Highly Sensitive Movie, and a poll

Movie poster for Sensitive - The MovieThe Sept. 10th San Francisco premiere of the new documentary on high sensory processing sensitivity is sold out. Apparently distributors have balked (as distributors will) at releasing the DVD before Sensitive: The Untold Story has finished its theatrical run, but there will be a livestream during and for 48 hours after the premiere, which will allow you to stream it as many times as you want within that 48 hour period. The livestream is currently $20, going up to $30 on Sept 7th. You can join Elaine Aron’s email list for HSP-related news here. Hopefully we will soon hear something about other cities where the film will be shown.

I was discussing HSPS with a friend recently. I have always felt “highly sensitive person” was a problematic, if accurate, label, and proposed my own, “deep engager.” This seems equally descriptive but more neutral to me. My friend disagreed.

An ullsutration from the fairytale, "The Priness and the Pea" of a girl on a stack of mattresses, with a pea under the bottom one, looking at her bed with a candle.I was initially annoyed by this, since I felt being an HSP should give my opinion extra weight! Upon reflection, however, I wondered whether the associations I have with the term “sensitive” may be less universal than I thought. I was called “oversensitive” (also “crazy”) throughout my childhood. My emotional reactivity was not only framed as excessive, but as false and manipulative. (When I was 10, I was whipped for crying after I fell down while rollerskating – by a step-parent who subsequently enjoyed a lengthy career as a psychologist!).

So it probably shouldn’t surprise me that, despite my evolving self-understanding, the internalization that there is something wrong with sensitivity has been hard to overcome. The first time I heard of “highly sensitive people,” I assumed they were either narcissists or undiagnosed depressives, and read no further. And without much examination of the assumption, I have continued to assume that other people would react to the term in the same way.

In the wake of my conversation with my friend, however, I am finally questioning that assumption. I’m curious how people who don’t have major baggage associated with the word “sensitive” perceive the term “highly sensitive person,” so here is a poll. I am interested in hearing from everyone, whether you identify as an HSP or not, and would much appreciate your feedback. Inevitably, my own feelings influence my questions, so please feel free to select “Other” and create your own answer, and/or elaborate in comments. Thanks for helping me see HSPs from the outside.

4 thoughts on “Highly Sensitive Movie, and a poll

  1. I definitely identify with the trait. Initially I didn’t question the term. As I read through your post, if realized that I also carry some of those negative associations with the word “sensitive.” Sensitivity just doesn’t seem valued, and oversensitivity is commonly a criticism. I’ve been told over and over that I’m oversensitive (oh gee, thanks) and people have suggested I try to be less sensitive (news flash, I’m already trying!). Anyway, long story. My point is that I agree with your perspective here. I still like the idea of raising awareness and understanding of highly sensitive people, and gradually shifting that acceptance and appreciation for sensitivity. I also like the term you suggested for deep engagers and feel that adds value to the discussion as well. Very interesting. You helped me realize something important today and I appreciate that.

    • Many thanks for your comment. “Over” or “under” anything carries an embedded judgement about what’s “normal.” But framing sensitivity as “high” rather than excessive, does have the potential to remove a lot of that judgement, which I’m sure is what Elaine Aron had in mind when she chose the term. At the film premiere, she said she didn’t think “highly sensitive” was necessarily an ideal name for the trait, it was just the best one she could come up with at the time. And having tried to come up with something better, I have to admit it’s a challenge.

      I don’t know whether you had a chance to read the article that I linked to in my recent post, The (Over)Thinker. Although it is not mentioned in the article, the theory that is now under discussion is known as the Big Five personality trait model, which is widely used in psychological theory and research.

      The Big Five system is heavily biased towards extroversion, framing extrovert qualities as “positive,” while introversion is not included as trait at all but measured only as low extroversion! (Since introverts outnumber extroverts, why aren’t extroverts measured as low in introversion??) Introversion – excuse me, low extroversion – is also heavily associated with “neuroticism” in the Big Five system (this is in quotes because I believe mental disorders are treatable medical conditions, not inherent personality traits. And I ought to know).

      Research has been showing for years that depressed people are more creative, and often have a more realistic perspective than the non-depressed. New research that takes introvert socializing styles into account is throwing some doubt on the assumed connection between introversion and depression and/or “neuroticism.” However, identifying creativity as an up side of “neuroticism” reframes “neuroticism” itself as a more neutral quality, which is significant step towards reducing extrovert bias in the Big Five system. It’ll be interesting to see whether this eventually results in higher “neuroticism” scores for extroverts.

      Psychologists can be peculiarly oblivious to the implications and impact of terminology. Another area where this happens is in discussions of gender and depression. You will read over and over that more women are depressed than men, not just in articles for the popular media, but in academic journals, where authors ought to know better.

      What the research actually shows is that more women are diagnosed with depression, which is not the same thing at all. In fact, I’d be surprised if it were otherwise, given the strong cultural associations between “masculinity” and denial of emotional and physical pain, not to mention the correspondingly strong cultural imperative that a “real” man responds to pain by numbing it with alcohol. Seriously, how many millions of times have you seen portrayals of this? Alcohol as the go-to response to heartache is so entrenched in our culture that it is the number one cultural symbol of “guy in pain,” in songs, in movies and on TV.

      Most clinical psychologists will acknowledge when pressed that depressed men are typically diagnosed with substance abuse rather than depression, so they are vastly undercounted, and any comparison with depression statistics for women can’t possibly be accurate. Yet psychologists continue to use language that suggests women are more susceptible to depression than men, even though the inaccuracy perpetuates an environment in which women’s pain is trivialized, while men don’t feel they can acknowledge pain at all.

      Doh, there I go again – dragging a soapbox into a comment. See what you made me do :)

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