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Is hypersensitivity a good thing?

Student's picture

I always thought personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs test, were really interesting. With a number of questions, you could be grouped into a category, read about “your personality”, what your tendencies are, have your friends take the test, share your personality category with them, form group identities, etc., all from answering some questions about how you see the world, your preferences, and the decisions you make. Every time I took the test, it would tell me that I was in the most rare group, with the fewest people in my category. I liked this, I felt special, but, it was funny, most of my friends were assigned to that group as well. Were they my friends because we shared so many of these traits in common, or was this more of a hoax? The area of personality identification has taken off, and has gone in all sorts of directions. For my paper, I chose examine the trait of high sensitivity, those who identify with this trait, and some of the unusual places it has been found.

Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, researched innate universal psychic dispositions, and these archetypes, he claims, are what make up the collective unconscious (1). One of the dispositions he coined was “innate sensitiveness” (2), which is an innate trait of high sensitivity. Jung went as far as to say that those with this “innate sensitiveness” may be predisposed to being particularly affected by negative childhood experiences, so that later, when in a stressful situation to adapt occurs, those with this “innate sensitiveness” may retreat to infantile fantasies and become neurotic (5). Individuals having this trait have been identified as “highly sensitive person”, or HSP. I thought this was interesting, saying that highly sensitive children may be more prone to being affected by negative experiences, and that this may resurface in adulthood. However, where is the cut off line between more sensitive and less sensitive children? Aren’t we all sensitive at some point? Is sensitivity an environmentally influenced trait, is it genetic? If we are born with certain sensitivity predispositions, do we change when our environment isn’t fostering towards the way we are? As babies, we cry to get what we need. Do we develop a certain level of sensitivity as a result of how others react to us? Isn’t being sensitive, especially when we are young, a good thing? We can be sensitive to the way others react to us, and thus more able to figure out what we need to do to get what we need from others. Is sensitivity both a good thing, in that it enables us to read others better, but also a bad thing in that the extent to which negative experiences affected us when we were young comes back into our life? Or, is it all about temperament- can some children be sensitive, but not regress to negative and hurtful events in the past because it’s not in them to do that?

HSPs are known for this hypersensitivity. Some say this could be thought of as being allergic to life (8), with even an ordinary day being overwhelming. Anything that goes through the senses could be over-stimulating, being too deeply or too quickly absorbed (8). This can lead to being mentally confused, emotionally upset, and/or physically uncomfortable. This hypersensitivity is also present in HSPs relationships with others; being highly sensitive, they are often empathetic to the feelings of others (8). This could be useful in terms of helping others and building meaningful relationships, however, the intensity to which one emphasizes and feels for the other person may be too intense for the HSP to handle, and thus may avoid these social situations. When I read this, that hypersensitivity could be thought of as “being allergic to life”, I wondered whether everyone is hypersensitive (or perhaps everyone is somewhat “allergic to life” for different reasons?). Life is hard, and bad things happen, and we react to them in different ways, but I had the idea that maybe life is how it’s meant to be- it’s there, it happens, and it’s us that react. Maybe life in itself is perfect, and even and just meant to be, and maybe our reactions show our allergies to life. Maybe death is a part of this perfect life, meant to happen, or maybe death is the most serious allergic reaction of all to life. Maybe the stresses we feel are our reactions to being allergic to life, but even if that is the case, what’s the benefit to viewing the world this way? Maybe there no benefit, or maybe in thinking about the world this way, we can be productive in finding a way to reduce the allergy, or number of allergies we experience to the world.

Previously, highly sensitive people were thought of as having innate shyness, inhibition, fearfulness, and introversion (2). Researcher Elaine N. Aron, author of the bestselling book, The Highly Sensitive Person, has shed new light on the subject, looking at the trait as more positive and making claims that are different than thought of before, for example, claiming that thirty percent of HSP are actually extroverts (3). According to Dr. Aron and her colleagues, highly sensitive people account for about fifteen to twenty percent of the population, processing sensory data deeper and more thoroughly because of biological differences with their nervous systems than their non-HSP peers (2,3). She claims that the nervous systems are more sensitive in highly sensitive people than in non-highly sensitive people. Highly sensitive people are people who are aware of subtleties in the surroundings, and are easily overwhelmed when in an environment with a lot of stimuli. Dr. Aron typically asks patients questions to help determine if they are HSP, such as: Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, course fabrics, or sirens nearby? Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows? Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation (3)?

These questions, and the others she asks as well, seem extremely broad, or perhaps that is my opinion, because perhaps I am highly sensitive. However, many people become frightened, or alarmed, at the noise of sirens. Are they frightened by what the sirens represent, that someone is harmed, or is the noise the more startling part? It seems to me that everyone needs downtime sometimes, to relax, to decompress, to calm down. Perhaps for “highly sensitive” people, this downtime is more essential, but asking these broad questions seems applicable to a large percentage of the population. While as many as one in five people may be considered “highly sensitive”, I would think, if basing the number of highly sensitive people off of their reactions to these questions, the number would be far higher. Criticism of the concept of the HSP includes attention to this concept of the Forer effect, which is when people give themselves high ratings for various personality traits that are supposedly highly tailored for them, but are actually vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people (12).

Aron describes the highly sensitive child, and how many psychologists and parents tend to only see the negative in highly sensitive children, such as this often displayed inhibition or fussiness. She goes on to say that without proper understanding and being raised in a house with support, highly sensitive children are at risk for developing depression, anxiety, or shyness as adults (3). This goes along with Jung’s earlier claim that highly sensitive children who experience negative events during childhood will grow up and that these feelings will resurface in a stressful time during adulthood. However, it seems it would also be possible that more sensitive children would grow into more sensitive adults, and thus be more sensitive to criticism and other stressors of life, and therefore, be more prone to depression, anxiety, etc. This is to say that nothing particularly negative needs to happen as a child in order to be more prone to these conditions later in life when highly sensitive. This is also to say that without proper understanding and support, it would seem that many children would grow up to be more prone to depression and anxiety, with or without this high sensitivity, as a result of this lack of nurturing as a child.

Aron, having been the largest modern name on Highly Sensitive People, also backs up her claim. She writes about the criticism of this concept of the HSP by medical doctors, research psychologists, and psychotherapists. Their claim is that this new excitement over the topic is “hype”- that highly sensitive people have been around for a long time, just under a name other than sensitive. She claims that psychologists and psychiatrists criticize because they don’t like the term “innate sensitivity”, because, she says, this word “innate” suggests that there is nothing that can be done about it, and thus nothing for them to do (6). She also says that if patients can explain their believed shyness or anxiety as being due to this innate quality, than the therapists will have a harder time of bringing up explanations from childhood or having the patient talk about other possibilities for the trait. She says that medical doctors sometimes think that HSPs can improve with antidepressants, and admits that sometimes they do. She says that those that are highly sensitive are also more sensitive to pain, medications, noticing symptoms, asking many questions, come back to the doctor more often, thus causing the doctor more trouble. And, “if an HSP had a difficult childhood, as a patient he or she will actually be more depressed, anxious, shy, and so forth, so the trait becomes associated in a doctor’s mind with emotional problems. Doctors never notice the more self-confident, adaptable, calm HSPs” (6).

I thought the attention to the word “innate” here was interesting. Just because something is innate, does that mean it’s permanent? I would think that something innate may be predisposed, but that nothing is etched in stone. If anything, I’d like to believe we are the way we are for specific reasons, and even if born with a certain tendency, the way we use that tendency to apply to the world around us is interesting and unique. Aron claims that patients can use this innate quality to close off discussion on topics with their therapists, but that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Even, and perhaps especially, if we’re born with some troubling quality, even if we can associate it with a predisposition, the fact remains that it still is troubling, and that I would assume the person would still want help to be able to deal with it in life and make it less troubling to them.

When reading about hypersensitivity, I learned that this is a trait many psychopaths share (9). While psychopaths often show no remorse for things they do to harm others and are often associated by serious emotional deficits, they have been known to exhibit hypersensitivity in some areas. For example, many psychopathic patients show narcissistic features, and thus are overly aware of the lack of respect or attention of others, and people’s doubts as to their true grandiosity (9). It is also thought that a significant part of the etiology of psychopathy may be due to rejection by people the psychopath has known, bringing about intense feelings of depression, distress, desperation, and anger. Long-lasting, extreme loneliness may also bring about this extremely heightened sensitivity, because this loneliness can bring about serious emotional suffering, associated emotional awareness and stimulation in some areas (9).

I thought this was interesting, that psychopathic patients, so often so well known for their lack of feelings, has been shown to exhibit some highly sensitive traits. This makes me wonder, if they have this quality in their nature, and it can be expressed, or developed, then what it is that eliminates this quality from their conscious’ when committing heinous acts? Or, is it ever in their conscious’ to begin with, or is it repressed unless talking about themselves- can they not apply this sensitivity to others? Is it this differentiation- the amount to which they value and often think of themselves, and the amount to which they are sensitive to their own needs and the way others act, but only towards them- can they not apply this sensitivity to being empathetic towards others, and therefore do not feel for others even close to what they feel for themselves, and therefore value others far less than themselves, therefore giving them the okay, or at least lack of remorse, to commit such terrible crimes?

There is also a group called Indigo Children who are thought to, among other characteristics, possess hypersensitivity. According to New Age belief, these children are empathetic and are in tune with others, and are naturally drawn to matters concerning mysteries, spirituality, the paranormal, and the occult (10). These children are thought of as representing a higher state of human evolution, with some believing that they have paranormal abilities, while others distinguishing Indigo children from their non-Indigo peers by more conventional traits such as increased empathy and creativity (10). These children are called Indigo children, because they were originally thought of as having an indigo colored aura. The term Indigo children originates from a book by Nancy Ann Tappe in 1982 called Understanding Your Life Through Color, in which she estimated that 60% of people aged 14 to 25 and 97% of children under 10 are “Indigo” (10). The 1998 book, The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived, written by Carroll and Tober, later popularized this idea.

It’s interesting that more than half of people aged 14 to 25 are thought of as “Indigo”, and that only 3 percent of children under 10 are not “Indigo”. My first reaction to these statistics was that it is the innocence of so many children that could make them “Indigo”. That is, that these children are just exploring the world, and learning and experiencing different things, that they have not been tainted yet by much of the hardships in the world. However, on second thought, these children are not completely shielded from the outside world, and it seems highly unlikely that, for especially lower SES families, and people with illness in their families, for example, these children could be that naïve and thus that innocent. I’m not sure how these numbers were arrived at, and what the specific criteria was, but it was definitely be interesting to read the book and find out.

Many Indigo children are thought of as having Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Dyslexia, and even Autism (10). They are known to get unsociable when not around other Indigo children. In Carroll and Tober’s book, they discuss how Indigo children do not need drugs like Ritalin for treating ADD or ADHD, but “special care and training” (11). Indigo children are also thought of to be prone to emotional disorders like depression and sleep disorders such as insomnia (10). If 97% of children under the age of 10 are “Indigo”, and 2-3% of children have ADHD (13), then it makes sense that Indigo children would experience some level of ADHD, but if these “Indigo” children account for 97% of the population, and just these 2-3% are known to have ADHD, than it seems like some statistics must be far off.

Criticism of Indigo children is pretty straightforward. Critics, such as psychologist Russell Barkley, claim the New Age movement has not yet produced empirical evidence of the existence of Indigo children, and the traits they use to describe them are so vague that they could describe “most of the people most of the time” (10), believing in the Forer effect here. There is also criticism that for those who believe that these children are in tune with the paranormal, that their self-report measures of that may be a result of watching modern television shows with an emphasis on magic New-age compatible language (10), and that these children may be responding to what they see on TV.

Interestingly, increased sensitivity to anxiety is also now being thought of as a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (7). Anxiety sensitivity is a sensitivity towards fearing anxiety-related symptoms, such as increased heart rate, sweating, headaches, muscle tension, etc, and is due to believing that there will be some negative outcome as a result of these symptoms. For example, someone may fear an increased heart rate because they may think that this puts them at an increased risk for heart attack. It is thought that anxiety sensitivity may be partially inherited, and also stems largely from early experiences (7), such as seeing parents overreact to sickness, and thus may end up thinking that any kind of strange bodily feeling, such as anxiety, is not normal and is dangerous. Often, the extent of a person’s sensitivity to anxiety will predict whether or not they develop more severe PTSD following a traumatic event; the higher the level of a person’s sensitivity to anxiety, the more likely they are to develop more severe PTSD. This is thought to happen possibly because fearing anxiety may cause people to have a stronger emotional response to traumatic situations that often bring about anxiety, thereby increasing the level of hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD (7). In addition, people with this sensitivity to anxiety may avoid confronting their emotions surrounding an anxiety-provoking situation, with the repression perhaps putting them more at risk for PTSD (7).

Is high sensitivity a positive or a negative? Perhaps it just is, with no charge at all. It seems that high sensitivity, to me, depends on the way in which is it used. Highly sensitive people are aware of the feelings of others, and many of the details of their environment. While too much intensity can be over-stimulating, high sensitivity can be a helpful thing, both in being able to understand others well, and in being aware of our surroundings. It’s interesting that people choose to identify themselves as highly sensitive people, such as those who in part define themselves by Jung’s “innate sensitiveness” quality, and even Indigo children. It’s interesting because this extreme sensitivity has been linked to “higher evolution” in these children, but also has been likened to making some people feel and live as if they are “allergic to life”. Both groups of people, however, have been associated with different mental disorders. HSPs are thought of as particularly prone to depression and anxiety, while Indigo children are thought of as being prone to ADHD and ADD, among others. This offers food for thought. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common disorders, or symptoms, in adults. ADHD and ADD are two of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in children. Is this a coincidence that these mental health issues are also the most popular, and that the measures used to defined highly sensitive people are often extremely vague? Is this concept of high sensitivity something new, or is it more just a description of the population, with particular emphasis given to one trait? Is it fair to say high sensitivity is related to these mental problems, or are these mental problems so common, that any trait as common as high sensitivity could be linked just because of the large number of people tend to exhibit it? I’m bound to think that high sensitivity does exist in various forms, but various people have specific sensitive tendencies in one area or another, and that nearly all people are highly sensitive in at least one aspect of their life. After all, isn’t it this high sensitivity that shows that we are humans, using our senses, that some things are important enough to us to deserve our specific attention, which we give by this sensitivity, and our senses? High sensitivity can be overwhelming to some in various areas, but high sensitivity can also be what shows our passion and interests in specific areas. Differentiating between the two could perhaps be a useful step for the future, but one I would imagine would be highly difficult.


1. Wikipedia, Jungian Archetype.
2. Wikipedia, Highly Sensitive Person.
3. Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron.
4. Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine Aron.
5. Revisiting Jung's concept of innate sensitiveness, Elaine Aron.;jsessionid=14un7njinl56v.alexandra
6. Criticism of Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron.
7. Anxiety Sensitivity and PTSD, Matthew Tull.
8. Hypersensitivity, Phylameana Desy.
9. Emotional Capacities and Sensitivity in Psychopaths, Willem Martens.
10. Wikipedia, Indigo children.
11. Indigo Children, Lee Carroll and Jan Tober.
12. Wikipedia, Forer Effect.
13. ADD/ADHD Statistics.


Serendip Visitor's picture

Is HSP diagnosis an excuse to behave poorly

After attempting to digest information on HSP and realizing I am a layperson, I kept having the same question come to mind.

If we label a person as HSP, inform them of their disorder, could they not misuse this label as an excuse to demand that the world and the people around them make accomodations for their unique sensitivities?

Would it not be a kinder to make no accomodations for them and encourage them to adjust to difficult situations or evolve into more tolerant people?

Just sayin!

Sea's picture

to Z

Yes Z, knowing and accepting that you are highly sensitive, which often includes being overly sensitive toward feelings and needs of others, may be the first step out of self-abuse and deprivation and the help one desperately needs to get some hope at becoming better in balancing realationships by balancing personal needs with those of others in mutually healthier ways. When I 'misbehave' it is usually because I have been giving beyond reasonable capabilities while not receiving even the least of understanding or empathy in return. Such explosion followed by implosion is then of course my own responsibilty, yet it would be so great if those I love would also care enough to behave with a little more empathy and sensibility rather than just taking my willing generosity in accomodating everyone all the time so much for granted till I break into gazillion pieces...

Student's picture

I wrote a book commentary

I wrote a book commentary on Alice Miller's book after you recommended it to me a year and a half ago (Drama of the Gifted Child commentary). Some people who had read the book, and my opinions, felt very strongly that not only did the book speak to them, and their experiences, but seemed angry that I might suggest the concept of victimizing there. With time past, I think about the book, and the ideas, and wonder if I was so concerned to not victimize or blame that I was over-protective and didn't allow myself to see through or think through the ideas? I sometimes think that because of these different lenses we have, at different points in our life, we miss out on so much, yet so many things we only experience once. Maybe a "less wrong" story-telling comes from an ability to see past the lens? Or, perhaps it's in the ability to see and acknowledge the lens correctly in order to compensate for it? Looking forward to reading Butler's book!

Serendip Visitor's picture

drama of the gifted child

I really enjoyed your thoughts on The drama of the gifted child. Your review was an excellent starting point for me. The book was recommended to me after my mother died a few years ago and I was insulted by the recommendation when I read it. Your discussion of the broader themes of the book, followed by the various commentary on your review helped me to make sense of the book. I was a psychology major in university- probably why I was so offended. Thanks for your insights! I like the way you think! I know this article is 6+ years old now - where are you in your life now? Wishing you all the best! Janine

Paul Grobstein's picture

The pros/cons/issues of sensitivity

Yep, is indeed worth connecting to some of the work on attachment. As well as, perhaps, recent work on "sensory processing disorder." Octavia Butler, in her novel Parable of the Sower, talks about the pros and cons of a "sharer," who has unusual sensitivity to the experiences of others. And the issue of children taking on the burdens of parents through such sensitivity is a theme of Alice Miller's Drama of the Gifted Child.
jrlewis's picture

The idea that life is

The idea that life is perfect reminds me of what a counselor once said about emotions.  Emotions are neither positive nor negative what matters is how we act on them.  Take anger traditionally perceived as negative, could yield positive results if someone angered by an unfair event acts to remedy it. 

Also, the trait of hypersensitivity in adults sounds similar to one the temperments described by attachment theory.  Especially the increased severe affects of childhood traumas on certain individuals.  I wonder what the relationship between indigo chilhdren and high-fear children is?  Seems there should be a lot of overlap.