In my book The Shyness Guide, I warn readers against committing themselves unreservedly to a diagnosis they’ve received, or chosen for themselves.
Because of forty years working as a personal injury claims adjuster, watching psychologists and psychiatrists aggressively disagree with each other, I’ve grown wary of psychological labels.
But there is one diagnosis that I’m not sceptical of – Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.
This was introduced by psychologist Elaine Aron in her 1996 book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Typically, an HSP is a person who dislikes bright light, loud noise, loud people, violent movies, etc, because they are more sensitive to those things than most people. They react more to physical and psychological stimuli. They usually have strong imaginations and vivid dreams.
Dr Aron doesn’t confine this to introverts. She insists that there are sensitive extroverts. If you have trouble imagining a sensitive extrovert, read the little 2014 book, Ray Bradbury – The Last Interview and other Conversations. Bradbury, one of the most imaginative authors of the 20th century, was a effusive and delightful conversationalist and fit HSP perfectly.
Dr Aron thinks HSPs are individuals who have evolved to be more sensitive because sensitivity has survival value. She refers to the famous sunfish studies that found shy sunfish more difficult to trap than bold sunfish, suggesting that shy sunfish are more likely to survive in the real world.
Though I accept that this shy/bold dichotomy exists in humans, I’m not sure that it serves any useful purpose in human society. Dr Aron thinks it does.
For example, in a herd of wild buffalo, or zebras, she suggests that the sensitive individuals serve to alert the herd to dangers, while the tough/less sensitive members take over when confrontation/combat is required. But it’s hard to imagine in a herd of buffalo the same degree of distrust, misunderstanding, selfishness and lack of honest co-operation that you find in human groups.
Even if they had bigger brains, it’s hard to imagine tens of thousands of zebras fighting each other to the death, or torturing each other, or talking about each other behind each other’s backs.
But when it comes to the description of sensitivity in human individuals, I find Dr Aron’s concept more insightful and useful than most. Although I should warn you that she doesn’t want high sensitivity to be equated with shyness, I think sensitivity is fundamental to most shyness, the reason I devoted a section of The Shyness Guide to Dr Aron. Here is a link to the Amazon page of The Highly Sensitive Person:
Here is Dr Aron’s own interesting website, where you can take a test to see if you might be an HSP: