Why it is time for the term “Highly Sensitive” to evolve
As I sit down to write this I feel a powerful sensation rise in me. A calling that I am writing for many and for something greater than me.
I experience that as an intense tingling that comes through the left hand side of my body and flowers into my stomach. It makes me want to cry as the feeling overwhelms me.
This could be described as a typical sensation that we experience when we begin to consider something deeply important to us.
For me as a man with the personality trait known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity it is an experience I encounter several times a day.
It could be triggered by many different things. It could be from listening to music, from watching a movie or even at the excitement of what I am going to be making myself for dinner.
One billion on the planet right now
What I am essentially experiencing is an acute relationship with the sensory data that I process cognitively, a well known part of this trait originally discovered by Dr Elaine Aron in the 1990’s.
Research shows us that essentially, at its core, this is a more acute experience of the senses and the resulting effect of what it means to process that data.
Having lived with this trait now for 45 years I am used to it. Yet it is a constant source of wonder, exultation and pain. Again as I write that I begin to well up again at the beauty of this and even though it comes with a cost, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
You may be reading this from the point of view of another person born with this trait, passed down from your family. Since it occurs in 15 to 20% of the population, there are 1 billion of us on the planet at the moment.
You may be reading this from the perspective of a person in the 85 – 80% category who wasn’t born with this trait.
However as people with it are one in five it is almost for certain that you know someone with the trait. A colleague, a friend or someone you regularly see on your commute each morning.
The reason I am writing this is because a time has come for us to recognise the importance of what this trait means. To recognise the role it plays in nature and the role it plays in the evolution of mankind.
I am writing this to raise awareness and because it is time for this trait to evolve itself from a scientific point of view.
We have a responsibility to the people born with it because at the time of writing this 50% of people born with this trait in the Western World are in depression due the trait being misunderstood as children.
This amounts to more than 35 million people in the UK and US alone. I will come back to this in a moment.
When this trait was first discovered by the psychologist Dr Aron in her seminal work and research she was inundated with enquiries about how to live with the trait. Which led to the publishing of her book – ‘The Highly Sensitive Person.’
For the last 20 years, in my experience and from the experience of many of the people with the trait that I work with and meet on an ongoing basis, the focus has been on survival.
In other words how to survive this trait. How do I learn to live with a highly reactive central nervous system and all the processing associated with it?
Why is it that I get so overwhelmed by noise, light and social interaction when everyone around me seems to be fuelled by it.
Who can I talk to about all the subtle differences I notice in the environment around me? About the fact that I am highly empathic meaning I can feel other people’s feelings around me.
The fact that I seem to have this higher connection to something so visceral that it makes me want to fight for it.
Dr Aron did incredible work to discover this trait and her book has helped millions of people all over the world. Yet in an interview recently she said herself that she wished she hadn’t referred to it as being ‘sensitive.’
A history of famous leadership
What I feel has essentially happened over the last 20 years, is that we have seen people emerge for support with the trait who must then bare the label of being ‘too sensitive’
If you Google the effects of the trait, perhaps looking for support it will lead you to this term. I see it happen time and time again, the support is there but who really wants to be associated with it?
Of course it’s not always the case, many of us realise it is just a word and in fact the trait brings much more than simply being highly sensitive to sensory data.
And this is my greatest intention in writing this today. This trait is a whole lot more.
In fact it is responsible for much of the advancement of spirituality in the world. It was the trait that was said to be found in many of the greatest leaders we have seen in history. Including Martin Luthor King, Ghandi, Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison. This list goes on.
When this trait is understood, nurtured and encouraged it results in high sensory intelligence.
It means that the enhanced experience of sensory data actually leads to benefits of enhanced empathy, intuition, creativity and visionary abilities.
There is a shift that is needed to take us from seeing this as something to learn to live with into recognising its enormous importance.
That when someone with the effects and challenges of the trait begins to research it they discover they are born with a tremendous gift and a responsibility to use it for the benefit of their workplace, families community and personal fulfilment.
For us to understand that when something like this is an inherent part of the complexity of being human it can be used to incredible benefit.
So how does this advantage really play out? In my own experience over the years of facilitating people with the trait, I witness time and time again a unique ability in that person.
Before we dive into this I am not suggesting that having this trait makes a person superhuman and the rest of us are at a disadvantage.
This is not at all the case. As always, nature creates balance. People with the trait are typically known to ‘look before they leap’. Which in many cases is putting it mildly.
We analyse, we process, we consult, we consider, we facilitate and we advise. Yes of course as leaders we also take action and lead action. However the world would be at a great disadvantage if we were without the part of the population that drive us forward on a moment basis.
It wouldn’t work if we all had a high sensory experience of our central nervous system and all the processing that comes with it.
During my experience of facilitating people with the trait to learn to experience the gift it personally affords them, these gifts are incredible.
What is most important to you?
As an example, there is always a particular passion in the individual, as we all have. What I always refer to as ‘what is most important to you.’
This question to a person with the trait is so important it regularly means they are self employed. In other words it is so important that they literally cannot live with themselves unless they do something about it. They cannot be working on someone else’s agenda.
What is most interesting is that the mix of their high sensory experience combined with this keen area of interest results in a most advanced ability.
One that they have been typically experiencing since they were a child and have often been helping people with for many years in a non professional manner.
It tends to fall into one of the following categories. An advanced ability in the arts, in writing, in creativity, in performing. Or the ability to facilitate, heal or improve the lives of others. As a consultant, an adviser and importantly in leadership.
This enhanced ability to feel and intuit data is the advantage. It is the ability to see and process the key bit of information that will make the difference. To notice the subtle cues, to feel another’s feelings, state and experience. To sense when something is out of balance and to feel what needs to be done.
It is an intelligence. It is a High Sensory Intelligence. It comes with a cost one that I know myself only too well. It is like running a race car, it’s excellent for short enhanced performance and then it needs care to prepare it for the next race.
It means overwhelm, it means needing extra down time. It means careful management to ensure particular experiences, journeys or interactions are not going to cause excessive exhaustion or exposure to adverse conditions.
Yet when a person with the trait comes to research it, it is time they see the advantage. To celebrate their discovery. To understand that they have a responsibility to their community, to the world. For their own community to recognise that the advantages they bring are revered and for the disadvantages to be supported.
For parents with children who have the trait to rejoice in the realisation that they are bringing a child into the world with a key ability that must be nurtured. To help their child understand their trait and to support them with their unique needs.
For schools and government organisations to help their employees with the trait to come forwards (i’m welling up again!) To encourage them to share the insights they have, for them to have the resources they need to enhance their abilities. For them to bring their gifts into use.
For corporations all over the world to recognise that 15% of their workforce have this trait. That they are sitting on an enormous resource of highly intuitive and creative people. Natural advisers whose perception and abilities could bring enormous vision for the company, to management and to the well being of all.
For us all to understand the importance of having the right leaders at the helm. Emphatic leaders who not only have the interest of the people and the world at heart but who are experiencing an enhanced perception of the greater good. A good that could bring us enormous growth and development as we have seen from the leaders before us.
Right now we are at a point that we so often reach in our development as a race. We have discovered something that we are simply learning about.
So far we have done our very best to understand its importance. As with all things our understanding evolves, yet we must take the steps to support that evolution.
To recognise that a naturally occurring trait found in humans and 100 animal species is there for a reason. To help the millions of people around the world that are in depression due to the misinterpretation of this trait and the resulting self rejection that they too are here for reason.
Perhaps a reason that could change the world.