This letter is a bit more difficult to write because it hits close to home. Apparently 15 percent of the general population are what psychologists now call “Highly Sensitive Persons,” or HSPs. Among creative types the percentage is much higher. In part, it’s the sensitivity that makes us creative. Carl Jung suggested that we are just introverted, shy or depressed. Recent research indicates that HSPs are genetically programmed to be that way. Getting rid of the condition would be like changing our eye colour. HSPs have valuable assets that have traditionally been given a bum rap by the not-so-sensitive majority. Highly sensitive persons often grow up feeling they’re outsiders. We are easily hurt, stressed, frazzled and overwhelmed. The worst afflicted don’t like loud noises, crowds, ruckus or confrontation. We are known to shut doors on others. On the positive side, we hear, see and feel more and have more empathy than regular folks. Often loners, we have vivid dreams and keen imaginations.
So what’s the problem? The trouble is that we often live and work with a sense that we are flawed. And what we do or create tends also to be seen by us as flawed. Much of the obsessive perfectionism in art comes from this source. Also, as HSPs, we tend to withdraw into the processes of our work. Withdrawal increases sensitivity. Psychologist Elaine Aron, a leading authority on HSP, and an HSP herself, says, “We are extra-sensitive when the time comes to show our work, perform it, explain it, sell it, read reviews of it, and accept rejection or acclaim.” This is a central dilemma for many artists: “How do I manifest my innate sensitivity in a not-so-sensitive world?”
There are many ways. One of the handiest is the simple realization that many we interact with are not so sensitive–dealers and even collectors, for example. They may not know or admit it, but they couldn’t get along without our sensitivity. They need us. And we need them. A sensitive person needs to learn how to interact in this lop-sided world. Humour and playfulness are valuable. So is immersing oneself in the history of art and artists. The timeless brotherhood and sisterhood of art (which includes other HSPs) gives us a sense of community and a philosophic balance. The knowledge derived from like-minded companionship gives a feeling of “I’m okay — you’re okay.” More than that, one finds that the world needs more HSPs — these days, more than ever.
PS: “There is an aristocracy of the sensitive. They represent the true human tradition of permanent victory over cruelty and chaos.” (E. M. Forster, What I Believe, an essay from his book Two Cheers for Democracy)
Esoterica: Elaine Aron’s self-test for sensitivity: You can do it yourself in less than three minutes. I thoroughly recommend her book, The Highly Sensitive Person. It’s a thoughtful and gently written insight based on her 25 years of counselling and therapy with artists and others in her San Francisco practice. As well as HSP facts, health issues, relationship considerations and tips on following your sensitive bliss, Aron gives solid, no-nonsense keys to thriving in what so many find to be an overwhelming world.
This letter was originally published as “Highly sensitive persons” on June 28, 2005.
“At the side of the everlasting why, is a yes, and a yes, and a yes.” (E. M. Forster)