Well, if you have read even just a few lines on my website, you probably understand that I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) myself. But what you may not suspect is that realizing I had this trait came as a surprise – despite starting psychotherapy 12 years ago, and despite using all the possible options to heal myself with alternative medicine since my early 20s, and despite the fact that I knew I had a non-conventional life and work path, and despite the fact that I had been “diagnosed” as highly sensitive by my surroundings – still, it came up as a surprise. The biggest surprise was discovering what it really meant, and the opportunities that were hidden by this trait. When I embodied it, I realized it was a gift, not a curse. At that moment, I became a “highly sensitive hero” simply because the transformation I lived was real: my life was simplified, my thoughts were clean, and I found an increase in my tolerance and respect toward myself and others that eventually allowed me to have dreams and ambitions that I did not think possible before. And this is what I want for you, too.
You. Because if you are reading these lines, if you felt compelled to know more, it means that you “feel” there is something you can take away here to help you in your life. It means that you already recognize this trait in yourself or someone you are close to, perhaps because of what you have already read on the subject. And even if you do not see yourself/themselves in each and every attribute I will state – and I don’t think anybody does – this article will help you confirm that you are, or one of your beloved one is, highly sensitive and that there are ways to become a hero as well.
A tiny bit of background
The concept of high sensitivity was popularized by Elain N. Aron, a doctor in clinical psychology, in the mid-1990s, about 25 years ago.
25 years ago? Of course, that doesn’t mean that high sensitivity didn’t exist before then. This concept simply put a label on something that has existed from time immemorial. This concept is even the reason why the human and animal world has not completely collapsed over time.
Research has shown that high sensitivity is a genetically-determined personality trait. That tells us two things:
1. It is a trait you are either born with, or not. You can’t acquire it; you can’t get rid of it.
2. I am not a scientist and will never pretend I can explain, discover, diagnose anything related to this trait.
My job as a coach is to help those who believe they are highly sensitive – that is, roughly 20% of humanity, composed equally of men and women – to use this “magical” trait. I often call it a gift, which can be nurtured to help people find solutions to live a better life, reach their goals and – I truly hope – break the ceiling of their wildest dreams.
So, as I said, I will not make a diagnosis. I will not test your genetic material. And honestly, I will not even spend 20 minutes with you “to make sure” you are highly sensitive before I accept you as a client.
But I know you want to know! So, if you really want to be sure, I invite you to take the test Elaine N. Aron developed when she first wrote on the subject and which has not evolved since. You can find it and more information on her reference website www.hsperson.com.
Of course, this subject is much more complex than what can be covered in this article. There are many books that explain high sensitivity in detail. My personal approach is to offer you my congregated view on what it can mean to be a highly sensitive hero, based on my readings and my life experience as an HSP.
Are you ready to dive into it? Let’s go, then!
You can make fun of me, all year round, because you will see me wearing sunglasses. In an open space, I’m the one closing the blinds when colleagues say, “Look at this beautiful sun, it’s amazing for the month of December!” I can “hear” the vibrations of a dryer running two floors above my apartment. Which explains why I cannot sleep on a ferry. Anyway, wherever it is located, my room will always be too close to the engine…
Otherwise, my sleep quality is surprisingly good – which is uncommon to HSPs – but once awake, my brain is constantly in activity, bombarded by questions, information, and emotions. Speaking of emotions, on a scale from 1 to 10, I can rate my mood anywhere from -10 to 100. On the same day.
I start with “intensity” because it is a statement, more so than a characteristic of being an HSP. It helps us have concrete material to understand that we may be part of the highly sensitive hero population. It explains a lot, but the “gifts” of this trait do not reside here.
While most people claim they are “sensitive,” only roughly 20% of the human and animal population are “highly sensitive” as they feel some kind of intensity in their life. This can manifest in one or several of these attributes:
Intense sensorial sensitivity. Highly sensitive heroes may, for example, feel overwhelmed with, or unable to tolerate:
- loud, white, and/or repetitive noises (hello HSP parents!)
- strong lightning
- a machine engine’s vibrations
- strong perfumes and scents
- wearing cloth made of an uncomfortable fabric
Intense emotional sensitivity:
- HSPs can feel deeply sad and deeply happy. Their emotional life is a roller coaster.
- Feeling overwhelmed is common, with a need to step back after having experienced an intense situation.
- They can startle very easily as they are taken out of their intense thinking process.
- The HSPs brain is working intensely, constantly processing information and any kind of observations they make.
Depth of processing
I am given a new project to run. I say yes, but let’s be honest, I have no clue how to do it or what it will look like in the end. I don’t know where to begin, so I start reading, trying, writing… Suddenly, everything makes sense and it’s 100% “complete” in my head. It’s like a puzzle where pieces are put together all at once. Then, comes the moment to show my plan. I present the solution, the end result, the consequences, the attention points. I see my audience is lost – I understood later that they are expecting to understand the process in each step of my reflection. I don’t see the point, but try my best to put things together for them in a more structured way but … It just doesn’t work like that for me, and I can’t reassure them. Oh, and the slides are not in the right sequence, says my audience. The ideal sequence does not exist in my head, because any order can make sense. This is when the longest step of my creation process starts: waiting for my audience to come to the same conclusion. At their rhythm and pace. Step by step, process by process. Sometimes, a 2-hour meeting is enough, and we can eventually call it a good collaboration meeting with great group results. Hurrah! Sometimes it takes a few weeks, a few months to see my proposal put back on the table – through the achievement of a colleague or a manager who has added a structured Excel file to the presentation. Everyone is happy, we can go headed with the project now.
What you just read is proof of what is called depth of processing. This is the essence of the HSP trait, and what I believe is the greatest gift to be unwrapped. But depth of processing is difficult to observe in others, and even within yourself. Nobody realizes the way they deal with information, as it is an internal process. We may assume it works the same for everybody. That, unfortunately leads us to the situation I described above, frustrated by this lack of self-awareness and understanding of our differences.
HSPs process information more deeply than others do – by using their “right brain” which is the creative and visionary part of the brain, making links with past experiences. They do not categorize information, so it is like having access to an encyclopaedia with all the references detached from one another.
The French word to describe the way HSPs treat information translates to “arborescent thinking” which means that the information is treated by the brain “all together,” like the branches of a tree, rather than sequentially.
HSPs are passionate people. When a subject interest them, they accumulate the knowledge very easily. They grab all the information they can, and they read or listen without even noticing. This comes from another need they have – that things make sense. It is unlikely that they will give up until this is the case.
But for the very large majority of other people, the other roughly 80% of the population, information processing is done very differently – with their “left brain,” the headquarters of rationality and analysis. The information and resolution of a problem is done by taking elements one by one, meaning that the resolution of a problem is sequential.
As a consequence, the HSP, after having taken a moment to put everything together, may come to the full resolution of a problem pretty quickly, while the non-HSPs are still at the very beginning of the process. And because this process of linear thinking is mandatory for non-HSPs, they may reject the HSP’s ideas because they cannot explain them. In the best-case scenario, they will challenge them by asking, “Can you explain how you came up to this?” Or say, “Prove it to me.” And these are impossible questions to answer for an HSP because it was their arborescent thinking at work, on a subconscious level. At this point, the HSP’s solution will, at best, be labelled as “a gut feeling” or “intuition” which is, of course, often not enough to be taken into consideration.
The strange feelings HSPs have as being “weird,” or “coming from another planet,” or “unconventional” often comes from these kinds of recurring situations – especially in the workplace, a subject we will tackle soon in another article.
Back in the summer of 2016, I stopped scrolling my Facebook feed, unable to handle the world’s misery and the fear of millions, after France lived through another huge terrorist attack. I am often giving my contribution to charity without reading the full explanation of the atrocity lived by others, often living thousands of kilometres away from me. I ended up crying and shaking like a baby after my partner, who then regretted his joke, made me watch the trailer of a horror/suspense movie. The trailer, not the movie itself. Because, real or not, I feel others’ pain, discomfort, sadness deeply – especially if I am not prepared for it and don’t protect myself enough.
The highly sensitive person is the one who does not understand why empathy needs to be taught, as this is typical to their nature. But, nope, it is not a given for everyone on this planet to physically feel other people’s feelings, or to be overwhelmed by life.
Because an HSP naturally just “has it,” they may sometimes find difficulties going along in their life as they feel different or separate from others in many situations.
For HSPs, the news of the world is more difficult to handle, grievances are more painful to process, and for many, horror and suspense movies are no-go’s. An HSP can spend the whole day with a strange uncomfortable feeling after having witnessed misery, poverty or a child being slapped by their parent in the street. And it doesn’t help that HSPs are amazing observers.
Of course, all HSPs are not equal. The past experiences, having had a happy or a difficult childhood play a big role in the HSPs tendency to be overwhelmed or not. And of course, some training may help – if HSPs are utilized in their work and personal lives to witness difficult situations or if they overcame traumas, they will be able to handle their world much easier.
However, in order to cope, HSPs often construct a protection shell, called a “false self.” The concept of a “false self” was first introduced into psychoanalysis back in the 1960s by the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. A false self is born when who you truly are is in contradiction with the expectations of your environment (originally parents, but also bosses, society, company culture etc.). This is a fine strategy, as long as it works. But it will probably not work well for one’s entire life.
HSPs and the World
Of course, the construction of a “false self” is not inherent to the HSPs. But when you understand their thinking processes and their struggles to handle sensorial and emotional intensity, their strong capacity to empathise, along with the fact that the vast majority of their environment is made up of people who think dramatically differently than they do, you may understand that the creation of an alternative personality is a survival strategy.
And speaking of survival – you must know that HSPs were essential to the survival of the human race by being the observer and understanding their environment much better than others. When humans lived with danger all around them, HSPs were the first ones to notice the danger, and could therefore save the tribe.
Thanks to their creativity and vision, HSPs are at the origin of the greatest inventions which have changed humanity. Of course, as sensitive to their environment as they are, they often have a stronger need to find solutions, in order to ease the intensity in their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs – to name a few – were all famous highly sensitive people.
You might say, “No, they were just geniuses!” Yep. True. They were all famous for being gifted with very high IQs. Having a high IQ (greater than 125-130) says you have a high potential (HP), and these fellows were lucky enough to raise their potential to the top. It does not mean that all HSPs are HP people, but it is not too crazy to say that all HP people are highly sensitive. Let’s be clear. HSPs tend to have a greater potential than others, thanks to their unconventional way of processing information. I know this is something difficult for some HSPs to hear, especially if they have been struggling to be successful all their lives. So, let’s leave it there for now. But I will be sure to cover this topic more in-depth in a future article.
Is There Hope?
I created “my identity” with the conviction that there are ways for highly sensitive people to become highly sensitive heroes. These heroes who maximize their potential, gift the world with their talents, find serenity in their work and personal life, and who are the best decision makers for themselves. It all starts with a strong self-knowledge and a will to improve your life. I strongly believe that victimisation is not the key. Instead, self-confidence, authenticity, courage, and trust will turn any HSP into a hero who – thanks to all the gifts this amazing trait has to offer – will contribute to a better world.
Want to have a conversation with me? Get in touch!
References (and some ideas to learn more about the subject):
The Highly Sensitive Person – Elaine N. Aron
Je Pense Trop – Christel Petitcollin (French)
Un Cerveau Droit au Pays des Cerveaux Gauches – Myriam Ogier (French)
Petit guide à L’usage des gens intelligents qui ne se trouvent pas très doués – Béatrice Millêtre (French)