Attending to the Undervalued Self

A fresh approach to those times when you doubt your own worth

Time to Find Out: Are You Highly Sensitive?

You may belong to the 20% of us who innately prefer to think before acting.

Are you famous for being slow to make decisions? Do you need more down time than your friends do? Are you bothered by noise, crowds, and having too much going on at once? Are you unusually conscientious? Creative? Have a rich inner life? To see if you are "highly sensitive," take this test.

This "HSP Self Test" was validated by giving it to hundreds of people and was published in the leading "peer reviewed" journal on personality (Aron & Aron, 1997). Some people say yes to every item, some no to every one—this trait makes a huge difference. It's not new, of course, but has been misnamed as shyness, inhibitedness, neuroticism, or introversion (but 30% of us are extraverts). You can be a high sensation seeker and still be highly sensitive—you may work in media, for example. But you are not impulsive and still need extra down time.

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Most highly sensitive people undervalue themselves, but especially men, because the trait has been sadly mistaken for being "feminine." If you are a man, you could score lower and still be highly sensitive. Men have trouble admitting to this trait and almost always secretly undervalue themselves, no matter how much they hide their sensitivity.

The highly sensitive will always be a minority, for genetic reasons, and often looked down upon. Our trait is, in fact, neutral—a survival strategy that works well in some situations, not in others. Biologists have found this minority "personality" in over one hundred species (Wolf et al, 2008), from fruit flies and fish to dogs and primates. They all observe more before acting, react more strongly, and are easily overwhelmed because sometimes there is too much for them to process. This is in contrast to the majority, who spend less energy observing and reflecting, are rarely overwhelmed, take more risks, are usually more aggressive, and learn much less from their experience. In some situations they get what they want, having acted faster, but in others the cost of this strategy is high, because their impulsiveness can get them into trouble.

Why do the highly sensitive undervalue themselves? Besides being a minority that often experiences subtle discrimination ("No one else finds it too loud"), we naturally take our mistakes more seriously and feel more deeply about everything. That is part of the strategy of preventing future errors. Also, no one does well when over aroused, and we are much more than others when performing, taking a timed test, or any time someone is watching us do something. Hence we often perform worse than we really are capable of. More undervaluing. We are also more affected than others by traumas and bad environments during childhood, making some of us noticeably depressed, anxious, or shy (Aron et al, 2005). Happily, with a good childhood we blend well and are actually happier than others and have better health and social skills (Belski & Pluess, 2009; Ellis & Boyce, 2008).

What can you do today? Learn more at hsperson.com, and then start reframing all those "failures" that were only due to over arousal and "rejections" due to prejudice. It's time to value your sensitivity.

Elaine Aron, Ph.D., is a research and clinical psychologist, and the author of The Undervalued Self, The Highly Sensitive Person, and The Highly Sensitive Child.

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