Let me be absolutely clear, here…I love my fellow highly sensitive peeps. But we aren’t perfect. As a group, we can be awkward. We somehow manage to be both hyper aware of the subtle nuances of what’s happening with the people around us… and painfully oblivious to some of the more obvious events right in front of our faces. This is particularly true when we are drained from too much stimulation…. or when we are hungry….. or when we have not had enough sleep….. orrrrrrr when there is a waxing gibbous with a reddish hue….
You get the idea.
In compensation, though, if you can stick it out with us…you’ll be gifted with a a conscientious coworker. You’ll get a thoughtful partner. You’ll have an insightful friend. A warm caregiver. A curious mind. A philosophical thinker.
Unfortunately, however, I’m noticing a concerning trend in articles written by and for highly sensitive people. To be honest, it’s the same phenomenon I’m seeing happening in many social contexts. It’s a kind of “us against them” dynamic. A polarization. Rather than merely saying that highly sensitive people have value, there is a tendency to go so far as to say we are more valuable than others. Even the language presents this view…”here’s what HSP feel. This is what NON-HSP feel.” You are sensitive or you are not. If you are sensitive, this is how you will respond to the world. If you are not sensitive, THIS is how you will respond. Sensitive people are empathetic, compassionate and thoughtful. Non HSP’s are basically lower class monkeys. (Note: The reality could not be more far from the truth. I know many highly sensitive people who are obnoxious, needy, and petulant…I know a number of people who are not highly sensitive who are incredibly warm, thoughtful and kind.)
That might sound a bit extreme….I am being a bit hyperbolic….But it’s not FAR off the mark. Our need to differentiate ourselves and share our experiences of the world can sometimes lead us to get a little too big for our britches. Brene Brown, in her research, makes an insightful comment about this. She explains that we might think there is a wide gap between “I am not good enough” and “I am better than you”…but in reality, you get from one to the other by standing perfectly still. The feeling of not being good enough often leads us to try and overcompensate and push away vulnerability with a defensive retaliation. I don’t want to look at my pain. I’d rather turn you into the enemy and make myself a hero.
The upside to this is that introverts and highly sensitive people are starting to amass a voice loud enough to catch the attention of others. People are beginning to get curious about these traits and predispositions. The downside, though, is that the divisive nature of these labels are driving a wedge between people…and in some cases even making people feel poorly about themselves.
Here is an example of what I mean…Increasingly, I’m seeing an odd dynamic where highly sensitive people and introverts are considered “cool.” I have met people who are more extroverted who almost get offended when they are labeled as such. “No! That’s not true. I’m actually kind of introverted, too. I need time alone, also. I’m not needy! In fact, I’m totally like YOU. I don’t like being around people. I am super independent. I am quiet…..” Rather than say “hell yes, I’m a ballsy extrovert! You’re welcome, universe!” They are retreating and saying “No! I want to be super special and rare and weird and sensitive, too!”
It’s not that I am offended by others who find sensitivity or introversion to be desirable. What concerns me is that some people are being made to fee like Thick-skinned extroversion is bad. It’s as if people are imagining that there is an either-or decision which must be made.
There are several reasons this trend concerns me…
- It sets up a false dichotomy between people. Having a language for our experiences can be incredibly helpful. My discovery of Elaine Aron’s research on Highly Sensitive People helped me to explain sensations I experienced in a way that was approachable for others. Before I had that language, I struggled to identify and communicate my needs. Now, I can better articulate what I need in a way that isn’t off-putting to others. BUT, when we use language in ways that are too concrete and immovable, we build unnecessary cages around ourselves. There isn’t some bold line between “sensitive” people and “non-HSP” people. It’s more of a spectrum of experiences. Remember, to have sensory processing sensitivity simply means having a more vigilant nervous system. That trait is correlated with a desire to think deeply, a preference for lower thresholds of stimulation, a more granular emotional experience, and a more sensitive sensory data processor. That’s it. Some people may relate to some of that…but not all. At different points in our lives, we may find that we can tolerate or even prefer more stimulation than others. We are far more fluid and complex than any one label can define. So to use these labels as a cage is hardly helpful.
- It pits people against each other. When we have language like “HSP” and “non-HSP” it naturally sets up a kind of “us” against “them” dynamic. I am different than you. You cannot understand me because I am too cool and unique and weird and different. In reality, we are all wildly similar (down to our DNA) and we are also wildly different. We are each our own private universe…and we are all one and the same. Both of those things are true. We need to get to a place where we can both appreciate our differences and celebrate our many…MANY similarities.
- It takes all kinds. This is, I think, the most important point. A number of researchers worked together to design a kind of “personality quiz” that measures five big personality traits ….It uses those scores to give you a sense of how each of your scores in all five areas play out in your temperament and daily experience. No test is perfect…but the point it tries to drive home is that we are all unique in our makeup. Other personality tests have been crafted with a similar goal in mind (Myers Briggs….the Enneagram…astrology…) All are meant to give you some insights into your makeup. Each one drives home the point that we need to celebrate our differences. The world takes ALL kinds. Some of us are bold, edgy, and vivacious. Others of us are quiet, reserved and thoughtful. One set of traits is not more valuable than the others. We NEED bold people to lead us. We need quiet thinkers to temper our enthusiasm for rewards …which can lead us to take on too much unnecessary risk.
This same trend, I might add, can also be found in our political sphere. We too easily draw a line between conservatives and liberals and say one or the other has the monopoly on righteousness. In reality….both of us do. Neither of us do. We need conservatives to remind us of the value of personal responsibility. We need liberals to remind us of the value of investing in our communities.
So the next time you find yourself feeling smug about your specific set of traits or even the traits of your current tribe…pause. Consider the possibility that…yes…you have something valuable to offer. The people you care about and resonate with likely do, too. But that does NOT mean those opposite you have no wisdom to impart or tools of use.
This world takes all kinds.