- Despite the attention a new paper has gained, high sensitivity does not “overlap” with narcissism.
- Publicly correlating narcissism with high sensitivity has the potential to do great harm.
Narcissism is one of those labels nobody wants, so when a particular research study began to show up as a hot topic on social media, I felt I had to clarify some points.
In February 2022, an article appeared in the Journal of Clinical Psychology titled, “Do highly sensitive persons display hypersensitive narcissism?: Similarities and differences in the nomological networks of sensory processing sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism.” Narcissism, again, is a label no one wants but many will rush to read about. Mixing it up with high sensitivity has the potential to do great harm, so I want to clarify some crucial points.
Let’s begin with the obvious fact that some people high in sensory processing sensitivity, colloquially called highly sensitive people (HSPs), are narcissists. (And there are some HSPs who wear hearing aids!) This is not because the traits overlap or are somehow similar at a deep level, but because narcissism is a personality trait, unlike high sensitivity, which is an innate temperament trait. Narcissism is often seen as arising due to a troubled childhood. Some but not all HSPs have had the kind of childhoods that could produce narcissism. At its extreme, narcissism is a personality disorder, a real problem for the person and those around them, although the article under discussion is more about “normal," or trait, narcissism.
A second fact: This paper is about “hypersensitive” narcissism. Some psychologists talk about two kinds of narcissism. The first is the grandiose, outgoing, even sometimes charming type, full of a sense of entitlement and a willingness to use others—what most people think of as narcissism. No one (including the authors of this study) is claiming that any HSPs are that type. I suppose it could happen, but it would be rare. However, a few psychologists have described a more vulnerable, “covert” kind of narcissism, involving shyness, defensiveness, social hypervigilance, and low self-esteem, along with self-absorption and “self-hiding.” It does not sound like narcissism, and it is not including where narcissism itself is discussed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM-5), the official guide to mental disorders, but for those studying narcissism, it is a popular distinction.
Third fact: Differential susceptibility. If some people with high sensitivity, also called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) “display” what has been termed hypersensitive narcissism, many do not. This is because of differential susceptibility, which the article on narcissism and HSPs does not mention. That is, HSPs with good childhoods tend to be even more free than others with good childhoods of mental, physical, or social problems, and that would include any kind of narcissism. (And with bad childhoods they are even more likely than others with bad childhoods to have problems.)
Another fact: Although the article uses the word “overlap” 16 times, they are talking about a “nomological” overlap in that the items measuring SPS had some similarities to items measuring vulnerable narcissism (although statistically there was actually little overlap—in a factor analysis of all of the items, the two surveys were separate factors). Again, it is not as “overlap” might sound, that all HSPs are a little bit narcissistic.
Covert narcissists are also called “hypersensitive” narcissists, as in the article’s title, because they are so sensitive to social stimuli. For example, in a social setting they feel stressed because they think others are watching them. (Again, some HSPs feel this way too, but hardly all of them.) Hypersensitive narcissists are not particularly bothered by physical stimuli. The authors admit the difference, that HSPs are bothered mostly by physical stimuli, but see both as likely to lead to irritability, a sense of differentness, and a sense of entitlement to an environment without such stimuli. In fact, in their study HSPs did not show much of that sense of entitlement, although it is seen in some HSPs’ comments on social media quite a bit (the authors were very aware of “public discourse” around the trait)—that the world is not designed for HSPs and it ought to be.
Association, Correlation, and Overlap
In the article's research, the HSP Scale correlated around .50 with measures of vulnerable narcissism (correlations lie between zero and one, so .50 is in the middle). This correlation dropped to .30 when items measuring “neuroticism” or “negative affect” were statistically taken out—that is, “partialled out” or “controlled for.” Because of differential susceptibility, in most of our research on HSPs we also control for negative affects whenever we use the HSP Scale. This is mainly because the HSP Scale has too many negatively worded items. (We are currently revising it to add items focusing more on depth of processing, empathy, and perceiving subtle positive stimuli.) We know that some people who are not HSPs but had a bad childhood and therefore are high on neuroticism will also score high on the HSP Scale and be counted as HSPs if we do not control for that. Still, because of the negative bias of the scale, we always see some correlation with neuroticism. Plus, HSPs will always be slightly high on negative affect if a questionnaire asks about their reactions to loud noise, for example, because no matter how wonderful their childhoods, they are still bothered more than others by being overstimulated.
A New Factor in the Continuing Struggle to Educate Mental Health Professionals
In the abstract the authors state that the “Nomological networks were similar [those of high sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism] and pointed to a neurotic‐introverted personality profile with reduced personality functioning.” And for therapists, “this points to the importance of being attentive to narcissistic self‐regulatory strategies in individuals presenting as highly sensitive.”
If you read the full article, you will see some even more troubling statements: That HSPs “do share [with vulnerable narcissism] self-regulatory mechanisms which likely counteract personal growth in the long run," and “One of the main suggestions for clinicians working with patients who consider themselves highly sensitive, or for readers who see aspects of high sensitivity in themselves, could be to critically evaluate aspects of a high sensitivity mindset with respect to the extent to which they really benefit the individual.”
What “self-regulatory mechanisms” are threatening the HSP’s personal growth? What “mindset”? I fear they are referring to the fact (not imagined) that all HSPs need to develop a lifestyle that takes advantage of their creativity and deep thinking without exposing them to high levels of stimulation. Perhaps such a lifestyle/mindset appears to inhibit personal growth if personal growth means learning not to be overstimulated when doing all the same things as those without the trait.
I think we are seeing the usual human tendency to assume everyone is like us, and when someone is different from ourselves, we tend to doubt the reality of that: “They are just making it up," or, "since this does not look normal to me, this is really a disorder.” It is true that some HSPs over-regulate or are too “in,” avoiding stimulation. But this is almost always due to trauma in the past that needs to be worked on, not the trait itself.
What is especially unfortunate is that the authors quote a researcher who studies truly pathological narcissism and is talking about “hypersensitivity” in that disorder, not at all about SPS, when she says “overwhelming hypersensitivity and reactivity (visceral, psychosomatic, or affective) [in pathological narcissists] tend to supersede or overpower actual awareness of and ability to verbalize internal experiences.” The authors of this paper, not the author of that quote, conclude from this that HSPs could in a similar way develop “self‐sustaining dynamics of overwhelming experiences and a sense being fundamentally different from others.” There it is again: "How could anyone have a sense of being fundamentally different (i.e., than normal me)?”
The message here to therapists seems to be that instead of appreciating that HSPs are unusually aware of internal experiences, they should be watching for HSPs being unusually not aware of internal experiences, so that they are feeling overwhelmed for no reason. And whatever they are verbalizing about, their internal experience is not accurate and should be ignored.
Misreading Public Discourse
Two of the authors of the study have several published articles on narcissism, so I think we can call them experts in that area. The trouble is, some researchers tend to see their specialty everywhere. So while the authors understand narcissism, they may know less about SPS. But having done a considerable reading of the “public discourse” by HSPs on the internet, they have naturally seen narcissism there sometimes.
I realize that the public discourse about HSPs can give the impression of narcissism—that some of us see ourselves as different and special (“grandiose” and “entitled”), but I think the authors failed to cut some slack for groups (including HSPs) recovering from having felt mistreated as a minority. It seems to be an important stage in healing sometimes. One also has to realize that those speaking up on social media are not representative of all HSPs, but often are those who have felt particularly mistreated, perhaps echoing a personal history of trauma and abuse.
The Potential Harm Was Obvious. The Gain?
In August 2022 Psychpost wrote an article on this research, titled “Study Suggests that Highly Sensitive Persons Exhibit Characteristics of Vulnerable Narcissism.” The lead author of the study was interviewed and said, “Our study showed that high sensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism are not the same thing, but they do have significant overlaps.” There's that term overlaps again. He said his article was not an attempt to “pathologize” high sensitivity, but rather “to study all aspects of high sensitivity and narcissism—including the favorable and unfavorable aspects,” and “we wish to emphasize that we try to regard neither of the constructs as ‘pathological’ or ‘normal’ in nature.”
Hm. That feels a bit insensitive. Whatever his intentions, he is admitting that the public hears “narcissism” as pathology, and therefore anything “overlapping” with it is also pathologized. Two of the study’s authors actually did research on how the public views narcissism and found it “is often portrayed one-sidedly and overly negative, rendering a picture of narcissistic individuals as ‘toxic people’ or ‘evil characters.’” That is quite an admission when you then associate the term with a group of people who already feel misunderstood.
But all is okay. There are ups and downs, and as HSPs make themselves more visible on the internet in a wide range of ways (some of which I would not choose), there are bound to be reactions. But maybe we can gain a deeper understanding of SPS from this. Here are three points that I would like you to take away:
- When these researchers view HSPs as similar to narcissists, they refer to a type of narcissism that has nothing to do with being grandiose, entitled, or using others. They refer to “vulnerable narcissism,” which means just that: feeling self-conscious and vulnerable. Alas, most people know nothing about this distinction. But you do now.
- Keep differential susceptibility in your mind as a central fact about all HSPs: Raised in a reasonably good environment they do better than others, but in a poor one they do worse. Hence this misnamed “vulnerable narcissism,” which is caused by a troubled childhood, will certainly show up in some HSPs. But it does not mean that high sensitivity and even vulnerable narcissism “overlap” in the sense of being similar traits. There are plenty of HSPs who are not even slightly narcissistic in any of the senses used by psychologists.
- We are not just what shows up on the internet. In designing the study and interpreting its results, the article relies considerably on impressions from “public discourse,” but does not consider how many HSPs may completely ignore all of that, including the self-help books that portray sensitivity as a superpower or those that treat it as a special burden, all of which sounded to the authors very narcissistic (and commercial). I doubt that most HSPs think much about their trait as either a superpower or a burden once they have integrated it into their thinking, and others will not often notice it either. To most of us, this is a trait, not a movement.