In The Highly Sensitive Person Elaine Aron provides a thorough and detailed description of the personality traits and psychology of highly sensitive people.
- Bullet Summary
- Full Summary
- Real Life Applications
- Highly sensitive people have a highly sensitive nervous system
- HSPs see and feel social and environments cues earlier than most
- But HSPs also get overwhelmed quicker when there are too many stimuli
About the Author: Elaine Aron, Ph.D., has been a researcher of love and relationships.
Her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, has been the result of five years of research and was the first -an so far still the only- big popular book that discusses the psychology of highly sensitive people.
Throughout the course of this summary and review we will also use HSPs as an abbreviation.
Highly Sensitive Person: Overview
A highly sensitive person has a highly sensitive nervous system. It’s a trait which is probably inherited, and it means that:
- You’re aware of the subtleties in your surroundings
- You are easily overwhelmed in highly stimulating environments
Being a highly sensitive person has both advantages and disadvantages. In our Western culture though, it tends to be interpreted more negatively.
Once over-aroused, HSPs are not very sensitive and understanding anymore because they can get overwhelmed and need to disconnect and be alone.
Non-HSPs instead become more understanding of others in highly chaotic situations.
Based on a sample size of 300 people the author says that 20% were either extremely or “quite” sensitive”, 22% were moderately sensitive and 42% said they were not sensitive at all.
The author comments that most people are not sensitive, and that’s why many HSPs can feel uncomfortable around people “pumping their radio” or yelling.
My Note: The statistic says little
This statistic is small and says very little. It seems to be self-reported and it’s really not clear what “quite” is supposed to mean.
However, it might give us a rough idea and it makes me think that HSP is a spectrum trait, like extroversion.
Environment’s Variables on HSPs
The author says being an HSP is not a fixed constant and can change over time.
For example, after a month in a remote cabin, everyone can become more of an HSP and most people become more sensitive as they age.
The author also says that most people have a highly sensitive side to certain stimuli or in certain environments.
My Note: Most is not all
This “becoming more sensitive with age” is relative. I was much more of an HSP as a kid than I am now.
Indeed, I have lost and/or overgrown some HSP traits like emotional sensitivity.
Finally, individualistic and more socially aggressive cultures such as the US provide worst environments fro HSPs
Possible Difficulties Growing Up
The author says that many highly sensitive people had parents, teachers, and sometimes doctors who wanted them to “overcome” their high sensitivity, and it’s possible they had a more difficult childhood as compared to non-highly sensitive peers.
HSPs children under stress tend to produce more cortisol, tense up their vocal cords more leading to higher pitches.
Elaine Aron here talks about attachment styles and the importance of having a secure attachment style.
You can read more on attachment styles here:
- Attachment styles overview
- Secure attachment style
- Anxious attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Test your attachment style
- Attached by Amir Levine
Genders of HSPs
The author says there is an equal split of male and female who are HSPs. But since men are “not supposed to be HSPs”, they can encounter more difficulties.
HSPs in Society
The author says that HSPs tend to be more cautious and conscientious. They think about the possible alternatives, the dangers and the risks.
HSPs tend to be the ones who tell the more aggressive counterparts to take it easy and think things through, which at times can make them unpopular.
HSPs often take “advisory” roles such as historians, writers, artists, judges, philosophers, theologians, therapists and teachers.
The author calls the historically more gung-ho individuals “warriors”.
I very much disagree with this division of society between “HSPs and warriors”.
The author makes the point that HPSs are sometimes perceived as being weak and that’s not the case. But then she seems to have a superior attitude towards non-HSPs and I disagree.
And I say it as a mild HSP.
Thriving As An HSPs
Elaine Aron says that it’s important for younger HSPs -and older as well- to stay out in the world and trying new things.
However, the author also warns on striking a balance on not withdrawing too much and not pushing yourself too much either.
She says that withdrawing too much, like some HSPs do, might not be the correct answers because stressors, to an extent, will always be there.
It’s better to learn a coping mechanism to better deal with life, instead.
She says that HSPs can find their own spot in this society and be successful at their own pace.
Habituation is a process that works for everyone, HSPs included. Habituation is the repeating of a certain action which, over time, becomes easier and less stressful
Sleep & HSPs
Elaine Aron says that HSPs need more good sleep than non HSPs.
HSPs take longer to adjust to jet-lag and do worse with night shifts and mixed shifts.
Here are some tips that apply to everyone and to HSPs in particular:
- Respect your circadian rhythms and sleep when you’re sleepy
- Remove pressure from sleeping: tell yourself you’ll just lie there with your eyes closed
- If too many thoughts rush through, read or do something
- If you are experiencing sleep deprivation, take more vacations, periodically.
Social Skills for HSPs
One of my favorite parts of “The Highly Sensitive Person” is Elaine Aron’s analysis of social skills books and courses.
She says that many social skills courses and books are written by highly extroverted, non-HSPs people who encourage everyone to be more like themselves.
They talk about “working a room”, “being the center of the attention”, “winning over a crowd”.
You shouldn’t strive to be more like them.
The others are psychologists who sometimes talk about “curing” and “conquering”, which can make HSPs feel flawed.
You don’t have to accept the extroverted definition of social skills, such as “working a room”, “never allowing an awkward silence”, “always having a great comeback”.
You should indeed find your own way to social skills like “talking seriously”, “listening well”, “allowing silences during which deeper thoughts can take place”.
The author instead recommends you work on your over-arousal and appreciate your introverted style.
Also read my review of Charisma University.
Refute the social skills definition of extroverts
HSPs At Work
HSPs don’t like to mingle, go for after-work cocktails and play politics.
That can make them look suspicious, or lose points.
Elaine Aron recommends that you, formally or casually, let people know of your good feelings about them and you let your superiors know about how much you love your job and care about the company.
Also read: how to develop a fruitful relationship with your boss.
My Note: Skipping company’s parties can be harmful
I often avoided company parties and sometimes it costed me in office politics and work relationships.
People often fail to understand that your commitment to work and your goodwill for coworkers does not necessarily translate to your commitment in spending time with them.
The author also mentions The Prince by Machiavelli and recommends you learn some of the games people play and the social dynamics of the world around you.
This is your website for that :).
HSPs tend to be conscientious, good with details, loyal, thoughtful of the needs of customers and clients and often gifted.
In short, they make for wonderful employees.
They dislike aggressive self-promotions, so you must be watchful you don’t overlook them when considering promotions.them when it’s time for promotions.
HSPs perform poorly when you are watching over their shoulders, so avoid “keeping an eye on them’
Since they are so sensitive to the social environment, they can also function as canaries in the coal mine to give out early warnings of impending troubles.
HSPs & Relationships
Elaine Aron says that while some HSPs tend to fall in love harder than others, some others rarely do because they have an avoidant attachment style.
But she also adds that “rarely” is not never and when they do, they can fall in love very hard.
On average, HSPs tend to be more prone to love.
The author also discusses the role of self-esteem on love, and for more details you can read self-esteem and relationships.
For more on relationships also check my guide: greatest relationship ever: start here.
HSPs might be more sensitive to sexual stimulation which might make HSPs sexual lives’ more satisfying and require less variety.
However, the author is guessing here and she says she cannot say for sure.
The HSPs Emotional Roller Coaster
HSPs relationships can become an emotional roller coaster as the HSP seeks intimacy and then needs space.
What happens is that the HSPs gets close and spends time with his partner, but then gets overwhelmed and needs time on his own.
That leads to a close-distant dynamics which can lead to relationship turbulences and can look very similar to an anxious-avoidant trap (check the article, it’s very good).
Don’t Deny Your Darker Side
The author talks about Jung’s “shadow” concept, something Greene also talks about in The Laws of Human Nature.
Elaine Aron says that HSPs can have a bigger tendency to reject and deny part of themselves.
For example, their strength, power or the capacity of being tough. Some deny their anger, their need of being alone or their need for others.
There are plenty of resources on this website to strengthen your assertiveness, including my Social Power course and the following books and articles:
- Drawing boundaries with powerful people
- To be good, you must be bad
- The Power of a Positive No
- People Skills
Real Life Applications
Don’t Mis-Diagnose HSPs
HPS are around 15-20% of the population. That’s quite a few people, and they can be easily confused for shy, fearful, weak and, of course, introverted (read Quiet: The Power of Introverts for more on introversion)..
Use Music Consciously
The type of music you listen to affects anyone, but especially so HSPs. Don’t listen to arousing music when you need to decompress.
Watch Out For:
HSPs can be more sensitive to medications. and they might fall more easily for the latest guru, shaman or snake oil salesman.
Some Doubtful Sociological Analysis
The author says that the world is, for better or for worse, under the control of increasingly aggressive cultures.
She says that it’s normal because when two cultures come into contact the more aggressive “naturally takes over”.
That’s not necessarily true, or the world would be evolving progressively towards more and more aggression, which is not the case -also read The Better Angels of Our Nature or simply look at Athens VS Spart, with Athens often beating Sparta militarily and, even more so, culturally and in terms of overall influence-.
Some Made Up, Rose-Tinted Glassed History
The author says that the aggressive Indo-Europeans took over pacific cultures which had no wars, slavery, monarchy, or domination of one class over another.
This is just “LOL” to me.
Sounds like a naive view of “everything was heavenly until those bad guys arrived”. In my opinion, it rarely if ever works like that.
Chapter on Spirituality
The chapter on spirituality seemed a bit out there to me and not necessarily relevant to HSPs specifically.
Some Diagnosis From Afar
Sometimes the author diagnoses people without ever having met them. For example, she says of Vitkor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for meaning“: “Frankl, an obvious HSP”.
Well, maybe he was. But “obvious… ” ?
Groundbreaking Information on HSPs
The Highly Sensitive Person can be enlightening for HSPs who were not aware of them being HSPs.
And it can improve their quality of life.
Social Skills Courses Analysis
I absolutely loved Elaine Aron’s take on social skills courses and advice. I couldn’t agree more: introverts and HSPs should not try to follow extroverts’ advice.
The “Highly Sensitive Person” has been a groundbreaking text.
As an HSP myself, it was also highly instructive for me. I now believe that I am better than most at reading social cues because of my HSPs traits.
I recommend “The Highly Sensitive Person” to those who think they could be HSPs, to people living with HSPs, to educators and employers, and to everyone who wants to understand people and human nature.