Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person was like my own personal Da Vinci Code—riveting, compelling, and totally solved a mystery about myself I didn’t know existed. My whole life I felt more worn out than others, more overwhelmed and overstimulated. But being raised in a Catholic family with a Protestant work ethic and an American intolerance for anything perceived as weak, I saw my sensitivity and heightened perceptivity as personal failings to overcome.
Why do I notice the tension in a couple’s conversation across the room when their immediate neighbors are chatting happily unaware? Or the fact that a child is about to fall off a chair fifteen feet away from me when his babysitter is oblivious next to him? <Just mind your own business.>
Why do sore muscles, or tight shoes, or pokey car headrests make me so irritable after ten minutes that I’d do anything to end the sensation? <Take some ibuprofen and toughen up.>
Why, despite my curiosity and interest, can I not last more than twenty minutes in a loud bar or street festival before I’m sprinting home? <Stop being so whiny and just relax.>
Why am I completely tapped out and overwhelmed by 5 PM? <You’re just being lazy.>
What stopped the judgmental conga line (to borrow Lorelei Gilmore’s expression) was the realization that, according to Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person checklist, I am most definitely, positively, unequivocally an HSP.
And so, apparently, are my children, who hate anything sticky on their hands, who dislike getting wet, who refuse to wear any non-fleece material, who can’t handle singalongs for more than ten minutes without a meltdown, and who can tell you what the other kids in the room are feeling according to their facial reactions. None of us can watch movies with emotional or physical violence, unless we want weeks of nightmares and stressful mental images. None of us handle travel well. None of us like change. None of us share similar personalities, but it’s clear they’ve both inherited my sensitivity.
For Aron, however, the drawbacks of being overly sensitive are matched by extreme benefits that often go unnoticed. Heightened perceptivity means greater attentiveness to situations, an ability to process material more deeply, and greater understanding of others’ emotions, which can translate (in the right circumstances) into innovation, higher levels of consciousness, and alertness to the needs of vulnerable people and animals. But it can be a struggle to find those right circumstances.
What I find most interesting, as a Highly Sensitive Person, and now as a parent of two Highly Sensitive Children, is how to survive in a culture that neither values nor accommodates high levels of sensitivity.
What I find most fascinating, as an anthropologist, is how differently sensitivity is experienced and valued from culture to culture.
It doesn’t have to be this hard.
As with any personality component, many factors contribute to the expression of sensitivity in an individual—genetics, trauma, birth order, parenting—but it is clear that in most cases sensitivity is inherited. But it’s not like some cultures are full of highly sensitive people and others are not; humans everywhere are a mix of temperaments and desires. Approximately 15-20% of people worldwide fall into the category of “highly sensitive”, and it is a category that is increasingly supported by neuroscience research.
The question then is about the cultural context in which highly sensitive people live, and the fact that different cultural systems are more accommodating of different temperamental styles.
Back in the 1930s, anthropologists in America were trying to understand cultural differences around the world. Led by Franz Boas, American anthropologists argued against old, super racist models of cultures as hierarchically ranked as if on a ladder, with northern European cultures categorized as the pinnacle of civilization and everything else categorized as barbaric or savage. One group of anthropologists, in trying to value cultures as equal, began imagining world cultures as if they were people at a cocktail party, each with his or her own personality. These theorists of “Culture and Personality” borrowed from the also-new field of psychology to suggest that the way children were raised molded them into a shared cultural personality.
While there is some sense in this (just think about how you recognize someone right away as being German, or American, or Brazilian), it’s not particularly useful because of how stereotypical it can be. It’s fair to say people share cultural values or behaviors, but absurd to anthropomorphize a community as if it is a person with only one particular temperament. Saying a culture has a personality is as limiting and ridiculous as saying a corporation can have a religion. Oh, wait.
The point is that cultures (and corporations) aren’t human. But they can seem to express a personality because they are collections and expressions of human ideas, materials, and values. So if one community values quiet and slow reflection, it may appear like the culture has a personality that is calm, cool, and collected. But what actually is happening is that the dominant values of the culture are a great fit for some of its members who are inclined towards those behaviors, and a struggle for other members, who must adapt or be censored or alienated.
As anthropologist Margaret Mead described in her 1935 book Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies:
Let us suppose that, instead of the classification on the “natural” bases of sex and race, a society had classified personality on the basis of eye color. It had decreed that all blue-eyed people were gentle, submissive, and responsive to the needs of others, and all brown-eyed people were arrogant, dominating, self-centered, and purposive…. There would be blue-eyed men and blue-eyed women, which would mean that there were gentle, “maternal” women, and gentle, “maternal” men…. The individual would still suffer a mutilation of his temperamental preferences, for it would be the unrelated fact of eye-color that would determine the attitudes which he was educated to show. Every blue-eyed person would be forced into submissiveness and declared maladjusted if he or she showed any traits that it had been decided were only appropriate to the brown eyed (297).
As Mead is doing, consider gender categories. People often think boys and girls are naturally different because of how they seem to divide in terms of interest and style. Yet we all know boys and girls who don’t fit the traditional American models of blue/sports/cars and pink/art/dolls. So what happens to those kids?
100 years ago they might have been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder and surgically lobotomized or sterilized.
50 years ago they might have been bullied and disciplined into conforming.
Now? Perhaps they’d be praised for “being themselves”. Or not. Depends on their specific community.
As the cultural context changes, it determines whether the same exact values and behaviors are collectively viewed as healthy or deviant, positive or destructive. And that has a huge influence on how kids (and adults) develop and view themselves and their personality traits.
Of course people’s experiences have always been influenced by their particular subculture, as well, which may conform to or resist parts of the broader culture. For individuals who do not or will not conform, they may be ostracized into a marginal group or they may opt into a non-mainstream community. I knew a girl who, in high school, determined that she would never have the money to dress and play like the popular girls whom she desperately wanted to join. Instead, she chose to go Goth – dressing in black with spiked dog collars as necklaces, dying her hair and wearing dramatic makeup – as a symbol that she was not of the popular group. As she said, she rejected them before they rejected her, but she simultaneously found a group that valued her as an artist and independent spirit.
In Aron’s example of highly sensitive people, she observes that highly sensitive boys and men often struggle much more than girls and women, largely because of the American expectations of what it means to be male. Aron clarifies that there are “as many males as females born as HSPs” (73) yet boys who display sensitivity and shyness receive negative reactions and “are not liked as well by their mothers”, whereas girls with the same qualities are labeled as “good”. While this can lead to girl HSPs being overprotected in damaging ways, boy HSPs can be alienated or marked with derogatory labels, until they learn to overcome or mask their sensitivities. Or unless they become associated with a special social category where sensitivity is expected, like the stereotypical sensitive artist. The social category may not protect them from everyday expectations and harassment, but it can provide a safe space where their sensitivities are understood by themselves and other group members.
The idea of some countries or cultures being better suited for HSPs than others makes sense when thinking of how behavioral traits are viewed differently, whether positive or problematic, depending on the cultural context. Aron gives the example of a research study by Xinyin Chen, Kenneth Rubin, and Yuerong Sun which examined popularity among students in China and Canada:
In China “shy” and “sensitive” children were among those most chosen by others to be friends or playmates. (In Mandarin, the word for shy or quiet means good or well-behaved; sensitive can be translated as “having understanding,” a term of praise.) In Canada, shy and sensitive children were among the least chosen (Aron, 13).
Of course not all of China’s many subcultures will reflect this the same way. Nor can you generalize Chinese culture as particularly suited to highly sensitive people. Many elements of Chinese life seem like an assault on the senses. Cities like Beijing are super dense, toddlers go pantsless so they can crap in the street, and traditional Chinese opera often sounds like two robots having extremely loud sex. But without romanticizing Chinese culture broadly, the research points to how traits are labeled as positive, and the minority of HSPs are held up as models for other children to emulate, not problem children who need to overcome their deficiencies.
In America, HSPs are more likely to label themselves negatively as “inhibited,” “introverted,” or “shy”. Of course we can always reappropriate the terms, something introverts have been doing of late (see the Quiet Revolution as an example), but the labeling affects our perceptions in other ways.
Since mental health professionals grow up influenced by the same values as the broader culture, research and standards often reflect the assumptions of the broader culture. Psychological research in the US, for example, unwarrantedly associates introversion with poor mental health. This creates a paradox when HSPs themselves internalize these labels, causing them to be extra stressed: “their confidence drops lower, and their arousal increases in situations in which people thus labeled are expected to be awkward” (14).
In cultures in which the trait is more valued, Aron points out, “such as Japan, Sweden, and China, the research takes on a different tone. For example, Japanese psychologists seem to expect their sensitive subjects to perform better, and they do. When studying stress, Japanese psychologists see more flaws in the way that the nonsensitive cope” (15).
It is daunting to think of the next few decades as I am raising my kids in an environment that is struggling to understand and accept their sensitivities. But it is reassuring that I can at least point them to subcultures within the US, as well as places around the world that see their traits as strengths. In the meantime, I’ll make sure their clothes are soft, their quiet times are long, and I’ll always carry wet wipes. But maybe I’m just being too sensitive.