The current popularity of concepts like grit, hardiness, and mental toughness seem determined to popularize the notion that if we only learn to suppress the finer parts of ourselves that feel, think, and thoroughly plan we can live up to an illusion of “toughness.” Applying the conceptualization of mental toughness to highly sensitive people in this post I carefully examine the major aspects of mental toughness and suggest ways Sensory Processing Sensitivity not only may provide certain advantages but may be uniquely suited to the overall description of mental toughness.
Mental toughness might be interpreted as stigmatizing sensitivity but let’s look at the definitions from two major groups of researchers:
“Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.” (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002, p. 209).
Here, the part about being “more consistent and better than your opponents…in control under pressure” could as well apply to sensitive people as not. We know that many sensitive people make fantastic performers (including in sports). While we may not be the most vocal of people all the time when we choose to step into the spotlight we may have spent a great deal of time thoroughly considering the nuance of a given task or role before performing.
This more thorough processing (considering of pitfalls, risks, etc..) would actually place sensitive people at an advantage over those without the trait. Similarly, being in control “under pressure” would be more likely the more thoroughly we have considered the ways it could all go wrong. It is true that sensitive people do less well when being observed performing a task but I think that is generally due to absorbing the judgemental energy we might feel in such a situation and being unpleasantly stimulated by such energy. It’s just as likely a sensitive person would be able to ignore that energy as not because we are so variable in how express the trait. It is a huge disservice to all sensitive people to generalize what we may be like in a given circumstance.
Performance depends on the individual with each individual choosing to react differently. Moreover, “remaining determined, focused, and confident” does not seem to imply that sensitive people would be less so than anyone else. Determination is primarily a measure of commitment to completing a task. Sensitive people are known to exhibit a deep sense of conscientiousness thus we would be more likely than average to want/need to complete any task we undertake. Within that determination sensitive people are also known to be able to focus quite intently on the task at hand and would likely do well at remaining focused unless distractions arose that served to interrupt that intense focus. We do focus better in reasonably distraction-free situations which if you consider the nature of many sports (especially individual sports like running, golf, archery, cycling) allows the individual to control his environment or at least to work within a controlled environment (quiet golf course, minimal noise from observers, etc..).
Confidence is another matter and arises as a matter of feeling that we are matched to the task (not overly so), that we find the task interesting in some sense, and that we are intrinsically motivated. When these align any person (sensitive or not) would feel a fair degree of confidence.
“Mental toughness in Australian Football is a collection of values, attitudes, behaviors, and emotions that enable you to persevere and overcome any obstacle, adversity, or pressure experienced, but also to maintain concentration and motivation when things are going well to consistently achieve your goals. — Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2008, p. 278”
This conceptualization of values, attitudes, behaviors, and emotions is quite different in that values attitudes, behaviors, and emotions are primarily a product of culture. Culture imparts to us everything from what it means to be male or female to what emotions that culture has defined as acceptable to express (including behaviors). As such, how sensitive people would perform under such a construct would depend on how deeply ingrained they are in a culture and how much they choose to subscribe to notions of acceptability for each aspect.
Many sensitive people prefer to live outside the norms (not necessarily by choice) because they inherently occupy a greater possible range of emotional expression and potential behaviors than in those without the trait. In a sense, it is probable that sports (and many other activities) demand a specific range of behaviors that are associated with a lack of emotional expression (not just on the outside but a suppression of emotion inside) that sensitive people find to be superficial and limiting.
This is not true for all sensitive people of course and I am sure many find sports to be a way to decrease stress, increase dopamine, and enjoy the outdoors. There is also the potential for any task to become a flow experience which is always a plus. If there were one aspect of the above model I think sensitive people might struggle with it would be suppression of feeling emotion. We do feel emotions quite deeply and that leads to a need to cognitively process those feelings (and the myriad thoughts that often arise) quite thoroughly.
We sensitive people are very good at learning from the past (or should be by the way the trait is conceptualized) with emotions serving as the cognitive triggering mechanism leading to thorough processing in the brain. Nevertheless, sensitive people who have matured and lived long enough may be as adept at understanding why they’re feeling an emotion (and subsequently thinking it over or not) as anyone else. Sensitive people who have not learned how to process their emotions and control how they react may be at a disadvantage.
How we process emotions is determined by a number of factors but I’ll focus on just our historical precedent for dealing with emotion. For those sensitive people who learned early in life that others are not to be trusted (people who have suffered abuse, neglect, trauma) processing strong emotions may always pose a challenge because their brain architecture (hard-wiring) is different due to trauma and the need to remain hypervigilant to avoid injury or threat. When we are hypervigilant the fight or flight response is prematurely activated, we intuitively leap to conclusions and react before thinking it over. In that regard, and for those sensitive people with a traumatic background who have not sought effective healing and recovery, the ability to process emotion (including how we react) may be impaired making them less able to encounter strong emotions and address them with an effective skillset. That being said, I have encountered a number of sensitive people from such backgrounds who perform in professions such as nursing where patients die in front of them and they do as well or better than others. Perhaps they are able to compartmentalize emotions or possess a dedication to being conscientious or simply are more accustomed to dealing with high intensity situations and do not register the depth of feeling for the moment. It is a strange paradox.
Overall, mental toughness as a cumulative construct does not seem to denigrate Sensory Processing Sensitivity if we consider each aspect of the two constructs carefully. On a superficial level, we might assume “sensitive” people would be fragile, unstable, or less capable of handling demanding circumstances but that would be a gross overgeneralization that cannot possibly apply to over a billion people (15-20% of the overall population).
It is imperative to bear in mind that any personality trait may only represent a possible set of potential behaviors. One thing we know from human history is that anyone is capable of anything at any given time, thus limiting our ability to categorize sensitive people in a lesser category when it concerns potential performance or mental toughness. It is also worth noting that sensitive people’s broader possible range of feeling, internal processing, and behaviors uniquely qualify us as more capable than those without the trait (in some ways) because we may simply move further down the continuum of possible behaviors in a given circumstance and display adaptive behaviors.
All personality traits were evolved to solve two problems: problems of survival and problems of reproduction. Sensory Processing Sensitivity has some obvious advantages in greater attention to details (especially visual), greater empathy (being able to read other people), thorough processing of stimulation before taking action (think first act later), and greater emotional responsiveness in general (always felt but not necessarily acted on). Keep in mind that a personality trait need not have provided a massive advantage to have escaped the evolutionary sieve. Even a minor advantage might have enabled the continuation of a trait and they still exist simply because nothing better has evolved to replace them. Nature also works by varying a theme, not reinventing the wheel every time. The binary quality of two eyes, two hands, two legs (in all their variations in animals, fish, birds) simply adapts a theme.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity provided an advantage to our ancestors in survivability and reproduction and still exists today though in specific cultural contexts today that may inhibit or limit its effective expression. Culture is the water a fish swims in without knowing it is in water. We exist within culture and espouse views we are sure are our own but are largely products of cultural conditioning. Mental toughness is such a construct that is rooted in the western societal notion of efficiency, productivity, and perseverance at the cost of our humanity. Certainly, it is important to exhibit goal persistence in striving to achieve but it is precisely through the very qualities that highly sensitive people embody in the trait that we may reach those goals.
Jones, G.; Hanton, S.; Connaughton, D. (2002). “What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers“. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 14 (3): 205–218. doi:10.1080/10413200290103509
Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Cooper provides consulting services to those in career crisis and transition at his website: drtracycooper.com.