Maybe we are HSP's-- Highly Sensitive Persons. Maybe we are "introverts." Maybe we have "allergies." Maybe we identify with a Myers-Briggs type preference like "INFJ" or we prefer an enneagram type like "Type Nine." Maybe we're "ADHD" or have "CFS" or are prone to "anxiety." Maybe we are "gifted" or "empaths." Whatever the identifiers might be, it all adds up to some kind of "acronym soup."
Which bring me to a particular statistic I like to send through my twitter account on a regular basis:
HSP factoid: If HSPs are truly 15% of the population, there are over ONE BILLION of us on the planet!
Pretty stunning piece of information, don't you think?
The above is based on Elaine Aron's original research which shows that 15-20% of the population are HSPs. I'm using the "conservative" lower number, here. As I write these words, the "population clock" on the U.S. Census web site estimates the world population to be 7,078,772,000 people. It estimates the population of the United States to be 315,673,000 people. If you use the 15% figure, that means:
There are an estimated 1,061,815,800 Highly Sensitive Persons on planet Earth.
There are an estimated 47,350,950 Highly Sensitive Persons in the United States.
Let that sink in, for a moment.
Pretty amazing, isn't it?
Now consider this: If there truly are so many HSPs... where on earth are they?
The other day, I was on a busy commuter time ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. As I wandered around to pass the time on the 30-minute crossing, it occurred to me that since I was in close proximity to 2500-odd people, it also meant there were probably 400 HSPs within a few hundred feet of me.
It made me pause to consider a simple question: How many of them KNOW they are HSPs? Then the follow-up question: How would their lives be different, if they did know?
I spent the next 20 minutes sitting in the car, in my version of "deep thought." It occurred to me that there are lots and lots of "attributes" found in a significant percentage of the population, as well as some found in maybe only 1-2% and they all get lots more attention than "being an HSP." More people are aware of them, more people talk about them, and each of them have more to say about it.
I went looking for HSPs on the web, and considering how many of us there are and that the idea has been "in the public arena" for over 15 years, I was amazed at just how invisible we are. And in the few places where we are visible, how little we participate.
So I went on a longer "journey," trying to figure out where "we" are.
This, for an "interest" that's present in less than 1.5% of the general population. By comparison, the largest and most active HSP group online is on Facebook and has about 2500 members.
To compare something different, I looked at introverts online. 70-75% of HSPs are introverts, and HSPs account for something on the order of half the world's introverts... so there's a lot of overlap, as well as some similarities and negative biases-- introverts are often seen as "too quiet" and "shy," by the world.
I found the introvert communities online to be thriving and active. I found it ironic that author Susan Cain's (she wrote the book "Quiet" and is also an HSP) forum just for her book is almost twice the size of the largest HSP forum.
So I decided to take a different approach-- looking at high sensitivity from the angle of being more of a "problem" than an "interest." Back in days long gone, I was part of an online community offering support for those suffering from social anxiety-- an issue more than a few HSPs report to be part of their lives.
Social Anxiety affects an estimated 5% of the population, compared to 15-20% HSPs. My reasoning for going this route was that maybe HSPs are quiet about the trait because of hesitance that it's seen negatively. Similarly, Social Anxiety carries a bit of a negative connotation and stigma.
I was surprised to find that the old SA community online now has 115,000 members who have contributed millions of discussions. And that's just one of many such forums. In a related sense, I looked at an ADHD forum I'm vaguely acquainted with. Again a condition affecting maybe 6-8% of the population... here the forum (one of numerous) had some 71,000 members and lots of active dialogue. So, clearly, "fears of being perceived negatively" does not prevent people from participating in online communities.
By now, this was getting increasingly puzzling to me. Being a Highly Sensitive Person is something that clearly affects people's lives, clearly suggests the need to educate oneself and develop good life management skills, and clearly is a trait whose members benefit greatly from "peer connections" to share ideas and information.
Here's what I found: On one hand, more people are looking for information about high sensitivity and HSPs than ever before-- a trend that has been in place for at least eight years. During the same period, search queries for both Social Anxiety and ADHD have actually declined somewhat, while search volume for INFJs and Introverts have both increased.
After finally examining the "raw numbers" of search queries for different terms, some of the issue became clearer: In spite of being in the public awareness since 1996, there just aren't that many of the world's billion+ HSPs who know the trait even exists. And those who do know? They generally avoid talking about it... like it's a "secret" attribute.
That also gave me pause for thought. People seem more willing to be open about having a sexually transmitted disease than about being highly sensitive??? That just does not make sense, when you back away and consider it in a "big picture" sense....
Getting a little more "personal" with what I discovered, a very rough estimate would suggest that maybe two percent of the 47 million HSPs in the US are even aware they are "HSPs." Of those two percent, I expect a majority are very hesitant about letting anyone "know" about it.
But that's not all the explanation. More can be found in the phrase "non-participation." As keeper of several dozen web sites, blogs and forums I get to look at a lot of site visitor logs. Ironically, my HSP related properties (as opposed to "business" or "writing" or "stamp collecting") are some of the most visited, while at the same time being the least interactive.
I recently experimented a bit with this by installing a couple of totally anonymous interactive polls on a couple of HSP-related articles I have online. Sure enough, as long as anonymity was assured, participation shot up... with something like one-in-three visitors answering a couple of questions where before one-in-about-500 had chosen to make even a short comment, or click the Facebook "like" button.
What does this all mean to us, as highly sensitive people; as a growing global "community?"
Basically, we want to "be seen" as highly sensitive individuals, without negative judgments or cultural biases. We want our medical and mental health professionals to be aware of-- and acknowledge-- the trait, so we can get care that fits our sensitive nervous systems, rather than ignores them. We don't ask for "special treatment," just validation.
These are reasonable and honorable aspirations.
But... to be perfectly blunt... how the HELL do we expect that to happen if we're constantly "hiding" the fact that we're highly sensitive? How can things possibly change if we're not telling anyone, and not becoming members of-- and active participants in-- virtual and real life groups and communities??? How are the 46 million HSPs in the US who don't know about the trait ever going to escape from being misdiagnosed and drugged into oblivion for an ever-increasing basket of "disorders" and "syndromes" when we're not willing to be "visible examples" to them? How are they going to get off the "pathologization treadmill" and live fulfilling lives that are true representations of their essential selves... if we're going to persist in hiding our sensitive "lights" under a bushel?
Yes, the world is sometimes a harsh and scary place for the highly sensitive among us. And yes, it hurts when people judge us and marginalize us. But how can we expect things to "change" as long as we approach sensitivity with more secrecy and reluctance than social anxiety and even warts on our privates? How will things ever change, if we're not willing to STAND UP AND BE COUNTED??
Talk Back! Do you feel free to share (if asked) that you're highly sensitive, or do you have fears about others knowing you are an HSP? If you step back and take an objective look, are there "personal" things you share that are probably "worse" than being highly sensitive, yet seem easier to talk about? If you don't share the trait (especially if asked something like "what's wrong?"), what is your primary concern about sharing? Please share your experience and leave a comment!
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