Networking for the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

Networking1It’s not what you can do it’s who you know!  Have you ever heard that familiar refrain enjoining us to so tactfully and aggressively “get out there” and meet new people?  Has it simply bewildered or caused you anxiety as a highly sensitive person knowing that some 70% of us are more introverted?  It has for me and I think it is about time we examine something more suitable for those of us who are better suited to a different format.

Networking used to mean that one joined a country club and met “the guys” who would in turn open new doors of opportunity.  Or it meant joining a PTA group and meeting the influential women in the community in hopes of courtingc-suite-networking-on-the-green favor or at least being “in the know” on the important happenings about town.  Today with fewer people working at traditional occupations networking has taken on new importance and even more significance as stability and security quickly fade into the past.  Now is the age of insecurity, on-demand labor policies in many workplaces, and the independent contractor, who is independent in no way we would identify as desirable.  Our bills are full-time and regular, but work is not.

For the HSP meeting new people may prove to be a difficult experience depending on the individual’s level of comfort with a new person.  HSPs are highly empathetic and quickly pick up on the energies ofish-swims-opposite-directionf any person they are around.  If a new person strikes an HSP the wrong way the impulse may be to cut off conversation quickly and escape.  For some people this instinct may be quite strong, especially if the other person is negative or arrogant in any way.  Other HSPs learn to ignore or minimize their empathetic reactions to new people and focus on their goal.  Interactions may still be draining, but learning to control reactivity is an important coping mechanism.

For those HSPs who find meeting new people to just be painful I offer hope.  All is not lost and you are not consigned to never being afforded the opportunities to let your talents shine.  You will, however, have to go about networking in a different way.  In the case of the shy, introverted, or highly reactive person I recommend learning to very effectively use communications other than face to face.Email-Marketing  Email communications are one way and offer tremendous advantages for the HSP.  For instance in email one has the luxury of time to compose complex thoughts and revise before hitting that send button.  The lack of face to face pressure creates a space in which the HSP can create a thought or communicate something of themselves.  Networking is always about building a personal connection between yourself and the new contact.

It’s known that people have a natural reluctance to anything new.  They are naturally inclined to say no, that’s resistance theory.  We counter that by personalizing our communications with something of our passions.  This could be an idea or thought that we deeply hold or some slightly revealing detail about how our mind works.  Subtlety is better than brash statements.  It is better to finesse a new contact than knock them over the head with neediness.  In that sense put your innate creative abilities as an HSP to work and really craft those emails or other communications.  Personalization-300x209Trying to communicate a complex thought?  Develop a visual graphic showing the connections between concepts and ideas rather than rely on the written language.  Language is limited in its descriptive capacities, the visual language is not and, in fact, most people learn better and faster through visual graphics.

Want to enter a new field, but lack any contacts?  Search them out via any social media platform you can find them on or look them up on their company web site.  People now expect to find each other on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.  The HSP is at an advantage in each of these formats.  Now how about the how of how to develop the contact?  Again the HSP holds a special edge: empathy.  HSPs are able to read other people’s emotions and subtle clues better than the general population.  Make that work for you!  Often in text communications it’s what is not said that is as important as what is being said.  Read between the lines, so to speak, and intuit what the needs are then seek ways to fulfill them.  Be out front with your ideas and energies even though in person you may be fairly quiet.  The more you do it the more comfortable you will become with not only making new contacts, but presenting ideas and thoughts.

The benefits of technology open up new insecurities, but also opportunities for those who can foresee the utility of social media platforms, email, and personal web sites.  Above all else the key is to continually cultivate new contacts and projects for the long-term.  Making use of technology allows the HSP to actually enjoy an advantage in making new contacts even if many of us still need to work on our face to face persona.  That can come in time as we slowly build self-confidence and self-esteem through succeeding at small undertakings.  In time there is no reason just about any HSP cannot be as effective, if not more so, than any other person.

What about that other bugaboo, the telephone?  Many HSPs dread the telephone experience and use it as little as possible.  Whether it’s a fear of the unknown, an overstimulating feeling that it must be answered, or a simple dislike for superficiality HSPs can learn to be extremely effective communicators even on the telephone.  How so you ask?   HSPs make very good performers.  Zumba_clipart_silhouettesMany stage performers and other public personalities are, in fact, HSPs.  Our capacity for deep thinking enables us to amass a tremendous amount of specific knowledge that we can recall in a second’s notice.  Empathy again allows us to enter the experience of another person and “know” what they’re feeling and need/want to hear at any moment.  Lastly, our own nervousness is many times communicated through gesturing or psychomotor activation, which doesn’t show on the telephone.   Whether you know it or not, whether you have developed it or not you as an HSP possess the exact qualities to be an extremely effective communicator, but it takes practice and a willingness to engage it.  Don’t let opportunities slip by because you fear networking.  Embrace it in a big and bold way, give it your all knowing you’re embodying yourself at your best, and don’t be afraid to push your own boundaries.  You might just pleasantly surprise yourself.

Dr. Tracy Cooper is a consultant providing pragmatic career advice to HSPs and sensation seeking HSPs.  His web site may be found at

The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness: Mindfulness for Those Who Are Mind-Full, A Response for HSPs


I came across the following article and was intrigued by the appropriation of mindfulness, or what we have come to associate as mindfulness, by corporate America.  It is only natural for a society obsessed with time, productivity, and profit to latch onto anything they may imagine can even remotely increase their bottom line.  In that sense using mindfulness as a tool with which to manipulate and exploit people is predatory and only a step away from invading the mind in other, more invasive ways.  On the other hand not all of corporate America is as described.  There are progressive organizations who value their employees and care enough to institute any stress-reduction techniques they think will help.  However, reducing one’s stress does nothing to address the root cause of the stress or the mindset around increased productivity.

These issues notwithstanding I find that my primary interest in the tradition we call mindfulness is geared toward more than simply reducing stress or a sense of “presence in the moment.”  Those things are very good for HSPs too, but the real value lies in learning to quiet the rush of non-stop mind chatter that accompanies the stimulation we take in.  Quieting the mind to a point of clearing the mind, to a point of stillness is the real point of mindfulness.  From that still point one can then objectively acknowledge new things that happen, but with no judgement and no particular action.  HSPs spend far too much time occupied, or preoccupied with what-ifs, what-nows, and unfounded anxiety so much so that it may be incapacitating for some HSPs.  Mindfulness for those individuals at the upper reaches of sensitivity where far too much is happening in terms of stimulation-response is where mindfulness has real value and the power to change lives.

For individuals who are unable to quiet their mind due to trauma, anxiety, or other issues the incorporation of any contemplative practice is going to be of great value in their daily lives.  Some HSPs find anxiety to be too much and are medicated by well-meaning psychiatrists or other doctors.  Others resort to some form of self-medication with the dangers ever present for addiction and reduced functioning and happiness.  Building a contemplative practice into one’s life should be a cornerstone, not an afterthought.

When I advocate for mindfulness it’s not to jump on a bandwagon and appear to spout forth the latest, faddish mystical Eastern adaptations. Rather, my intent is to point HSPs toward techniques that I am fully confident will work and that can have a meaningful impact in people’s lives through improving one’s openness, gentle awareness, and indeed what can become a very useful spiritual practice.

Fellow HSPs: self-care is inclusive of physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions and we must practice a fierce self-care, as if our lives depend on it.  In the end our well-being, peace of mind, and well-functioning in all aspects of our lives depends on our ability to quiet the mind chatter that overtakes so many of us.  Mindfulness as a practice, a spiritual practice, holds the potential for profound transformation and may be one of the simplest, easiest ways HSPs can begin to become empowered HSPs.

Dr. Tracy Cooper is a highly sensitive person researcher, consultant, and author who offers one-on-one consulting for HSPs and sensation seeking HSPs in career transition.  His web site is at

Misfit: The HSP Who Just Doesn’t Fit In

“When you feel like an oddball, it never really leaves you. Even now, I’m better around people who are uncomfortable with themselves – the misfits.” Chris Pine zebraHave you ever felt like a misfit? Like you’re out of step with everyone else, somehow different? As highly sensitive people (HSPs) we often spend more time observing and absorbing than interacting and conforming. In groups it is generally easy to feel like we may not fit in because we have others to compare ourselves to. Have you ever thought “Geez, these people are so outgoing and chatty and I’m so quiet?” You’re not alone. Many HSPs feel this way and report feeling a profound sense of difference. In this article I will explore a few of the salient points that can make feeling like a misfit not such a bad thing.

What does it mean to be a Misfit?
Highly sensitive people have a personality trait that is considered non-normative in many Western societies. Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a stable pattern of behaviors that is encapsulated in the DOES acronym.
• Depth of processing of all stimulation that occurs in the brain fueled by emotion.
• A tendency toward overstimulation in certain circumstances.
• High empathy and high emotionality.
• Sensitivity to subtle stimuli.
These factors alone make HSPs quite different from the majority of the population and stigmatization begins in early childhood for many HSPs when parents desperately wish for their child to appear to be “normal.” Interestingly SPS is largely heritable. Parents may be projecting their own sense of inadequacy or low self-esteem. Other parents may feel strong pressure to conform from their peer groups, relatives, or friends. Socioeconomic status may also have a decided influence on each parent’s tolerance of differentness.

You’re a Deviant! 1286158256Tbz368
The sociological definition of deviance is any deviation from societal norms. In that sense everyone is a deviant because most people routinely violate one or more social rules such as speeding, littering, or any of an endless number of small violations from “normal.” HSPs violate social customs quite often when we fail to interact at the level deemed “normal” by the group we are with, when we seek solitude instead of noise, and in fact any time we go against social norms of behavior.

This is not to say that being a deviant (a badge I wear with pride) is a bad thing. On the contrary American popular culture is filled with glorification of the deviant. Most action movies portray a hero who just can’t quite go with the flow and instead feels compelled to break all of the rules. He seems hell bent on destruction and the group usually frowns on his behavior, until said hero discovers a key strategy or innovates a new way to stop the bad guys. Then everyone loves the deviant! Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoors

For the HSP though life can be quite miserable growing up. This is especially true in school where society has seen fit to throw together children of exactly the same age. The pressures to conform in school can be immense and a child who displays any deviance in appearance, behavior, or temperament is quickly categorized, stigmatized, and marginalized. I recall being a child in the 1970s and walking along the fence line at recess with other “weird” kids who spend most of their precious recess time staring out over the fence and talking of topics none of the rest of the kids would have had any interest in. The sense of differentness I felt was evident early in life and only reinforced in school when my permanent front teeth came in crooked marking me as only somewhat different, but evidently different enough to be worthy of ridicule and shame. That early trauma cemented my feelings of not fitting in and in time not caring if I fit in.

A Different Perspective
While it is true that conformity has its place in the ability of a group to meet its goals non-conformity also serves a valuable purpose. The so-called misfits are the non-conformists who are likely creative, open-minded, tolerant, and original. In the long view of human history HSPs have likely served the function of being broad-based generalists who spend a great deal of time observing and learning, thus making excellent leaders and advisors, they also have likely been the creative class that innovates and creates.

The time many misfits spend alone can be extremely productive time as the mind has time and space to reflect and consider options and variations to any issue or problem. American popular media is also full of examples of the strange kid who hides away in his basement building new inventions or the bookworm (Hermione Granger) who possesses highly specific knowledge that later proves essential to the defeat of the antagonist.

The misfits, the marginalized and misunderstood (perhaps simply not understood) serve the purpose of originality in thought, actions, and usually personality. There are several key factors misfits share in common: a propensity toward boredom, a preference for solitude or controlled and measured interactions with others, and a profound sense of differentness they may find sticks with them throughout life. While many HSPs may indeed feel like misfits I suggest that they wear it with pride and revel in their uniqueness, their strange qualities that keep them perpetually out of step with society. In that uniqueness lies tremendous potential for the entire species.

Research Suggesting the Value of Social Rejection20aebeb97223fd2f8e657366d239de23
In a study conducted to determine the impact of social rejection on creativity Kim, Vincent, and Goncalo (2012) hypothesized that social rejection would lead to diminished creativity, except for those individuals who possess an independent self-concept. This means that people who essentially are not dependent on group approval would not only be less affected by social rejection, but indeed see the rejection as an affirmation of their individuality and uniqueness thereby enhancing their creativity.

Through a series of three studies the authors found that their hypothesis did seem to be supported. Those individuals with independent self-concepts were motivated to seek even more creativity, as if asserting their own uniqueness was validated. However, for those people with interdependent self-concepts they tended to devote more energy toward regaining social acceptance and less on creativity. In short, it mattered to them that they had been rejected and they feel compelled to go to great lengths to be accepted by the social group.

None of this is to say that we should not seek some degree of acceptance from peers or social groups we may belong to. In fact, we need socialization and the positive energy that can provide, but we also need to be very selective about who we choose to spend time with so our precious energies are not squandered on those who only drain us. Couched within that conceptualization is the real jewel of this blog post: we can spend our time trying to be accepted by social groups or doing things that matter to us. Learning to accept and value ourselves is key to being able to develop our many talents and abilities. When one is more focused on individuation than social approval the growth opportunities are limitless.

The most interesting people are the unusual. No one writes about or discusses the average, the ordinary, or the common; they write about and discuss the weird, the mad and the different, so if you are one, even though the opinions of others are of no importance, you are, in their eyes, significant enough to notice and remember.” Donna Lynn Hope – author of Willow

Dr. Tracy Cooper is a highly sensitive person researcher, private consultant, and artist providing one-on-one consulting for HSPs and sensation seeking HSPs in career transition.  His web site may be found at

The Highly Sensitive Person and High Empathy

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D.

Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.” Sue Monk Kiddempathy-brains-130911

Seeing the world through another person’s eyes is central to the experience of being a highly sensitive person (HSP). There is now a documented, replicable fMRI study showing that HSPs demonstrate stronger empathy than do others in tests involving reactions to images.

“We found that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the highly sensitive people showed substantially greater blood flow to relevant brain areas than was seen in individuals with low sensitivity during the twelve second period when they viewed the photos,” said Dr. Aron, a Research Professor in Psychology at Stony Brook. “This is physical evidence within the brain that highly sensitive individuals respond especially strongly to social situations that trigger emotions, in this case of faces being happy or sad.  The brain activity was even higher when HSPs viewed the expressions of their spouses. The highest activation occurred when viewing images of their partner as happy. Most of the participants were scanned again one year later, and the same results occurred.”

This scientific evidence is not news to the over one billion HSPs worldwide who consistently absorb the energy of others and feel their viewpoint.

For many HSPs this experience of high empathy may be overwhelming, especially so in career where interactions are forced and there is little choice with whom we relate. The experience of empathy was the single biggest factor that I noted in two studies investigating HSPs and career. In this short article I will address several aspects of empathy and provide a framework coping strategy you may use in your daily life.
Empathy as overwhelmoverwhelmed
First, let’s examine the part of being highly empathetic that causes many HSPs to feel overwhelmed. Highly sensitive people, as highly empathetic individuals, pick up on the energy of others to a far greater degree than do others. This includes positive and negative energy. HSPs tend to process all experience more deeply in the brain, thus all of this intake of energy may be a spontaneous flood of emotions. When the energy is positive the HSP may benefit from the interaction or the individual(s). Conversely, when the energy is negative the HSP experiences the effects far more deeply and may feel like they need to withdraw or escape what may feel painful, irritating, or annoying.
In a working environment we come into contact with a variety of individuals on a daily basis, depending on the exact nature of the position, with little control over sudden influxes of negative or overwhelming energy from others. I once worked as a technical support representative for a school yearbook printing company assisting customers over the telephone with software issues. I never knew from call to call what the customer’s energy would be like, but I felt it very deeply when the person was upset, exasperated, or irritated. I also felt it very deeply when the individual was upbeat, positive, or enthusiastic. I had few of those as you might imagine. For the most part the customers were stuck on one issue or another and needed help to get back on track.
At the end of each phone call, whether positive or negative, I often felt exhausted and prayed for a break. Very often, however, I had no sooner hung up the phone before another customer called or was already on hold. These instances were not continuous, there were busy days and slow days, but overall the job was demanding with little in the way of recognition, except from the occasional customer who praised my performance to my superiors. Those instances felt like validation and buoyed my spirits for the duration. Many HSPs may or may not receive much in the way of feedback from co-workers or superiors. HSPs in two 2014 studies cited lack of feedback (of any kind) as a primary factor in their feelings of disillusionment with their job. All of the participants reported feeling overwhelmed by the energy of others and needing to withdraw (or feeling like they needed to even if they could not at the moment).
Implications of high empathy unmanaged
For those HSPs who experience great difficulty managing their high empathy the working world may be a literal minefield of emotionally charged interactions around every corner. Many HSPs in my studies reported leaving positions because of particularly negative superiors, co-workers, or overall situations. There are larger implications for HSPs if they do not learn to manage empathy. Let’s carefully examine a few before we move on to what you would likely really value reading about.

First, the continual intake of energy is exhausting and when that energy is particularly draining the HSP may experience symptoms of burnout, alienation, depression, and anxiety. This may lead to diminished job satisfaction, a desire to quit or move to another position, and disillusionment with a company culture that supports, encourages, and tolerates overwhelm.

Second, the ramifications of burnout may begin to affect other parts of one’s life such as the quality of interactions with family and friends. Individuals who feel emotionally burned out have little emotional energy left to devote to anything else and set themselves up for depression and anxiety. This can lead to job instability as one searches for work that is more manageable with resultant instability in income leading to more depression and anxiety as bills continue to demand payment.

Lastly, the cumulative effects on one’s health may be dramatic as the immune system experiences stress. The individual’s energy level may drop, ill health may follow, and some HSPs may withdraw out of self-preservation. This withdrawal from life may prove quite difficult to emerge from as anxiety sets in about new positions. The HSP may also seek counseling and are often prescribed addictive medications and diagnosed with any number of disorders. With all of this is there an upside? How can we manage empathy so that it is a force for constructive purposes in our lives?

Empathy as advantage
The experience of empathy is certainly rife with challenges and surprises, yet there is a silver lining and empathy can be managed so that it is a positive in our lives. Let’s look at a few ways we can learn to manage empathy.
1. Developing an awareness of our propensity for being highly emotionally reactive to others other’s energies is key to managing overwhelm. Rather than wondering why we may feel so stressed around certain individuals now we know it is our high empathy that predisposes us toward overwhelm and we aren’t somehow “broken” or “defective.” Our high empathy is part of a likely survival strategy for the species as a whole. Highly empathetic individuals serve a purpose in every society and in every age. That purpose is entering the experience of other people, feeling the world through their eyes and hearts. In a single word compassion. Compassion is surely an advantage in any society where one does not desire a deep imbalance favoring one narrow interpretation of life.
2. Finding acceptance of our high empathy may take some time as we reconcile our lives and reflect on how we have managed our reactions to others. HSPs are simply people with a not so rare personality trait. We have to learn to forgive ourselves for our failings and accept that our high empathy is a proposition that includes a good and bad side. To do this we must move beyond societal conditioning which often tells us that any experience of negative emotion is abnormal and any deviation from an arbitrary social norm should make us alter our behavior. Own being highly empathetic in your own way! You are a treasure and have much to offer those around you and potentially the entire world.
3. Adapting our lives to manage our high empathy means we have to become very adept at learning to set and stick to boundaries. When we are in a situation where we are being lambasted by overwhelmingly negative energy we should withdraw or stop it before it progresses. This includes our own words and deeds. Being a reactive, emotionally charged individual is a challenge at best. Adapting our lives to being highly empathetic means we must choose the people in our lives in as much as possible. Many HSPs remain in jobs that are toxic to them for far longer than they should. For some this is a necessity and I do not suggest that they necessarily quit or seek other employment. The cold truth is some HSPs are stuck in their jobs with mobility not a possibility. In these cases the individual must become very good at self-care, which means they must get enough sleep, refrain from depleting their energies further off the job, and develop a spiritual practice that focuses their attention on something greater than themselves.Earth connected
By spiritual practice I mean any dedicated activities that provide one with a sense of peacefulness, calm, reflectiveness, or that allows one to focus on the activity at hand. This may organized religion, but may also very well be any activity that produces a similar effect such as walking or spending time in nature, riding a bike or motorcycle, swimming or spending time in the water, meditation (sitting or walking), exercise, yoga, or even a hobby that takes one out of normal experience and produces a sense of calm and mastery. The point is we HSPs must develop and maintain our physical, emotional, and spiritual health as if we are adhering to a religion. Self-care must become a spiritual practice for HSPs, not simply something we occasionally do when the weather is nice.
Adapting to being highly empathetic also means being willing to step outside our own comfort zones and take risks on interactions. The rewards of a positive interaction make any risk a high return investment. Unfortunately many HSPs report feeling that they need to protect themselves and rarely move beyond that space. In some cases this may be the best recourse, but one should always seek better conditions where well-functioning is a possibility.  empathy-rogers
If we successfully learn to become aware of our high empathy, accept that it is who we are, and set boundaries we can begin to effectively show up in the world as integrated beings who have a wonderful capacity for understanding of others, a compassion for providing the care so many people need, and we live our lives in a meaningful way that honors and respects our abilities.
A study I conducted in 2014 with 1,551 survey respondents indicated that the single biggest career field HSPs are in is the education field followed by creative fields, healthcare and human services, business management, IT, and STEM fields. In effect HSPs are in all professions, but seem to prefer the helping careers the most. As a college teacher I often reflect on the value of empathy when I look for ways to connect with a particularly distant student or design lessons that go deeper into the subject matter. HSPs make excellent teachers, excellent nurses and doctors, excellent leaders, excellent programmers and developers, and innovative engineers and creative types.
It’s not a matter of stifling our high empathy it’s more a matter of simply learning to effectively manage and harness its inherent potential for constructive purposes while acknowledging we are prone to being deeply affected in certain circumstances. High empathy can be managed and is a tremendous asset to the species. Learning to apply this approach to the working world is a bit more complex, but as we have seen HSPs already exist in all career fields at all levels. HSPs are not relegated to any career or type of work.
I highly recommend the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is exactly as it sounds, being aware of one’s life and how we react to the meditation_op_517events that take place within it. Mindfulness entreaties is to be aware of our breathing as a way of focusing our attention on our bodies rather than our minds. Being able to self-sooth is a critical skill for HSPs and observation of the breath, even for a few minutes, has been demonstrated in many studies to lower blood pressure and calm anxiety. Here is a link to a free eight week program of mindfulness training I recommend. Give it a try and see if it makes a difference in your life.
It is through developing a greater awareness of our potential that we can begin to set intentions to better them and, in doing so, better the lives of those around us. I consult with HSPs on the issue of high empathy in the workplace on a regular basis. I also offer informal mentoring for those who feel they need a transition structure to work within with accountability. To inquire about a consultation with me please click below for more information.
Dr. Tracy Cooper holds a Ph.D. in transformative studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He also holds a master’s degree in social science and a bachelor’s degree in social science and art studies.

The Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

The Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person
By Dr. Tracy Cooperbrain_toc

It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.”
– William James, The Will to Believe

There has been some discussion of late regarding the highly sensitive person (HSP). Many people are becoming aware of this personality trait through new books arriving on the market, new research papers finding publication in peer-reviewed academic journals, and a new documentary film set for release later this spring. With this new awareness there is a segment of the HSP population that is a bit different and worthy of study and explication, that of the high sensation seeker. Sensation seeking is a separate personality trait that approximately 30% of HSPs have. I identify as a sensation seeking HSP myself and have been encouraged to investigate this trait more as I continue my explorations of self-awareness, self-acceptance, and adaptation to a society that seems to marginalize those who do not seem to fit a predetermined range of normalcy. Having never been one to conform to societal expectations I instead determined to better understand how to flourish given who I am and what I am able to embody. In this article I will explain the origins behind sensation seeking and explain briefly how the two traits interact.
Sensation seeking
The personality trait known as sensation seeking was established through the work of researcher Marvin Zuckerman who has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals and published several books on the subject. (Zuckerman, Kolin, Price, & Zoob, 1964; Fulker, Eysenck, & Zuckerman, 1980; Zuckerman, 1964; 1969; 1971a; 2007; 2009). Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Scale has been reinterpreted a number of times emphasizing one aspect over another. His work established sensation seeking as a trait not given enough importance in “influencing many diverse kinds of human behavior.” (Zuckerman, 1994). The current conceptualization of sensation seeking is a “trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience.” (Zuckerman, 1994).
Many people quickly seize on the risk-taking aspect associated with one factor in sensation seeking101005171036-large (thrill and adventure seeking) as not like them, but Zuckerman described risk-taking as a “correlate not an essential part of the definition” (1994). His reasoning is based on the idea that sensation seekers accept or underestimate the risk in order to achieve the experience of the sensation. Once we understand this reasoning (and envision sensation seeking as other than risk-taking) sensation seeking becomes more accessible and potentially informative in our journeys toward self-awareness. In my current ongoing study of sensation seeking HSPs roughly 20% have described themselves as risk takers aligning themselves with thrill and adventure seeking. This minority of the emerging study prefers taking physical risks that provide a “kick” or thrill. Now, let’s look at the other three factors in sensation seeking.
– Experience or novelty seeking. Here the individual seeks out new or novel experiences simply for the sake of the experience itself. This may or may not entail some risk on the part of the individual. This need may be driven by strong curiosity and openness to new experiences. Additionally, sensation seeking has been shown to be strongly correlated to divergent thinking (creativity).
– Disinhibition. This aspect of sensation seeking involves a willingness to step outside societal MardiGrasGirlBeadsparameters in search of sensation. Individuals may participate in parties, have varied sexual partners or experiences, take drugs to facilitate altered states of consciousness, create euphoric moods, increase energy, and decrease boredom. Risk-taking may obviously be involved in this and in a way that was not apparent in our first discussion of risk-taking (as thrill seeking). Risk-taking and disinhibition may involve a calculated or miscalculated appraisal of the risk leading to legal, financial, personal, or emotional consequences. As part of the approach/observe paradigm disinhibition may serve as an activating mechanism that propels an individual forward to investigate regardless of the actual risk.
– Susceptibility to boredom. Inner states where the person feels like they are not stimulated within a boredompersonally defined range of optimal arousal may experience boredom. Boredom is an aversive state as well as an emotional one where one’s mood is decidedly down or trending toward the negative. For many sensation seekers boredom is a “worst enemy,” and one they will go to great lengths to avoid. A propensity toward boredom can have far-reaching effects in the person’s life on social, career, and relationship levels.
Combined together risk-taking, experience or novelty seeking, disinhibition, and susceptibility to boredom form a complex construct whereby the individual prefers intensity of experience, novelty, variety, and complexity. The trait is largely heritable, but moderated by early environment. Now let’s describe the highly sensitive person before attempting to synthesize the sensation seeking HSP.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity0249f50
The work of Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron forms the bulk of the research performed to date into SPS with their first major study taking place in 1997. Their initial foray intended to distinguish the personality characteristic of high sensitivity that comprised 50 percent of their patients. Proposing a new model of sensory processing sensitivity [SPS], Aron and Aron (1997) focused not on any difference in the sense organs themselves, but rather on the way that sensory information is processed in the brain. Pulling from the extensive research on introversion indicating differences in the way input is processed Aron and Aron (1997) suggested a greater capacity for reflection, attention, and discrimination. Further, they cited work on sensory sensitivity by other researchers, most notably Thomas and Chess (1977), who studied low sensory threshold in children, Fine (1972, 1973), who espoused the view that there are differences in sensitivity based on studies of color and weight discrimination tasks, and Mehrabian (1976, 1991) and Mehrabian and O’Reilly (1980), who connected arousability to sensitivity or openness. Establishing tentative links between Gray’s model of anatomical differences in the brain and research related to SPS, including Kagan (1994), Gunnar (1994), and Patterson and Newman (1993), Aron and Aron (1997) proposed a model of SPS that emphasized that a large minority of individuals may possess a greater psychobiological preference for input over output, for reflection over action, and greater consciousness of self and environment.
To research this, Aron and Aron (1997) conducted a series of seven studies designed to better understand the basic characteristics of self-described HSPs. Searching for a core pattern among those basic characteristics Aron and Aron (1997) sought the relation of those items to introversion and emotionality, possible sub-groups of HSPs, and SPS’s relation to childhood experience. Replicating results based on Eysenck (1981) and Mehrabian’s (1976) work, Aron and Aron (1997) developed the HSP scale and compared it to Eysenck’s EPI E scale and the Big Five’s measures of introversion and emotionality (Goldberg, 1990).
Results from these studies indicated that the construct of SPS is partially independent of introversion and emotionality. SPS is a unidimensional construct; SPS is not introversion and emotionality combined; one third of HSPs reported experiencing unhappy childhoods (especially males) with higher scores on introversion and emotionality; and the newly developed HSP scale is reliable with convergent and discriminatory validity (Aron & Aron, 1997). A later revision by Aron, Aron, and Davies (2005) reflected the importance of emotional reactivity in SPS with emotionality now more deeply embedded into the construct. Jaeger (2004) describes it as intensity with HSPs reacting emotionally to a greater degree than the situation may warrant.
The HSP then is an individual who is more emotionally reactive, who processes all experience more deeply in the brain, is highly empathetic, may be overstimulated by certain types of stimulation (on a highly individualized basis), and who is sensitive to subtle sensory stimulation. The HSP prefers to observe before acting, to reflect and plan before moving forward to investigate. The highly sensitive person is generally more concerned with their internal psychic processes than in the external world. It is important to note that 30% of HSPs are extraverts and to some degree make sense of their world through external means.
The question seems to suggest itself at this point: how can an individual who is seemingly designed to observe and think deeply coexist with a separate trait that prefers some degree of disinhibition, a propensity toward boredom, and a strong preference for novelty or new experiences that may involve some degree of risk-taking? A synthesis seems dichotomous at best.
The crossoverTrail-Sign-NHE-17485_300
The percentage of sensation seekers in the HSP population is estimated to be around 30%. My current research seems to tentatively back this estimate up. For the 30% of HSPs who are also sensation seekers life is in a constant see-saw motion between preferring, even needing, to seek out new and novel stimulation, while simultaneously feeling constrained by the HSP side that prefers to limit risk, carefully plan, and observe first. The push-pull dynamic has been described as having “one foot on the brake and one on the gas.” This metaphor accurately describes the concurrent dueling inner drives, though offering us little in the way of explanation concerning flourishing. For that let’s look to several components of sensory processing sensitivity and sensation seeking and how they may coexist.
– Curiosity/exploring. HSPs, due to their ability to notice subtleties before others may be curious individuals who are always exploring to some extent. In my survey 97% of participants strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I am curious about many things.”
– Creativity. HSPs are a very creative segment of the overall population. In two studies from 2014 I established and reinforced empirical links that indicated over 90% of participants in a qualitative study were creative and 87% of participants in a quantitative survey strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I am a creative person.”
– Boredom. In my survey 43% of participants strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I am easily bored.” This seems to indicate that boredom is a significant issue for HSPs and sensation seekers.
The sensation seeking HSP may embody the above qualities with no disruption or tension between the separate traits as both coexist. The real tension may arise when the sensation seeker invokes disinhibition involving risk-taking. This may negatively stimulate the sensitive side who fears the consequences and impulsivity. What may often happen is the sensation seeking side may overrule the sensitive side. This may carry a real personal, emotional, or legal consequence in addition to exhaustion. Many sensation seeking HSPs report problems with exhaustion when the sensation seeking side is indulged too much.
Peaceful coexistence of the two traits in one person is entirely possible, but it does require a deep awareness of one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and a commitment to a certain amount of moderation. When a successful balance is established the sensation seeking HSP may experience the best of both worlds by embodying a sense of exploration coupled with an appropriate inhibiting mechanism. The suggestion has been made by some that the correlate can be made between sensation seeking HSPs and extraversion. In my current study over 90% of participants have identified as more introverted than extraverted. Moreover, a sensation seeking HSP may be very good at appearing to be an extravert (though they may be more introverted) as they seek out novelty and new experiences. They do appear similar in outgoingness, but participants thus far have emphasized their preference for their inner worlds and a strong need for rest and self-care to avoid exhaustion. In my experience there is a daily energy “budget” one has that may be depleted at a controlled rate throughout the day or all at once in an exciting activity like attending a play or other social function.
Evolutionary basis for the traitsfish-swims-opposite-direction
The function of personality traits within the human species follows the evolutionary pattern of challenges from nature, food pressures, and subsequent needs for expansion of territory for new populations. Traits arise as there is a need and stick around until another trait displaces them. The genetic basis for sensation seeking suggests that it served a purpose 50 or 100,000 years ago (the length of time the gene behind sensation seeking has been estimated to have formed) in enabling the species to survive. Traits do not easily disappear from the scene once established because nature tends to favor the simplicity of variations on a theme, rather than complete reinvention.
Sensation seeking was – and may still be – an advantage for those with the trait. For those with the drive to explore, create, experience new and novel stimulation the rewards may not only be the dopamine infusion in the brain, but discovery of new technologies, new ideas, and new processes. However, it would make no sense for all of the species to be high in sensation seeking. Indeed in such a scenario there would be little stability as too many individuals would not possess the inherent stability to staff all of society’s needs! Instead nature balances high and low sensation seekers and diminishes high sensation seeking as one grows older. In times when there seem to be no new frontiers, no new and novel stimulation it is more likely those individuals high in the trait will turn to disinhibition, thrill and adventure seeking in search of their sensations or optimal level of arousal. It’s likely no coincidence that literally thousands of people signed up for a one way trip to Mars on the Mars One Initiative! Sensation seekers would probably always be the first to volunteer for anything new and interesting (even if it meant a one way trip to another planet).
Sensory processing sensitivity represents the opposite pole of the approach/observe paradigm. HSPs in an ancient world would likely be more inclined to stay back and observe before moving forward to investigate. HSPs prefer to plan carefully before acting on an impulse. The HSP is a finely tuned organism capable of exquisite awareness of stimuli. Because of that sensitivity in the ancient world HSPs were able to fill a multitude of roles. Just as in the modern world HSPs are distributed across the spectrum of careers and disciplines it is likely that HSPs (and SPS) served to enhance the survivability of the species by embodying deep thinking, careful planning, creativity, high empathy, and an ability to notice subtleties before others. As for sensation seeking the modern world may seem like it devalues those who do not fit a narrow range of normalcy, but nature does not quickly dispatch personality traits on the basis of arbitrary social norms.
The challenge for sensation seeking HSPs is finding ways to successfully modulate their needs for the new and novel with needs for caution and self-care. When a reasonable balance is struck between sensation seeking and high sensitivity the result can be a dynamically charged individual capable of immense creative and intellectual efforts.
There are larger implications for human flourishing inherent in this research.
– First, our educational system is in need of greater sensitivity to individual differences. If we can have choices in every other aspect of our lives (infinite choices of color, size, make and model) why is education still embracing a one-size-fits-all approach where mediocrity is too often the result?
– Second, if HSPs serve a larger function in society as proverbial canaries in the coal mine – due to their ability to notice subtleties before others – what are they telling us and how should we reform society in ways that push the boundaries for what is “acceptable” in terms of a range of behaviors.
– Third, HSS/HSPs do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they live amongst the rest of society at every level of career and station in life. HSS/HSPs as highly creative individuals with a natural drive to explore and experience embody great potential within society for betterment if they are recognized as such and supported.
– Lastly, the percentage of individuals who report feeling they have had great difficulty living up to their full potential seems to suggest a need to reform society in ways that provide better early education, especially with regard to emotional intelligence. Helping HSS/HSPs know themselves better may help them set more realistically attainable goals and be more resilient when they fall short of their own high standards.
An article of this length can only hope to open the dialog on sensation seeking HSPs and is by no means exhaustive. Further research is needed that addresses the HSS/HSP population directly on multiple levels. There seems to be tremendous potential in better understanding and appreciating the HSS/HSP. It is hoped that this development of a greater understanding will result in changes at the personal, family, and societal levels to ensure every person is best supported in reaching his full potential.


Dr. Cooper offers one-on-one consulting for the highly sensitive person on the topics of career and the sensation seeking HSP. His web site may accessed at the address below.

Aron, A., & Aron, E. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 345-368.
Aron, E., Aron, A., & Davies, K. (2005). Adult shyness: The interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 181-197.
Aron, A., Aron., E., & Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 262-282.
Fine, B. (1972). Field-dependent introvert and neuroticism: Eysenck and Witkin united. Psychological Reports, 31, 939-956.
Fine, B. (1973). Field-dependence-independence as “sensitivity” of the nervous system: Supportive evidence with color and weight discrimination. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 37, 287-295.
Fulker, D., Eysenck, S., & Zuckerman, M. (1980). A genetic and environmental analysis of sensation seeking. Journal of Research in Personality, 14, 261-281.
Goldberg, L. (1990). An alternative description of personality: The Big Five factor structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1216-1229.
Gunnar, M.R. (1994). Psychoendocrine studies of temperament and stress in early childhood: Expanding current models. In J. Bates & T. Wachs (Eds.), Temperament: Individual differences at the interface of biology and behavior (pp. 175-198). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Jaeger, B. (2004). Making work work for the highly sensitive person. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Kagan, J. (1994). Galen’s prophecy: Temperament in human nature. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Mehrabian, A. (1976). Manual for the questionnaire measure of stimulus screening and arousability. (Unpublished manuscript.) University of California, Los Angeles.
Mehrabian, A. (1991). Outline of a general emotion-based theory of temperament. In J. Strelan & A. Angleitner (Eds.), Explorations in temperament: International perspectives on theory and measurement (pp. 75-86). New York: Plenum.
Mehrabian, A., & O’Reilly, E. (1980). Analysis of personality measures in terms of basic dimensions of temperament. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(3), 492-503.
Patterson, C., & Newman, J. (1993). Reflectivity and learning from aversive events: Toward a psychological mechanism for the syndromes of disinhibition. Psychological Review, 100(4), 716-736.
Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Zuckerman, M. (1969). Theoretical formulations. In J.P. Zubek (Ed.), Sensory deprivation: fifteen years of research. Appleton-Century, New York, NY.
Zuckerman, M. (1971a). Dimensions of sensation seeking. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 36, 45-52.
Zuckerman, M. (1983). Biological bases of sensation seeking, impulsivity and anxiety. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY
Zuckerman, M. (2008). Sensation seeking and risky behavior. American Psychological Association, Washington D.C.
Zuckerman, M. (2009). Sensation seeking. In M. Leary and R. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior. (pp. 455-465). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
Zuckerman, M., Kolin, I., Price, L., & Zoob, I. (1964). Development of a sensation seeking scale. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 28, 477-482.

The Late Blooming HSP

The Late Bloomer
Dr. Tracy Cooper

Beautiful-Blooming-Flowers-Pictures-And-WallpapersAre you someone who never seemed to quite find your stride in life until later? If so you may be one of many late bloomers and you might be surprised to learn that being a late bloomer may be more common among highly sensitive people (HSPs) than the rest of the population.
As with many stories the tale of the late bloomer usually begins in childhood. Many HSPs grow up in unsupportive households where one or more parent(s) fail to provide adequate nurturing, care, and acceptance of their child. For any child this may be strongly negative, but for the HSP child this lack of support may be devastating. Highly sensitive people process all stimulation more deeply in the brain including negativity and lack of support. For the HSP child non-support in childhood may become a literal handicap.chaotic-chidlhood-642x263
Beyond being unsupportive one’s childhood may also contain trauma and/or abuse. For the HSP trauma and abuse need not have been severe to have deep and lasting effects because the intensity of the experience likely made a profound impact on the child. Victims of abuse, neglect, trauma, and unsupportive households may experience lowered self-esteem, a lower sense of self-efficacy, and an external locus of control. Not to mention anxiety, depression, and a fear of venturing out into the world.
Complexity of Mind
Highly sensitive people, by nature, are individuals who notice more in general. This broader focus and more intense scrutiny has been demonstrated on visual tasks where it was found that HSPs spend more time looking at a scene than do non-HSPs. This time spent observing and gathering information may enable the HSP to subscribe less to a black/white scenario and more to one that is tolerant of ambiguity, gray areas, and less definitive outcomes. HSPs are often idea people who prefer to use their strong intuition to see linkages between ideas and to create new theories.

Most HSPs are also highly creative people. Creative not in the sense of producing an end product. Rather creative in the sense of finding new solutions to problems. There is a misnomer surrounding the definition of creativity. It’s a popular notion in our society that creativity is only for the creative. In fact creativity is inherent in the human species. Everyone can be creative, but when we narrow the definition to producing end products typically in the arts it means much less and is limited to a select segment of the population. HSPs naturally entertain ambiguity. We like to ask the question “what if,” “I wonder,” and “why is?”
creative-mindConcurrent with creativity is a strong sense of curiosity. Many HSPs are very curious individuals who like to explore and learn about new places, things, and people. In spite of our reputation for introversion (and some 70% of us lean that way) we are also intensely curious about people and enjoy observing them. We HSPs are observant to a high degree and will often study a scene for a period of time before checking it out. As part of the approach/observe paradigm we are the observers.


Sense of Direction
Thus far I have described two groups of HSPs. One that experienced childhood trauma, neglect or abuse, and another group that is intensely curious, creative and interested in many things. One may be a part of both groups, of course, with the main difference being the sense of security one experiences as new avenues are explored and investigated. Those that experienced unsupportive, chaotic, or abusive backgrounds may feel less inclined or free to venture out and explore life. Those from supportive backgrounds just the opposite. Either group may contain a number of late bloomers.
Society asks of us that we choose a career direction very early in life before many of us have had a chance to explore. HSPs may not feel ready to commit to a direction at 18 years old and wish to explore life more. HSPs have a strong need to be involved in activities that have deep meaning and the potential to positively impact others’ lives. HSPs strongly dislike superficiality and shallow interactions. Even with these preferences HSPs like everyone else have to make a living and most choose one career or another with varying results.
Due to the vagaries of ordinary life (bills that we all have to satisfy for even a minimum quality of life) much time may be spent in a seemingly endless treadmill of daily work. During this time, which may be years, even decades, most HSPs continue their pursuits of personal interests and may even perhaps change careers or jobs at key points in their lives. It is not until mid-life, however, that many HSPs seem to reach a point where they feel less constrained by societal expectations and freer to pursue their true passions.

Finding One’s Authentic Self
We are all aware of the proverbial “midlife crisis” usually identified with males experiencing some manCar_1564226csense of loss of youth and desperately trying to recapture that fleeting vision by pretending to be young again. With HSPs the midlife crisis is more of a coming to one’s true identity than trying to recapture a lost sense of youth. For HSPs it may take decades of lived experiences to simply know oneself! This may entail much in the way of difficult and turbulent relationships, jobs and careers that flounder or go nowhere, and feelings of having worked beneath one’s true potential.
At some point in the lives of many HSPs they find that they simply cannot continue to subscribe to a socially constructed notion of life that is inherently limiting, narrow in scope, and fundamentally not designed for broad-minded, open, curious, creative, sensitive, and expansive individuals. Not all HSPs fit this description, of course, many are more content to work within a known structure that breeds less anxiety and tension. Those individuals may be late in blooming also, or even fail to bloom, because they place more significance on avoiding anxiety and change than embracing it. We are all different as HSPs and each of us has to travel a uniquely individual path.
Regardless of our inclinations toward growth most highly sensitive people probably have a fairlyauthenticity-in-branding high degree of what Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski termed “developmental potential,” or innate growth potential due to certain tendencies for “overexcitabilties,” or OEs. OEs come in five categories: emotional, intellectual, sensual, imaginational, and psychomotor. HSPs have a personality trait called sensory processing sensitivity or SPS. One of the primary drivers of SPS is emotionality. We experience stimulation an emotion flares and that promotes the deep processing in the brain. It’s likely that most HSPs are high in emotionality. Similarly most HSPs, as previously described, have a natural complexity of mind, including the intellect and are curious, broad and open-minded individuals. Check again on imaginational, or creative, and we have a picture encompassing the three OEs that Dabrowski believed were necessary for one to have high developmental potential.
If HSPs are indeed high in developmental potential there will be an innate drive to develop that will push them onward regardless of their situations. Dabrowski believed that for those with high developmental potential circumstances could support the development of higher levels of personality or hinder it, but for those high in developmental potential they would develop regardless of whether the situation and circumstances were supportive or not though those in supportive circumstances would obviously fair better.
I am proposing here that many HSPs are likely high in developmental potential and may also find themselves in unsupportive circumstances at work, home, and in their early lives. These conditions may inhibit the ability of many HSPs to reach a point in life where they are able to engage their true capacities and feel as if they have reached their potential. Later in life these circumstances may be vastly different due to divorce, loss of a career, children leaving the home, change of worldview, etc.
The Opportunity
Midlife may be a time for most people to shake up their life patterns and do something different, but this is especially true for the HSP. HSPs may simply not find their voices until midlife! Once HSPs have developed an awareness of their personality trait and learned to find acceptance of it within themselves they are then open to the possibilities life may have. If HSPs can successfully adapt their lives to fit themselves rather than fit themselves to societal expectations their lives are open to a full range of possibilities limited only by their abilities and willingness to engage their capacities.
Being a late bloomer means that you do not necessarily subscribe to the traditional notion of retirement. That concept was born out of another age when most people’s bodies were physically worn down by decades of physically laborious work and life expectancies were much shorter. Today one can expect to live, in general, into the 70s barring some illness or accident. Many people today are saved by surgeries or medications not available to previous generations. Instead of thinking about aging and dying we should be thinking about reinvention and living!

Time to Re-Invent - Clock
The opportunity for a late bloomer is to do meaningful work of their choosing on their own timetable and of a duration limited only by interest. Midlife and beyond frees many people of the need to chase materialistic notions or feel as if they must satisfy the expectations of others. Midlife is a time when we can please ourselves and be what we feel are our most authentic selves!
If you are a late bloomer, like me, I invite you to explore your passions, venture forth into the world, feel free to embrace who and what you naturally are. In doing so you will be healthier, feel less stress, feel more whole in body and soul, and live your life in its fullest expression.
Along the way you may well encounter other people who will put you down for doing something different later in life. Learn to feel compassion for those people because they have truly become old and lost their passion for life. Embrace who you are and who you have always been even if life has stood in your way with its incessant demands. Be your most authentic self and let your light shine out to everyone unapologetically and unabashedly.
This article only touches the surface of a number of topics and much more could be written about paths to self-awareness and self-acceptance. In future blog posts I will address those points and more.

resizedDr. Tracy Cooper is an independent HSP researcher, a higher education professional, and a consultant on HSPs and careers and the high sensation seeking HSP. His web site can be found at the address below.