Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997 when he learned he was an HSP.
High Sensitivity is a "Neutral" Trait... BUT...
In her books, Dr. Elaine Aron-- who did the original research that led to high sensitivity being regarded as an innate inborn trait-- goes to some lengths to assert that being an HSP is a "neutral" trait.
Whereas that is true, the trait definitely does have both its advantages and disadvantages.
One of the common "complaints" or laments often heard from HSPs is that they struggle with finding "deep and meaningful" people and content for their lives. To them, the world often feels "shallow and superficial," and the people in it quite content to never get beyond "meaningless small talk and chatter."
Naturally, some of this is individual perception, and some might be well taken with the proverbial grain of salt, but there can also be a genuine issue here. This article takes a look at some of the dynamics of this situation, how it comes about and how we-- as highly sensitive people-- can bring more depth and meaning into our lives, without alienating ourselves or those around us.
Before we get started...
If you're not quite familiar with the idea of a "Highly Sensitive Person" (usually abbreviated "HSP"), I encourage you to read this introductory article on the topic, before going any further.
You might also wish to take Dr. Elaine Aron's brief free sensitivity self-test to see how strongly the trait might apply to you. There's nothing to register for, and the self-assessment only takes about five minutes to complete.
I also wish to stress that this article is NOT about claiming that HSPs are somehow "better" or "smarter" than anyone else, on account of being "deep thinkers."
If anything, the tendency to "process deeply" presents more challenges than benefits and can better be regarded as "different," rather than "better." Please keep this in mind, as the article continues!
Have You Read This Book?
OK, so Let's Talk About "Deep" and Meaningful Connections
Many HSPs feel like "something is missing" in their lives, and especially in their friendships and relationships. When asked to describe what exactly it is that is "missing," the conversation usually centers around not being able to have "deep" dialogue with the people in their lives.
Many state that they neither like-- nor are good at-- small talk.
Some describe this as wanting to have profound discussions about the Meaning of Life with people who care about little more than the latest trends in window dressings or celebrity fashions.
Some lament that they "scare" others off by being "too deep" or intense which seems intimidating, in some way.
Others are distressed because the people they know "treat everything like it doesn't matter" and often behave like they think everything "is a joke."
Often words like "other people don't seem to have these issues" are said.
On occasion, I hear HSPs apply the lack of "depth" to the process of forming intimate relationships, with sentiments such as "Why can't we just go straight from feeling a connection with someone to being married, and skip all the tedious nonsense in between?"
So what gives?
HSPs are "Different," so their True Friends are also going to be "Different"
Let's start with a little perspective.
Elaine Aron's research shows that 15-20% of the population fits the criteria for being a highly sensitive person. If we assume the more conservative 15% estimate to be most accurate for a moment, that effectively means that HSPs are a "minority" of sorts.
Given this, it becomes important to keep in mind that if we are this minority, it doesn't make sense to place expectations on others to "think like us" and want the same things we do, as HSPs. That's essentially us placing unrealistic expectations upon the world... and that can only lead to disappointment.
A lot of times I hear fellow HSPs say "people just don't get me, and don't see things as I do!"
Sure. Certainly. But who are these "people" and why do you expect them to "think like you?"
I have previously written an article about HSPs and the challenge of Friendships, which is basically just one aspect of life typically resulting from HSPs being "deep."
Embracing "Limited" Friendships
One of the tendencies that get some HSPs "in trouble" has to do with the expectation that one friend (or partner, or lover) somehow will fulfill all our emotional and intellectual needs. In other words, we want them to be "all the things" we feel we need from another person, in one neat package.
From a purely functional perspective, this is most often a case of "unrealistic expectations."
I have found that my life has become a lot easier since I embraced the idea of "limited friendships."
What I mean by that is allowing for the fact that you may only have a couple of things-- in depth-- in common with a given friend, and letting go of the need for them to fit other needs. And so, they may be the perfect "organic gardening buddy" but you absolutely do NOT get each other when it comes to politics or making a difference in the world.
And that's really OK!
Some might say "But that's not FAIR! Other people have a much easier time..."
Well, true as that might be, we need to get back to the realization that HSPs are part of a "cultural minority" of sorts. And trying to be like "other people" is a way of compromising your essential self and values.
A Quick Question...
Living "Deeply:" HSPs, Self-Awareness and a Sense of Loneliness
One of the common characteristics of HSPs is a predisposition towards introspection, self-exploration and a desire for self-improvement and what some might call "enlightenment."
More than most other psychographic groups, HSPs tend to be deeply involved in the study of self, and in pursuing some variation of "conscious" living in the world.
This can be a double-edged sword, in some ways... it's a common truism in the self-development field that the more self-awareness and consciousness a person develops, the fewer "true peers" that person ends up with. So the more you understand life and yourself... the fewer people you'll see eye-to-eye with.
On the other hand, with personal development also comes a higher sense of compassion for others.
Although it's by no means a "contest," the previous consideration helps explain the HSP "depth" struggle a bit. As purely a metaphor, if you work hard and become an "elite" tennis player, there will gradually be fewer and fewer other players who can play at your level. So it is with consciousness.
Now you might be thinking "But that's a whole different issue!"
Well, yes... and no.
Granted, it's not "sports," but when we mix in the natural HSP desire for "depth and meaning" we find ourselves out of other people's "depth" more often, as we develop our hearts, souls and psyches in a meaningful way.
Of course, as our self-awareness grows, we also become more aware of our aloneness.
Connecting with HSP Peers: The Importance of like Minds
Elaine Aron-- and others who have spent decades studying high sensitivity-- fairly uniformly agree that there is a huge value in HSPs connecting with their peers.
After all, nobody truly "gets" what it's like to be an HSP... like another HSP.
This also means that when several HSPs get together, the desired "depth of connection" and "meaningful discourse" tends to happen more or less naturally.
Of course, it's important to keep in mind that just because you develop HSP friendships does not mean you're suddenly going to experience "HSP Relating Nirvana."
Far from it. Instead, you face a whole different set of challenges, typically centered around becoming overstimulated and needing to "go away for alone time and to recharge" when it seems like the friendship is going really well. And that can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
And so, in HSP-HSP friendships and relationships, clear communications become especially important! Hereunder, just because we feel "deeply connected" to someone, we must not fall into the trap of thinking they are "just like us," because not all HSPs are the same.
Where are the "Healthy" HSPs?
Something I often hear is the statement "I wish I could meet other HSPs!" often followed by the question "Where are the HEALTHY HSPs?"
HSPs are everywhere!
The underlying issue seems to be concern that many HSPs seem to be "struggling" in some way. It's a perception typically fueled by Internet search results that reveal lots of "troubled" HSPs. To which I would like to offer the very important counterpoint that a happy and well-adjusted HSP is unlikely to frequent online forums dominated by individuals seeking to answer the question "Why do I struggle so much with my sensisitivity?"
In a broader sense, not that many HSPs are involved in the ongoing study of "what it means to be highly sensitive." Most HSPs are just "peripherally aware" of the trait and are otherwise busy just getting on with their lives.
One of the characteristics of most "Healthy" HSPs (what HSP counselor and expert Jacquelyn Strickland refers to as "the empowered priestly advisor") is that they tend to be more concerned with being engaged in the activities of the world and all it has to offer than being involved in "HSP specific" activities.
In other words, you are more likely to find a "healthy and empowered HSP" by random chance than by looking for them in a place with "HSP activities." Most likely, they have already done their HSP-specific personal development work, and are now engaged in their interpretation of making the world a better place. Label no longer needed.
Being Open to Casual Talk and other ideas...
As HSPs, we ultimately have to make the choices that work for us. So I will leave you with a bit of a recap and a few points to consider.
- HSPs are a cultural and psychological "minority." We can't expect to connect with everyone.
- At least be open to "small talk." It's how humanity initiates connection.
- Seek other HSPs to meet your needs for deeper connections.
- Remember that one person is unlikely to have all the attributes you seek in a friend.
- Explore the value of "interest based" friends.
- Your idea of "deep" may not be someone else's.
- You are just as responsible for adapting to others as they are to adapting to you.
- What seems "obvious" to you may never make sense to others. Doesn't mean you-- or they-- are "wrong."
- Enjoy-- and be grateful for-- deep connection when you find it, but don't expect it.
- The fact that you're "too intense" for some people doesn't make you a bad person!
- Be honest with friends about being an HSP and needing to take "alone time," so they know you're not just being a flake.
Being a highly sensitive person is not always easy. The best thing we can do for ourselves-- both in relationships, and otherwise-- is to learn as much as possible about how the trait affects us, and then adjust our lives accordingly.
Sharing is Love!
If you enjoyed this article and/or learned something of value from it, please consider sharing it with others, using these nifty social sharing buttons out here, at left!
The more people are familiar with high sensitivity, the more smoothly we can all live our lives.
Thank you for reading!
© 2016 Peter Messerschmidt
Are you seen as a "deep" and "intense" person? Does being a "deep thinker" make the people around tell you to "Lighten up?"
Amanda Buck from Rural South Central Indiana on September 09, 2019:
In your poll above, I voted for the first option. I know that I can be intense, but how that affects my relationships is more indirect. Because I know I can be intense, I tend to back down, or not show up fully in my interactions with friends. I don't want to drive them away, so I stifle or suppress my ...self. Obviously that makes the interaction less fulfilling for me.
shane on March 27, 2017:
Nice article although the part where it says ' I would like to offer the very important counterpoint that a happy and well-adjusted HSP is unlikely to frequent online forums dominated by individuals seeking to answer the question "Why do I struggle so much with my sensisitivity?" ,comes across as INSENSITIVE and condescending to most HSPs that do struggle with regulating there sensitivity in a very insensitive world or HSPs who have been bullied or had troubled upbringings. Most TRUE HSPs( lots of fake ones out there now, claiming to be HSP) are going to develop issues throughout there lives living in a world where they are often seen as week, easy prey, vulnerable, too gentle. good punchbags, etc by the majority.
GreenMind Guides from USA on January 15, 2017:
Interesting piece. Do you think you are one of the highly sensitive ones? Some good self-aware moments here.
Mike on November 30, 2016:
Setank your opinions are not only unscientific, they're just hilariously stupid and missing the point entirely. Nobody wants to be coddled here, HSP is NOT an affliction, just a different threshold of perceiving the world. If you think that most people share similar levels of sensitivity, I hope you fall in love with a sociopath, as maybe that would teach you a lesson.
H on October 05, 2016:
I've never asked to be coddled. I consider myself an HSP.
I learned a long time ago that most people like to keep conversations 1 millimeter deep. Generally I keep my thoughts to myself or just talk it out with my husband. I have been told that I am "in my head" a lot, but the alternative is to get blank stares from people when I say my thoughts out loud. People do like that I understand them quickly and have more empathy than most people they know.
It is refreshing to read articles like these where I can feel like there are others that are kind of like me. Thanks.
Setank Setunk on September 21, 2016:
We are conditioned by the world we live in to address our sensitivities appropriately. This conditioning begins at a young age. If a family has a sick or injured pet they may bring the animal to a veterinarian. Another family without the money or the availability of a vet my shoot the animal. Children in both circumstances exhibit the same sensitivity with respect to the pets suffering, but the former situation conditions a child to act on his or her sensitivities while the latter conditions the child to act pragmatically.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on September 21, 2016:
Thanks for your comment! It's important to keep in mind that there are different kinds of sensitivity. In the context of this article, I am working with the genetic type, where people have no CHOICE in the matter. Whereas I agree that "coddling" is inappropriate, people do NOT have similar levels of sensitivity-- that's like saying all people experience sunburn the same when they go outside. They do not-- some burn in 15 minutes, and others can be outside all day. Those who burn in 15 minutes must not only be more mindful, they also have to take appropriate care.
Setank Setunk on September 20, 2016:
I think sensitive people lack the rationalization skills to put things in practical perspectives. Most people accept the futility of pondering unanswerable questions, and focus on the positive and the perceivable. In my opinion most people share similar levels of sensitivity but do not seek coddling for their imagined affliction.