The Highly Sensitive Person, (HSP) written by Elaine N. Aron (Element books) is arguably the most useful non-Asperger specific book that I have read in relation to Asperger syndrome, (AS).
According to Aron, 1-5 people are born with a heightened sensitivity. They are often gifted and have high intelligence, intuition and imagination levels, but have some shortcomings as well.
These traits involve aloofness, shyness and a tendency to suffer from low self-esteem due to difficulties expressing themselves in society as a whole. The net result is an internal feeling that there is something different – or wrong – and of being at times overwhelmed.
This is, of course, similar to having Asperger syndrome. It also means that being an HSP sometimes makes one feel, like having AS, as having some kind of flaw.
However, as the book goes on to explore, HSP’s are a very special type of human being. They are “often the first to see what needs to be done” for example and, as a result, possess unique qualities.
To address the difficulties that HSP’s face, the book identifies developing four key areas for self improvement:
* Knowledge – or the ability to fully understand the HSP trait;
* Reframing – being able to change the perception of one’s past and future behaviour;
* Healing and;
* Being able to feel “less out” and involved with the world in general.
The book begins by exploring the personal characteristics or traits associated with being an HSP.
Most HSP’s are more prone to sensory effects in the nervous system. They are easily over-aroused which causes reaction. This leads to a feeling of not being fully in control and a need for periods of solitude in order to recover.
The book explains however that arousal is not fear which can occur because of many things, the net result of which, is often stress. As with those with AS, the book highlights how the HSP mind means that certain advantages are enjoyed. HSP’s are highly conscientious and analytical for example.
At times, however, these benefits can also become disadvantageous in circumstances that are inappropriate. The “correct” trait depends on the culture or environment one is presiding in. As with AS, if this is unsuitable it has negative effects and may lead to a person assuming a “label” that is inaccurate and taken at face value.
Change for HSP’s can also be problematic. According to the author HSP’s “don’t do change”.
Understanding the Trait
The book then looks closer at specific elements of the HSP trait and how sensitivity may be due to a number of causal effects which vary dependent on experience.
Aron believes there is a “pause to check” system in the brain that results from the outcome of the “advisor” and “impulsive” within the person and which can be a cause of conflict. I equated this to the tendency of someone with AS to react both immediately and overtly. In other words, there is no effective cognitive self-defence mechanism.
The route cause of this phenomenon is low self-esteem which stems from insecurity established early in life. To overcome this fears need to be, but are not adequately, tested for a person to grow and feel more at ease in the outside world. HSP’s are different and so need to live differently: the key is to work with what one has learnt.
The HSP Lifestyle
According to the author, HSP’s tend to push themselves out (i.e. over stimulate themselves) or keep themselves in too much (over protect themselves by staying out of the world).
As a result, they get sidelined somewhat as they think that they cannot fully effectively survive: they feel different, slightly vulnerable and, perhaps, flawed.
However, HSP’s can find a way to be successful on their own terms. The stresses will always be apparent; it’s just a way needs to be found to deal with and accommodate them.
The more a person goes out, the less different and arousing the world becomes. An HSP needs to be in the world, even if they don’t always feel like it! But as the book points out, it can be done even if it is not easy. What’s more, once it is achieved, it feels great and leads to significant personal growth.
The key to realising this objective is, is to stop the – inner – harm by finding out what is causing it, and then building up slowly personally via ameliorative actions to achieve the right balance between being “out” or “in”.
Causes of Over-Arousal & Improvement Strategies
Aron looks closely at over-arousal, by starting – predictably – as a psychoanalyst with childhood with the three attachment types: secure, anxious, avoidant.
According to Aron, HSP’s make good victims or targets due to a tendency to react strongly to criticism, aggression or avoiding confrontation. Being sensitive to disapproval or the anger of others, makes an HSP eager to please which, in turn, makes others ignore their needs. Sensitivity may also be seen as a weakness.
Like for those with Asperger, new situations will produce over-arousal as they are different and unfamiliar. Trying new things – or changing – means undertaking new experiences.
The book then explores strategies for reducing levels of over-arousal revolving around both psychological and physical approaches.
* “Witnessing”: standing back, looking at oneself and then imagining how to, and acting, differently;
* “Loving the situation”: seeing a situation as an opportunity and not a threat and;
* “Reframing”: changing to a different, more positive perception.
Among the techniques advocated to realise these outcomes are improved diet, spiritual enhancement, avoiding situations likely to prove problematic, avoiding difficult or provocative people and withdrawing when under stress.
The objective is to create ones own “boundaries” or working within parameters one feels comfortable with: not too much change, socialising gradually, moving gradually in terms of change and keeping expectations realistic. It is also important to like yourself as you are.
Aron advocates adopting a step-by-step strategy. Take someone along for support; identify potential difficulties beforehand; extricate from difficult situations if need be; condition the mind to expect to be OK after a while even though you may be nervous of frightened initially and; don’t respond to fear with anxiety.
The detrimental effect of isolation is also outlined. It causes rejection by others, care needs to be exercised in groups and armour is required to hide sensitivity.
The book then explores the subject of socialization and the negative effects of not effectively doing so.
If you act inferior, you will be treated that way. If others see you as over-aroused, they will think you are vulnerable and there is the possibility that they will project their fears of rejection onto you.
The author acknowledges that over-arousal may well be due to social discomfort. However, she outlines how there is a danger that HSP’s feel that over-arousal is more noticeable than it actually is. Others will only notice it if a person allows them to.
That it is important to meet basic social expectations is emphasised: simply saying something, acting more conventionally and in a way appropriate to one’s surroundings (in terms of dress sense for example) and achieving the right degree of “openness”.
Usefully, the subject of quietness is explored. Being too quiet means people may think you are not part of them or are judging them negatively. Eventually this means that you will draw [negative] attention to yourself. Others will then reject you before you reject them.
The Working Environment
A whole chapter is dedicated to being an HSP in the workplace.
The fact that the work environment can be stressful and over-stimulating is acknowledged at the beginning and how it stems, partly, from not appreciating a particular role, style or potential contribution.
As readers of my book and visitors to my website will know, Asperger Management believes that this area is the most important factor for success in the workplace. Many of the elements that I have previously identified are also explored.
The things that an employer can provide are listed: a quiet and calm working context; how an HSP will not perform well if observed conspicuously; how socialising may be problematic or; how an HSP will not naturally promote themselves.
However the unique advantages of the trait in a commercial are also emphasised. In particular, how the “thoughtfulness” of an HSP is a key advantage and how this is particularly suited to advisory type vocations as a result of different modes of thinking.
Here, both formal education and experience are important and, interestingly, the point about how the latter is sometimes neglected at the expense of the former is made. The latter for me particularly resonated. Discovering that, I believe, I am a “visual learner” has made me appreciate how “learning by doing” is, perhaps, the best way of learning for someone with AS.
According to Aron life is a progression or “individuation” process. An HSP should be forced to be practical to ensure they do not lose touch with the world and no-one will listen to them. In a business context, this means putting oneself in the situation by actually taking on tasks.
Overcoming issues like public-speaking, tolerating noise, networking and corporate politics enables an employee to find a style suited to oneself and is achieved through actually doing. Part of this process however is failing; you cannot move on unless your fail and learn from your mistakes. Fear of failing must be addressed and overcome!
The text suggests staying close to someone who knows a lot and can guide you, i.e. a mentor; playing to your strengths and; perceiving needs in the market before others as a result of the unique ability to see into the future. The advantages of self-employment are also outlined.
A number of practical, common-sense actions are also advocated. If others are more suited to the “front line” i.e. leadership, then let them take responsibility for it. People are “needed behind the lines” also; formulating strategy for example, so take on those tasks instead. Jobs involving stress or working long hours do not have to be taken and are best avoided.
Encouragingly, the author believes that HSP’s are undervalued in the business world and how typical related metaphors such as warfare, pioneering and expansion may be inappropriate to an HSP. Importantly, it is clearly stated that HSPs can survive in most corporate cultures, but how some are wholly unsuitable.
I found the discussion on groups, which are also explored, relevant. How putting ones ideas across in group gatherings can be difficult or how the tension within them means an HSP may be unable to be true to themselves or commit to views they do not entirely agree. All are issues that I have experienced throughout my managerial career.
Productivity issues are also discussed – how moving onto other projects before an existing one is completed for example, is one that personally I can relate strongly to me. How emotional sensitivity draws HSP’s in others private lives – an area fraught with danger. There is useful advice relating to complaints and of the need to think carefully before doing so because of its impact on others and the negative consequences that may result.
Other issues include how other won’t automatically see what an HSP can or how an HSP may not see “what is really going on” and; of the need to practice a story or argument before presenting.
Inevitably the subject of politics is discussed. As HSP’s don’t like playing politics it can be a cause of suspicion due to being misperceived. According to Aron, this is especially true if inner thoughts are not shared (a common factor for those with AS): it makes one appear aloof, arrogant, odd.
I found the reference to Machiavelli or unacceptable management methods insightful. There is the possibility that HSP’s may be criticised unfairly or how when in a power struggle not knowing what to do. As someone with AS, and who is consequently generally deemed to be, honest to a fault, these are issues that I know I need to investigate, and appreciate, further. For the author, the key is to understand why you are being targeted; is it because you are coming across as aloof or arrogant?
Another common shortcoming identified by the book is an inability to see conflict coming. This makes HSP’s an easy target as a result of being “separate from the herd” and, therefore, not fully informed by not being aware of what is going on at an informal level. Again, this may lead to others perceiving someone as rejecting them and subsequently feeling no obligation going forward to inform you about issues.
Other lessons include how not being pushy or assertive makes HSP’s appear uninterested or weak, though these are usually unwarranted projections. The importance of letting others know how you feel is strongly emphasised.
It is also important to not to let oneself be taken for granted. Be conscious of achievements and make superiors aware to avoid personal dissatisfaction and negative consequences organisationally.
The book closes by explaining the need to inform others of when an HSP is over-aroused to ensure understanding. The detriment of not doing so is detailed along with anger, unpleasantness or confrontation dis-incentivises an HSP from doing so and how the benefit of gaining the support of a third-party or withdrawing until you are ready to confront can be highly beneficial. The importance of meta-communication is also discussed – or listening to the inner voices or underlying emotions of others.
Perhaps most pertinent is the need to not automatically feel lesser or be an innocent victim by forfeiting personal power and how thinking positively enables inner strength to be gained. All of these things are, for me, one and the same as with someone with Asperger, and are enormously relevant in working effectively in a business context.
The book closes by talking about how the need for acceptance can make HSP’s too intense. They are too affected by everything and so become the focus. Inner patience is needed, along with a willingness to try and understand others.
But for HSP’s the real challenge is achieving the middle ground: not being “too shy” or “too sensitive” just OK or normal.
For me this comes back to the start: a manager with AS may be different, but they are none the lower or less effective for that!
The Highly Sensitive Person explains more clearly than any other book I have read why such personalities are different, but why there is nothing wrong in being so. Importantly, it also explains how understanding why this can enable an HSP (or person with Asperger syndrome) to operate comfortably in the outside [commercial] world.