The Highly Sensitive Person In Love with Elaine Aron

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Psychologist Elaine Aron talks about the issues facing Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs), and the people who love them.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live's Mind and Body Auditorium. Today we are discussing The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, with Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at the State University of New York, Stoneybrook, and is in private practice in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, the International Network on Personal Relationships, and the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships. Dr. Aron conducts HSP workshops around the country. She and her husband divide their time between San Francisco and New York.

Dr. Aron, welcome to WebMD Live. What exactly is a highly sensitive person or "HSP?"

Dr. Aron: They are the 15 to 20 percent of the population, not only human, but most or all higher animals, whose nervous systems are designed to perceive subtleties and to process them deeply. Humans process them by preferring to reflect before making a decision, and also humans and animals process things unconsciously but they're picking up on a lot of subtleties. They're highly intuitive and I define "intuitive" by simply that we know things without knowing how we know them. We also tend to be very conscientious because we're aware of consequences. For example, what if everybody did that? Or, if I don't get the job done, what will happen? Those are some of the good sides to the trait. The bad news, it's a package deal, is that you're also more easily overwhelmed by not very subtle things, loud noises, strong funny smells, scratchy clothing and also having too much to do in a short amount of time, just having too many changes in one's life at once. HSP's (highly sensitive people) are more easily overwhelmed .

nickye_WebMD: How do I know if I'm a highly sensitive person? Are there certain "symptoms"?

Dr. Aron: Sure. Well, first I might want to change 'symptoms' to 'signs,' but I do have a self-test which is in the book with 22 questions. The name of the book is, The Highly Sensitive Person In Love. It's available on  And this was worked out from a lot of scientific research, it's not something I've made up. Indeed, others have been studying this trait, but I think under the wrong terms, such as innate shyness, inhibitedness, innate fearfulness, etc. It's not even introversion. Thirty percent of HSP's are extroverts. So, some of the questions on the self-test are, are you bothered by loud noises? Are you very sensitive to pain? Do you have a rich, complex inner life? HSP's tend to have very vivid dreams. Are you deeply moved by the arts or music? Are you easily affected by other people's moods? And an important one is, when you were young, did parents or teachers tend to say you were shy or sensitive? But, it brings up an important point about people saying you have to have thick skin. In this culture, this trait is not the ideal. Although the trait is not about low self-esteem, in this culture, HSP's often do feel there's something the matter with them. They've been told so often, "don't be so sensitive," "don't be so shy." Or, "don't be so touchy!" So, they try to change on the outside, but they know they haven't changed on the inside. They can't, any more than a right handed person can become left handed.

Moderator: Why did you decide to write a book on love and the highly sensitive person?

Dr. Aron: The first book, The Highly Sensitive Person, was published in 1996, and it surprised everyone, even me, by how much people have appreciated it, even though there's been very little national publicity about it. About 200,000 copies have been sold. Now, it happens that my husband and I have been researching love and close relationships for 30 years. In the academic, social psychology circles, we are among the leading, perhaps top, seven or eight researchers. I sort of abandoned my husband in that research to do the temperament research, so it was natural to combine the topic. And, this new book has research in it never published anywhere else. For example, Chapter 8 has the first results ever from the first ever survey of temperament and sexuality.

Moderator: What are HSSs and how do they combine with HSPs?

Dr. Aron: Yeah, this is a little bit difficult to follow, but I'll explain. High Sensation Seekers (HSS) have been studied by Marvin Zuckerman, a psychologist. They are people who have a high level of curiosity and a need for lots of new stimulation. Now, the surprising result is that Highly Sensitive People can also be High Sensation Seekers. This is because these two traits are controlled by two different brain systems. Actually, the opposite of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a person who takes many risks, that is acts without reflecting very much. An HSP who is an HSS (High Sensation Seeker) also will find ways to have lots of new experiences, but won't take a lot of unreflected upon risks. People who have both traits tell me that it's like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. And I am moderate on sensation seeking and it certainly, from my experience, makes it difficult to stay in an optimal range of stimulation without being easily bored or easily overwhelmed. So, now we can imagine four types of people, and I think that makes something like 16 types of couples. It gets complicated! You add other important variables, like intelligence, or analytical versus emotional, you have even more types. However, I think the ones that are basic are not too, too many. And I obviously think sensitivity is a big one.

Moderator: How does being highly sensitive affect close friendships, love, and sexuality?

Dr. Aron: I think HSP's are ideally designed for close relationships. They are conscientious, good listeners, loyal, aware of little signs that the relationship needs work. They tend to be spiritual, so that love and close relationships have a deeper meaning for them. For example, with sexuality, they are no more likely to have any sexual dysfunction, guilt, or anxiety, but they do find sex to be more mysterious and powerful than non-HSP's. However, because, in part, because of the culture, HSP's often enter relationships feeling dependent or not quite as good as a non-sensitive person. Another problem they can have is avoiding conflict because it's so arousing for them. But, beyond that, we probably have to talk about the differences in relationships with a sensitive and non-sensitive person.

Moderator: Should an HSP seek another HSP for a close relationship, or someone the opposite, a non-HSP?

Dr. Aron: In my research, I found that there is a very slight advantage for two HSP's to be together. However, it's very slight and hardly a reason for an HSP/non-HSP couple to worry. I'm sure the main reason for that difference is that two HSP's readily understand each other. The "mixed couple" must learn to really believe that they experience the world quite differently. That's difficult because we all tend to assume everyone experiences things the way we do. So the first task is a deep acceptance that the other person's experience is real and valid. They can't help it. Then, I think you have to grieve that you didn't get everything in your partner, but then we never do. One counselor said, "When you choose a partner, you choose a set of problems." It's only in the movies or in dreams that we meet someone who is both an HSP and a non-HSP at once. After you accept and grieve, the two of you can get creative about how to enjoy each other and do things together. The danger is the subtle contempt one can feel for someone not like ourselves. The HSP may find the non-HSP a bit shallow or clueless, while benefitting from the non-HSP's ability to handle a lot more and protect the HSP. The non-HSP may subtlely think the HSP is weak or self-absorbed. For example, HSP's need more time alone. The non-HSP may feel rejected, but also may feel that that behavior is selfish. 

While I was doing my research, I ran across somebody that found that 50 percent of your chances of divorce are genetically determined. Your chances of wearing a skirt are 99 percent genetically determined because men rarely wear skirts. Gender is what is affecting this, it's not a gene for skirts. It used to be thought that there was a gene for mental retardation, and at least one of those genes turned out to be sensitivity to PKU (a substance in the body that some people can't metabolize). But if you find out that you have it and solve the problem, it's no longer a gene for mental retardation. I think the so-called 'divorce gene' might turn out to be ignorance of temperament. On my test there are 22 questions. I've seen people answer yes to all of them. And I've seen people who answer no to all of them. Imagine them trying to have a close relationship. They can do it, but only if they are wise to the ways of innate temperament. People are very often attracted to those who are quite different, finding them almost magical. How can someone be like that? But, a year or two later, the disadvantages to the very same traits will now be driving them crazy.

nickye_WebMD: Me being an HSP, how can I help my husband who is non-HSP understand the way I feel and view the world around me?

Dr. Aron: Well, not to be self-serving, but first thing is to have him get the book! (laughs) Have him read it and take the self-test and read chapters 1, 5, and 8. And, besides that, you need to do what is called "dialogue." That is, half of it is the old-fashioned reflective listening. You listen to the other person without interrupting, asking questions, defending yourself, or analyzing. You just listen. Even if it upsets you. Then, when it's your turn, you have to tell your truth. This isn't at all about hurting each other, just making clear your reality, even if the conflicts you have seem irresolvable. Research on marriage shows that all couples have about 66 percent of their conflicts irresolvable, and that's true for happy AND unhappy couples. The difference is that unhappy couples don't listen respectfully to the other's point-of-view and take it seriously. They withdraw, are contemptuous, critical, take it personally and become defensive, and so forth. I hope that helps! (chuckles)

Moderator: HSPs can go across genders, so this must be particularly difficult for men. How does it work for them?

Dr. Aron: Yes. There are just as many men as women born with this trait but, in this culture, we totally confuse gender and temperament. Men should be non-HSP's, women should be HSP's, or these days, it seems, HSP's AND non-HSP's (women should be). But men really have to struggle to hide their sensitivity or they are seen as not very manly. And I think that this wrong idea of manhood is evident everywhere in our culture and others are writing about that. But even sensitive women have been trained by the culture, to some extent, to like HSP men as "friends," but not as romantic partners, I think some of this may stem from thinking HSP's might not be good protectors or providers, but neither would be true at all. A protector who's careful and intuitive is a good one, and the same with a provider. It might be a different style, but the depths to a sensitive man are what are needed so much in close relationships.

There's another issue to mention. That is that Highly Sensitive People (HSP's), men or women, who have had a troubled childhood are more likely than non-HSP's with troubled childhoods to be depressed, anxious, or shy. But HSP's with good enough childhoods are no more anxious, depressed, or shy than non-HSP's. But it's probably the case that people notice the more troubled HSP's. The happier HSP's have learned to blend in with the majority. So, I found, for example, that Highly Sensitive women often thought that their husbands were not Highly Sensitive, when, in fact, their husbands scored almost as high on the self-test. The husbands had their wives fooled, and probably had themselves fooled, too. So, to the woman who asked the other question, (laughs), she might look again!

Moderator: You mention 10 ways in which you can heal the effects of sexism and gender stereotypes. What are they?

Dr. Aron: Oh yeah. Well, let's talk about them. Work on your self-esteem, that's so important. And, sensitive and non-sensitive women have similar big issues with low self-esteem but, it's doubled when you're an HSP. It's as though there's two things wrong with you. Sensitive Women often settle into a marriage or a job early in life, and stay there until it gets too uncomfortable. The next is to improve on your boundaries. HSP's always have to work on their boundaries because we are so aware of other people's desires and needs and how they will suffer and therefore, we will suffer if they aren't satisfied. Women, in particular, are trained to please others. But Highly Sensitive men often grow up feeling a deep sympathy for women, and therefore, bend over backwards to please women. So, in both cases, they have to set boundaries to take care of themselves. But, it's not like they're sick or co-dependent. This is natural to HSP's to be affected by other's moods. The next one is to replace stereotypes with knowledge of actual men and women. We build a fantasy of ideals and fears about the other gender. In this culture, gender is just a huge, huge issue. A funny story ... I knew someone who did an informal research study in a park with a newborn baby all bundled up. A woman was left with the baby. When people came up and asked her it's gender, she said she didn't know. She had just been asked by the mother to sit with the baby a moment. People got so upset that they didn't know the gender of the baby, some of them wanted to undress it to see! It's as though we can't relate to someone without gender as a lens. I think temperament is a bigger difference between people than gender. 

The next one is to work on your "love shyness." Meeting people is difficult for HSP's. One problem is simply that if we work 40 hours a week, we don't have much energy for meeting new people. We prefer a deep conversation with a familiar friend. Another problem with love in particular is that we really hesitate on the edge. We want to know someone well before we take the plunge, even though I also find we fall in love harder than others once we decide we love someone. This is an extra problem for men because men are supposed to be aggressive and decisive about love, but that's not a sensitive man's preference. The next point is to confront your ideas about Highly Sensitive men and homosexuality. I think that Sensitive women need to appreciate that they may be happiest with a Sensitive man and feel better as a woman. Sensitive men and women may confuse sensitivity with homosexuality for some reason. I've talked to gay men a lot about this, and we both agree that there doesn't seem to be any higher percentage of Sensitive men in the gay population. 

The next point is to avoid being a superman, superwoman, or super parent; identify what's causing you to try to be so perfect. All HSP's can stumble into the mistake of trying to be perfect, because we can sense the consequences of mistakes. We also may be trying to overcompensate for a secret sense of being flawed. There are all kinds of reasons why people, in general, push themselves too hard. But, it's especially important for HSP's to identify their reasons because if we push ourselves too hard, we're very likely to develop chronic physical or mental problems. Gender enters in because Sensitive men or women may feel they aren't "real" men or women. And, there's find a sensitive mentor of your gender. I think it's a great idea to find someone you can talk to or just watch how they operate, someone sensitive and successful in a way you admire. The next point is to protect yourself from those who do not respect you. There is so much sexism on both sides, men towards women and women towards men, especially towards sensitive men or women Sometimes, you can argue with people but there's a limit. So, I really advise people to surround themselves with those who have the good sense to disregard damaging stereotypes. And, then there's to remember and then to forget the four genders! Since we seem to love gender stereotypes so much, I joke that we need four gender stereotypes. Sensitive, and non-Sensitive men, and Sensitive and non-Sensitive women. But the best thing is to try to get over the stereotypes all together, because almost everyone is an exception to the stereotype, just as no one has 2.2 children. No one is a "real man," or "real woman." We're just ourselves. 

And the last point is to use your dreams to heal gender hurts. I could talk on and on about the importance of dreams, especially for HSP's. In our dreams, we will see many figures of the other gender. When they are mostly cruel, we know there's a disturbance in our relationship to the other gender. As we think about our dreams, and even confront dream figures in our imagination, and confront people in our lives, who act like our domineering inner figures, things begin to change. Those with better relationships with the other gender will often find them appearing as friends, lovers, or guides. That increases as our comfort and confidence around the other gender grows. Inner work is very important work, not only for ourselves, but for our culture. And it is an area where HSP's can excel.

Moderator: The advice provided by Dr. Aron is hers and hers alone and does not necessarily reflect that of WebMD. If you have any medical questions about your health you should consult with your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Dr. Aron, thank you for joining us. WebMD members, please join us every Wednesday at 9 pm EDT here in the Mind and Body Auditorium for our live weekly event. 

Dr. Aron: You're welcome! It was a great pleasure, thanks a lot!

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