Entry 23

The Highly Sensitive Person

It was this description, by which the American psychologist Elaine N. Aron in 1996 depicted for the first time in detail a psychological and neurophysiological phenomenon affecting about one in six people (between 15 to 20% of the population) worldwide.
In this entry, I wouldn’t like to ponder too much on the physiological prerequisites of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) – and thus evade a hitherto ongoing dispute of experts, whether sensory processing sensitivity (also known as heightened sensitivity or hypersensitivity) is primarily a condition due to differently connected neuronal stimulus transmitters in the brain, an excessive release of messenger substances at the synapses, a deficit in the relevant/irrelevant filtering of sensory input or rather a purely psychological conditioning due to certain experiences while growing up (or something of everything).
Since the beginning of the 21st century, SPS has been a much-noticed subject of research which, thanks to intensive efforts, has produced a large number of studies and professional publications – and which, thanks to the dedication of diligent non-fiction authors, has been made comprehensible in its various aspects to a broad lay public.

Oligoamory is the topic of this website, I am the author of this bLog – and if someone would asks me “SPS and Oligoamory – is there a connection somewhere?”, then I will answer “In every letter – because I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) too!”.
Accordingly, why do I think that Oligoamory is a relationship-philosophy that is favourable in respect to highly sensitive people, why do I deem it beneficial, helpful and even appropriate? Or rather, why does a highly sensitive person like myself approach the issue of multiple relationships and ethical non-monogamy by accessing a project like Oligoamory?

However, I will not be able to avoid a bit of “theory” when answering these questions. Of course, I wish that some of my readers, when they are discovering this entry, are already somewhat familiar with the phenomenon of SPS, although there still exists a lot of confusion and a heightened sensitivity is still more often than not connoted in terms of hypersensitivity, sentimentality, or delicateness.
Therefore some clarification might be helpful to outline the phenomenon. For the intently curious, who want to know immediately whether the characteristic of “SPS” could also apply to them, the Internet offers various online-tests:

The original by Elaine N. Aron:
https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/

On a webspace focussing on introverts:
https://introvertdear.com/news/highly-sensitive-person-test-quiz/

And in the media:
https://www.mamamia.com.au/highly-sensitive-person/

In my experience, one should actually muster the persistency and take several tests in different moods, though many questions seem to have a similar tendency. However, it has turned out for me that a “reasonable suspicion” concerning one’s own SPS really does exist when one regularly completes these quick tests with a probability of 90+% – and then the time has come to further explore this fascinating matter.

For this purpose, some books have gradually accumulated in my library, I’d like to introduce you to the best of them:

For beginners:
Judy Dyer, “The Highly Sensitive: How to Stop Emotional Overload, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Energy”, Create Space Publishing, 2018
A comprehensible introduction to the topic, self-help and tips for everyday life.

Advanced:
Elaine N. Aron, “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You”, Broadway Books, 1997
The book which started it all, written by the “Mother of SPS”; thorough, extensive and covering almost any aspect of life with heightened sensitivity.

Books by Ilse Sand, e.g. “Highly Sensitive People in an Insensitive World: How to Create a Happy Life“, Kingsley Publishers 2016
A book series providing inspiration, research, and encouragement concerning SPS. Written lifeward and approachable.

Pro-level:
Elaine N. Aron, “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook”, Harmony Publishing, 1999
Get off the sofa and hands on! Explore every aspect of your potential yourself. A challenging experience, I have to say…

Ted Zeff, “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World”, New Harbinger, 2004
Another hands-on guide abound with practical help and a good sense of humour.

With these basics in mind, we can finally approach the question why highly sensitive persons are in good hands when choosing Oligoamory as a mode for their relationships – and why Oligomory benefits people with SPS.

First and foremost there is the aspect of non-monogamy. Personally, I believe that multiple relationships are particularly suitable for HSP, because in those connections they are encouraged and allowed to explore and experience the diverse nuances and facets of their rich inner being, especially in its social dimensions.
However, this potential is always provided with an obvious “BUT” concerning any HSP due to the high sensorial input in social contexts and their often deep internal reflection processes. To the same extent that HSP gain a tremendous quality of life by acting out their natural role as a “social lubricating oil” in partnership and group-related contexts, they also need an appropriately defined shelter and retreat for themselves in order to – let’s stick with the “lubricating oil image” – to “clarify” when too many confusing impressions and alien energies have exhausted them. In such a case a model like Oligoamory, with its committed as well as sustainable approach, can provide exactly the framework that guarantees the important mixture of freedom and closeness a HSP needs as counterbalances.

Overall, many HSPs have problems with their rather unstable, somewhat “shimmering” outer boundaries in a lot of situations. Imposing stimuli on all sensory portals, be they optical, acoustic, aromatic, olfactory or haptic by their nature; an occasional, veritable infatuation with details (and, as a result, often a certain severity towards oneself on the verge of perfectionism); foreign emotions and feelings which are perceived like own impressions (and thus an occasional over-attribution of responsibility) are always recurring challenges.
Since the neuronal “constitution” of a HSP can easily be put into a state of excessive activity, even on minor occasions, they are prone to fall in love more quickly – a result which the husband of Elaine N. Aron, Art Aron, proved in his well-known “Bridge-experiment” (I mention the experiment already in Entry 15). Such spontanous infatuations can lead to self-doubts and hangovers if a HSP starts to realise that such “inflammations” often lack seriousness and commitment after a few days. Nevertheless, an “open” kind of relationship is in any way favourable in this respect concerning HSP, as they are regularly confronted with the fact of presumably having intense feelings for more than one person. But since highly sensitive individuals literally “lose the ground under their feet” because of the very same mechanism and are susceptible to embark on a steep ascent to “cloud nine”, they also need stability and the ability to ground and center as a counterweight.
Because of the “hormonal kick” there are two dangers regarding HSP: On the one hand to be “in love with love” and thus to approach relationships too idealistically; whereby potential partners, if they dare to show earthly-human weaknesses, are rashly “sorted out” – because they no longer fit into the romantic idealisation or the perfect partner. On the other hand, the phenomenon of becoming a “NRE-Junkie” [NRE = New-Relationship-Energy, an approximation to describe the overwhelming flash of initial infatuation]. That way, a HSP may turn into a kind of addict, who at some point starts to tumble from relationship to the next relationship, to renew and experience the hormonal flash again, never getting enough of these “kicks”.
Clearly structured, small relationship networks by contrast, as the Oligoamory tries to establish, provide HSP with opportunities to play off their much better trump: the chance for intense and deep connections offering long-term imbuing and satisfying experiences – thereby providing insights and perceptions which constitute those silent but powerful climaxes in the life of any HSP.
I agree at this point that, of course, that even small (relationship)networks at some point start with a first encounter – exactly in that case it is particularly important for HSP to immediately pay attention to the “sustainability factor” (see also Entry 3) in order to connect with people who are appreciative concerning the attribute of SPS, so that a viable basis can be created. To use an illustration: It makes little sense to establish a sophisticated and full-scale organic diet, but to prepare the food each time on a disposable cooker…

Anyway, regarding (multiple)relationships, there is another factor that can be both a talent and a curse to HSP. The Dutch poet Margaretha Vasalis (being HSP herself) called this occurence “tentacles that are slipping into the other being“. It is quite easy to recognise in this description the desire for confluence and intensive connection, which corresponds to the very nature of a HSP.
In fact, by being so “naturally”, it is also a mode that HSPs have little or no control over (unless they are very much involved in researching their own SPS – and even then it would be as if one would voluntarily tie an arm on the back…). Literally they “can barely help it”.
But – of course – this can be problematic in many respects concerning the relationship quality. In the first place there is the aforementioned issue of the amalgamation regarding emotions and feelings of own and foreign origin. Secondly, there is always a certain factor of involuntary incapacitation towards the person the “tentacles are slipping into” – which is most often subconscious and self-forgetful. Nevertheless, as Marshall Rosenberg expressed in Nonviolent Communication, “involuntaryness” is quickly perceived as coercion and can trigger conflicts (or lead deeper into them). The responsibility that HSP have for their particular condition is rather substantial at this point – and in such a case, again, a kind of relationship that is conducted within the scope of a predictable and committed oligoamorous framework can greatly support all parties involved:
HSP already have a very “high-resolving” perception thanks to their sensory system, which is excitable and delicate. For each community or relationship-network, they represent an extremely sentient heart as well as a sensitive early warning system. At the same time, concerning the HSP itself, this ability quickly becomes a kind of tightrope-walk – and the HSP is in danger of reflecting in its behaviour any aspect of its surroundings, or prone to giving good advice like “I know what’s bothering you…!”. Because of their special talents of observation and empathy, some HSP (but not all!), often hit the bull’s eye. However, remembering the last time somebody gave us a painfully accurate piece of advice, we easily realise that such a kind of marksmanship may not always be enjoyable. It is therefore also important for both the HSP and the environment – especially if they are engaged in a loving relationship with each other – to carefully practice communication concepts such as Nonviolent Communication or Radical Honesty (see Entry 20) in order to maintain all-round well-being.
HSP who are stressed, poorly recovered or who are plagued by worries/fears can, when their precise perceptions mingle on the emotional level with a mixture of self-generated and foreign feelings, literally drown in their “sensations”. In that case even the observations of a HSP are mixed with interpretations and evaluations that are influenced by own filters of negativity, such as abandonment, envy or jealousy, and such an emotional momentum immediately leads into an inner chamber of horror of assumptions and fears. This mechanism isn’t happening out of malice, but in such a case a HSP literally falls victim to its own, otherwise often so useful, potentials.

At this point it is easy to see why I have already written a bLog-entry like No. 11, in which I have dealt in detail with the “good personal reasons” that are underlying almost every one of our day-to-day actions.
Because we HSP ourselves also have to realise at any time that we are all humans, who exist in a universe of abundance and possibilities – and that we all are incredibly complex beings. Therefore, we should limit our experience as little as possible with interpretations and assumptions and instead cultivate our immense skill of openness and fascinated curiosity.
In addition it is enormously conducive, if we HSP in particular preserve our excellent perception organic and viable: Do I really experience today “the same things as always”? Or is it just supposedly “always the same”? For a truly neutral camera, for a child, or for a being from outer space that has never been on earth before, any sunrise is new and unique every day. Regarding that it is important to remember not to confuse supposed wisdom with (bored) expectation.

In this way – and by a mixture of good and less good experiences – I as a HSP have noticed bit by bit that “less” (of everything) is much more favourable to me, but that I am still able to savour this “less” intensely, in depth and on a broad spectrum. The vast majority of HSP are all their lives engaged with a similar “fine tuning” due to high stimuli in their perceptions and strong inner sensations – and therefore we are busily trying to equilibrate between “…further deepening…?” or “…rather omit…!”.
By developing my Oligoamory-project I would like to invite you to create a playing field with your chosen loved ones, which is based on mutual respect and the joy of discovery so as to ensure for all parties mainly nurturing and safe experiences. This applies in particular to all the self-experiences and “foreign-experiences” that are so important to HSP, which in this way can lead to self-awareness and the best experiences of all: familiarity-experiences.

Today I give thanks to my readers who have joined me on this short journey into the realm of SPS and HSP, regardless of whether they count themselves among its inhabitants or whether they have a loved one to whom this characteristic applies. We all benefit from our common understanding for each other.


And thanks to MartisFuksu on pixabay.com for the photo.

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