Acknowledging ‘HSP’: Sensitive People Are People Too

I want to write about something unusual, but I believe awareness will bear fruit.

Have you ever thought of yourself as shy, introverted, or neurotic? Are you sensitive to sensory stimuli such as light, sound, and smells? Do you become overwhelmed easily by large crowds or feel other people’s emotions acutely? Are you creative, thoughtful, and complex? Good news! You might be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), an innate genetic and neurological trait found in 20% of the population.

Often, people with this sort of sensitivity feel out-of-place in our society, especially given the emphasis on externality, sociality, and competition (cf. the Super Bowl). These people are not antisocial, and don’t have some kind of disorder. Rather, their perceptions are finely tuned to the subtleties of the world around them, and they are preoccupied with meaning, deliberation, and appreciation. They tend to make good decisions (albeit slowly), empathize with others (even against their will), and deeply internalize beauty and ideas. (For more info, see here.)

So why should this matter to a nice Jew like you? Well, beyond the value of awareness, you probably know more people like this than you realize. The bochur who’s distressed by the noise of a 500-person beis medrash; the artist who isn’t included in the “velt;” the kid who sits alone because he’d rather read than play sports — they’ve all been there in your life. The question is: what did you think about that person? How did you treat him/her? And how many HSP’s are hiding in the masses, having trained themselves to cover their emotions and disregard their thoughts in order to fit in? 20% is a big number. The very fact that such a demographic is unknown should be a wake-up call. Out of sheer lack of knowledge (this is a relatively recent finding), we have turned people away from at least some aspect of Judaism (being in no way limited to any particular community). Why did these people think they had to leave or separate themselves from the group? Because they became so overwhelmed by negative stimulation (be it emotional, social, or sensory) that, without the tools to cope, the only answer was to become isolated with their shamed inner worlds.

The solution will obviously start small. If we want to change the world (and we do), we have to start with ourselves. HSP’s don’t have to repress their sensitivities — that usually leads to “burn-out” — and non-HSPs don’t have to treat them like they have ADD, autism, or personality disorder (but if you have symptoms of those conditions, you should see a clinician). Maybe we could design specialized batei medrash? Re-open redemption-era channels of learning and machshava? Start youth programs and retreats that address the needs of sensitive people and guide them towards a fulfilling-but-authentic Torah identity? We talk a lot about needing practical leaders and innovators (not to the exclusion of poskim and gedolim) who will unite groups and enthuse them with truth. Let’s start with individuals.

To all the confused and beautifully sensitive souls out there, fear no more. And to all the other confused and beautiful souls, we hope you’ll join us.

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