Friday, September 06, 2013

HSPs, Hurt Feelings and Imaginary Slights: Examining EMOTIONAL Sensitivity

Depending on who you ask, "getting your feelings hurt really easily" is-- or is not-- at the heart of what "Being A Highly Sensitive Person" is all about.

For some people, it feels like it is precisely what it means "to be an HSP."

I happen to be one of the HSPs who does not believe this is the core of our HSP-ness. Neither does Elaine Aron, and she's the one who did the original research on high sensitivity. In fact, if you take a deeper look at Elaine's writings and books you will find that she doesn't say much about this topic, at all. And if you look at Elaine's Sensitivity Self-Test there's not a single question there phrased like "I get my feelings hurt very easily Y/N."

Part of the "problem" is that "Sensitivity" is a difficult word to define. And a lot of folks latch onto some interpretation of the word that's meaningful to them, and then declare themselves a "Highly Sensitive Person" without ever looking at the science and research that gave rise to the term. Ironically, this is just a variation on the way we HSPs often feel marginalized by the way non-HSPs will "label" and judge us unfairly, based on an incorrect/incomplete interpretation of the word "sensitive."

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of people in the world who are emotionally sensitive. And a lot of these emotionally sensitive people are HSPs. But there are also a lot of HSPs who are not particularly emotionally sensitive. There's no doubt the two can be quite similar... but they are not the same thing!

The thing that sometimes baffles me is the way people can go take Elaine's sensitivity self-test, answer "yes" to almost ALL the questions... and yet the only thing they ever talk about is how they get their feelings hurt all the time.

Humor me, and take a moment to go look at the questionnaire (link above). Don't look at it from the perspective of "evaluating yourself," but from the perspective of actually reading each item in the list and then considering what it is actually asking or saying. What is the quiz designed to actually ascertain?

I'm often surprised by the sheer number of people who do this little exercise and then come back to me and say "Yeah, but that's not really HOW I see myself as being highly sensitive."


But you still answered "yes" to 25 of the 27 questions... and yet you're saying you don't actually "identify" with Elaine Aron's definition of an HSP. If you don't mind my asking, why are you embracing this "label" if it actually isn't that accurate for you?

In many ways, I'm a bit of what you might call a "cage rattler." I rattle people's "cages" because I believe-- based both on personal (and often uncomfortable) experience as well as 30-odd years rattling around the consciousness and self-development industry-- that most true healing that leads us towards living a balanced and happy life demands that we look at the "uncomfortable truths" in our lives. I definitely do not "rattle people's cages" because I like to hurt feelings... I rattle cages because sometimes we have to be "jolted" out of our natural tendencies to grow complacent about our self-growth process.

So if your "feelings are hurt" by what I have just written here, I'm sorry about that. But let's use it as an opportunity to take a deeper look at the HSP trait, as it really is.

What we HSPs have-- when we use Elaine Aron's original definition-- is "a finely tuned nervous system." And that manifests in many, many different ways.

Some of these ways are-- definitely-- "emotionally based" or "of the mind." We process deeply. We notice subtleties. We feel people's moods and energies. We experience "intensely." We're typically very empathic.

Naturally, we will also experience hurts-- like feeling slighted or insulted-- more intensely. And because of the "deep processing" we engage in, we're likely to "brood" more. When something it hurtful, it hurts us more than non-HSPs. On the other hand (and this tends to be overlooked, or forgotten!) when we experience something amazing, we also experience JOY more intensely.

In her workshops and books, one of the things Elaine Aron has repeatedly pointed out is that HSPs who grew up in "difficult" childhood situations are likely to be more "damaged" by their situation than their non-HSP peers, and more likely to experience pain from subsequent difficulties, hurts and setbacks... BUT, HSPs who grew up with a "supportive" childhood situation are actually LESS likely than their non-HSP peers to experience pain from slights and setbacks.

By extension, such a "well balanced" HSP is also less likely to dwell easily hurt feelings, because of a greater capacity to deal with such incidents. For them, "easily hurt feelings" isn't part of the HSP "equation."

In short, we HSPs tend to live towards the extreme ends of the spectrum... on both the positive and negative sides.

But let's get back to HSPs and easily hurt feelings.

Nobody-- least of all me-- is trying to take away or marginalize anyone's right to have easily hurt feelings! Truthfully, these both are, and are not, related to being an HSP.  The important thing is that we must understand what they actually "are." They may be "related," but are not part of the "definition" of the trait... they are part of how the trait leads us to process negative experiences. It's a bit like one of those "word problems" back in school:

When you're an HSP you may experience painful situations more deeply and you may experience hurt feelings more deeply, but simply getting your feelings hurt deeply and easily does not "make you an HSP."

Personally, I am "emotionally sensitive." But it was never that tendency to get my feelings hurt easily nor my tendency to perceive "general neutral statements" as "slights" directed specifically at ME that led me to "identify" with "Being a Highly Sensitive Person," back in 1997. It was relating to how all the world always felt overwhelming and overstimulating to me. Were my hurt feelings and hyper-awareness of "imaginary" slights authentic and real? Absolutely! But "real" as they were, they were not-- and ARE not-- what "makes" me an HSP.

If there's a "definition" that fits what it "means" to be an HSP, it is that we are easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by LIFE. "Hurt feelings" and "slights" are just a tiny, tiny corner of that bigger picture called "life." "Hurt feelings" are a consequence of something; a response; a reaction... but not a neurological state. Choosing to define our HSP-ness as revolving around "easily hurt feelings" is a bit like focusing on a red flower in a painting while being oblivious to the entire landscape the artist painted for us.

Now, some might say that I am "splitting hairs" over minor semantic details... but... not really. And I write quite a bit about the topic of emotional sensitivity, as well. If this is a topic of interest to you, you might wish to check out my article "HSP Living: Intense Feelings and Learning to Respond Instead of React"  which examines how we as "intense HSPs" can best handle our feelings.

In "scientific terms" what we're talking about is the difference between a "causal" and a "coincidental" relationship between "easily hurt feelings" and "being an HSP." And that's a big difference.

Talk Back: How do you "identify" your sensitivity? Have "easily hurt feelings" been central to how you perceive yourself as being "highly sensitive?" Is that still true? When you took Elaine Aron's HSP quiz, did you answer "yes" to almost all the questions? Did some of the HSP "definition" leave you with doubts, or does it fit perfectly? Please leave a comment! 

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  1. I am one of those HSP who are not easily emotionally hurt, but I do feel emotions far more intensely than even many other HSP. You are right that this includes the positive ones, such as joy, exuberance, love, curiosity, the list goes on.

    One thing I have a problem with is your general definition of HSP as it shows only the downside of it, not the incredible gifts that come with such exquisite sensitivity, such as being able to enjoy and appreciate all the small subtle things that nonHSP are not even aware of, thus having a far richer life experience.

    1. I relate to this as well. I’ve had to learn to step back and be careful how I react as that may be taken out of context as well. It’s a blessing and a curse. I also find that it goes along with a gift of discernment. So balance is hey

  2. Another great article ! I love the HSP topics you chose to explore ... and this one is perfect for helping to dispel all the generalizations and myths that are being formed by causal and coincidental ! I have many similar ideas -- I just wish it were as easy as it seems for YOU to write them all down and share them so eloquently ! With gratitude for all you do for the HSP community !! love, Jacquelyn

  3. Thank you. I was taught as a chid that being "too sensitive" was a bad thing and that I should "grow a thicker skin." Of course, I did not want to and was not able to, and I felt really bad about myself for a long time. Now I see the advantages and how being highly sensitive protected me, because I could be in "dangerous" situations and navigate my way safely through, sometimes bring others safely through with me. Just surviving my childhood and teen years is to be a testament to the value being highly sensitive has for us as individuals. I do find that I prefer being "behind the scenes" even as I wish to be noticed... and odd conflict in personality. But if I have to choose - and I think I do - I choose to work without a lot of recognition and just remind myself that the value of my efforts is not measured by whether people know about them or like them, but by whether they are effective. Sometimes I know when they are effective, and sometimes I have to let go of the outcome and accept not knowing. But I would not wish to be less sensitive than I am.... only wishing to grow up more and more inside myself so that the understanding and acceptance of myself as i am will be there.

  4. You make some excellent distinctions here, Peter, I greatly appreciate it.

  5. Good article... it gets tiresome to be labeled as "self-centered" and "self-absorbed" when you are one that just gets their feelings hurt more easily, simply because you are a more sensitive person. I understand what you're saying about how one doesn't make the other. Plenty of people do get offended and upset easily simply because they really ARE immature and self-centered, then try to excuse their immaturity by saying "I'm just a highly sensitive person." It takes more intelligence than many people have to be able to sort out the complexities of subjects requiring emotional intelligence.

  6. Thanks for this article. As a newly self-discovered HSP, I'm reading a LOT of conflicting things about what are and aren't HSP traits. Emotional sensitivity seems to be one of the most controversial.

    A couple of things crossed my mind while I was reading your discussion of this issue. One is that feeling easily slighted or "taking things too personally" is common among people who are clinically depressed. I know because I was one. It's virtually impossible to discuss this with a depressed person without them feeling that you are discounting their feelings. They may tell you that you don't know what you are talking about, and they are probably right.

    As I can attest from my own experience, depression not only magnifies emotions, but gives them extra twists and teeth. There are whole ranges of horrific feelings that I no longer have, ever, now that I've found successful treatment. Presumably, non-depressed people have never experienced these feelings at all (for which they should be very grateful). For depressed people, emotional pain and very high stress are the default state, which means what looks like a small unpleasantness to someone else can be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

    Since a (relatively) high percentage of HSPs experience clinical depression, it seems reasonable to conclude that some of the emotionally sensitive HSPs you described may be clinically depressed, and either haven't been diagnosed yet, or have an incomplete understanding of how depression affects their emotions.

    I'm also wondering whether emotional sensitivity might not be a "secondary" trait of being an HSP, that is, a common result of the
    interaction of "primary" HSP traits. If we are more empathetic, we may identify more with others than non-HSPs do, which makes their behavior matter more to us. And if we are more perceptive, we may pick up on a dissonance between what someone says and their tone of voice, for example, and then apply our rich imaginations to explain the discrepancy (not always correctly).

    The recent research that revealed depressed HSPs responded differently to a depression treatment program than depressed non-HSPs opens up a world of questions about our unique psychology. I think we are at the very beginning of understanding it, with a lot of discoveries and surprises still in store for us.

  7. I'll be honest. When I first read this, yeah it came across as pretty harsh to someone like me who deals with the emotional pain on a greater level due to my high sensitivity. So after I read your post, I investigated more to find out why my reaction had been that way. And here's what I've come up with.

    Emotional sensitivity for HSPs is a real, true valid thing. Especially in a highly sensitive person. But I think the language of it is where you may be getting confused. In my experience, the emotional sensitivity is a direct result from the intensity with which I sense and react to outside stimuli. When my feelings are hurt and I have a greater reaction like pain, anger, frustration, disappointment etc, it is because wherever the stimuli is coming from, my entire nervous system is receiving that stimuli with an intensity that overwhelms my entire body almost to the point of shut down.

    Maybe this makes me more sensitive than most HSPs, I don't know. But my point is, that it is completely and totally valid for any HSP to have this type of emotional reaction to that emotional stimuli. It's just like any other part of being highly sensitive. The emotional reaction will be intense because that was the HSP is going through when he/she gets their feelings hurt. At least this is my experience.

    I thought it was important to comment because just because you don't do emotions or have responses to emotional stimuli, doesn't mean that others don't. Some people are very in touch with their emotions and if they are HSP, it will have the same effect on the nervous system as any other type of HSP stimuli will.

  8. I initially felt a little confused reading this article. If it wasn't for my emotional state, why would I believe I was highly sensitive. However, having read the article and processed a little deeper, it makes much more sense. Yes, I cry at the drop of a hat. Always have. Always will. I have always seen that as oversensitivity, but never looked much into it.
    There are two vivid memories that I retain that have resulted in being ridiculed and used in dinner party conversation by my ex partner. Both involved my response towards what I saw as pain in another living being.
    Once, on a flight from Sydney to LA, I was struck by the inner depression of one of the flight attendants. I know it may seem normal to look bored or vacant when that is your daily job. But this woman, she was so empty, it overwhelmed me.
    The other time was after a particularly nasty bushfire, here in Sydney. As we were driving home we passed by a paddock that had been almost completely razed. No vegetation left. Up at the fence was a single cow. As it made eye contact with me, I felt such an overwhelming pain, helplessness. I cried all the way home.
    As I have said, these emotions have been great fodder for ridicule towards me for many years. I have been desperate to "grow out of it". But I am about to turn 40 and I am guessing, having read this and some of the other articles, that I have found some sort of explanation.

    So for that I am extremely grateful.

  9. Recently ran across an article about HSPs, researched further, took the test and found I am an HSP. What a revelation! I've often felt that many people are idiots, Cro-Magnun surface dwellers that are unaware of their surroundings, interactions with others, nuance, body language, etc. I'm caffeine/stimulant intolerant. One M&M at 6 PM wakes me at 2 AM and that's it for the night. I enjoy time alone and with small groups of friends, big noisy crowds seem mindless to me. I have friends that can bounce from activity to activity without pause to reflect on and absorb the experience and without giving themselves time to anticipate the next experience. I've never understood that but now realize we are just wired differently. I loathe self promotion, find it repugnant. When I see someone that needs the spotlight I want to tell them to DIVE DEEP and find themselves so they don't need the recognition from others. I can relate to PJ's comment about making eye contact with the cow and how the empathy hurt so much. I am considerate of other's feelings, and have to be mindful of not getting my feelings hurt. I'm surprised when someone I like and respect is inconsiderate and hurts someones feelings - then I find myself doing damage control and soothing the injured party. HANG TIGHT people! Being a HSP is an asset! Who wants to blunder through life wearing blinders not noticing the beauty that is everywhere?

  10. What nonsense . Of course emotional pain and hurt are a HUGE part of being HSP. We feel deeply and esp the 'darker' emotions such as rejection, hurt from a sense of being bullied/picked on for being different etc. It's also alot harder to let go because the SENSES get affected so deeply with them being so delicate and SENSITIVE! Actually your article is insensitive in some ways.


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