Shy or Highly Sensitive?

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The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron was published nearly 10 years ago and it has changed the life of thousands of readers. Just imagine, a highly sensitive person (HSP) may think of herself or himself as an inborn introvert, neurotic or shy person, or as if she or he has some sort of problem and when a non-HSP psychologist or even when the average non-HSP person describes sensitive individuals according how they “look like”, they usually describe them wrongly as introverts, shy people, timid, neurotics, etc. But this is not necessarily true for the HSP and actually, some non-HSP can be described that way too.

What happens is that a person has a sensitive nervous system, this can probably be inherited and it actually occurs in about 15-20% of the population. What this means is that a HSP is more aware of subtleties in the environment and it also means that they are understanding and aware. Most people have these qualities, but HSP may observe more subtle nuances, specially when they feel good, calm and alert. Elaine Aron describes this observance of the subtle like this:

“This greater awareness of the subtle tends to make you more intuitive, which simply means picking up and working through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way. The result is that you often “just know” without realizing how. You “just know” how things got to be the way they are of how they are going to turn out.”

If you are highly sensitive, it also means that you are better at spotting errors and avoiding making errors if you consciously choose to. You are highly conscientious, able to concentrate deeply, but you do best without distractions. You are especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed, and the detection of minor differences. You are also able to process material to deeper levels of what psychologists call “semantic memory”. You are often thinking about your own thinking. You are able to learn without being aware you had learned and you are deeply affected by other people’s moods and emotions.

Most HSPs have nervous systems that makes them:

-Specialists in fine motor movements.

-Good at holding still.

-Morning people (here there are many exceptions)

-More affected by stimulants like caffeine unless we are very used to them.

-More “right-brained” (less linear, more creative in a synthesizing way).

-More sensitive in general, hence, more hay fever, skin rashes, and allergies.

Unfortunately, it also means that when they are over aroused, so they can get overwhelmed and in this case they can be quite insensitive and not very understanding at all. People who are usually not HSP are more understanding of others when there is a highly chaotic situation. HSPs are overwhelmed easily when they are exposed too much to highly stimulating surroundings with lots of sights, sounds, and new experiences, until their nervous system gets tired. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to become frazzled indeed, until they reach a shutdown point, “transmarginal inhibition”.

In China “shy” and “sensitive” children are more popular. In Mandarin, the word for shy or quiet means good or well behaved; sensitive can be translated at “having understanding”, which is a term of praise. In North America and other western cultures, shy and sensitive children are the least popular. That says a lot of how sensitive people grow up in Western Cultures, no wonder why some highly sensitive people have the tendency to withdraw. Even if school was okay, going through stress at home or due to overstimulation during childhood can make the HSP to withdraw. All this means that the HSP has quite a inhibitory way of being which is why it is important that they stay out in the world, trying things rather than retreating, as withdrawing will only enhance inner feelings of inadequacy.

We know from psychology and experience that childhood “stress” plays a major factor in our way of being. As Elaine Aron says, “Depth psychologists place great emphasis on the unconscious and the experiences imbedded there, repressed or simply preverbal, that continues to govern our adult life.” This means that childhood stress can shape our way of acting in unconscious ways, and even when HSPs want to be out there in the world, they often find themselves retreating. So the author also emphasizes healing ways to deal with this “preverbal programming.” She compares it with the analogy of taking care of an infant, in fact she calls it the “infant/body”.

“Taking good care of a highly sensitive body is like taking care of an infant. The infant/body self knows what you lacked, what you learned from your parents and other caretakers about how to treat him, what he needs now, and how you can take care of him in the future.”

“When the infant/body is intruded upon or neglected or worse, abused, stimulation is too intense for the infant/body self. Its only recourse is to stop being conscious and present, thereby developing a habit of “dissociating” as a defense. Overstimulation at this age also interrupts self-development. All energy must be directed toward keeping the world from intruding. The whole world is dangerous.”

“During infancy or when we are feeling very delicate, constant intruding and checking on the infant/body are sources of overstimulatoin and worry. At this stage anxious overprotection inhibits exploring and independence. And infant/body constantly watched cannot function freely and confidently.”

“If you are too inhibited, you may want to think back to its source. Perhaps you had an overprotective, needy caretaker who really wanted a child very dependent and never able to leave. Or the caretaker’s own sense of strength or self-worth was bolstered by being stronger and so needed. Note that there were probably many times, too, that this sort of caretaker really was not available, whatever you were told-such caretaker was tuned into her of his needs, not yours.”

“The point of all this is that how others took care of you as an infant/body has very much shaped how you take care of your infant/body now. Their attitude toward your sensitivity has shaped your attitude toward it. Think about your infant/body’s first caretaker and the similarities between that early caretaking and how you care for yourself now.”

So you may be too inhibited instead of being like you really want to be: out there in the world just like everybody else. You may feel different, weak and vulnerable. Other than being too inhibited, a few of you can also have the tendency to be “out there” too much. For example when you work too much, or explore too much, you strive to go on and on without rest and care for yourself. We may know certain helpful things in theory, but not in practice and this is because old unconscious patterns from childhood may be interfering with our best intentions, making the necessity of facing some ghosts of the past.

“It may help to consider your behavior from the viewpoint of your infant/body. If it wants to try new things but is afraid, you need to help it, not reinforce the fear. Otherwise, you are telling it hat it really is all wrong about its desires, that it is not fit to survive out there. That is a crippling message to give a child. You’ll want to think long and hard about who gave you this feeling in childhood, and why, rather than helping you get out and learn to do things your way.”

“Second, it is often the case that the more your body acts-looks out the window, goes bowling, travels, speaks in public, the less difficult and arousing it becomes.”

“If the root of being in too much is a belief that the infant body is defective, the root of being out too much is equally negative. It suggests that you love the child so little that you are willingly to neglect and abuse it. The infant/body rebels under all this pressure, signaling its distress. In response, we find ways to toughen it or to medicate it into silence. So the chronic stress-related symptoms arise, like digestion problems, muscle tension, constant fatigue, insomnia, migraine headaches; or a weak immune system makes us more susceptible to the flu and to colds.”

Have in mind that HSPs who went through difficult childhoods and adolescence are going to be predisposed for chronic anxiousness, depression, self-sabotaging, etc, until their pasts and themselves are validated. The wound must be healed.

Some Tips

-Eat healthy.

-Take nutritional supplements. For example multivitamins, B complex vitamins and vitamin C, magnesium (the relaxant mineral), 5 HTP and GABA are among the nutrients that help re-balance the brain chemistry, enhancing the “calming/feel good” brain chemicals which are a key to function properly in stressful environments.

-Drink lots of water

-Value yourself for who you are and not what you do, appreciate yourself for taking risks and putting yourself out there in the world and not for your results. Don’t compare yourself with others, everybody is different. Share your talents with other people and take time to think and meditate. I highly recommend the Éiriú Eolas meditation program, as it has played a key role in the healing of so many people. And please, be compassionate with yourself, nobody is perfect and to be perfect sure is the most boring thing in the entire world… As Elaine Aron says, the goal is rather a call of wholeness and not perfection.

“A call to wholeness rather than perfection might be the only way to get the message. This is a very individual matter. If we’ve stayed in, we’ll be tempted out or finally forced out. If we’ve been out, we’ll have to go in. If we’ve armored ourselves, we’ll finally have to admit to our vulnerability. But if we’ve been timid, we’ll start to feel all wrong inside until we’re more assertive. In respect to Jungian attitudes of introversion and extraversion, most HSPs need to be more extraverted in order to become more whole.”

“In general, anything that has been our particular specialty has to be balanced by its opposite, what we are bad at or afraid of trying.”

– Keep a journal. Write your insights, moods, dreams, quotes in books or related that inspire you or that have a significant meaning for you, etc. Write freely, no one is going to read what you write, except for you.

Find out if you are a highly sensitive person by taking this self-test available online here. If you want to answer the questions that determine if your child is highly sensitive, click on here.

Further reading:

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  1. basit  February 25, 2016

    I am sensitive and I planned some thing on my mind that should not to happen but if that happens I get depressed and I over think it and I become so sensitive

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  February 26, 2016

      Have you looked into dietary changes, detox and nutritional support (i.e. iodine therapy)? In my experience, it is best to start with the body and as you take care of your body, your mood improves. Then your sensitivity will be an asset to connect and help other people, rather than a “curse.


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