• The Good: Scientific basis for physical and emotional sensitivity
  • The Bad: Condescending tone, few concrete examples of how to handle over-stimulation
  • The Literary: Self-assessments and an extensive bibliography

Psychologist Elaine Aron defines and discusses the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, a term she coined for the subset of the population who display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli, and a complex inner life. Aron draws upon many years of research and patient interviews to legitimize the need for time alone, tips for over arousal, and advice on how to work through deep-seated issues.

I personally enjoy readying about personality categorization systems, even if they are so often lacking, and often find myself perusing Myers-Briggs, DISC, Keirsey Temperament, and the like. But the highly sensitive person model, a relatively new area of psychological research, is new to me. It’s a trait that can span personality types and account for perceived shyness or the tendency to be unsociable at parties, but also includes sensitivity to certain drugs, or just not being able to handle situations that other people don’t even notice as unusual. There is a self-assessment in the book, as well as on Aron’s website.

The book reads mostly as a self-help guide that focuses on helping reframe past your experiences in a positive light and highlighting the advantages of being a sensitive person, which is good if that’s what you need. But I find other research and parallels that were only glossed over more interesting. For example, sensitivity is an innate trait that biologists have found it in over 100 species, and the trait of observing before acting is in itself a survival strategy. In addition, researchers in China identified that “sensitive” children are most popular, that is, were among those most chosen by others to be friends or playmates, whereas in Canada, the reverse is true. In our western culture, the unwanted sensitive behavior is even more of a challenge for boys, who are expected to be “tough”.

Although the section on childhood trauma is interesting and encourages self-reflection, Aron draws a clear dividing line between HSPs who struggle with depression and anxiety, and those who don’t. Either you had a troubled childhood or you didn’t, which seems a simplified philosophy. There is a wide range of troubles one can experience in childhood or adulthood that can cause extensive trauma. Aron is highly supportive of therapy, even providing some examples of which types of therapy are often better suited for HSPs, but, being an expert in the field, her recommendations for medication are wishy-washy.

The book concludes with a completely unscientific exploration of her idea that HSPs are akin to a priest class and that their passion for religion and spirituality gives them advantages. It’s one thing to encourage dream interpretation, but it’s quite another to promote listening to signs from god or clairvoyance.

I get the impression that this book is an excuse for the author to understand the her own personality and quirks. The difference between HSPs and non-HSPs is too large, and the subtle distinctions between different types of sensitivities are lacking. This book does explore sensitivity, but it’s written for a psychologically troubled introvert with an inferiority complex, whereas I wish it was organized more around scientific studies.

As I identify as an even-tempered introvert, I do not find much of the book very enlightening. But my partner read the book at the same time, and interestingly we each characterized ourselves as sensitive but to very different things. He identifies as an extroverted or high-sensation-seeking personality who is also highly sensitive, which is mentioned but not really explored in the book. Regardless, we have a new shared vocabulary to talk about when we’re feeling overwhelmed and when we want to exit a shared situation, which allows us to empathize with each other in new ways.