Psychologists and neuroscientists have identified that a certain percentage of the population possesses a unique neurological wiring. In 1997, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., coined the term "The Highly Sensitive Person" or HSP to describe individuals with this distinctive wiring.
She characterizes HSPs as individuals who exhibit heightened sensitivity to external stimuli compared to the average person.
Additionally, HSPs tend to engage in deeper cognitive processing and often contemplate their decisions and actions more thoroughly.
This heightened sensitivity and deep processing are believed to be adaptive mechanisms, potentially aiding in survival. Interestingly, similar traits have been observed in various animal species, including fruit flies, fish, and nearly 100 others.
According to Aron and her research, some signs that might indicate you could be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) include:
Easily becoming overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, and loud noises.
Feeling rattled when rushed or under time pressure.
Preferring to avoid violent or intense TV shows and content.
Having a tendency to withdraw into a quiet, dark room or bed when feeling stressed.
These signs can provide some insights into whether you might identify as an HSP and many people are often relieved to finally understand why they have felt different and more sensitive than others rather than being defective in some way.
As children, HSPs often have a rich and complex inner life, which can lead adults to perceive them as introverted or shy.
It's crucial to understand that being highly sensitive is an inherent trait; it's something individuals are born with. In the age-old debate of nature versus nurture, scientific evidence firmly places HSPs in the "nature" camp.
Therefore, it's important to note that highly sensitive people are not made that way by their upbringing or parenting. However, this raises another important question: Are highly sensitive children impacted differently by trauma in childhood and especially emotionally neglectful parenting compared to non-sensitive children? Or do they even hone their sensitivity as one way to manage their surroundings by being even more responsive to perceived dangers?
Based on studies involving thousands of emotionally neglected adults, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. Childhood emotional neglect affects HSP children differently than non-HSP children.
What is the experience of a child growing up in an emotionally neglectful home?
An HSP child growing up in an emotionally neglectful experiences profound isolation, even when surrounded by people. There is an ongoing process of having your emotions dismissed or overlooked.
It's what happens when you're rarely asked:
What's bothering you?
Is everything all right?
What do you want or need?
What are you feeling?
Do you need help?
In an emotionally neglectful home, the issue doesn't usually stem from what your parents or carers actively do to you; rather, it arises from what they fail to do for you: acknowledging and responding to your emotional needs sufficiently.
This can be incredibly bewildering for the child because, from the outside emotionally neglected children appear to have perfectly normal families.
Children raised in emotionally neglectful homes absorb some powerful lessons at a very young age:
Your emotions are invisible, burdensome, or unimportant.
Your desires and needs hold little significance.
Seeking help is typically not an option.
However, the HSP child is born with some special sensitivities. They are deep thinkers, thoughtful, and responsive by nature, HSPs are greatly affected and more easily overwhelmed by external stimulation. HSPs also have greater emotional reactions and more empathy for others.
Imagine being a deeply thoughtful, intensely feeling child growing up in a family that is neither of these. Imagine your intense feelings being ignored, discouraged, or shamed. Imagine that your thoughtfulness is viewed as a weakness.
Imagine if it seems the people around you are operating at a different speed, and living on a different plane than you.
What do you do with your powerful anger, sadness, hurt or confusion? How do you try to fit in?
Many HSP adults have shared the words they heard often in their childhood homes, from parents and siblings alike:
“You are overly emotional.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
“You are over-sensitive.”
Some HSPs are actively made a joke of in their families. Some can be chided and derided or identified as “the weak one,” “the slow one,” because of the more thoughtful processing, or “the dreamer” because of their rich and complex inner life.
Most emotionally neglectful families are not only unaware that emotions are important, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the feelings of their members, typically either passively or actively discouraging the show of any feelings.
What if one particular child feels more deeply than the rest? What will he learn about his feelings in this family? How will he learn how to value, tolerate, understand, and express their feelings?
The HSP child in the emotionally neglectful family learns that they are excessively emotional and wrong. Since our emotions are deeply personal aspects of who we are, the HSP child also learns that they are different, damaged, weak, and wrong, and grow up to be ashamed of their deepest self.
Help & Hope For the HSP Who Grew Up Emotionally Neglected
Considering that you may be an HSP is a good start, after that, there are clear steps to take to heal the legacy of your childhood emotional neglect
Exploring and identifying what emotional neglect is and how you have been impacted
Working through a deep healing and recovery process
Developing lost or abandoned skills
Integrating and showing up in the world as your fullest self
By healing and integrating the repercussions of emotional neglect your HSP qualities can shine, your intense emotional energy empower you, and your deep processing abilities and intuitions guide you.
Only then will you be able to reclaim and celebrate the unique qualities that make you unique, and see that being set apart in your childhood no longer needs to keep you set apart for life.