Book Review: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron

Are you a highly sensitive person? How do you know? Do you even know what it means? And if you are highly sensitive what can you do about it? Should you do anything other than accept it?

First published in 1999, Dr Elaine Aron's book about the highly sensitive person is still as relevant nearly two decades later, and remains a key text in this area. The back cover blurb says:

One in every five people is born with a heightened sensitivity; they are often gifted with great intelligence, intuition and imagination, but there are also drawbacks. Frequently...they find it hard to express themselves in a society dominated by excess and stress. The Highly Sensitive Person offers effective solutions to those feeling overwhelmed...focuses on the strengths of the trait, teaching HSPs that their sensitivity is not a flaw but an asset.
— The Highly Sensitive Person - Elaine N. Aron

High sensitivity is something that I've only come across fairly recently during my personal journey with coaching and counselling, and as I've got to know myself more clearly. The first time I came across the term, the acronym, and an explanation, it finally felt like being able to put a label to parts of myself that had seemed 'abnormal' for so long.

Now, I have a bit of an issue with labels in general, but until we get to a point where everyone can be fully accepted for exactly who they uniquely are, being able to put a name to certain traits, behaviours or preferences can be a useful shorthand to help other people understand us a bit better. Moving on...

At the beginning of the book is a test asking a number of true-or-false questions to help you identify if you could be highly sensitive. The test was developed as part of Aron's wider research and is an attempt to quantify common aspects of the trait, although it comes with a disclaimer that no psychological test can be 100% accurate, but can be a useful guideline, and of course, most of the research for the book was carried out by in depth interviews with participants.

However, the questions do, I think, bring attention to certain responses that we might have been criticised for in the past, but can now be seen in light of our inherent highly sensitive nature. Questions ask about your awareness of subtleties in your environment, how affected you are by picking up other people's moods, how overwhelmed you can feel by bright lights, loud noises, strong smells and so on, whether you are conscientious and try to avoid having to do too many things at once or making mistakes, and whether people labelled you as shy or too sensitive as a child. The full test can be found on Elaine Aron's website here if you are interested to take it yourself.

I identified with a number of the questions on the test, but continuing to read the first main chapter explained things in much greater detail, with examples taken from the research participants, and meant I was able to start building a clearer picture of my own sensitivity.

Aron says that in building a definition of high sensitivity, it is vital to first remember to that everyone, whatever their personality type or preference, functions best at an optimum level of arousal and stimulation where the nervous system can maintain an equilibrium between boredom and lethargy, and distress, confusion, and even a fight-or-flight response. What differs though, is each individual's response to the same situation under the same stimulation. This results in a spectrum where some people will be fully productive in a noisy, high-pressured environment, or may be able to sleep through a disco (my younger sister!), while others will need to retreat to somewhere quiet after such an experience in order to calm their nerves and recharge their energy.

I definitely fall more towards this HSP end of the spectrum, and I think have become more so as I've got older - or perhaps it's just that I'm more self-aware and less likely to just carry on regardless, because if no-one else if struggling why should I admit weakness. I now realise that the problem wasn't being stuck at a desk all day at work, it was my constant alertness to the surrounding situation of an open plan office and the associated stimuli of people and noise and a lack of privacy and personal space that left me exhausted at the end of every day. Although I don't drink alcohol, I can still feel pretty rough the morning after a late night with loud music, dancing, and a crowded room. And even though I love to get out and explore new places, I'm getting better at recognising when I've had enough stimulation and need to go and find somewhere quiet to sit down. I even walked around London at Christmas with earmuffs on all day (it was cold, so I didn't look too weird) to try and cut out some of the background noise of the city so that I could focus on what I wanted to take in.

The book goes on to explain that with high sensitivity, the mind and body can work differently for an HSP than for someone not quite as sensitive. The focus of the book is very much on this positive slant - giving guidance on how to work with rather than against traits that you can't just switch off. Some of these special qualities include being better at spotting errors, being able to concentrate deeply on work that requires intense attention to detail (as long as we can do this without other external distractions), being able to process experiences at a deeper psychological level and learn new things without being consciously aware of doing so, deep empathy with other people, greater fine motor skills, and greater sensitivity to things in the air (although an increased likelihood of suffering from hay fever and other allergies is probably a less pleasant side effect).

Further chapters delve deeper into the findings of Aron's research, and to be honest, some of it is pretty heavy going - this is a fairly 'academic' text and needed concentrating on to fully understand the arguments - trying to read a complex paragraph in bed at the end of a long day really wasn't happening. Proof I suppose of an HSPs limits of stimulation - either a withdrawal and shutting down, or frustration and confusion. There are few things more annoying that realising you've read the same paragraph eight times but still don't understand it, when not too long ago devouring research papers was a weekly occurrence. Circumstances really do play a big role.

An interesting area that the book briefly touches on is the idea that the brain has two key systems, the balance of which determines our level of sensitivity. The activation, or approach, system helps us move towards new things and experiences and keeps us curious. The inhibition, or avoidance, system keeps us alert and cautious and moves us away from potential danger. I would identify with a combination here that Aron describes as a strong "pause-to-check" system, with an activation system that is also but not quite as strong.

This kind of HSP would be both very curious and very cautious, bold yet anxious, easily bored yet easily overaroused.
— The Highly Sensitive Person, p.30

This definitely sounds like me - I'm keen to have new experiences, go to new places, meet new people, feed the adventurous side of my soul. But my comfort zone isn't very stretchy and I'm constantly aware of the risks of stepping out, there are too many what-ifs that often outweigh the possible rewards, so I end up doing nothing. Of course now that I am aware of this tendency I can work with it - I can plan for different eventualities (not all of them, clearly), I can find refuges and ways to protect myself, and I can acknowledge when I've got all that I want to from the experience. My week in Edinburgh was a prime example of this - I knew I had a safe, quiet and comfortable hotel room to return to each day, there were familiar-enough places I could go if I needed a break, and I could work with my energy levels to decide what I wanted to do next. And as you might have read, I had a brilliant time.

The book's remaining chapters focus on different areas of life that might be tricky for an HSP to navigate - childhood and adolescence, social relationships, the world of work, and love, as well as some guidance for where to look for help in the event of deeper psychological wounds or mental health problems. Each chapter concludes with a 'reframing' exercise, often with a series of questions to get you thinking about your own situation in relation to what has been talked about, and some of these were interesting to ponder. There were certainly experiences I recognised from my own life in common with the people Aron interviewed for her research, such as feelings of deep, but often unrequited, connection with people who have had an important influence on our lives, and a preference for creative and artistic vocations over 'traditional' jobs.

There are cross-overs within this work with other 'labels' that have received greater attention in recent years - empath, intuitive, introvert - and I think this just goes to show how complex human nature can be; it's nearly impossible to completely isolate a single personality trait for in depth examination, there will always be links with other aspects of self, and different spectra and possible combinations because of the infinite potential for individuality among people. Then there are the nature vs nurture debates that always raise their heads, biological and neurological research that will argue for chemical imbalances or physiological differences in brain structure, as well as spiritual beliefs in past lives and the like. I find it all fascinating - but could very easily fall into that over-stimulation trap if I tried to pull it all together into some kind of coherent package. So I won't try for now, maybe some day when I have more life experience of my own and have processed more reading around these subjects.

Have you read this book? What did you make of it? Do you identify as an HSP? What does this mean for you in your day to day life? I'd love to hear your experiences of navigating the world as an HSP - leave a comment below or send me an email via my Contact page if you prefer.

P.S. I feel I need to make a slight apology for this post. I know it's pretty long, and as I was writing it I realised how easily I was slipping back into the process of academic writing that I did so often at university. I guess my brain thought this was the kind of subject that needed a 'critical review' approach. Whereas actually my heart was doing the 'yes! that's me! finally someone understands!' cry and hoping that you get it too. If you've struggled to stick with this post, I'll try and get back to something lighter next week, and if you have made it to the end without falling asleep, then thank you.