When I started my own counselling journey, one of the earliest suggestions from my counsellor was to read ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ by Elaine N. Aron. Like many other Highly Sensitive People )HSPs) I have encountered since then, this book was an absolute game changer for me. Suddenly, so much of my life made sense. The 8-year-old who still needed her mum to stand in the school line wasn’t just chronically shy, she was overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the playground. The adult that could confidently stand in front of a hundred people and give a talk but couldn’t cope with colleagues singing Happy Birthday to her wasn’t a weirdly extroverted introvert who was ungrateful for her colleagues well wishes, she just found that personal attention overwhelmingly awkward. Having wild and terrifying dreams after watching a scary movie didn’t mean I just had an overactive imagination. Having an intense physical reaction to bright lights in offices, loud restaurants or strong cooking smells didn’t mean I was too sensitive. Immediately being able to sense the mood of a room or picking up on tiny details about someone’s demeanour to the extent that it affected my own mood or sense of a situation did not mean I was too empathic. Yes, I was most definitely an INFJ on the Meyer-Briggs scale, but more than that…
I was a Highly Sensitive Person.
All my life I had heard that I was ‘too sensitive’, so of course I believed it. Here was someone telling my that I wasn’t ‘too sensitive’. I was ‘highly sensitive’. The difference this made was phenomenal; it wasn’t just semantics. The difference between being ‘too much’ of something and ‘highly’ meant I wasn’t failing at life, and in fact the subheading of Aron’s book is ‘How to Thrive when the World Overwhelms You’. I could actually thrive whilst still being sensitive? Wow.
And I suddenly realised how in all the above situations, my reactions and behaviour had been framed (sometimes by others, always by myself) as a ‘fault’ with my personality in some way. Here was an author who told me that I was not alone and indeed, an estimated 15-20% of the population are probably Highly Sensitive and this is part of our genetic make-up. In fact, there is research to suggest it is a form of neurodiversity and this can be helpful in framing us as having different needs from ‘the norm’. Often mistaken for introversion or empathy, Highly Sensitive People can often exhibit the traits of both, but it is possible to be both an extrovert and highly sensitive; Aron estimates that 30% of HSPs are socially extroverted. If you love being the life and soul of the party, but need to spend time alone to recalibrate afterwards, you may be Highly Sensitive. There are many tests online that can be taken to assess whether you are Highly Sensitive and if what you read here resonates, I would encourage you to explore further.
High Sensitivity can play out in many situations and includes sensitivity to self-i.e., having a physical reaction such as a thumping headache after a tough day at work, finding it difficult to let go of difficult thoughts or emotions and a tendency to blame self for not achieving our often-unrealistic goals. Sensitivity about others can manifest in ruminating about what others think about us, feeling judged even when there has been no real criticism and feeling horribly awkward in social situations. We can also be Highly Sensitive to our environment, feeling overwhelmed by crowds, situations where lots is going on at once, unexpected jarring noises or even feeling utterly drained by social media.
Being Highly Sensitive is often framed as both a blessing and a curse. It means when we are one to one with someone or in small group situations, we are in our comfort zones and we know how to make others feel really ‘heard’. We can tune in perfectly to the energy of other adults, children, animals, and places. We experience the full richness of our environment including the little details that often pass others by until we mention them. We can be wonderfully moved by music, art, and nature. We are often passionate about equality, diversity, and social justice. And we are inclined to be incredibly self-reflective and always striving to be the best version of ourselves. We can be viewed as both too serious, too intense, too obsessed with details, but also creative, quirky, quick to find the odd humour in situations and also the only person who ‘gets’ what someone is trying to communicate, even when they have not been able to articulate this verbally. Saying what we think about external situations can be incredibly easy but ask about ourselves and we clam up until it all gets too much and whatever we are feeling explodes out, often seemingly completely out of context or proportion to the situation. We can make impulsive decisions about some things then obsess about tiny details in other situations. Those memes about waking up at 3am in a cold sweat and obsessing about a conversation we had in 2004 were probably written by HSPs. Being a HSP can feel like being a walking bag of contradictions and it’s no wonder we often feel misunderstood!
The magic often happens when we meet another likeminded Highly Sensitive Person and after we have learned that we are HSPs, it’s easy to spot that trait in others. It’s certainly the case that some of my closest friendships are with fellow HSP’s and it is also something that I am very attuned to in the counselling room.
As a person-centred counsellor I don’t label the client but offer it as a suggestion to the client that they perhaps might like to explore what it means to be an HSP and then wait to see if this is something they would like to return to in future sessions. In most cases, the client has returned having had a real ‘light bulb’ moment and wants to talk about this in our next session. It can be a real relational breakthrough with clients and brings a whole new depth to the work we do together. It’s one of the things I have no issues with revealing as a self-disclosure to relevant clients at an appropriate time in our work together; much like disability, it can be a real defining moment in therapy for clients where they realise they are not alone, here is someone they can trust to share with ‘warts and all’ and who will understand. It allows us to pick up on so many little nuances in our relationship and, as a counsellor, it means I am highly attuned to how my responses may be interpreted by the client. Creating a safe space becomes even more imperative as I am acutely aware of the need to monitor the intensity of our work so that the cauldron doesn’t’ boil over leaving the client feeling overwhelmed by the work we have done.
So, do I view being a HSP as a blessing and a curse? Hmmmm. Unsurprisingly (!) I have reflected on this a lot. My person-centred perspective means I’m not inclined to see anything in life as a ‘curse’. I believe fundamentally in the actualising tendency which means I think we can all grow to become ‘our best selves’. So, is it a blessing? I guess I see it as my superpower. But with any power come consequences and responsibility. I must be acutely aware of my edge states and notice when empathy is tipping into burnout, I need to know how to self-regulate when I feel overwhelmed, I have to factor in downtime after intense periods with other people and I strive to be gentle with myself when I have my many conversations with my inner critics. I try to maintain the boundaries which are most helpful to me whilst recognising that sometimes those boundaries need to have some flexibility (bouncy castles have boundaries that do the job they were designed for perfectly well and not all boundaries need to be three-foot-thick stone walls). Above all, I value the knowledge that I gained about myself when I discovered I was an HSP, and I love that I can open up the conversation with clients who may also identify as HSPs.
If you are an HSP, you probably want some resources to explore! In addition to ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’, Elaine N. Aron has also written about Highly Sensitive Children and what it is like for the Highly Sensitive Person in love which can be useful if you think you may be the parent of a HSP child or your partner may be a HSP. I can’t recommend her books highly enough. There is also a wealth of information on the internet, but here is a small selection of websites dedicated to HSPs which have resonated with me:
I hope you find these useful 😊