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Societal Values and Sensitivity

In the last ten to twenty years there has been more acceptance of sensitivity and some wonderful improvements in societal values. Although most men have been brought up to act tough and repress emotions, many progressive men now feel that sensitivity is a positive characteristic. In recent years the media has been featuring many stories about the relationship between stress-related diseases and intense work environments, giving people the opportunity to question whether working under severe pressure is worth harming their health.

While there is now a subculture of progressive people who accept sensitivity as a cherished value for both men and women, over-stimulation in our society has increased at an alarming rate. A popular song in the 60s was the innocent I Want to Hold Your Hand, while today the accepted raucous music is frequently filled with lyrics of swearing and violence. One of the worst offenses in school a generation ago was cutting classes, while now there are security guards and metal detectors at many urban schools to prevent school shootings.

In the 1950s there were three or four television stations, while today we are inundated with up to one thousand stations broadcasting a multitude of shows saturated with graphic sex and gratuitous violence. The home telephone has been replaced by millions of cell phones ubiquitous to modern society, creating a cacophony of clamor throughout the world. Recently I was hiking on top of a magnificent mountain peak in Colorado, enjoying the peaceful and spectacular natural setting when a man charged by me screaming into his cell phone, "I told you to sell the stock."

Thirty or forty years ago most people shopped at small neighborhood stores and had a personal relationship with the storeowner or clerk. In most urban environments, virtually all mom-and-pop stores have been replaced by gigantic, impersonal corporations, which could be called "Stimulation Depot" or "Noise R Us." You have to fight with hordes of other shoppers as you desperately search for bargains amongst thousands of items or wander around trying to find assistance from the few overwhelmed and underpaid clerks. Given this intense level of stimulation, you can understand why HSPs often find shopping nowadays an emotionally exhausting experience. I remember seeing one cartoon that depicted a young woman shopping for toothpaste. She became overwhelmed when trying to choose from a multitude of toothpaste brands: anticavity, fluoride, no fluoride, antigingivitis, extra whitener, gel, striped, antistain for smokers, protection for gums, 15 percent savings on large, 20 percent savings on extra large. After reviewing the multitude of products to choose from, she felt so overwhelmed that she went home to lie down from exhaustion.

Age is a factor in determining our sensitivity to stimuli. Children and older people are more deeply affected by overstimulation. Since children haven't yet developed the capacity to express themselves, they frequently react intensely. (For more information about highly sensitive children read The Highly Sensitive Child by Dr. Elaine Aron, in which she succinctly describes the unique challenges of raising sensitive children). As teenagers and young adults, HSPs have a higher tolerance for overstimulation. Some HSP teenagers usually can even tolerate listening to loud music and partying to all hours of the night. As you age, your capacity for stimulation decreases, and it's common for many middle-aged HSPs to go to bed early and avoid going out too much. However, you always need to find a balance between too much and too little stimulation. After the age of sixty-five, your ability to tolerate stimuli is further diminished.

Since most countries value aggressive behavior, adjusting to non-HSP values is challenging for the sensitive person in most societies. The HSP's adjustment is dependent on the culture in which they were raised. In a study of Canadian and Chinese school children, it was found that in Canada highly sensitive children were the least liked and respected, while in China sensitive children were the most popular (Aron 2002). I had a foreign exchange student from Thailand who lived with me for a year. Tone was a sixteen-year old sensitive, gentle boy when he came to the United States. He told me that the Thai people value kindness and gentleness. Most Thai people speak and walk softly and are perhaps the gentlest people in the world. When I observed him talking with his Thai friends, I noticed that they would speak in soft, melodic voices. It was very difficult for Tone to adjust to an aggressive American high school environment, where tough and bellicose behavior in males was valued while gentleness and sensitivity was considered a flaw. Tone learned to deny his sensitivity and tried to become more assertive in order to survive in the non-HSP Western culture.

Countries vary regarding how much stimulation their citizens are exposed to. One study indicated that the Dutch keep their infants calmer than Americans, who generally expose their babies to more stimulation (Aron 2002). In India, children are brought up with a great deal of stimulation, making it challenging for the HSP. However, even sensitive people in India become more habituated to hearing incessant noise. I interviewed a highly sensitive man from India who had lived in the United States for five years. Ramesh reported that the longer that he stayed in America, the more acculturated he became to the comparatively quiet atmosphere, and it was difficult for him when he visited India. However, since he was raised in an extremely noisy environment, he told me that he eventually adapts to the overstimulation of his native country, and after some time the excessive noise doesn't bother him so much.

While HSPs who are raised in overstimulating environments can cope more easily with excessive stimuli, sensitive people brought up in less stimulating societies have a more difficult time adapting. A highly sensitive American woman told me about a spiritual tour of India that she attended with both Westerners and Indians, and her story illustrated how Americans need their quiet space. She said that the Indian and American women slept on the floor in two different large rooms. In one room all the Indian women slept together in one corner touching each other, like a litter of puppies, while all the American women slept exactly three feet apart from each other in the other room.

Likewise, if an HSP from rural Montana moved to Manhattan, she would become easily overwhelmed by the assault on her senses. In the opposite case, sensitive people who have become habituated to urban overstimulation may have difficulty adjusting to a quiet, rural environment. When I lived in the bucolic Sierra Mountains in California, I had a friend who worked in downtown San Francisco visit me for the weekend. The lack of stimulation made him anxious, and he wanted to go to the nearest town, thirty minutes away. One HSP student who lives in a noisy urban neighborhood told me that she had trouble sleeping due to the quiet on a recent visit to the country.

The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide - Ted Zeff, PH.D. (pg 6-9)

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May 2012

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Sensitivity

How to thrive when the world overwhelms you