Title: The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
Author: Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.
This book is a love letter to highly sensitive people (HSPs) who find the world overwhelming and are harshly judged for it. It focuses on reframing high sensitivity (having a nervous system that is sensitive to stimulation, subtlety, and arousal) as a positive trait that deserves respect and appreciation rather than something that makes one a failure if they can’t “just get over it”. It draws on ideas in attachment theory, Jung, biology, temperament, child development, boundaries, and non-denominational spirituality to make its case that being highly sensitive to subtleties and stimulation (even if it’s uncomfortable) is a benefit to both the individual and the world. It describes what it is like (and how it could be better) to be a HSP growing up, loving, working, healing, and dealing with the medical establishment.
The intended audience is people who self-identify as HSPs (“you”) and it is aimed at helping them (“you”) using validation and reframing. While it does have advice for people dealing with HSPs it mostly frames it as ways the HSP can help others understand the HSP’s boundaries and needs without the HSP feeling bad about it. This is made clear in the Preface where the author reassures the Sensitive-But-Less-So and Not-Sensitive-At-All readers that they are special too and have their own special strengths. That careful gentleness (both when explaining theory and waxing poetic) characterizes much of the writing. That gentleness is probably necessary, because, if you are its intended audience, this book may hit with the power of Mjölnir.
I’ve known about this book for at least a decade (it was first published in 1996) and avoided reading it until it was recently recommended to me by someone who’s judgement I respect. I should have read it a decade ago. It would have made a difference. Instead, my long-ago introduction to this book was vastly unpleasant so I avoided reading it until now.
The best thing this book does for the HSP reader is give loads and loads of validation for being sensitive to physical, emotional, and psychological experiences. It also encourages boundaries, while recognizing that enforcing them can be difficult and require energy. As with all good self-help books, this one provides an easily sharable set of terminology. “I’m overwhelmed” (when shared with someone else who has read the book and therefore knows what you mean and need) is convenient short-hand when compared to “Everything is making noise, everything has to be done yesterday, my head is running in circles, I need to eat, I know you need emotional labour right this instant but… would EVERYONE JUST FUCKING DIE SO I CAN BE ALONE AND DO NOTHING FOR FIVE FUCKING MINUTES WITHOUT OFFENDING ANYONE…” Maybe you know what I mean. Shared language is really useful.
The “Medics, Medications, and HSPs” section is a bit dated (Prozac is heavily name-dropped) but it has some excellent points about how arousal and sensitivity can affect medicine evaluation and receiving medical care. There are optional exercises which mostly consist of self-awareness questions, quizzes, and body awareness activities. They are mostly straight forward to do, but the “pretend you are a baby” one didn’t make much sense to me personally. I’m also not a spiritual person, but I was amused that the spiritual section seemed to be Jung all the way down.
Evil Overlord Assessment:
If you have an investment in keeping your highly sensitive loved ones, employees, or friends (can you really call them that?) isolated and certain that THEY are the broken ones… then don’t let them read this book. If they don’t know that their sensitivity is valid and acceptable then they won’t expect to have their HSP needs accommodated. Instead, interpret it for them. Convince them that they are Not-Sensitive-At-All (overwriting other people’s identities is always useful tool for manipulating them and possible with most types of categorizing systems) and make sure that they understand that YOU are the most highly sensitive of highly sensitive people and that is why THEY are shouldn’t have boundaries with YOU. If they are HSPs with some degree of empathy, then they may accept it when you equate how you feel when your children/employees/victims resist with how they feel when they ARE your victim. The book explicitly teaches against this. Don’t let them read the book.
[ Disclaimer: I am neither a therapist, nor a professional reviewer. I do, however, own and enjoy reading a staggering number of self-help books and I have opinions. Lots of opinions. One of these opinions is that the underlying assumptions in “self-improvement” and “self-help” books should be unpacked. These reviews may or may not do that, but I will try to acknowledge both some of the potentially useful and potentially problematic aspects of the books I review. The “Evil Overlord Assessment” section specifically looks at some ways that a fictional “Evil Overlord” might use this book to harm or control others for the purpose of World Domination. ]