Review of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by

Book cover for The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You

This was recommended to me by my bestie (and podcast cohost), Rebecca. She has a talent for pointing me in the direction of books that might feel like self-help to an extent but are actually interesting dives into specific topics in psychology. She most recently finally got me to read Quiet, by Susan Cain, a book that definitely has overlap with The Highly Sensitive Person. In particular, Cain actually mentions this term, and in my review I concluded that, yes, I am highly sensitive and so is my extroverted Rebecca. Now here’s an entire book about this trait (or set of traits).

Aron might not have coined the term but she has literally written the book on what it means to be highly sensitive. The basic definition, as I understood it, is that a highly sensitive person (HSP) is more prone to overstimulation than less sensitive people. That’s it. There are more specifics, of course, but that’s the main distinction between HSPs and other people. It is less about our inclinations for socializing (as with being introverted/extroverted) and more about how we react to stimuli. Each chapter of The Highly Sensitive Person focuses on a specific dimension of life as an HSP, concluding with a workbook-like activity that Aron suggests for readers who identify as HSP.

As I said above, I am an HSP. We don’t need to go through why. Certainly when I first encountered the label, my older millennial self cringed. Isn’t this exactly what we millennials are accused of doing all the time—calling ourselves “special”? What a snowflake! Except that this book, in multiple editions, is backed up by decades of research both by Aron and others. Additionally, Aron is not marketing the term HSP as a trendy label for people to feel different. She makes it very clear that being highly sensitive is just another trait, that it confers advantages and disadvantages alike. For example, HSPs definitely flourish in careers that require a great deal of interpersonal empathy, like my job as a teacher, even though some of those careers stress us out more (because of the overstimulation). Aron’s thesis is not how it’s better to be an HSP. Rather, she says that the world needs a mix of HSPs and non-HSPs—this book, then, is a glimpse into what HSPs are and how to optimize your highly sensitive nature, or better understand an HSP in your life.

I won’t pretend this book has changed my life or anything like that. Maybe I’ve already internalized a lot of what Aron discusses simply through hard-earned trial-and-error experience. I’m pretty well adapted to my highly sensitive life, although the pandemic and now the current situation with teaching definitely pushes me to my limits more than I want to talk about. In a later chapter, Aron mentions a highly sensitive teacher patient of hers who scaled back on how much he worked outside of school hours. That’s me this year, and I really identified with that struggle (I blogged about the guilt I wrestle with because of how the teaching profession is regarded).

But little nougats here and there resonated, such as when Aron talked about sleep and HSPs. We need our sleep; functioning on little sleep is much harder for HSPs. Similarly, Aron mentioned how even just lying in bed with our eyes closed, even if we don’t fall asleep, can be very restorative (because it gives us a break from stimulation). This is so true for me. Often I will lie in my lounger on my deck, or lie on my couch, or yes, lie in bed if I wake up too early, and close my eyes with no expectation of actually falling asleep. I find that such pseudo-naps, as I call them, help me a lot.

There was also a chapter on relationships. While I am aromantic, asexual, and happily single in a lifetime sense, I still found this chapter resonating for my friendships. I value close, quite intimate friendships over weaker-tie ones—something I always attributed to my introversion, but perhaps being highly sensitive has a lot to do with it too. A few of my friendships are extremely intense—Rebecca being one, my other best friend another. They have always found me, pursued me, leaned on my heavy door until I opened it—but something I’m coming to realize as I grow older is that my door might be heavy because I’m afraid of being too intense and scaring people away, so I push people away before they can see that intensity and get scared. I am grateful for those friends who persisted enough to find out what an amazing heart I have, even if it can be a bit extra. Ok, a lot extra.

This is a book full of information, and I doubt I absorbed more than perhaps a fifth of it (if that high a proportion). But it was still fascinating. I recommend it if you think you are highly sensitive (Aron provides a bit of a personality test near the beginning to help you see if you might fall into this category). I recommend it if you think you have an HSP in your life who needs your understanding and support.

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