Are You Too Sensitive?
Do you take things too personally? Overanalyze the situation? Feel defensive? Then you are almost certainly among the group classified as Highly Sensitive People.
Still, not everyone is buying. My personal physician, Dr. Martin Scurr, whose busy medical and psychological practice in London is filled with self-identified HSPs, is opposed to the new label. "It takes all sorts," he says. "Why should we have to label everyone who doesn't fit like clones into the mainstream? How do we define 'abnormality' or 'disorder' anyway? How many new words can we come up with for good old anxiety?"
Certainly anxiety is a big component of the HSP's experience. According to experts, HSPs suffer from what is called sensory-processing sensitivity and are more susceptible than ordinary people to both internal and external stimuli. "They have an innate tendency to process things more carefully," says Aron, who has devised a test to gauge where one falls on the sensitivity continuum. "They tend to be aware of subtleties and are therefore easily overwhelmed by their feelings." An HSP doesn't just cry while watching a film like The Notebook - she experiences actual grief symptoms. She also reacts strongly to things such as noise and light, and is particularly sensitive to stimulants such as coffee. Typically an HSP demonstrates greater caution and reluctance than the non-HSP population with things such as taking risks, trying new experiences, meeting new people, even venturing to unfamiliar places. Then there is the other extreme - roughly 30 percent of HSPs are thought to be extroverts and sensation seekers.
Ted Zeff, Ph.D., an HSP expert based in California and author of the recently published The Strong, Sensitive Boy, says the trait was previously linked with leadership. "Wild animals with HSP picked up the energy around them and headed for the hills, becoming the leaders of the pack. It's just in America where sensitivity is not valued and where we think of it as a weakness," he says.
Though HSPs are often intuitive and conscientious, the trait can come at a cost. Jill Capobianco, an art dealer living outside New York, recalls that when she was as young as 3, "I had trouble sleeping because I was always thinking about things. And because I was so sensitive to hurt, I closed off easily." As a result, her childhood was a lonely one. "I was never one of the gang," she says. Today, she acknowledges, her "brain is always looking for rejection." And, because she fears being "herself," relationships have proved difficult.