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The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N Aron (1999)

Book review: The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N Aron (Element, 2003 [1999])

  • Do you have a keen imagination and vivid dreams?
  • Is time alone each day as essential to you as food and water?
  • Are you ‘too shy’ or ‘too sensitive’ according to others?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed by bright lights and noise?

One in every five people is born with a heightened sensitivity; they are often gifted with great intelligence, intuition and imagination, but there are also drawbacks. Frequently they come across as aloof, shy or moody and suffer from low self-esteem because they find it hard to express themselves in a society dominated by excess and stress. The Highly Sensitive Person offers effective solutions to those feeling overwhelmed. With numerous case studies, exercises and advice, Elaine Aron focuses on the strengths of the trait, teaching HSPs that their sensitivity is not a flaw but an asset. This book also offers great insight into raising a sensitive child.

A while ago, I read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney. This book came up on Amazon as books I might find interesting because of that, and reviewers mentioned it too. A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is essentially someone who’s more sensitive than others – to moods, to settings, to stimuli, and so on. The world is an overwhelming place to be, especially for introverts, and even more so for HSP.

Like The Introvert Advantage, it has a list of statements to which you answer True/False (or Yes/No) and then you tally up the results and see how much of an HSP you are, if at all. I got somewhere mid-range, so a HSP but not a severe one according to the questionnaire. (EDIT 27/5/11: Actually, I did the test again last night to see what I got and it was more like 18/23 so it’s pretty high, just not as extreme as 27/29, like I got on Laney’s introversion test.) Perhaps that’s why I felt for the most part, the book wasn’t as appealing to me as the Laney book, and she in turn is clear to point out that there’s a difference between being shy, being introverted and being a HSP. Aron’s definitions seem muddled and while she too points out that there’s a difference between the three, the difference is a bit more unclear.

To me, which is why I didn’t feel I could agree to more than a little more than half the questions, is that HSPs are shy, timid cry-babies who live their lives being scared most of the time. That’s not really what she means at all, but that’s how a lot of the book came across. I’m quiet, I’m not actually very shy at all (go and address a group of people? Not bothered, as long as I know why I’m there and what I’m supposed to say/do), and I’m not scared of going to parties, I just don’t like them. There’s a difference.

As the book went along, though, I did feel as if it was starting to make more sense and speak to me more, but I never felt quite the same “OMG, that explains MY WHOLE LIFE!!” feeling from it. It does make a few very good points that I can take away from it, and sure, it does explain a few things that aren’t necessarily covered by being an introvert (you can be an HSP if you’re extrovert as well, it says, but introversion is a lot more common – to which I say “yeah, duhh” because to me, they seem to go hand in hand).

In the end, it has some pointers that you could show your doctor and others that you can show your boss, and I just feel as if I should write down the ones for “working with a HSP”, frame them and put them on my desk, because I agree with them wholeheartedly and they are, for lack of a better expression, “so me”, and if you’re a very introverted HSP, people assume a lot of things about you, most of which aren’t particularly kind, let alone true. It’s nice to have something to refer to.

The Highly Sensitive Person is a useful book if you think you might be a HSP or know someone who is. It’s another step in figuring out why I am the way I am and helping me understand myself, and for that I’m grateful. Even if I’m not a shy, timid cry-baby. 4 out of 5 quiet rooms.

About the Author

Elaine N Aron Ph.D. is a highly sensitive person herself, trained at the Jung Institute in San Francisco and how has a thriving psychotherapy practice. She has pioneered the research into HSPs.

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) where she lives with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted on the way.

4 thoughts on “The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N Aron (1999)

  1. Thanks for the review, Traxy! I’ve been reading a lot of research on temperament lately for my PhD. As you mentioned in your review of The Introvert Advantage, its curious that a lot of psychology books don’t seem to get the profound and pervasive range of impacts introversion/inhibition can have on a person. Fascinating stuff!

  2. Thanks Skully! Sounds like interesting research you’re doing. 🙂 I think it’s a crying shame that temperament doesn’t seem to be that widely considered amongst psychologists. It’s kind of a fundamental thing to help you understand HOW to help someone. If I saw a psychologist and s/he thought I should just pucker up and get out more and that it would make me feel better to be around people … well … no, not really? It would more likely have the complete opposite effect, and that would of course not be helpful at all. :/

  3. Absolutely. To paraphrase a temperament scholar (Chess & Thomas I think?): to ask an introvert to behave like an extravert can be very damaging. It seems that temperament is viewed as an old fashioned kind of idea, which might be why some are hesitant to use it. In my own discipline of sociology, it’s hardly mentioned at all, at least psychology acknowledges it!

  4. It does sound a bit ancient, maybe because it brings back the ideas of the four humours (blood, bile, black bile and phlegm), which sounds rather potty today. On the other hand, the Five Factor Model is about temperament, and they’re still referred to as “The Big Five”! So that’s a bit … ambiguous.

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