Book Review: The Highly Sensitive Person – Elaine Aron

You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

– Dr. Giant Steps

It’s been about a year since I wrote this post about sensitive people. I’ve largely retreated into myself since then for various reasons. One of these reasons was the navel-gazing on this blog. Why did I need to analyse everything so much? Why did I feel this constant need to understand and explain myself? Even after all the writing why did some things feel so hard? Why are some things which seem so easy for so many people feel so hard to me? A piece of the puzzle is, obviously, sensitivity. But identifying the sword does nothing to help you not die by it. Me being who I am, I started researching a bit. Here’s the first step of the journey.

Source: Goodreads

I came across a reference to Elaine Aron’s book in Quiet by Susan Cain. The fundamental premise of Dr. Aron’s work appears to be that some individuals (about 15-20% of the population) are just wired differently from others. This difference in wiring, she postulates, causes differences in the way we perceive the world and react to it. Of course, disclaimers apply*.

Given sensitivity is a highly subjective trait, we need a baseline to go by. The book was written by a researcher and it therefore starts with a self assessment (replicated here on the author’s website). This assessment sets the general tone of the book. In general a sensitive person is someone who: Reacts strongly to sensory input; tends to think deeply about things; notices subtle details others might not; has a lower threshold for arousal by most stimuli. While each person will agree with a few questions, the book largely deals with those who are more sensitive than average.

Why should you read this book? Well, if you’re a sensitive person, you’ve probably always felt vaguely out of place. I have certainly been told many times to “toughen up”, not “cry so easily”, stop “over-analyzing everything”, etc. This book helps explain how we function. If you don’t identify as sensitive, someone close to you likely does and the book might give you a fresh perspective.

The Highly Sensitive Person normalizes what society implies is abnormal. Some of us do process everything more deeply than others and the first couple of chapters provide evidence of this. They also contain details of how the trait impacts day-to-day life. They also provide a way to reframe one’s past and view one’s “failures” through a new lens. I personally skipped the exercises because I’m not comfortable digging that deep. At least not alone 🙂 I’m also skeptical about the benefits of digging too deep in some areas. (“Dig too deep and you’ll find water anywhere”. Another nugget of wisdom from Dr. Giant Steps)

Chapters 5 through 7 are about work and relationships. I found these chapters more culture-specific. I personally find a stay in the US particularly exhausting because I feel I’m expected to constantly be “on”. Similarly Indian expectations from love and marriage are quite different and many of the assumptions don’t really hold. That said, it’s academically quite interesting to read.

Chapters 8 and 9 deal with therapy and medication. They’re again interesting from an academic perspective to me. There’s good information on how some common drugs such as Prozac work. There’s also good information about psycho-therapy, how to choose a good therapist, what to expect and so forth. While I’m not sure therapy is for me, the chapters are detailed and the information is very useful.

The final chapter deals with “soul and spirit”. Again, I find the content culture-specific. Broadly speaking, Indians are more comfortable with the idea of holistic wellness and we implicitly accept the idea of something deeper within a person that needs to be cared for. I largely skimmed this chapter but I do accept the idea that pranayama and other holistic forms of wellness work much better for me than a course of antibiotics.

Overall, reading this book helped me understand a few things better. First, there is such a trait as sensitivity which cannot be altered too much. Second, I have a system that needs more downtime and maintenance. There’s nothing wrong with this. Acknowledging these ideas has allowed me to simplify my life and reduce the demands I place on myself. More importantly I’m working on being more quietly assertive of my needs rather than pushing myself too far and then experiencing physical, mental or emotional exhaustion (or some combination thereof). I’m trying to let go of the idea that I “should” be able to do some things just because others can and accept that not being able to do them is not a sign of weakness.

I simply cannot be the person I would like to be – a tough, outgoing, multi-tasking, decision maker who can shrug things off easily and just march ahead no matter what. I’m instead always going to be a softy. I’m going to fall for sob stories, feel a shade more guilty than I need to, make decisions slowly, and just generally take more space. I’m going to care too much, cry too much, think too much, and keep asking people to turn down the TV. Reading this book finally made me realize I’m just fine exactly as I am.

  • I understand that no single theory can explain the entirety of a human life lived and experienced. Each theory only (crudely) explains one facet of our personalities
  • I understand that no one can prove conclusively how individuals are wired to think and behave and the research methodology will have limitations and is highly subjective
  • I understand that it’s harmful to label oneself and limit oneself any kind of label, positive or negative
  • I understand that the perception of personality traits is highly cultural and we cannot take all the research out of its cultural context
  • I understand one should not attempt to self-diagnose
  • Other general terms and conditions as applicable

September 2017: Goals

I don’t know if anyone is still around but I’ve missed blogging and I’m going ease my way back in by posting weekly book reviews and round ups of what’s happening in my garden.

Reading Goals:
I haven’t been reading much these days. Here’s my reading list for September. Two fiction and two non-fiction books:

  • Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett
  • My Brilliant Friend , Elena Ferrante
  • The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos
  • Health, Healing and Beyond, T. K. V. Desikachar

Gardening goals:
I’m learning to grow vegetables in containers and my goal is to feed our family with organic produce by the end of next year. With the exception of onions, potatoes, carrots and suchlike it’s theoretically possible to grow almost everything else for ourselves. Flowers for puja included. Let’s see how this project goes. I have quite a liberal budget set for this and I hope to start breaking even by next year.

Here’s my target for this month.

  • Revive my bottle gourd and snake gourd vines which somehow look a bit wilted and yellow
  • Get the cucumber creepers to yield
  • Tomato, brinjal, chilly plants are flowering, they need to start yielding
  • Start cauliflower, beets, carrots, spinach from seeds
  • Plant a few gongura stalks
  • Plant banana and papaya trees in the garden

#Republic Launches

Political discourse in India today revolves around a single question: Are you a Liberal or a Right Winger? There doesn’t seem to be room for much else lately. You’re either a liberal who stands for equality and social justice or a “Bhakt” who cannot uncouple himself from India’s past. The Marxist or the Hindutva-vadi. The atheist or the Gau Rakshak. Nationalist or “Paki-lover”. 

The difference between the two groups seems to stem from a single root cause – the identity of India. Liberals tend to view India as a single forcibly united political entity that emerged from colonial rule seventy years ago. The Right typically considers India to be a more complex historical entity – almost a person – several millennia old and defined by the banner of Hindu thought and civilization. Liberals seem to view the creation of India the political entity as a way to escape the past and keep up with the times. Keeping up is defined by Western ideals, we shall soon see. Right Wingers view the same event of independence as an opportunity to finally reclaim our identity after centuries of foreign rule. Both Islamic conquerers and European colonizers come under this umbrella.

Pseudo-Liberal India (we lack true liberals) would be built on the politics of appeasement. Shah Bhano, Mandal Commission, caste based reservations, and a general brushing aside of pre-Islamic history have happened in the past and worse will happen if we let it. This brand of politics will never allow Uniform Civil code to happen. It will focus on fracturing India along as many fault lines as possible in order to capture votes. Lalu Yadav, Mayawati, the Left and even the Dravidian parties are examples of this school of thought. 

Tired of watching the rest of the world (read China) speed by, the Great Indian Middle Class voted for Change. What is Change? Change is Hindutva. Let us classify the history of India into two time periods – pre and post “invaders”. Now let’s regard anything succeeding the raids of invaders as an aberration whose effects must be erased. Hindu thought and philosophy, ancient literature and art must rule supreme. Out with PK and in with Bahubali. Out with NDTV. In with Republic. Out with Unilever. In with Patanjali.

The perfect example of the ridiculous fight we’re witnessing is in our approach to Yoga and Ayurveda. Every time a Western journal publishes something that validates traditional Indian healing, both sides are up in arms. The Right claims “India knew it all along”. The Left wants to buy the repackaged “scientific” truth and ridicules the traditionalists as blind followers. Both miss the point. Scientific validation of traditional systems is not bad. We need to learn why and how things work. That said, we can’t simply reject centuries old empirical truths just because we lack understanding (which is either lost or non-existent). Instead, India should be at the forefront of research into what works in Ayurveda and why.

Here’s the truth. Just as we cannot seek to erase a cultural identity several millennia old, we cannot erase the truths of colonization however much it may hurt our pride to not do so. Every colonizer leaves an imprint and no matter how much Subramanyam Swami wishes it, one cannot deny that a mosque once stood in Ayodhya too. We can’t do away with Cricket or the English language or the Gazal or Hindustani. We need to learn to make peace with history.

What we are living through is a giant tussle for the reset button that will shape the future of our country. It doesn’t matter which side wins, we all lose. Meanwhile, there is Republic.