In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she talks about two research psychologists who focussed on sensitivity. In separate studies, Jerome Kagan and Elaine Aron identified characteristics of those who are more sensitive than others. Kagan studied babies into their teenage years and was able to predict which ones would turn out to be quiet teenagers. The sensitive babies reacted strongly to stimuli such as balloons popping, bright colours and strong scents. Kagan labelled these children “high-reactive”.
Those who know me will know that I like research. When I need to know more on a subject, I read as much as I can gain access to. So when my first child was born, I read voraciously in order to cope better and to minimise her discomfort. Those of you who have cared for a small baby know that it’s quite difficult to troubleshoot the cause of crying. I used to go through the basic checklist: she has been fed, she has a clean diaper, she is not tired, she is not too cold or too hot etc. What I realised after a while is that she became overstimulated very easily. A lot of noise in the day or strong perfume from cuddling relatives led to bouts of hysterical crying in the night, for which I could do very little. I had to rock her gently in a dark room, holding her tight to soothe her as best I could.
Her sister on the other hand was a clear extrovert from the outset and had no such needs. It is quite difficult to overstimulate her because she thrives on attention, noise and fun. There is no question in our family that my oldest daughter and myself are the introverts. We prefer the volume on the TV to be lower than the rest of the family do, and we get tired from busy outings with lots of interaction.
Elaine Aron studied “highly sensitive” people who limit surprises, carefully consider consequences before acting, dislike small talk and are sensitive to strong sounds, sights, smells and coffee. The highly sensitive people have more empathy and think in an unusually complex way. An interesting aspect of Aron’s findings was that the amygdala in the brain became more strongly activated in highly sensitive people when exposed to disturbing imagery.
It would be my guess that sensitive people are more subject to stress than the remainder of the population. For those of us who think deeply about things and who are easily affected by social dynamics, we bear a larger burden. I know that I have struggled to manage stress in my life and now have a life-long stress-induced condition. It was not surprising to find that the highly sensitive test was a resounding Yes for me.
If you are introverted or sensitive, I’m sure you’ve been criticised for it in the past. I’ve been told many times in performance appraisals that I need to build on my resilience. What I love about Susan Cain’s book is that she highlights the benefits of being an introvert. She cites many examples of famous people who did their best work alone and who were profoundly affected by events. We are not dysfunctional, we are just different, with different needs and qualities to contribute.
Having empathy and being aware of other people’s feelings can make you a real asset to a team. Being able to think differently leads to improved problem solving and innovation. Just don’t put a highly sensitive person in a noisy office environment. Allow them to work from home or have flexible work hours without being labelled weird or a ‘loner’. And for yourself, know when to take action to restore your energy. Allowing the best of your nature to shine is more your responsibility than that of your manager.