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: I’ve asked Andrew to put up 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 counseling 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.
Are you highly sensitive?
A self-test by Elaine N. Aron Ph. D. the author of The Highly Sensitive Person
Wept reading book
by Pauline Conn, Taos, NM, USA
I’ll bet your inbox is gonna be full with this one! A friend gave me this book The Highly Sensitive Person several years ago and I wept when I read it, especially the parts about relationships and what can happen when one person is a HSP and the other isn’t. My friends still do not understand why I don’t want to go to music festivals, and why I go to art festivals alone — so I can leave when I get overwhelmed. Yes, I am an artist and musician and used to earn my living doing “psychic” readings. Might as well use that empathic sensitivity to good purpose! I live in a small town; I’ve always avoided freeway driving if at all possible. I didn’t drive at all for a long time — I felt too bombarded. And to anyone who has ever had somebody say to them, “You’re just too sensitive” or “Why can’t you just get over it?” — read this book!
(RG note) Thanks, Pauline. Yes, we were indeed inundated. It almost shut down this studio computer. Difficult to choose the most insightful from the varied responses. So many were heart-wrenching. So good, so valuable, and often so “sensitive.” To this community of creators we say, “Thanks so much for your confidence, your sharing, and your friendship.”
by Duane Dorshimer, Raleigh, NC, USA
Your current letter on HSP, and your mention of perfectionism has me wondering about my difficulty in calling a painting “finished.” Usually within 24-48 hours of completing a painting, I put it back up on the easel to further develop areas or to fix imperfections.
You also mentioned that HSP/creatives often can get obsessed with the process. I was wondering why I keep working on a painting long after my wife has said, “Stop working on it. You’re done.” I also contemplated why I seem to envision the creation, but not the completion of a subject.
Perhaps your description of HSPs seeing themselves and their work as inherently flawed is the answer to my question. Do artists who complete great volumes of works simply have a stronger ego, or sense of self-importance?
Highly sensitives to be shut in
by Nina Struthers, Richmond, TX, USA
As a loner and artist, I found that one cannot go through life as “highly sensitive.” That attitude belongs only inside our four walls, whether that be a 2-room studio or 14-room house. I have grown older with disabilities and used to be “highly sensitive” as a result of being tainted as a child, so my personality is deeply ingrained. However, when I go into the world to sell art, work, and socialize, I have to be tough and assertive. If I allow somebody to enter my world, my studio, my shell or home, then I can be more “highly sensitive.” However, I have become way too old and wise to have temper tantrums and shut doors after being criticized, advised or castigated. In fact, I welcome that kind of stuff… then I can mull it over in front of the person with my doors wide open. I can take it as “food for thought” and spit it out if I need to, but sometimes one can grow from not shutting doors and instead listening to criticism. But sometimes people are just darn ignorant.
My real job
by Barb McGuey, Sharon, ON, Canada
It was a bit reassuring to discover that I am in the 15% of the general population with this “disorder.” All my living years to date (50) I have struggled with over-sensitive feelings. I had a stay in hospital when I was 31 that had appropriately been called depression, but after a 2-week stay in the hospital was to my discovery a culmination of years of extreme criticism which I allowed to be interpreted as true. I still will get “hurt” from time to time but a firm talk to myself (with little interference from my “little” voice) will usually stop the criticism to be taken.
My biggest hurdle was to finally believe that I have a right to be an artist and know in myself that this is a real job that I must do. Some people closest to me have a difficult time thinking this, as the income doesn’t compare to theirs, but even if fights arise I stand my ground and believe in myself. The creative juices usually subside during these bouts but I will lock myself in my studio and the work will flow like blood from my veins as if to reinforce my convictions that I am right! Screw the world of these cruel beings that feel they have to put me down in order to feel better themselves. What do they know about art anyway? Do they paint? Do they even purchase art? (just some of my inner questions I ask myself during the cutting of my ego).
So the struggle of over-sensitivity will always be, but that is why I agree with Dr. Aron — it helps us creative sorts. It has me, especially, since I figured out how to cope with the “disorder.”
Sensitivity can be treated
by Carol Henderson, Kansas City Area, KS, USA
I am a hypnotherapist who also practices an energy therapy (EFT). I don’t think being sensitive is genetic. Maybe it is, but it can be treated. It does not affect the creativity someone has, except to enhance it.
In my experience, these sensitive people (myself included) have been mistreated as a child. Sometimes the mistreatment is dismissed by the person as typical child raising practices, but if you investigate, you can find that the person was berated and felt that they were wrong or bad. With EFT and hypnosis, we can eliminate the feelings still associated with these events. The person becomes more confident in all areas of their life. With these two therapies, it only takes 3-7 sessions compared to years and years of traditional therapy.
Play helps the struggle
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
High sensitivity has caused many struggles in my life. Finally in middle age, I am learning to deal with it. I immediately ordered Dr. Aron’s book. I am certain that I will share it with those whom I love.
Having vivid dreams has been a lifelong trait for me. Dreams often inspire the colors in my paintings. In my art, I have learned to ignore the naysayers much as you said, “they just don’t understand my vision.” I have also developed a great sense of play which involves being able to laugh at myself and even at my work.
Currently one of my paintings is undergoing a major re-working because “I don’t think it is good enough.” And I just thought that was the reason — not my high sensitivity demanding ‘perfection.’
Where is my ‘off’ button?
by Kathleen Barnes, Saint Louis, MO, USA
I will have to read this book as soon as possible! All my life people have told me to stop being so sensitive. I remember my mother back handing me when I asked where my “off” button was. But honestly, I always did wonder where it was! I took refuge in drawing and painting because people left me alone when I was doing things like that. I was too boring to bother. Hiding in books works, too. I would also run off for long, long walks. Funny that Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way prescribes doing exactly that along with lone artist dates, etc.
I have long had the sense that I needed to “protect” something in myself from prolonged noise or people contact. In the past I have even put aside an entire day, Sundays usually, to be in solitary confinement, doing quiet things to prepare for the onslaught of the week. Even my chosen “Day job” consists of sitting alone in an office making deals via the phone, which I don’t even have to pick up if I don’t want to.
It is comforting beyond belief to read your letter today and know that I am not “weird” as I have often been accused, just operating on normal for my own comfort levels. I have even contemplated joining a convent where nobody speaks, but they may not let me paint as much as I want to.
Needs a hug
by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA
Seems to me that a big part of the “HSP-ism” is necessary to being an artist, specifically the part about being down on your work. That’s the very thing that drives us to improve. By the way, I took a look at the sensitivity test and it really seemed more like an “are you a human being” test. If you answered no to most of the questions you might fall into the “other” categories like: roofer, Enron CEO, art critic, or Donald Trump. I think I need a hug.
Stressful promoting book
by Constance Cavan, Novato, CA, USA
I am one of the HSPs who is sensitive to loud noise, etc., the whole enchilada, and living in this world is difficult for us except when making art, listening to great music, etc. Unfortunately, that is not a 24-hour-a-day activity. I’m not sure that it is a good trade-off for people like us, as we do have to live in the real world.
When I met Elaine (we both live in San Francisco) I could tell how stressful it was for her to promote her book. For those of you who live in this area, she is a therapist who counsels others like herself.
Time to educate the insensitive
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
This is so true as well as important for us as a group, and for those who are not as much sensitive, to learn about us, the artists.
Sensitive/creative people have been misunderstood and underestimated over the centuries. However, such ones have introduced history and cultures to the world. It is about the time to educate the non-creative who do not possess same amount of sensitivity to correct their views. Sensitivity is the quality of being capable of perceiving with full senses, swift to respond to external conditions and stimulations, vulnerable to the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others. Also, sensitivity is the degree to which something may be affected by something else directly, as rods and cones on the eye’s retina and photo-reactive components of photography are instantly, affected by light. This happens as response of a photographic plate, film or paper to light, especially to light of a specified wavelength so are artists affected by surroundings.
Highly sensitive, not crazy
by Anne Price, North Fond Du Lac, WI, USA
I am 32, and over the years I have seen a few therapists and doctors trying to figure out what exactly is my problem… always told, “you are depressed, you’re a loner …no big deal… you’re just sensitive… you just get easily overwhelmed… you don’t have good self esteem, that’s why you can’t see how good your artwork can be.”
Robert Genn’s letter just explained my life since childhood and what I am noticing in my youngest daughter! I have few friends… I am constantly… since childhood… trying to keep everyone at peace and getting along… am known as “the referee”… can not stand large crowds (everyone talking at once… all the noise!) I am well known to zone out when reading or watching television… I am very much a loner (and have been trying to smooth over ruffled feathers with friends and family since I don’t know when… try to explain it is not them… I just prefer to do things on my own).
I see things that no one else notices in everything I do! And now for the first time in my life… I know why! I am a highly sensitive person! I’m not crazy! I am not Bi-polar… and if I was depressed in the past it was because I could not figure out why I was different from most people!
Recognition for all the suffering
by Ivan Kelly, Toledo, Oregon, USA
This topic just blew me away. I am so glad someone finally understands me. Seriously though I realised you could be addressing me exactly. Quite an eyeopener. I know that people have always called me weird, withdrawn, different and that old standby epithet “antisocial” and those are just to my face. I can just imagine what they say behind my back. In fact I’m sure someone, somewhere right now is talking about me. I just know it. Most importantly what do you think the chances are in getting HSP officially recognised as a disorder? I would like some recognition and understanding for all my years of suffering and the opportunity to tell all my critics, “you’re being very insensitive, I’ll have you know I have HSP disorder, so just lay off.”
Three important issues
by Jim Webb, West Chester, PA, USA
Now that I have officially been diagnosed as an HSP by the three minute test, a great weight has been lifted off my mind in getting on with my career. Fortunately, I’m at an age that I don’t worry too much at what someone has to say about my work. It takes a lot of effort to develop self-confidence and grit as an HSP to shield one’s self from the outside world. Summing up, there are three important issues helping my quest. 1. Stay happy! 2. Develop a pricing matrix for your labor and material cost. 3. Respond graciously to your customers’ whims. We’re in a luxury business and as such, don’t worry about forces you have no control over.
Learned to cope
by Carol Kerner, San Francisco, CA, USA
I read Elaine Aron’s book several years ago. The book and her recommendations have made a huge difference in my life. I no longer force myself to attend evening events or large parties, undertake travel or anything else which severely depletes my creative energy for no reward. I can also spot and reassure other sensitive people that how they are is okay. Just being aware and preparing for social events helps me to cope. My art has benefited and I’m happier and calmer.
by Doreen Shann, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
My whole life I never felt I fit in anywhere, always feeling like the “outsider.” I am also very intuitive and can always tell when someone is threatened by me or does not like me even if they don’t really know me. My feelings are constantly hurt especially by family members and extended family. They say things I would never say. I constantly worry about animals not having enough food or drink or being mistreated. I don’t dwell so much on people, but do have empathy for the horrors done to mankind. I just know there is nothing I can do to stop it.
I felt better about myself after reading your piece. Unlike a lot of HSP I am very, very outgoing and upbeat when I am out and I enjoy talking with strangers at art shows and anywhere else. Someone said the other day that I seemed like the kind of person that nothing bothered. If they only knew.
My art gives me the opportunity to do something worthwhile — and to escape while not having to be around anyone else.
Change shakes us up
by Max Elliott, Banff, AB, Canada
Elaine Aron’s Sensitivity Test got me thinking about the notion of being “shaken up” by change. I doubt that many people can deny that change shakes them up, one way or another. With artists, often identified as highly sensitive people, change is the one constant on which they can depend — the change that must come with creative growth, the changing marketplace, and the multiple challenges that come with pursuing a passion over traditional means of ensuring security. Change shakes us up, and we can thank our Muse for it… we are driven by change to create, to excel, and to become better humans, perhaps even more sensitive humans!
by Edward Berkeley, Portland, OR, USA
There are indeed “sensitive” people (some more than others), but I fail to see what the issue is about this. Psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists are a useless breed of people, totally unscientific, with no factual backing of their theories and certainly with no practical or curative applications. Freud, Jung and their ilk are in reality clever phonies who managed to persuade the public that they were profound thinkers and understood the brain function. Far from it. They invented a jargon and lots of fatuous definitions which mean nothing. In the medical school in London we had a saying: Psychiatric patients are people who build castles in the clouds and the psychiatrists collect the rent. “Who are the witch doctors?” asks Richard Feynman in The Meaning of It All. “Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists of course.” Classifying people as HSPs and tests as devised by Ms. Aron are pure rubbish and neither help nor contribute towards the understanding of the human brain function. Research on the latter is difficult and slow. Our personality, thoughts and creativity are dependent on the neuronal interactions, cellular membrane channels and neurotransmitters, and at the submolecular level on quantum physics. As Johnjoe McFadden concludes in his book, Quantum evolution, “Life and consciousness are quantum phenomena.”
by Scott Menaul, Clearwater, FL, USA
The future of our culture lays in the hands of those who still have vivid dreams and keen imaginations. All that mankind has ever produced started out as an idea in a dream or the imagination. To label such valuable people as if they had a disorder is criminal. What is the proposed “cure” for people labeled as having a psychiatric disorder? Drugs or psychiatric counseling. The cure is actually an attempt to ruin the artist and those who are still alive. None of us should ever permit this to happen, to ourselves or others. Who is proposing to “cure” such disorders? What is their agenda?
Tom Cruise has recently spoken out against psychiatrists and the prescribing of mind-altering drugs. He says he is going after psychiatrists because he fears their “pseudo-science” has led to children being medicated unnecessarily. Cruise said he was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 7 and doctors suggested he be put on medication. “I’m going right after psychiatry and these false labels and this ‘pseudo-science,'” he told the syndicated television show “Access Hollywood.” “I was diagnosed as dyslexic; I had a lot of energy as a child. They wanted to put me on drugs. Never did; my mother said no, absolutely not, no way, and I’m thankful. Had I been put on those drugs, I never would be here today, I never would have had the career that I’m having.”
Also: The “chemical imbalance” theory, popularized by marketing, is “no more than psychiatric wishful thinking,” the group’s U.S. president, author and former educator, Bruce Wiseman says. “It has been thoroughly discredited by researchers, doctors and scientists. The only reason it exists is that it makes it easier for psychiatrists to drug vulnerable and often desperate individuals. It is driven by more than $23 billion in drug sales each year.”
Dragon at the gate is useful
by Tom Disch, Barryville, NY, USA
Since the opposite of being highly sensitive is either uncaring or boorish or thick-headed, what artist would dare to claim they weren’t highly sensitive. Truly, a good artist must be finely attuned to all the nuances of his or her art and to the world it represents — hopefully with some sensitivity.
But this shouldn’t carry over into the realm of don’t criticize me, I’m too delicate. Part of any art includes toughening of one’s hide. Withdrawal, as you suggest, can sometimes do the trick, but not every withdrawal. A rural fastness can work wonders. A bottle can wreak havoc.
Having a dragon at the gate is useful. Spouses are usually the most reliable dragons, but agents and galleries can serve the same purpose. The disadvantage is that when you leave the hustling to others it may not get done, or done as well. I like to hunt for rough diamonds at street fairs, and having the artist at hand as his own p.r. man is a major asset. Artists too highly sensitive to work in that way on their own behalf are missing an opportunity — not to mention an interesting experience. Anyhow, I’m glad I don’t think I belong in the highly sensitive category.
Art world needs all of us
by Nina Meledandri, New York, NY, USA
Difficult to write? I am sure, and when I read it to my husband, I became so choked up, I couldn’t form words. So like many aspects of what we choose to engage in: difficult but necessary in order to purely and powerfully communicate. And I do believe also in finding comfort in a community developed through reading about the artistic life; it has always brought a sense of “rightness” to the struggles I encounter instead of a feeling of “wrong.”
Your mentioning the “they need us/we need them” aspect reminds of something else I use to bolster a feeling of “rightness.” Just as that relationship exists between the artist/non artist, I believe it does within the art world itself. I know many of us are often frustrated by a lack of recognition that at times can cause us to question our place in the world we have chosen (or perhaps more accurately: chosen us). Over the years I have come to believe that in order for the “art world” to exist, to flourish, to grow, it needs all of us: the famous/the undiscovered, the abstract/the realist, the professional/the amateur, the good/the bad, the academic/the self taught, the posers and the diligent. The art world would not exist without the energy and contributions of every single one of us, no matter where we sit or stand in the group. Somehow, to be able to believe in this can give me a sense of belonging that is often not accessible through any other avenue.
Cure for a wounded planet
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I do love how these letters can be so synchronistic. I have recently begun to do something called “holographic re-patterning” with a friend who is training to be a practitioner of this. I am doing it to get in alignment with my core strength and manifest it in the world. That is I want to be in harmony with my gifts and channel the fruits of my work into the public eye more profoundly than I have done so far. What I realized after my first session is that I have not put my work out there as much as I need to because I am protecting myself and the sanctuary that is the world I create in and what I create. Yes, I am a “highly sensitive person.” I am coming to terms with this as a strength and moving from NYC to CA has helped me to accept this way of being as the power of what I have to offer instead of a weakness. The people I have met here seem to understand my type and see it clearly as an asset. As you say keeping company of those who are of similar temperaments and talents helps to make me see I am not flawed because I do not fit in to the peg society has carved out for the majority. It is also worth noting that the community that is respecting me for what I have to offer is primarily the Waldorf School of Santa Barbara, where my children, also highly sensitive types, attend. This is a school where children are allowed to be individuals, and the school honors them for who they truly are instead of trying to force them into a rigid mold. I am healing as my children thrive in this diverse and creative environment. It is time to acknowledge the need for these types of people in our world to change the trend from force and violence to gentle, respectful nurturing and profound awareness. We who see and create beauty in the world are meant to be seen and need to be visible as examples of the unlimited potential we humans possess, far beyond the rigid world of artificiality to a world of expansive wonder. Thanks for writing about the outsiders whose time it is to feel safe enough to expose our magic! May there be enough people out there ready to see it for what it is, creative originality and a cure for a wounded planet.
From shame to self-respect
by Christine Taylor, Las Vegas, NV, USA
I picked up Elaine’s book at the library about a year and half ago. It was startling to read the introduction because I could have written it from my own heart. The behavior traits she described seemed to be exactly the ones my partner of 10 years had complained about in me! Until I read it I felt ashamed for my ‘introverted’ nature and need to ‘shut down’ after social interaction, or just plain avoid it altogether!. This book turned my sense of self-respect right around! I don’t feel so much like the “Hermit” who is never going to find the light. I’m confident that knowing of my nature and ways to challenge it will not change me, but that others will eventually seek me out for my wisdom. I have found Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way to be a very good source for HSPs and artists alike. I have met other HSPs since my study of Elaine’s book, however I’m finding us a very “rare breed” overall. This may be due to our reclusive nature, or as Ms. Aron explains, we may not initially recognize each other at first.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Michael Budnicki who wrote, “Okay, I admit it. I’ll forward it to my therapist.”
Also Kathleen who wrote, “Thanks for the HSP companionship. Yes, more than ever, the World needs us HSPs!”
And also Emily Mandy, Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “Classic female “sensitives” like Emily Carr, Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe have really only come into their own in the last twenty years.”
And also Marilyn Blundin of Bracciano, Italy who wrote, “I recommend the movie on DVD Swimming with Sharks as a defense in the chaos.”