Subcultures of the Highly Sensitive Person
Definitions, Tasks & Challenges ©2006
By Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC
It was at 10th HSP Gathering Retreat™ in June of 2006 at Walker Creek Ranch, in Petaluma, California when I looked around the room and immediately sensed the connection and similarities we all shared as highly sensitive people. Yet, it was also quite obvious how different we each were. It was then on an afternoon walk when all the “HSP Subcultures” suddenly presented, or as some would say, were “downloaded” to me. These definitions came to me almost like in a dream, and I think this was because at this particular gathering there were individuals who represented almost all of the different HSP Subcultures that I identified that day. Other HSP Subculture definitions, tasks and challenges were added in the few years which followed.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “subculture” as: a group that has beliefs and behaviors that are different from the main groups within a culture or society.”
I have often viewed the neutral, genetically inherited trait of sensory processing sensitivity as a cultural diversity issue. Why? Because in the broadest sense, cultural diversity refers to a wide variety of groups, and includes different coping strategies a group might utilize for adapting to certain life situations. This, we know, is very important to we HSPs, and it is important to know honoring cultural diversity is not the same as assimilation or social integration.
Although we HSPs certainly do not all share the same beliefs, we share enough similar characteristics to make up 15-20% of the world’s population, and that is no coincidence.
For example, although we HSPs may not look that different from anyone else, we know that we share many commonalities, which are not shared with the other 80% of those who have not inherited our genetic trait. Elaine Aron has categorized our similarities, whether introvert or extrovert, as: thinking deeply and broadly about most things; heightened awareness of emotions, sensitive to subtleties such as loud noises, temperature changes, and increased responsiveness and empathy.
I’ve found the “HSP Way” way of being happy, well-adjusted, and/or experiencing a greater sense of well-being is markedly different from mainstream America, or the other 80%. In fact, when attempting to live like the other 80% of the population in “mainstream America,” an HSP will most likely experience burn-out, illness, or struggle with self-esteem. Part of being an empowered HSP is learning to define success on our own terms, and to find our own unique way of being in the world. Thus, part of honoring cultural diversity is understanding that it is not the same as assimilation, social integration or “being like others.”
After working exclusively with HSPs since 2001, and facilitating and presenting at over 33 national and international HSP Gathering Retreats, I have become aware of just how unique and varied we HSPs are, thus my creation of these HSP Subcultures. You will note, there is no reference to introvert or extroverts … as the subcultures may be equally distributed among the 15-20% of HSPs.
And, of course, many HSPs may find they fit into more than one (or several) of the HSP subcultures, or, perhaps, none at all. And I suspect, with time, most HSPs just might develop all the gifts of all of these HSP subcultures.
Finally, it is important to note these HSP Subcultures are a combination of our HSP genetic trait … and / or our temperament characteristics. Of course, some of the HSP Subcultures might also reflect our personalities, which in many cases were influenced by our family of origin or other life experiences.
And, now in alphabetical order –
The HSP Subcultures
The Anomalous HSP
A very small percentage of HSPs as defined by independent researcher, David Ritchey in The H.I.S.S. of the A.S.P.: Understanding The Anomalous Sensitive and Michael Jawer in The Sensitive Anatomy of Emotion (reviewed by Elaine Aron in the November 2010 issue of The Comfort Zone.
Challenges – Similar to the HSP Physical Reactor , except with more pronounced , and sometimes painful, reactions to external stimuli via the body’s senses, which if not carefully managed, may result in poor physical health with a variety of symptomatic illnesses.
Tasks: To begin (often) lifelong research to discover, understand and implement action plans which protect and enhance your body’s unique physiological needs in order to maintain energetic boundaries, and good physical health.
The Calloused, Unrecognized HSP
The HSP who has either ignored their traits of high sensitivity, or who were never given the gift of knowledge about the trait. May appear unfeeling, scornful or contemptuous, usually not capable of being in loving relationships. (Many of us might see our parents in this subculture.)
Challenges: Becoming knowledgeable about the trait of high sensitivity is a major break through for the Calloused HSP.
Tasks: Avoiding becoming embittered, sick, dysfunctional, addicted to drugs or alcohol. Must be willing to find appropriate intervention to begin long process of healing.
The Caregivers and Guardians of Childhood, the Elderly, and the Dying
Those who find that teaching, guiding and caring for children, the elderly, animals, and the dying come naturally. They have a unique ability to serve those with special needs.
Challenges: Finding support and structure to provide unique HSP-style care and instruction.
Tasks: Finding time away from giving to others; practicing self-care. Not giving as much that they are ultimately less helpful and poor role models. Teaching at a level appropriate to the situation.
The Core Issue HSP
The HSP from a traumatic, troubled and sometimes abandoned childhood. May have suffered from some type of abuse, or felt abandoned, neglected, dominated, or used. Often suffer from chronic anxiety or depression.
Challenges: Finding and investigating the appropriate healing venue(s) whether that is therapy, medications, new environments, books, so that healing and learning to integrate the HSP trait in a positive way can be accomplished.
Tasks: Reaching out for help, staying committed to the healing path, acknowledging there is a problem without feeling deep shame, and finding new kinds of support, friendship, and community as this healing progresses. Perhaps eventually their insight eventually with others having similar wounds.
Those HSPs who need to create and manifest their ideas or visions. Medium may be music, drama, art, ideas, books, poetry, painting, etc.
Challenges: Accepting, understanding, and honoring the creative process and finding a medium for this expression.
Tasks: Learning how to manifest creative urges, finding support, education, and time to create. Patience, perseverance, and developing self-confidence.
The Empath ( HSP )
The HSP who is not only affected by other’s moods, but can also experience other’s emotions as if they were their own. Not all HSPs are Empaths by the way, and Elaine Aron would prefer that we not equate the two because science has not yet researched the Empath.
Challenges: Becoming overwhelmed with too many emotions, not being able to determine why mood may shift without notice; learning to discern which emotions belong to them, and which belong to others.
Tasks: Becoming aware of when one’s mood is suddenly affected, determining the source; learning when to turn off empathic abilities; learning when to use empathic abilities as a service and when these abilities can be a hindrance to growth or connection with others in a meaningful way.
Judith Orloff, Ph.D. has written several books on the Empath, and she often combines the two. However, it is important to note that not all HSPs are empaths, and not all Empaths are HPSs.
The Empowered Priestly Advisor
Evidenced by energetic, purposeful and spiritual direction, activism or leadership in their lives. These could be the coaches, counselors, therapists, authors, spiritual leaders (especially if they are advocates for the HSP.)
Challenges: Can sometimes expect others to think like them; Taking on too many causes, over stimulation, if left un-managed, can lead to burn-out.
Tasks: Finding support and like-minded individuals to work with. Avoiding burn out. Learning to accept small changes as progress. HSP self-care is extremely important to this group (as it is for all HSPs.)
Note: I love Elaine Aron’s definition of the Priestly Advisor, as written in The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook. She describes the priestly advisor role as one in which the HSP “teaches, counsels, advises, heals, keeps the history in words or art forms, envisions the future, thinks about the meaning of life and death, leads rituals, studies the subtleties of nature or law, and puts the brakes on the more impulsive warrior kings.”
The High Sensation Seeking HSP
A minority within the HSP population, who is challenged to both: pause to check and to seek (novel) stimulation or adventure – not necessarily of a physical kind.
Challenges: May often feel torn — as if one foot is on the “accelerator” and the other on the “brake”. May become as easily overstimulated as under stimulated.
Tasks: To recognize and respond to one’s physiological and psychological need to withdraw from too much stimulation, yet also recognize the need to seek novel, comforting, safe, and gently energizing options for stimulation.
Reference: Thrill, by Tracy Cooper, Ph.D.
The Gifted HSP
The HSP who is unusually capable of deeply understanding, processing and synthesizing information from a wide variety of sources. Are ALL HSPs gifted ? There are differing views on this … but since all HSPs do process information very deeply, on many different levels, they perhaps all have the capability of giftedness.
Challenges: To learn how to contain and manifest their unique gifts or risk the possibility of not being able to direct or manifest their gifts in the world. To learn when and how to share themselves with the world, and to understand that they may feel different from others.
Tasks: To become self-aware of “multiple levels of intelligence” and to self-identify which one’s they are drawn, so that they can choose to develop one or more of these for the joy it brings themselves, and to for the service it might offer the world.
The HSP Healer
Medical doctors and/or alternative healers, who are unusually intuitive using their gifts to offer healing to others. Alternative healing modalities may be Reiki, massage, medical intuitive, acupuncture, etc. May also be the more humble, reluctant healers such as Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama
Challenges: Gaining the right education to express this gift. Avoiding burnout.
Tasks: Finding support and encouragement from like minded individuals, and learning to trust these gifts and use them appropriately.
HSP Physical Reactor
HSPs who are unusually physically reactive to certain foods, noise, lights, stress. Physical reactions may include allergies, sweaty palms, nervousness, nausea, migraine headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, “leaky gut” syndrome, etc.
Challenges: Finding or creating supportive environments which honor these physical sensitivities.
Tasks: Determining what triggers physical reactions and what alleviates any negative ones. Seeking compatible medical alternatives and knowledge to help manage and/or alleviate symptoms if at all possible. Accepting that not all people will understand these reactions.
Reserved Intellectual HSP
May be predominately introverts, although the Sensitive Extrovert is certainly not excluded from this group. Possess a keen intellect. May appear either shy or arrogant, but may not necessarily be that way. This subculture might be drawn to the sciences (more often the ‘thinking type’ of HSP) or to psychological, social or spiritual studies (more the ‘feeling type’.)
Challenges: Finding ways to share this gift with others and the world.
Tasks: Avoiding isolation; learning to accept others with different opinions or different mental styles; reaching out, becoming involved (a tiny bit more 🙂 ) outside their comfort zone.
The Social Justice/Activist HSP
Deeply moved to action by injustices whether upon people or the environment. Usually dedicated to many causes to improve human and earthly conditions…view new paradigms for a new world.
Challenges: Being overwhelmed with too many causes, not finding like-minded support groups to work with, feeling isolated, and perhaps feeling judgmental of others.
Tasks: To find support chose causes wisely, and realize that small changes do make a difference. Avoid burn out by taking time off to rejuvenate.
The HSP in Transition
The person who has just discovered the trait of high sensitivity. May feel relief about understanding why they are different, but may feel alone, misunderstood, judged or discouraged about themselves and their seeming limits.
Challenges: Acknowledging, reframing, and healing from the internalized negativity about the trait. Must learn to set boundaries and assert newly understood needs.
Tasks: Taking time to investigate the trait, set new boundaries, practice new coping skills.
The Wise, Saintly HSP
The Mother Teresa’s of the world, who feels a supreme devotion to a higher spiritual calling, or have achieved unusual levels of wisdom.
Challenges: Finding the precise expression for this calling.
Tasks: Avoiding isolation, burn out, psychological inflation. Practicing self-care.
Copyrighted material. Use only with permission by Jacquelyn Strickland, Licensed Professional Counselor, LifeWorks, for Highly Sensitive People, www.lifeworkshelp.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org