I’m on yet another learning journey at the moment, and it’s one that might interest you if you often find yourself off balance. Via the wonderful Kat Tansey, author of Choosing to Be – Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master, I came across the work of Dr Elaine Aron on what she calls ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’.  It was a revelation, and it explains a lot.  Kat Tansey’s interview with Elaine Aron is here.

Recognise this?

Test your reaction to these scenarios. Whom do you most closely identify with?

  • A woman is standing in line waiting to pay for purchases. The woman behind her is standing very close, and with each move, unconsciously prods, nudges and pokes her with assorted baggage and elbows.  Eventually the first woman turns round and politely asks the woman behind to please stop prodding her. The second woman puts on an air of mock astonishment and responds, “What? Are you REAL?”
  • It’s Remembrance Sunday in a shop in an English shopping mall. At 11.00, the piped music stops, the staff ring a tiny bell, and everyone stands still for two minutes. Well, almost everyone. Despite the almost tangible, heavy silence, the sudden lack of jolly Christmas music and the fact that people are standing exactly where they were when the bell rang, one man crashes around in some crockery, and calls to his wife, “Hey, Susan, here they are – come and look at these.” “I’m busy looking over here”, she shouts back.

They both happened.  I was present at the second, and overheard woman 2 stridently telling the story of the ‘unreal’ person in front of her in that line to anyone who would listen.  Why did they strike such a chord with me?

High sensitivity is real

They’re two sides of the same coin – high sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and a complete lack of it.  Aron, a clinical psychologist, has researched High Sensitivity for almost 20 years. She has found that around 20% of the population, male and female, are what she calls Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs).  Many don’t realise it, and it’s not a trait that Western society values.  The strength of this trait is that people who possess it are aware of tiny nuances and subtle shifts in what’s happening around them, are highly perceptive of others’ changes of mood, may be highly intuitive and often visionary. The downside is that the same stimulus that most people take in their stride can be overwhelming for an HSP. They’re often told they are over-sensitive and end up feeling there’s something wrong with them.  Well, there isn’t.

Please don’t SHOUT at me!

I took Aron’s self-test and came out with a high score and a big lightbulb moment. Being highly sensitive to sensory stimuli can be both helpful and painfully arousing.  Take the BBC World Service, for example.  I love it.  I download podcasts regularly.  But if I’m awake at night and want to listen to something, I no longer choose the World Service.  Why?  Because for the past year or so, every podcast and every programme is prefaced with a rumbling musical intro culminating in a loud, intrusive three-note musical yell in a minor key:  DA DA DAAAAH!  It might not bother 80% of the population, but it makes me wince,  and probably the other 20% with me.

HSPs take time to process stimuli, and will need to take space to do it.  Overstimulation can lead to the constant presence of stress hormones such as cortisol in the body. Balancing the dual challenges of dealing with the discomfort of over-stimulation and staying out in the World where we need to be is a lifelong task that gets easier if it’s done consciously. It doesn’t mean we’re unintelligent or antisocial.  It doesn’t mean we’re ‘over-sensitive’.  We are simply more sensitive to sensory stimuli than about 80% of the population, and if we don’t understand this we might wonder what’s wrong with us. And you can imagine what happens when the office bully homes in on an HSP.

Are you an HSP?

I’m currently wondering whether the people who bounce back least well from the bad things that happen at work might also include a higher than usual proportion of HSPs?  It would explain a lot.  If you empathised with the woman who didn’t want to be constantly prodded, or wondered how the couple in the shop could have failed so completely to notice what was going on around them, why not take Aron’s self-test and see what you come up with?

…or not?

And if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, maybe you’ll still find Aron’s work worth exploring. After all, up to 20% of people around you may possess the trait.  Perhaps the colleague you think of as over-sensitive is nothing of the kind.