelm may be a momentary reaction but most HSPs become quite skilled at avoiding overstimulation when possible and mitigating its effects otherwise.  Many very successful people through history and in today’s world are, in fact, highly sensitive people.  HSPs will not break if they are overstimulated; they may become irritated or frustrated, even tearful or angry but they will likely recover quickly and come back better prepared.  It’s when HSPs encounter unplanned for overstimulation that it becomes a problem.  HSPs may enjoy concerts, fireworks shows, or any of a host of other stimulating events just like anyone else, if they expect the stimulation.
  • All HSPs are alike. This is absolutely not true, and we should resist the all too human tendency to homogenize a group of over one billion people thereby negating their infinite and beautiful variation of individual expression.  HSPs, just like anyone in the human species, may be a joy to know or a misery.  It all depends on the things that have happened to a given person and the individual choices she has made.  Much also depends on the early environment of the HSP with abusive, traumatic, or neglectful environments being especially bad and positive, supporting, and nurturing environments being especially good.  Aron has stated that it all depends on the psychological complexes we may have formed as a result of early environments and the lingering hold those may play in our subsequent behaviors.
  • Being an HSP does not mean being easily offended. SPS works by the activation of strong, quick emotions triggering more elaborate processing in the brains of HSPs.  While HSPs may intuitively feel whether something or someone is positive or negative, taking offense is optional.  Many HSPs are wonderful people you probably already share time with in your family, at your workplace, and in your social groups (most probably do not know they are HSPs).

Are there any challenges associated with being HS? (Are they at risk of being anxious or depressed – and if so, why?

There are many challenges associated with being a person that is highly complex, deeply intuitive, innately creative, and intensely emotional but the most prominent factor that affects how HSPs experience life is the culture they are born into.  Many cultures around the globe have become increasingly western in attitude and orientation with norms and expectations of behavior shifting toward extreme extraversion, constant stimulation, and superficial thought and actions.  To be a sensitive person in such cultures is to be out of place, to some extent, but also to be faced with having to work harder at maintaining balance within ourselves (a calm core) where we can retreat to when necessary and find stillness and calm.  Calm may not exist in the world, but it can exist inside of us if we care enough to work on developing the aspects of ourselves that will lead us to a still center.

Highly sensitive people, due to their nature as deep-thinking, intensely emotional, and intuitive individuals may be predisposed to spend more time than may be warranted focusing and reflecting on negative events that happen as they replay interpersonal interactions on an endless loop in their minds searching for clarity.  Often the focus is unnecessary and counterproductive and may lead to needless anxiety, worry, and depression, in some cases.  Simply being a highly sensitive person does not make one a depressed person; spending too much time focusing on minute details of every interaction, however, might.

Many people experience challenges in finding the “right” career but HSPs may face exceptional difficulties in finding work that is meaningful, allows for autonomy, and provides interpersonal and environmental conditions that are tolerable.  According to one large survey I conducted in 2014 many HSPs opt for careers in what may be described as the “helping professions,” i.e. education, healthcare, human services.  Many more are in the creative arts, business management, information technology, marketing and sales, and STEM fields.  Some of these might seem incongruous but it is a manifestation of the wonderful variety inherent in highly sensitive people.

Highly sensitive people may experience challenges with relationship issues like finding a long-term partner who is kind and understanding of greater need for downtime or alone time; need to plan things carefully to alleviate anxieties; and need to feel secure.  There isn’t a specific partner type we can point to as being most appropriate for HSPs because people vary so much at different times of life and may make poor choices no matter how great they seem in the short-term.  The best partner for an HSP is one who is open, kind, calm, and loving but finding the right partner may take a lifetime or happen right away.  Friendships are a similarly tricky issue for many HSPs as close relationships go through life cycles; it is vitally important, however, to have at least one close friend in whom HSPs can trust and relate to.  Socially, it is very helpful for HSPs to be around other HSPs, so they can 1) know they are not alone, and 2) find kinship with others who are similarly deep-thinking, deep feeling, intensely emotional and creative people.  Highly sensitive people can experience fulfilling and rewarding relationships with others just like anyone else.

The beauty in being highly sensitive is being able to inhabit both ends of any spectrum.  An HSP might be logical and creative, focused and unfocused, dedicated yet value autonomy quite fiercely.  An HSP might also be one dimensional and quite unlike a highly sensitive person at all, especially men, who are conditioned from a young age to hide sensitivity or feel shame for their intense feelings, thoughts and emotions.  One study found that HSPs do not subscribe to cultural notions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, thoughts, and values but culture is all around us all of the time and undoubtedly is a source of annoyance when it is not inclusive of other personality types except the dominant paradigm.   HSPs represent a slightly different survival strategy for humans but, in the end, are not so very different.  It is important for HSPs to learn about Sensory Processing Sensitivity, make adjustments to their lives, and meet other HSPs but then move on with the ever-present business of living their lives as best as they can.

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is a researcher exploring and investigating Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Sensation Seeking.  He has written two books on highly sensitive people: Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper is a Program Chairman for a Master of Liberal Arts degree at Baker University.  He provides consulting services on a one on one basis on the topics of HSPs and career, the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, and self-care though his website at drtracycooper.com.

Highly Sensitive People and Emotional Reactivity

Do highly sensitive people who come from supportive childhoods respond differently to positive stimuli than those from unsupportive backgrounds? A research study published in 2016 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality seems to indicate the answer is yes. HSPs who experienced supportive childhoods do respond more quickly and to a more profound degree than do those from unsupportive backgrounds. How is this news?

What’s interesting about this study is that even HSPs who were rated low in Sensory Processing Sensitivity (the underlying personality trait or temperament highly sensitive people have) also responded more quickly and to a greater degree of arousal than those from unsupportive backgrounds. Whether you are at the high end or the low end of high sensitivity your parenting and early experiences color how quickly and how deeply you respond to positive stimuli. Reflecting on this finding, it seems to make sense that HSPs from unsupportive backgrounds, where people become conditioned to “expect the worst,” are indeed looking for the worst and even if the best did happen right in front of their eyes they might not even notice! Now, what’s the difference between emotional reactivity, which is what this article measured, and emotional responsiveness, which is a key aspect of Sensory Processing Sensitivity?

Emotional reactivity is exactly that: reactivity to stimuli, while emotional responsiveness represents the range of possible emotions we might experience in a given circumstance. Highly sensitive people, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, really do need to identify as being emotionally responsive in order to be considered highly sensitive. Emotional responsiveness does not necessarily mean we freak out every time something happens, mostly because things happen all the time in life and there isn’t patience for emotional instability (or what people might of external expressions as instability) in daily life. We learn to not express our often strong emotions in an external way; especially men.

Men who are highly sensitive (and there are supposedly as many men who are highly sensitive as women) learn quickly in hegemonic cultures, where masculinity is toxic, to be stoic, unemotional, to be “in charge” of emotions and never express them in an external way, unless it’s anger then that’s approved (ironically). Men, however, suffer as a result of experiencing the same range of emotions (responsiveness) but face negative social sanctions in general for expressing them. Not surprisingly, men also die sooner than do females; stress plays a huge role.

If we are to learn anything from research, and I do believe it is crucial that we base all of our thinking on well-done, peer-reviewed research in order to preserve accuracy, clarity, and rigor, we must extend the findings of studies such as the one I will link to below. Knowing that we come from a supportive or unsupportive background is key to understanding how we are wired to function in the world. For HSPs from supportive backgrounds, for instance, it might be wise to understand that they will respond more quickly to positive stimuli and to a greater degree, but what about negative stimuli? Will they overlook it and if so how might that be a problem?

Similarly for HSPs from unsupportive backgrounds where they experienced trauma, conflict in the home, abuse, neglect, derision; how will not responding to positive stimuli as quickly be a potential problem? Again, would we even notice when things are going well when we are geared to note the negative? Can we train ourselves to pay more attention to positive stimuli and to feel more arousal by it? My feeling is yes, we can train ourselves to move beyond our unsupportive backgrounds to ones where we too respond to positive stimuli and I feel it is essential to do so because to continually engage in catastrophizing is stressful and unhealthy, though it may have served the purpose of alerting us to potential dangers and having action plans in place.

This all being said, it is important to note that human behavior is plastic and changeable. No two HSPs are alike and no one can predict human behavior reliably because any of us are capable of anything at any given time. The task for HSPs, whether you experienced a supportive or unsupportive background, is to broaden our emotional responsiveness to encompass both positive AND negative stimuli. Do you find yourself always noting just the positive? Work on better relating to the negative implications because there is much to be learned in knowing both. Find yourself noting only the negative? Work on identifying the positive aspects (there are almost always ways to find positivity) and shifting your perceptions.

What have been your experiences with noting the positives and negatives in relation to the background you experienced?

drtracycooper.com
Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career
Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

Relationship Between the Temperament Trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Emotional Reactivity
Authors: Jagiellowicz, Jadzia; Aron, Arthur; Aron, Elaine N.
Journal: Scientific Journal Publishers
Link: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/…/…/00000044/00000002/art00002

It’s Time We Talked About Your Diet!

Can diet help with anxiety and depression? Absolutely!
You know by now that I am a big advocate for self-care for highly sensitive people but you may not know that I have been moving (personally) toward a different way of eating for years now. This year my yearly checkup showed bloodwork indicating my cholesterol levels were fine but my triglycerides were way elevated (this has been the norm for years) but since I was able to see a difference in my overall cholesterol decreasing I thought that I must be doing some things right (I made some changes last year; namely, reduced intake of grains and sugars). This year (essentially the last two months) I have switched to the Ketogenic way of eating. Before you say “fad!” and tune me out please understand that I don’t do fads nor do I do things lightly.

Since starting a Keto way of eating, which is basically high fat, very low carbs, moderate protein, and no sugars or grains, I have:

-lost 14 pounds (no changes otherwise in lifestyle otherwise)

-experienced better cardiovascular functioning

-much-improved sleep

-less inflammation in my body overall

As we know, getting quality sleep is essential to good mental health. I now sleep much deeper and for a longer period each night before waking to roll over. Before, I was tossing and turning often and never entering really deep sleep; sleeping more deeply and entering such states more easily is a major benefit and HUGE for anyone with depression and/or anxiety.

The other huge change has been in reduced inflammation throughout my body as I ceased consuming sugars and grains. I NEVER would have thought there would be such a pronounced change by just altering the way I eat! I feel as if I have been moving toward a Keto way of eating for years without particularly being aware of it as I cut down on sugars, limited bread consumption, and was more careful about foods but now, by being very explicit about what I’m doing and having seen immediate benefits from it, I am convinced and plan to continue long-term.

Ironically, there is not much that’s special that you need to do to embrace a Keto way of eating. Just change what you eat to some degree (depending on your current diet) and start watching the ingredients in everything you buy. That part is harder but worth the effort to avoid the many hidden sugars and junk added to our food (it’s disheartening how many susbtances that act just like sugar in the body are snuck in on us).

I have nothing to sell you my fellow HSPs, but I do desire that you be well and live as well as you can. The video below by Dr. Berry is a great introduction to the Ketogenic diet (or way of eating). His short videos are great because he bases his comments largely on his empirical experiences and on research (especially metastudies, which, as we know, are studies of studies). Be mindful of other speakers out there espousing views that diverge from the research or that ask you to buy something they happen to produce and sell. Dr. Berry is a medical doctor in family practice in Tennessee seeing patients on a daily basis.

For those of us who experience depression and anxiety, I feel that addressing our diet in a serious way is essential to calming the body and mind.  Isn’t it time as grown adults that we put away the childish food choices that are slowly killing us and exacerbating our depression and anxiety?  To be an adult implies that we make adult choices; no choice could be more important than our health because it is so initmately intertwined with our functioning in the world.

If you need to make changes in your diet I heartily recommend the Ketogenic diet (or way of eating because it is simply the way humans are suited to eat).  Plant based diets may also be workable for those who are opposed to the consumption of meat or dairy.  Whatever you do, consider giving up the highly processed foods, the sugars, the grains, and the carbohydrates and see if it makes a difference in how you feel and experience this life.

Please feel free to share in your social media circles.

(link to basics of Ketogenic Diet presented by Dr. Ken Berry)

 

Dr. Tracy Cooper is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper provides one on one consulting to HSPs in career crisis or transition through his website at drtracycooper.com.

Follow Your Passion?

I have always felt that saying to people “find your passion” was a bit off in the sense that it seemed to disallow and devalue the exploration process, which I consider essential to real personal growth and development. For we highly sensitive people (and especially those of us who are high sensation seeking highly sensitive people) we tend to move from “fascination” to “fascination.” By fascination I mean we find a topic that really catches our eye then we spend days, weeks, or months utterly absorbed in learning every little detail we possibly can about that topic; then we move on. It’s a bit maddening at times but by learning across a wide variety of domains we acquire intimate knowledge that makes us more well-rounded than the average bear!

What do we do when our passion is not singular; as in what if our passion IS curiosity itself? That might seem wildly impractical because we live in a society that prizes productivity and abhors real creativity (or at least they fear it because it contains uncertainties) but curiosity is the root of creativity, innovation, and the progress of humankind. Without those of us who have found curiosity to be our passion, our world would be much less rich in art, music, inventions, ideas, and concepts. Without curious people who are unafraid to dwell in the liminal spaces “between and betwixt” things new research could not occur, nor could we progress as a species.

This is not to say that there aren’t those seemingly born knowing what they want to do with their lives but far more are likely to find their way over time and through activities like intellectual and creative risk-taking, openness to new experiences, and a willingness to transform and be transformed by our experiences.

I suggest we stop saying to people “find your passion” instead we should say “be passionate in your curiosity and learn many things!”

Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career
Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

drtracycooper.com

 

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/find-your-passion-is-terrible-advice/564932/

Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career is a book I wrote in 2015 to provide all highly sensitive people with a broad look at the all critical Cover Thriveissue of career.  We already know what it means to be a highly sensitive person if we look at the four key aspects, as identified by clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr. Elaine AronDr. Elaine Aron:

Depth of processing of all experience and stimulation – we process everything that happens in a more elaborate way in our minds.

Overstimulation to certain, highly individualized types of stimulation – some HSPs feel overstimulated/irritated by certain noises, smells, types of fabrics, social situations.  It is crucial here to note that we must refrain from homogenizing all HSPs as one group.  What bothers one may not register with another as an issue.  Some HSPs have largely learned to ignore overstimulation in fact.

Emotional responsiveness and High empathy – highly sensitive people have a broader possible range of emotional expression than in those without the trait.  This more expansive range is akin to looking at a rainbow after a storm where we typically see red, blue, green, yellow, maybe some violet; with HSPs the colors of our emotional range include every variation in between: red-violet, blue-violet, yellow, orange, red-orange, etc. Because of this greater possible range of emotions, we typically spend much more time processing those emotions, which are often intense emotions meaning we also spend a goo deal of time in self-care and boundary setting/monitoring to avoid overstimulation.  Highly sensitive people are also typically high in empathy, meaning we may readily enter the experiences of other people and see the world from their viewpoints.  Again, it is essential to not lump all HSPs together as a supremely empathetic group of saints and healers; there are HSPs who may be quite dysfunctional, angry, violent, and manipulative.  By acknowledging that we HSPs comprise a cross-section of vastly differing types of people we allow for that diversity to exist and resist the all too human urge/need to group what we perceive as like things together, when, in fact, they are only somewhat alike.

Sensitivity to subtleties – highly sensitive people tend to pick up on subtle details others overlook or miss entirely.  One study found that those with Sensory Processing Sensitivity spent more time studying visual scenes when asked to examine photos.  We are also, obviously, more sensitive to smells, sounds, and energetic forces around us.  However, this does not mean HSPs have “super” anything; we simply process the stimulation of a subtle smell more elaborately and with greater emotional activation.  Historically, this may have had great benefit; simply imagine being able to pick up on a slight foul odor from food a group was about to eat, or a slight rustle in the leaves could have indicated a predator about (four and two legged).  Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a personality trait (like all traits) that developed as a result of a need for such a trait in survival circumstances.

A trait need not have provided a vast advantage to remain in the genome; simply a slight advantage in terms of survival and reproduction would have worked well enough to cause it to pass down in the population.  On average, if SPS provided a survival advantage it simply continued.  The process of natural selection, in its sieving process, would have retained SPS as a useful trait.  SPS is till around today (in fact, Sensory Processing Sensitivity has been with us for perhaps a million years or more) because we still face dangers of all types and SPS still provides that advantage, though now its utility to groups is less evident since our society is so highly individualized and dominated by a preference for extreme extraversion.  Those who are capable of thinking more deeply; who are creative (capable of generating alternatives, options, and divergent possibilities and directions); and who are meticulous in planning and execution are, ironically, less valued, in many circumstances than they perhaps should be.  This situation is no more evident than in the workplace, where we spend such a great deal of our time, energy, and life force.

The titanic task of evaluating and explicating the modern workplace and how highly sensitive people experience it was the focus of the study underpinning Thrive.  Through following strict research protocols and semi-structured interviews, I was able to glean the experiences of a sample of our population.  When conducting interviews there is a point that arises where the people being interviewed begin to repeat themselves.  Once the point happens (and this line is different in every study) where they are basically saying similar things the researcher knows he has reached a saturation point.  That number was 35 in this particular study.  Some people less familiar with the way scientific research is conducted might say,” why not interview 500 people?”  That’s not how research is done; at some point we have our representative sample, and typically a wealth of information to work with, and must move on to analysis and interpretation.  Thrive, however, goes farther than one study; it also contains the results of a large survey given to HSPs numbering over 1,500 people.  In that survey, people were asked questions derived from the interviews to better understand if what I had been told in the interviews applied across a wider range of random HSPs.  I also took the opportunity to have HSPs take a sensation seeking questionnaire to determine how many high sensation seekers were in the group of survey-takers.  This was of special interest (and could have skewed the results) if a disproportionate number of high sensation seekers were also the survey-takers.  As it turns out, the number was about roughly the same as was previously surmised (about one third).

Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and CareerThrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career examines the issue of work and career from many angles (as you might expect being written by an HSP).  Perhaps that is what separates Thrive from other books and articles written on the topic of career; it is a book written for HSPs by an HSP.  My experiences with career and the workplace have been varied and always deeply impacted by my sensitivity.  My journey to find greater meaning in a career, greater autonomy, working conditions that are conducive to allowing me to function at my best, and work that meshed with my need to be a servant-leader all propelled the writing of Thrive.

You might expect such a book to be filled with ultimate answers to your dilemma regarding career but, in truth, the best any researcher or author can hope for is to shine the light of illumination on the subject, thereby enabling you to forge ahead on your unique path.  I do not know what the best answer is for your career issues because each of us is quite different.  If I were to talk with you for an hour and learn about your life, goals, and passions, I would have a good idea about specific recommendations but not knowing that information authors must write in certain general terms and trust that deep-thinking HSPs will reflect on the information presented in service to their current situations.  I do provide one on one consulting to HSPs regarding career, and regarding the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person (drtracycooper.com/consulting) but Thrive is a very good broad-based survey of the topic of HSPs and career that anyone seriously interested in understanding the myriad of issues HSPs face with regards to career will find useful and informative.

Thrive is something else too: it is flexible and will be updated about every five years to address the changing economy and workforce.  Thrive is a commitment by me to continue learning, studying, and researching so I can bring you the best possible advice for that time period.  Unlike traditional books by traditional publishers where books are written for sensational value (to get you to buy a lot of copies in a short time) Thrive is fully integrated with a number of print on demand platforms where copies are only produced as customers buy them.  In this way, I am not out to sell a million copies all at once; I can patiently allow Thrive to make its way throughout the HSP communities on social media and otherwise through word of mouth.

One buys a book of this nature, and with the long-term vision of its author, because it will be a valuable asset to an overall library of material related to Sensory Processing Sensitivity.  As lifelong learners (and I very much believe that is what we HSPs best embody), we will have many books on our bookshelves.  Few are the type of sensationalism, poor science, or outright “fluff” that fill too many books aimed at HSPs.  Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career is one book you will read and reread over the years as you reflect on the narratives presented, the scientific data, and the opportunities for greater self-awareness and action in the world contained in its covers.

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D., is an author, researcher, and higher education professional.  His website may be found at drtracycooper.comdrtracycooper.com where you may purchase Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, a second book: Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person, view his ever-changing blog, or book time for a one on one consulting session for personalized guidance on your unique path in life.  Dr. Cooper also appeared in the documentary for HSPs: Sensitive-The Untold Story

Are you an Existentialist?

Existentialism has always been the underlying epistemological, ontological, and teleological underpinning for my life. Not fitting in with the herd has never been easy but it has been quite necessary in my case, how about you?

Dodson presents the following list of ways to live more existentially which I feel are very much in line with how we HSPs experience life:

10) question what you’ve been told
9) start relating to the big picture
8) honor life’s difficult experiences
7) lay claim to your power in life
6) see how free you can be
5) learn to live with passion
4) inhabit the present moment
3) recover the ability to play
2) build responsible community
1) remember that you’re born to a bold, brilliant, terrifying universe

You might also wish to check out the full video on Existentialism below (it’s fascinating I promise) as a way of being that embraces complexity, compassion, humility, and a ludic viewpoint as a counterpoint to the oh-so-serious world and its concerns. Many more fascinating short videos by Dodson on the same site.

 

Emotions in Charge?

Do you experience strong, quick emotions that override your rational thought processes?  Of course you do if you are a highly sensitive person; that’s how Sensory Processing Sensitvity works!  What can we do to develop greater awareness and control of our emotions and their effects on our critical thinking abilities?  In the following article by Benard Golden, PhD,  learn more about how we resort to using “child logic” when we allow our emotions to dominate our thinking.

The Power of Emotions to Override Rational Thought

Fuel for destructive anger

Benard Golden, Ph.D.

How is it that you fully know not everyone drives with caution and consideration, but you still expect them to do so? How come you still expect your spouse to be frugal when shopping, even though ten years of history together tells you otherwise? And, what causes you to rigidly expect perfection from yourself, when being human means we make mistakes, have weaknesses and suffer.

The answer to each of these questions lies in “child logic”–a term that I have coined to describe logic that is hijacked by emotion. I use this term without any attempt at disparagement. Rather, it emphasizes that regardless of age or intelligence, we at times engage in magical thinking associated with earlier development. Such logic fuels unrealistic expectations and heightens the potential for destructive anger. It’s as if the emotional brain and the rational brain are not effectively communicating with each other. Whether emotions override logic or the rational brain is ill prepared to correct the surge of emotion. The result is impaired judgment.

As someone who has spent years studying anger and helping people constructively manage it, I’ve seen the destructive impact of expectations sustained by such reasoning. All of us are guilty of this mental distortion, some more than others.

Anger stems from feeling threat and some form of inner pain, such as fear, anxiety, shame, hopelessness and powerlessness. It’s understandable that we might have some degree of irritation aroused by that driver who abruptly cuts us off. Similarly, we may feel our financial security threatened by our partner’s lack of frugality. And certainly, we may be disappointed with ourselves when we fail to achieve our goals. But the inability to be realistic in our expectations makes all the difference between having feelings such as disappointment and sadness, and experiencing intense anger.

All too often, child-logic infuses our expectations with emotions rooted in our wishes and hopes, insufficiently tamed by the facts of reality. It is child logic that supports beliefs such as: “Life should be fair”–when “Life just is”; that good efforts should always yield rewards–when they sometimes don’t; and that we should be able to control all aspects of our lives. In effect, it is child logic that may at times convince us we should always get what we want, that others should act as we believe they should, and that we should not have to suffer–even though all of us suffer.

Bernard Golden
Source: Bernard Golden

The impact of child logic is similarly prevalent in the current electoral cycle. Individuals in each party exhibit intense anger and resentment toward opposing candidates. Additionally, others experience anger toward the candidate selected by their own party. There are certainly valid reasons for the electorate to experience anger with regard to income inequality, racial injustice, threats of terrorism and deficiencies in government. Understandably these events create a sense of threat and other forms of inner anguish that might include fear, anxiety, powerlessness and hopelessness.  However, rigidly maintaining unrealistic expectations only intensifies the potential for destructive anger–when they are not satisfied.

Unwittingly, like partners in a marriage that has soured, many people are challenged to look beyond their own immediate interests. The intensity of anger and how it is expressed rests, in part, on the fact that some of the electorate know compromise is essential for a democracy–yet feel it shouldn’t be the case. And yet, maintaining this expectation is inconsistent with a functioning democratic government.

Letting go of unrealistic expectations doesn’t mean the passive acceptance of what is. It may involve recognizing that certain expectations are aspirational rather than attainable. Or, letting go can free us to consider alternative strategies for increasing the likelihood of their satisfaction.

Developing more realistic expectations in our daily lives calls for pausing for reflection. It necessitates being aware of when we are too rigidly holding on to them in spite of a reality that reminds us they cannot be satisfied. It requires that we distinguish between what we really need and what we desire. And, all too often, it demands awareness of how anger can interfere with the willingness to engage in such reflection.

The capacity to recognize when child logic influences our expectations is essential for developing resilience, a key component of well-being. Resilience is a strength that allows us to bounce back from adverse consequences.  It consists of recognizing when our expectations are overly influenced by hopes and wishes. Resilience very much depends on the flexibility of thought to let go of certain expectations, when we recognize we have no control over satisfying them. Certainly, this is not always an easy task. It involves grieving and mourning, dealing with a sense of loss that often moves us to sadness and disappointment instead of anger.

Some suggest that not having expectations is the only way to avoid disappointment. However, this attitude seems to be both pessimistic and a denial of a very human tendency. Rather, the real threat posed by maintaining expectations is when we cling to them and when they are overly influenced by child logic. The challenge for each of us is to be mindful when this occurs, as these two conditions form the bedrock of destructive anger.

About the Author

Open Office Plans

Open office plans are a nightmare for highly sensitive people. If it’s not the constant chatter of co-workers, it’s the lack of private personal space where one can think. Too often in such circumstances, we lose focus and concentration and end up struggling to stay awake and simply get through one more day. Have you worked in such situations? I have and found them to be draining and irritating. That being said, most HSPs seem to prefer a balance of office time versus working from home (or other space) time. For me, the ideal arrangement might be 2-3 days in the office (not an open office plan) and 2-3 days of working from home (or other space). How about you? What’s the most sustainable office arrangement for you?

The following article certainly speaks to a timely subject:

(original link: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5284465/Employees-share-space-dissatisfied-work.html#ixzz54Z4B4VB2).

Open plan offices can make you MISERABLE: Seeing colleagues all day leads to distraction and irritation, say scientists

  • Open plan office workers have low levels of job satisfaction
  • In open plan offices people find it hard to have meaningful conversations   
  • Workers are also more often distracted and less productive when sharing space

If you hate your job, the layout of your office may be to blame.

New research has found that, far from creating an cooperative environment, open plan offices can make employees miserable.

The study found that staff that work in an open environment are distracted, irritated and find it difficult to have a good conversation with colleagues.

Previous research has also claimed that office workers are more easily distracted when they share space with others.

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Open plan offices designed to foster cooperation between colleagues may be bad for business and could soon become a thing of the past. Rather than boosting productivity, the range of distractions they provide means employees are interrupted every three minutes

The study was carried out by researchers from the CTF, Service Research Centre at Karlstad University in Sweden.

They looked at the link between the type of office and the satisfaction levels of staff.

Dr Tobias Otterbring, lead author of the study, said: ‘The results show a negative relationship between the number of co-workers sharing an office and employees’ job satisfaction.

The researchers looked at two factors in office workers – ease of interaction with their peers and general well-being.

The study found that employees working in small (3-9 people) and medium-sized  (10-20 people) open plan offices reported lower levels of both of these aspects than individuals who work in a different type of office.

‘The open plan offices may have short-term financial benefits, but these benefits may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well-being.

‘Therefore, decision-makers should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility, and productivity,’ Dr Otterbring added.

Dr Nicole Millard believes socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future. But we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space, with coffee shops and hotel lobbies all potential meeting places for small teams to get work done

Dr Nicole Millard believes socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future. But we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space, with coffee shops and hotel lobbies all potential meeting places for small teams to get work done

As well as lower levels of job satisfaction, open plan office workers are interrupted every three minutes, a futurologist has claimed.

This is according to Dr Nicole Millard, who specialises in data, analytics and emerging technology at BT.

She believes large offices are inefficient and predicts they will die out, according to reports in The Telegraph.

They are particularly damaging for introverted employees, who prefer to work uninterrupted and who may clam up in crowds.

For the ethos behind open plan offices to work, boosting morale and encouraging teamwork, staff need to be sat close to the people they regularly collaborate with.

WHAT IS A ‘COFFICE’?

Dr Nicole Millard believes inundation with emails, meetings and other interactions with colleagues are among the chief causes of distraction in large offices.

This can lead to ‘task-switching’, which often results in work being overlooked or forgotten.

One sign of this is when you shut down your computer at the end of the day and find unclosed windows or unsent emails you didn’t get around to, because you were interrupted.

So does this spell the end for all office based jobs?

Dr Millard believes not, as socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future.

However, we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space.

The offices, or ‘coffices’ of the future could be a coffee shop or a hotel lobby, where small teams of workers can meet up to get work done.

But the futurologists says research has shown that social awkwardness can kick in if people are crammed too close together.

Dr Millard said: ‘The trouble with open plan offices is they are a one-size-fits-all model which actually fits nobody.

‘We’re interrupted every three minutes. It takes us between eight and 20 minutes to get back into that thought process.

‘So we will become shoulder bag workers. Our technology has shrunk so we can literally get our office in a small bag.

‘We are untethered, we don’t have to have a desk anymore.’

Dr Millard believes inundation with emails, meetings and other interactions with colleagues are among the chief causes of distraction.

This can lead to ‘task-switching’, which often results in work being overlooked or forgotten.

One sign of this is when you shut down your computer at the end of the day and find unclosed windows or unsent emails you didn’t get around to, because you were interrupted.

So does this spell the end for all office based jobs?

Dr Millard believes not, as socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future.

However, we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space.

She added: ‘We need a balance between we and me.

‘We need to give people options of how they can work, such as home working.

‘But I do go a tiny bit nuts if I am just at home, so I think we will start to embrace ‘the coffice’.

‘I need good coffee, connectivity, cake, my WiFi wings to fly me into the cloud.

‘I like company. The ‘coffice’ could be a coffee shop or a hotel lobby.’

The latest study was recently published in Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health. 

Bored to Death?

Do you find yourself bored in situations most people find tolerable?  Is your sense of20689924_1921267438131271_804651378792563368_o boredom so profound as to be physically painful?  Does your boredom propel you forward just to stay ahead of it?  It is well known that boredom susceptibility is a key aspect of sensation seeking, but what is less well-known is how boredom plays out in the lives of highly sensiitve people, or people with the personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

Highly sensitive people may find themselves in a state of boredom but be able to retreat into their own deep minds and so tolerate what to others might seem intolerable.  Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, described how the people who were most able to withstand deprivation in the Nazi concentration camps in WW2 where he was imprisoned, were the people who had the ability to reteat into their own minds.  Solitude may be the least preferable thing to many people who lack the ability to “entertain themselves,” but for many HSPs solitude may be a welcome respite from an overstimulating world full of irritating noises, irritating people, or other stimulation that surely wears down one’s daily energy.  Solitude (and quiet) may seem incredibly boring to many people but we need to look at how our society has changed in recent decades to deemphasize having and cultivating an inner life in favor of external stimulation all of the time.  From smart phones to tablets to streaming movies and television everywhere all the time, there seems to be little reason to even think we humans have an inner life.  Yet, having an inner life where one is able to freely reflect on one’s life, brainstorm new ideas, and simply rest the mind are even more essential today than in the past (for the above reasons).

For the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person there is a dual dichotomy here: we simultaneously embody deep-mindedness where retreat into an inner world is possible (sometimes preferable), yet we desperately seek to avoid boredom!  Boredom has been described as one of the most significant issues for HSS/HSPs in all of my research.  And whereas the HSP may be content enough to withdraw into their thoughts in a boring situation the HSS/HSP might find it physically painful if the boredom is especially prevalent.  Physically painful you might ask? How can boredom be experienced in one’s body?  Boredom may represent a feeling of being restrained or confined with a commiserate need to “escape” or mitigate the buildup of these energetic feelings in the body.  In the article below, sensation seekers are described as more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors or potentially harmful experiences like drug taking or alcohol use to sort of fill in the blank times.  This is certainly a possibility but for the HSS/HSP the sensitive part is likely to object to non-conscientious behavior or unethical indulgences that may negatively stimulate the person.

The contradictions inherent in the high sensation seeking highly sensiitve person are many and we often experience competing “pulls” from both sides of ourselves.  One side may well wish to seek out new experiences just for the sake of doing it, while the rother would be happier to read a book quietly.  Too often, the sensation seeking wins out and overhwelms the sensitive part resulting in emotional burnout.  The risk of burnout is high for HSS/HSPs and represents an aspect of embodying both traits that goes underserved by many.  Just as we need to experience novelty, new experiences, even thrills at times, we also need quiet, time to think and recharge, and time to reflect, listen, and absorb.  In order to realize our potential in both traits we need to honor and respect both traits and the needs of both in ways that prevent one from becoming overwhelmed or ignored.

It is also up to each of us to find appropriate ways to develop deep self-awareness of both traits and how they impact our lives and the lives of those around us.  It certainly can be confusing for those in our lives who are not highly sensitive to understand or appreciate why we need to withdraw from an energetic situation, why we prefer the quiet corner in the restaurant, or why we feel irritated at certain smells, noises or textures.  Noticing things more has its downside!  Understanding how to explain that to someone without the trait can be difficult and I suggest you don’t need to.  You have certain needs and preferences and the people in your life will either accept that you pay attention to those needs or they won’t.  It is also likely that you spend more time trying to understand other people’s behaviors than they ever spent on yours.  Factor in sensation seeking and it is quite a different picture.

People are far more likley to understand and accept sensation seeking as “normal” because our culture seems to be built on it!  They’ll have no problem at all if you want to thrill-seek or go to a party.  They will also not raise an eyebrow if you indulge your disinhibition and do something you’ve never done before; it’s in the culture and is almost an expectation (especially if you are a male).  How sensation plays out for us may be somewhat different because we also embody sensitivity, which may hold us back from taking too much risk or engaging in clearly dangerous or illegal activities.  In that sense, we have a secret “advisor” always counseling us to “think it over first.”  Whether we listen to our inner advisor is variable.  Perhaps some people simply have not had their actions result in sufficient consequences to learn to value its advice.  In time you will…

Boredom represents an extremely powerful force in the lives of HSS/HSPs that constantly threatens us with feeling tension in our bodies.  It’s an unpleasant feeling and though at times we may be perfectly comfortable with our sensitive side’s ability to live inside our own minds, at other times it impels us to leave a job, leave a relationship, or swap up our environments.  Boredom susceptibility, according to Dr. Marvin Zuckerman (originator of the sensation seeking trait) is the aspect of the trait that remains with us into old age.  That may not be what we wish to hear but it is imperative that we develop a familiarity and willingess to have an inner world we can retreat to at times because there will be circumstances and situations where we must overrule our sensation seeking to achieve a goal, to manage people, or to complete a task.  In that regard, the need to institute a self-care practice as a lifelong endeavor is crucial to our success, happiness, and well-being.  Being able to be present with a feeling without necessarily taking action on it requires that we practice, practice, practice.  Fortunately (or unfortunately) boredom is ever-present so our chances to practice may be many.

In a world that has devalued the inner life we have an opportunity to demonstrate intentional consciousness in the way we deal with our boredom.  If we escape to the world of external stimulation solely we downplay the worth and value of a whole other half of ourselves.  Mastering the challenge of boredom is not easy, nor will we always react in the same way, indeed, we should acknowledge that we will likely react differently in varying situations.  Overall, on average, we should seek to master our own impulses and drives so we can realize our full potential and value in the world.

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.

 

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