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" A good traveller has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving "

Lao Tzu

Highly Sensitive People – Tea with Philip 12

February 26th, 2018

Over the last two weeks we have looked at the issue of solitude – its downsides and upsides and the ways in which spiritual and psychological approaches might help us. This is what really interests me: how we can combine these two approaches – the psychological and the spiritual to really help us grow and flourish.

With the problem of feeling isolated or alone, I suggested one approach drawn from psychology – paradoxical intention – and one drawn from spirituality: a meditation where we opened to our interrelationship with all of life. Lets do the same thing now with another issue: sensitivity.

Many of us will be following a spiritual path because we want to develop our sensitivity – we want to become more sensitive – to subtle energies, the Otherworld, inner guides, Nature, Deity. But there are also people who feel they are already sensitive to these things – super-sensitive to the spiritual dimension. And there are people who feel that generally in life they are highly sensitive – not necessarily to otherworldly things, but to everyday things like sensory stimuli – noise, smells, crowds, or to other people’s emotions or needs. They might always avoid violent movies, find they cry a lot, or feel abnormally empathic.

If you feel this way, you are not alone. Some psychologists believe there is a category of people whom they call ‘Highly Sensitive’ and who possess an innate trait they have termed Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The movie trailer that follows introduces you to the idea.

You can take a test online to see if you might be an HSP here.

The interesting point is this: if you have always been considered highly sensitive, you might well have felt or have been told to ‘toughen up’, and you might have felt your sensitivity was due to emotional and psychological factors, but Elaine Aaron, the shrink who developed HSP theory and whose book The Highly Sensitive Person has struck such a chord it has sold a million copies, assures us that SPS is rooted in our biology – and that makes sense to me – after all the nervous system is immensely complex, and the idea that some people’s nervous systems are more sensitive than others seems reasonable. Perhaps that old term ‘highly strung’ wasn’t off the mark after all. Apparently tests have been done on many animal species and a similar percentage (around 20%) have been found to have SPS.

So it’s not confined to humans, it’s evenly distributed by gender, and it’s not another way to talk about introverts as opposed to extraverts, because 30% of HSPs are extraverts.

Wikipedia tells us: ‘By 2015 the trait had been documented at various levels of study, including temperament and behavior, brain function and neuronal sensitization, and genetics. For example, genetic studies provide evidence that higher levels of SPS are linked to the serotonin transporter 5-HTTLPR short/short genotype, polymorphisms in dopamine neurotransmitter genes, and the ADRA2b norepinephrine-related gene variant.’

So it really does seem a valid categorisation, and it’s of interest if we are studying the spiritual life, because (a) a prime injunction of that life is to ‘Know Thyself’, which is why all of psychology is subsumed, in my view, within the compass of Spirituality, and (b) the question arises – how should I relate to this trait in myself and in others?

There’s a good TED talk about this, which I’ll paste in here. One of the key messages in it is: don’t try to toughen up yourself or the HSP (who may be your child). Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are abnormal. As Krishnamurti said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Maybe those of us who are less sensitive could do well to become more sensitive. Imagine how much less brutality there would be in the world.

The Highly Sensitive Person needs time alone, needs to accept and be proud of being sensitive – not seeing it as a weakness, and in addition to these basic psychological approaches, HSPs often find that spiritual practices like retreats and meditation are balms to their souls too.

In our Tea session, shown at the top of this post, we try a meditation together that helps us access a sense of calm, while also creating a clear sense of a boundary for us. I would be very interested to hear how you experienced this meditation, and whether you identify as an HSP.

Finally, you might like this song, which in the film Sensitive Alanis Morisette said she composed as a sort of prayer, hiding in a cupboard when she felt overwhelmed with the house being filled with people. I find it very moving and healing.

15 Responses to “Highly Sensitive People – Tea with Philip 12”

  1. The theory of Madame Aaron and the speech up above reminded me of a man i met on the Tor hillside many years ago…
    We talked for a few hours, then he opened up, and explained how difficult it was for him to relate to men and women…..Misunderstood when in awe for something beautifull or scorned when trying to avoid conflicts etc. He was also very concerned with the pressure society put on men: to be the care provider for the family…the strong figure that solves problems….the Patriarche..I had never met a peer so in tune and conscious of his feelings…of his being…

    Twenty years have passed since then and today i discover the term HSP and it even has a scientific explanation to it !!!

    I would dare to say that the seeds of the collective heart are blossoming to the physical world …..
    We are living an amazing time…..50 % men….50% women….100% Human !!!

    Thank you for sharing lights and keys….

    • Yes it’s so good that more and more light is being shone on the extraordinary nature of the human being! And I agree that the fact that it’s evenly spread across the genders is interesting too!

  2. I wonder what percentage of HSPs get migraines? It’s 10% of the general population, but I bet it’s much higher for HSPs.
    This topic was good to learn about. My mother tended to criticize me for being too sensitive, so I feel stronger knowing it’s partly a blessing. 🙂

  3. That’s great to see how wonderful things happen by putting psichological and spiritual aspects together. I remember now Roberto Assagioli – Psychosynthesis creator -who opened the way to current humanistic and transpersonal psychology and philosophy.
    He wrote: “This aspect is not the only one present in our psyche. The building of our psyche is not only composed of a subsoil in poor condition that needs to be restored, but there are also several higher levels and, above all, there is a bright and spacious attic in which the life-giving rays of the Sun are received and in which, at night, you can see the stars … ”
    Thanks for introducing Sensitive film and Alanis Morisette song.

  4. I have sometimes felt that I’m going crazy because I’ve been so overwhelmed by family members who are particularly passive aggressive. It is a fight to stay in my adult strength when I am with them, because there’s something about my sensitivity that makes them treat me like a child despite being nearly 50. My daughter is even more sensitive than I am but because she is outgoing and articulate, she too is disbelieved and treated as if she is weak.
    I recently saw one of those silly sweeping statements on facebook suggesting that previous generations have fought in wars, died of plague etc but that nowadays the young are just ‘easily offended’ – the world is changing at such speed – I wish people would take more care with their words of accusation and assumption.
    The stone circle meditation was wonderful, thank-you. It felt protective and supportive.

  5. I am busy at present baking and stew making, but thought I would leave a word or two and fully read later. I used to be quite a cry baby as was the accusation. I also suffered migraines when living in Bristol part of the seventies. More than once a doctor had to be called out and administer morphine injection. Tests showed that I reacted to a substance in petrol fumes, I walked in the city from door to door as a Home Help. So I was advised to move to a place that was not so contaminated. I am sensitive to the feelings and energies of others, but I have learned to, whilst appreciating what they may be going through, to protect myself and realize that we cannot be all things to all people. It is realizing that each has their own journey to walk on, as it were and the best emotion we can share with them is to express love and very often if in tune, the right words, are offered for us to share. We are all on our own journey and who knows what another’s choice of lifestyle, actions and intent is, from the soul itself. Much love as usual, Margaret.

  6. Hi Phil, I just came across the site and feel drawn to it. I hold monthly vigils(sixteen yearly) to raise awareness about complex childhood trauma. Yes to your questions, you seem to know me.

  7. I haven’t read any works by Elaine Aron, but I’ve now taken the HSP inventory in the link above. I ticked every box except for four statements.

    I’d agree that it does very much feel as though there is a biological basis to the way that I process stimuli. I believe my father was wired in a similar way, and that I inherited it from him. I remember he suffered from sudden onsets of intense headaches, which sometimes occurred while he was still sitting in his chair immediately after eating supper. He’d blanch and double over at the hips and put his head between his knees. It was as though the cumulative stresses of the day overwhelmed him all at once. My own experiences haven’t been quite so dramatic, but I have learned that I cannot enter certain environments without feeling physically ill. Casinos are a great example: all those flashing lights and ringing bells are just too much, and I begin to develop a tension headache within minutes.

    Physical, intellectual, and imaginational stimuli tend to be the most amplified for me, and I am also somewhat above average in my responses to emotional stimuli. I thought it might be helpful to articulate those distinctions, because although I imagine that many HSPs are in fact strongly empathic, I’m not sure that I am. I’d rate my emotional intelligence as only average.

    In the DruidCraft tarot deck, it’s actually the Princess of Pentacles (as opposed to one of the cups cards) that feels most like my portrait. The Princess of Pentacles studies the world carefully and thoughtfully—she’s developing and refining her innate capacities to gaze deeply at what is immediately before her. Behind her, there’s a double-spiral carved into rock that seems to represent her abilities to absorb great whirls of information, to suss out the patterns, and to bring those patterns into a more focused, dynamic, harmonious balance. And to perhaps set down those patterns, too, in a way that others can better perceive and understand them. Aesthetics are important to this princess, as is evident in the lovely gold embroidery that edges her cloak. I suppose that the dolmen behind her would be conventionally regarded as a tomb, but I see it as her shelter. It is the place to which she periodically retreats, a place where she is protected from the extremes of inclement weather, a place where she ruminates on all that she’s learned and also simply rests for a while, before coming out to reengage with the world again.

    I think you described the value of spiritual practices for HSPs very well in this teatime session, Philip. Thank you for the meditation, and for getting to the heart of it so well.

  8. O.B.O.D. is like a box of chocolates. You’re never sure what you are going to get. I think that this pod cast speaks to the power of the movement. If you are not a highly sensitive person….that’s ok. Diversity is its own power. As with all groups….the more diverse the more able it is to survive.

  9. Thanks Philip! Lovely & Important “Tea time.” I find that some “Highly Sensitive” people are now developing & celebrating their skills & talents, to help heal Gaia and All Her Beings. People may even realize that they are here for a Special Purpose on the planet @ this time. When the mind/body complex is trained, nurtured, balanced, & connected with Spirit, these sensitivities become assets. /l\

  10. Thank you Philip. I’ve always knowing I’ve been HSP in most areas in others less. After both watching and reading about it never had a place or person to talk to and now realizing my teenage son is also HSP. This is were I can help him, love him even more understand who he is and give him what he needs to help him through life.

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