“All virtues have a shadow.”
A book review of the Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron:
I was first introduced to the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) by Elaine Aron back in 2009 when I was a patient at the environmental health clinic. I was, at first, skeptical when my doctor suggested that I read it, I had never thought of myself as a particularly sensitive person, and others always commented on my ability to stay calm under pressure. However, that year proved to be a challenging one for me, and I was desperate, so I picked up the book as an extension of my studies in Psychology, even if it couldn’t help me personally.
The book begins with a test to see if you are a highly sensitive person, and like many tests on sensitivity and introversion/extroversion, I scored pretty close to the middle. I still wasn’t convinced I was a sensitive person. However, as I began to read further, and the items on the list were explained in more depth, I began identifying more and more as an HSP.
Why I liked it
If you are like me, when you hear the term ‘sensitive person’ you think of someone easily offended or over-emotional. But this is where we are wrong. Sensitivity has to do with much more than just your emotional needs (though that is a part of it). Aron defines sensitivity in a much broader sense; being especially aware of or in tune with your environment. If you are effected by strong smells or loud noises, different chemicals, medications, lights or scents- you may be highly sensitive. This is where things began starting to click for me. House cleaning chemicals have always made me feel sick (and recently, made my nails fall off!) and just the little bit of caffeine in green tea can affect me more than a cup of coffee effects my friends. This book made me think of sensitivity in an entirely different, and positive, way.
Why you should read it
It was the first book that really made me think about how our personalities and innate traits can affect the role we play in the world. I always knew that people who were good at math and science would make great engineers and doctors, people good with their hands could take up a trade, and creative people well…had other employment opportunities. But it had never before occurred to me that being born a shy or sensitive person was something that could affect all areas of my life including my relationships and my career. When I was younger my shyness was always something that needed to be overcome so that I could fit in, but I had always remained somewhat shy, reflective, and introverted. These are traits that I don’t think can ever be completely lost, and it is a shame that we often try to rid ourselves of them rather than being taught to appreciate the strengths that they bring us.
Aron argues that we need to see the strengths and weaknesses of each personality type. HSP’s are not cut out to be ‘warrior kings’, but rather excel in an advisor role, that requires careful consideration and planning, not the rash thinking and action that is needed on the battle field. While the Warrior King is often more valued by society, one could not exist (or succeed) without the other. We need both to have a thriving society.
I had always been an ambitious child, and this book made me wonder if I had been ambitious for the right goals. Was I trying to win in a field where I would be at a distinct dis-advantage? And how much energy was I wasting trying to become someone that was against my nature, just because that is how our society defines success?
How it relates to CFS
When I first began to realize the large role that stress played in my CFS symptoms I was rather shocked, mostly because, as mentioned earlier, I am quite calm and cool under pressure. But I was not thinking of environmental stressors; of living in a big city, of having an active social life, of not paying attention to the foods I ate or the products I used. I wasn’t doing anything different than anyone else I knew, and yet I wound up bed-ridden, and they continued on living their lives carefree. Why?
The Highly Sensitive Person gave me a unique insight into the genetic factors that might cause some of us to become over stimulated by our environments (without even realizing it!) and then end up extremely ill.
The book won’t give you much insight into how to manage your illness, and I don’t know that every person with CFS is also highly sensitive, but I’m willing to bet a number of us are. I hope that if you read it, it gives you a unique insight into some hidden strengths that being an HSP might have for you. And it may give you some insight as to why you are now sensitive to so many foods and products. It may only have become noticeable since your illness, but it may also have been a contributing factor that none of us were aware of (I know it was for me!).
I found this book a great place to start to understand how to manage my illness and it really made me think about my future goals and plans, strengths and weaknesses. Happy reading! Let me know what you think!