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

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