Tracy Cooper, Ph.D.
“All highly sensitive people are crybabies.” “All HSPs are easily offended.” “No HSP could possibly enjoy fireworks because of the explosions!” These blanket statements, and a hundred other homogenizing assumptions, seem to proliferate discussions in HSP forums on social media and in general as awareness increases of sensory processing sensitivity, the underlying personality trait people termed highly sensitive people (or HSPs) identify with. Do most of these generalizations have some basis in a kernel of truth? Yes, most do, but what there is no consensus for is a set list of characteristics beyond the popular DOES acronym for describing the four main aspects of sensory processing sensitivity. In this brief post I will examine some of the social and psychological processes we are engaging in when we attempt to generalize one characteristic to an entire group.
In-Groups and Out-Groups
It is likely that, in our ancestral past, it proved beneficial to be able to determine which individuals held things in common with us and which did not. By aligning ourselves with those we felt commonalities with we formed coalitions. These coalitions and alliances may have been short-term, as for a hunting party where labor and skill were necessary for success, or longer-term, as for establishing ties and bonds with neighboring groups that could lessen the potential for violence and mistrust, while increasing potential allies in a pinch.
Concurrent with this tendency was the othering of people we did not identify with. These were out-group members. As members of an out-group our natural tendency was to homogenize them, while thinking of our in-group as more diverse. In actuality this is usually not the case and can lead to groupthink, which is a situation groups of individuals can get into where people no longer raise objections, present countering viewpoints, or consider the consequences of their actions in favor of group conformity.
For the many HSP communities there has been an increasing trend, so it seems, to cast members of any one group as all alike. “NONE of us can stand fireworks because we’re all highly sensitive!” But, is this true? I personally enjoy fireworks, especially the loud booms, the louder the better. Does this mean I’m not an HSP? Does this mean that over one billion people, we are 15-20% of the total population, cower and shrink back from fireworks? Of course it doesn’t. It is likely as many HSPs LOVE fireworks as do not. There’s no way to know unless we poll a significant number of random HSPs. So why do we feel so compelled to assume all of us are alike? Moreover why do we attempt to coerce other HSPs into conformity?
We have all had experiences with the 80% of the population who do not possess the trait. After all we live among them, work with them, and may be married to them and have children who are “them.” Certainly for people who are strongly emotional, a key aspect of sensory processing sensitivity, dealing with those who do not have the trait can be exasperating and lead to lumping them together as a singular group of “non-HSPs,” but that very term “non-HSPs” automatically casts the billions of other humans on the planet into an out-group category. There is no more consensus regarding the behaviors of those without the trait than those with the trait. Behaviors are influenced by a number of factors and are context dependent meaning how we choose to act and react in a given situation. For instance, an HSP may react very strongly or not at all depending on the context. So how is it that an HSP can tolerate fireworks when we are “supposed” to be easily overstimulated? Doesn’t that make us all like a room full of cats just waiting for a shoe to hit the floor?
In my latest book, Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, I described the concept of HSPs as being individuals capable of exhibiting a broader range of possible behaviors than in those without the trait. This tendency, or more appropriately capability, means we have a larger number of possible behaviors that we may exhibit in any given context, not that we will. Even complex, deep thinking and feeling people may choose to not react when the stimulation is of their own choosing. In such circumstances, when we consciously choose the stimulation, we are prepared for the accompanying booms that go with attending a fireworks show or celebration. In that sense we probably override our feeling instinct and enjoy ourselves to an extent not possible in those without the trait. The same concept would apply to ANY stimulation we consciously choose.
Many HSPs probably enjoy a good day in the city touring art museums, eateries, and cultural offerings. Just as many probably prefer a quiet day at the beach lost in their own thoughts while they browse for shells or enjoy the communion with nature. Another example, many HSPs react in a visceral way at certain types of noises. I have a major issue with restaurants where people crunch chips loudly like breaking glass, or rattling noises, such as candy wrappers. At other times I can be completely oblivious to otherwise irritating, possibly infuriating noises. I know some HSPs who react to noises, such as described above, in a far more aggressive way, occasionally making a public scene at the “offender.” Some of those same HSPs may be totally fine with horror movies, which may be full of surprise moments and graphic violence. It comes back to a matter of choice. When we choose the stimulation we are more likely to be more tolerant. When it is forced on us we may react quite differently, and, yes, an enraged HSP can be an ugly, irrational spectacle.
When we think of stimulation as being either chosen or forced on us we can see how we may presume that all HSPs prefer quiet, reflective conditions, but nothing could be farther from the truth. We might also cast people without the trait as completely insensitive, unfeeling, or non-empathetic. Nothing is further from the truth again. Non-HSPs may react the same way in any given circumstance. It’s not as if they don’t register the stimulation, they just aren’t as sensitive and do not experience the quick, deep emotions that we often do.
To categorize, homogenize, and overgeneralize is to create an oversimplification of others that is reductive, simplistic, and ignores the reality that HSPs are not a separate group of humans who should live apart from everyone else in some secluded, noise-free environment. HSPs vary as much as the rest of the population. Some are very nice, others are as disagreeable and pessimistic as one can imagine. There is no one singular mold from which all HSPs are cast. Each of our individual psyches consist of genetic, environmental, and choice specific influences. How we react in a given circumstance is as varied as the wind.
Celebrating and Preserving Diversity
The trend toward homogenization of HSPs is likely to continue as people seek commonality. Interestingly HSPs may be as driven by human instincts as anyone else, in spite of their own perceived “differentness.” Many HSPs have reported feeling different than others throughout their lives. It is ironic that in our diversity we seek to homogenize that natural variety into a compact, limiting HSP “mold.” Instead I challenge each of us to celebrate our diversity by NOT succumbing to the tendency to lump us all together and express that in public. There is a real consequence to such homogenization.
When we subscribe to the notion of group similarity we limit the ability of people who may be new to exploring sensory processing sensitivity to effectively identify exactly what it means to be an HSP. It’s difficult enough to sift through each of the four aspects of sensory processing sensitivity: depth of processing of all stimuli, overstimulation in certain circumstances, high empathy and emotional reactivity, and sensitivity to subtle stimuli,without the smoke screen of homogenization that seems to be obscuring a marginally rare personality trait shared by over one billion people worldwide.
Instead I propose, and advocate for, a simple acknowledgement of our inherent diversity, a beautiful diversity of artists, lovers, healers, impassioned educators, activists, and a thousand other blends of human energy and effort. Let’s celebrate our diversity, while acknowledging we still live within a larger group of people. I contend that our mission is not to separate ourselves, rather it is to embody what it means to be capable of a broader range of thoughts and actions than others. This is a tremendous strength, not a weakness. Each of us, in our own unique way, needs to express what it means to be us in our lives in as much as we are capable. It means nothing to be highly sensitive if we do nothing except seek commonality, which is actually conformity. When we seek radical commonality we imitate teenagers who claim diversity, yet all wear similar clothes, speak a similar language with fad expressions (group specific jargon), and ultimately, in spite of our efforts to find diversity in our commonality, appear homogeneous to those who are outside their group.
I think it is highly useful to learn how HSPs may be alike, especially when one is new to exploring the trait, but then the best approach, and the one that may best preserve individual diversity, is to work on expressing who we are in highly individual ways. It is through our expression of differentness in the world that we serve the purpose of alerting others to thinking and experiencing life in new ways in a time of increasing polarization and narrow thought. This is of deep value to all of humankind.
The Commodification of the HSP
There is another aspect to homogenization that will occur over time for HSPs. Western society, being generally driven by the profit motive, aims to sell products and services to groups of people, based on like preferences. It’s likely that as the marketplace gathers increasing amounts of data they will incorporate advertising psychology to attempt to understand how best to market their products. This process of using psychology to market to consumers has been in place since the middle of the 20th century and began with Edward Bernays, who began the practice of using the social sciences to manipulate and influence how we think, feel, and act. Bernay’s said “”If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.” (Propaganda, 2005 ed., p. 71.) He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the “engineering of consent.”
It is inevitable that as soon as business gets a whiff of profit from HSPs the floodgates will open to forming and shaping of public opinion, even in individuals supposedly as broad-minded as HSPs. We serve as pawns to the market when we self-describe as one set group of people with a definable set of characteristics. I certainly would have no problem if the built environment would take a few cues from those of us who may prefer public design that incorporates more people friendly use of spaces, but I do not welcome marketing to HSPs based on faulty understandings of who we are.
I think it is true that we HSPs can usually read between the lines in advertising, due to our strong empathy and scrutiny, and it might prove comedic to view television commercials advertising cure-all products for HSPs, but, no doubt, people will be victimized by scammers and unscrupulous producers of useless products and services. If I advocate for one central view in this discussion it would be skepticism to any claims of homogeneity among HSPs.