The 'highly sensitive person' diagnoses you've started hearing about

Much like empaths, HSPs are supposed to feel emotions far more acutely than others. Is this really accurate?

by James Greig
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20 September 2021, 7:00am

There were a number of scenes in HBO's White Lotus that felt like the product of a Gen Z focus group, but perhaps none more so than the scene in which Paula, a college student staying at the resort, is described by her friend, Olivia, as a clinically diagnosed “HSP” – a highly sensitive person. Olivia's mother, a kind of Sheryl Sandberg-esque businesswoman, quips, "Who's her physician, Lena Dunham?", to which Paula warns, “you could inflame my morgellons”. As a joke, it's predicated on the idea that being an HSP is snowflake generation diagnoses. Is that fair?

The signs of being an HSP, according to The Highly Sensitive Person, a blog run by a Canadian doctor and specialist in the area, can include "being more aware than others of subtleties", "having a rich and complex inner life", appreciating "delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of arts," and "feeling easily overwhelmed". So, rather than being a disorder or diagnosis, HSP is thought to be a personality trait (one which is also sometimes referred to as sensory-processing sensitivity). It is not positioned as something inherently disabling either, and is often conceived of more like an emotional superpower with occasional drawbacks: an increased sensitivity to external stimuli and susceptibility to "empathetic overload". Certainly, the sensory issues which are said to come with it are deserving of sympathy. But beyond this, it's hard to escape the impression most of these qualities are self-flattering.

It's understandable, then, that more and more people are identifying as HSPs and empaths. There's a lot of crossover between these two categories, but they're not exactly the same, as described here: "While they tend to get lumped together, they're separate (though often related) traits. Sensitive people have an increased reaction to external stimuli including other emotions, whereas empaths have a greater than usual capacity to share another's feelings." Nonetheless, there is an over-arching empaths and sensitives movement that encompasses the two categories, along with others such as intuitives and even psychics. On Facebook, groups like Empaths and Sensitives - Surviving to Thriving offer thousands of members a community to discuss their condition, while on TikTok, naturally, the hashtag #highlysensitiveperson has racked up over 24 million views.

There is some scientific research to suggest that there is a neurological basis for this kind of heightened empathy: the idea, put simply, is that empaths and sensitives have more active "mirror neurons" (nervous system cells which are triggered when we feel pain or witness that of others) than the general population, which may or may not be an innate competency. Personally, I think we should be suspicious of the idea that there's a genetic basis for qualities like "being kind" and "enjoying delicate art", which is… extremely reactionary, especially when you acknowledge that, as with so many diagnoses, the HSP/empath/intuitive nexus has also become a profitable cottage industry. Look no further than the popularity of self-help books with titles like The Highly Sensitive Person's Guide to Dealing with Toxic People.

“Understanding yourself as an HSP seems like it can be motivated by the need to feel virtuous and to have a framework in which to view yourself as unfailingly good. What's usually absent is any consideration of how your behaviour might impact negatively on others.”

Having this kind of extreme emotional intelligence may cause you problems, but these will never be your own fault. "Empaths can also find relationships overwhelming and fear intimacy because of their ability to deeply feel another person's problems and needs," some claim -- which sounds like a bit of a cop-out. Isn't it a little self-absolving to imagine that your relationships keep failing because you are too good of a person? Understanding yourself as an HSP, empath or intuitive seems like it can be motivated by the need to feel virtuous and to have a framework in which to view yourself as unfailingly and fundamentally good. What's usually absent is any consideration of how your behaviour might impact negatively on others or the fact that you might be kind of self-absorbed or annoying to be around (which, if you identify as an energy absorber, seems plausible). HSPs and empaths are instead understood as the victims of other people's selfishness; they are never cruel themselves, they never let anyone down, they are flawed in only the most sympathetic and forgivable ways.

If this represents an insistence upon seeing oneself as a good person, it comes hand-in-hand with seeing other people as bad. The shadow figure to the highly sensitive person is the narcissist -- a spectral figure which haunts the cultural imagination. These two archetypes are imagined as two sides of the same coin: often drawn to one another and existing in a symbiotic relationship, like the Batman and Joker of personality types. There is a wealth of articles online about how empaths are particularly vulnerable to the machinations of narcissists, which strikes me as an unusual claim -- what's the point of having superhuman emotional intelligence if you can't tell when someone is merely pretending to be nice?

Within this framework, narcissists and empaths are thought of as representing two ends of a spectrum and existing entirely in opposition to one another. But I'm not sure this is entirely true: being so invested in your own personality traits that you spend your time making educational TikTok videos about them also strikes me as a little narcissistic. Altogether, it's a view of human nature that posits some people as inherently good and others as inherently bad. Despite this dichotomy being constructed within an internet subculture very keen on therapy, these categories are often conceived of as unchanging and predetermined. Some people are simply empty husks and emotional vampires, and other people are warm and full of love, and that's all there is to it. Which, ironically, isn't a very empathetic way of understanding the world.

“It can be comforting to imagine that the people who hurt us must be suffering from a personality disorder or moral defect and that any love or affection they showed us was just a slick performance.”

If there's one book I think everyone on the internet would do well to read, it's The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kirstin Dombek. It concerns the overdiagnosis of narcissism at a cultural level and the numbing effects of pathologising people who have hurt us, mistaking our own emptiness for theirs. She sarcastically proposes a new diagnosis: narciphobia. Symptoms include being "preoccupied with the idea that he or she is surrounded by people who are trying to manipulate him or her for self-serving purposes"; believing "that he or she is 'special' and uniquely unselfish and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other people with low-selfishness scores," and having "a grandiose sense of empathy". Sounds familiar!

I do understand this impulse: it can be comforting to imagine that the people who hurt us must be suffering from a personality disorder or moral defect and that any love or affection they showed us was just a slick performance, as it will be for the next person who falls in love with them. But, for the most part, I don't think it's healthy to categorise other people as inherently good or bad. This idea is explored in Sally Rooney's latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. After a scene in which two of the characters, Felix and Alice, tell each other the worst things they've ever done in their lives, Alice sends an email to her friend, reflecting on the conversation. She writes: "Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe the number of people who have done seriously bad things is not insignificant. I mean honestly, I think if every man who had ever behaved somewhat poorly in a sexual context dropped dead tomorrow, there would be like eleven men left alive. And it's not only men! It's women too, and children, everyone. I suppose what I mean is, what if it's not only a small number of evil people who are out there, waiting for their bad deeds to be exposed? What if it's all of us?"

Alice never quite settles upon a solution to this problem, and perhaps there isn't one. But as a start, it's important to acknowledge that 'good' and 'bad' are porous categories. We are all capable of behaving well and badly: sometimes we're highly sensitive empaths; at other times we're toxic narcissists. Sometimes we're the ones being hurt, sometimes we're the ones coldly turning away. I don't think insisting on our own moral superiority will make us happy in the end. "This is where all the narcissistic romance websites invite you to be," writes Kristen, "in the center of the world, stuck in time, accessing the moral status of others, until love is gone."

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