Are Highly Sensitive People Really Just Vulnerable Narcissists?

I was unsurprised to see researchers looking for links between high sensitivity and narcissism. I’ve been anticipating something like this for a while.

“Do highly sensitive persons display hypersensitive narcissism? Similarities and differences in the nomological networks of sensory processing sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism”, was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. And according to its authors, it shows “that high sensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism are not the same things, but they do have significant overlaps.”

The paper confronts us with some interesting ideas. Not so much from its results. But rather, in its emergence as a symptom of this cultural moment. It has a beautifully provocative headline but the findings are rather underwhelming.

Elaine Aron has written a great break-down of the study. She explains how this paper fails to contribute anything new or insightful to the deep body of research on sensory processing sensitivity.

Are Highly Sensitive People Really Just Vulnerable Narcissists?

But Sensory Processing Sensitivity Is Not a Function of Personality

Elaine’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person was an absolute game changer for me. It bridged an important gap in my self-awareness and helped me re-script some of the stories I believed about myself growing up. And it provided an empowering platform to integrate my relationship with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) into everyday life.

“Highly Sensitive Person” is NOT an identity. It’s not a diagnosis or a personality. It’s not who someone is. Rather, it’s an underlying biological trait shared with more than 100 species.

It means I might process information deeply. My nervous system can get over-aroused when there’s a lot of sensory input flying at me. I can be deeply emotionally affected by things. And I might pick up on unspoken moods and feelings around me. I also occasionally absorb weird nuanced sensory information that other people might not notice.

But it doesn’t predict how I choose to behave. I love what Scott Barry Kaufman writes in his response to the study: “It’s entirely possible to be overreactive to all the stimuli in your environment and to criticism and even be deeply affected by the mood of others and still be a colossal asshole.” That last part really is determined by our own choices.

Not My Experience of Highly Sensitive People

Our pacing and rhythm won’t always fit the world around us, but that’s fine. There is always room to improve how we adapt to, prepare for, and recover from things in ways that work well for us. In fact, these are skills we can ALL benefit from learning, regardless of our natural temperament.

Most of the highly sensitive people I have known through the years have approached their relationship with the trait in this way. But while the study doesn’t resonate with my personal experience of highly sensitive people, I wasn’t surprised to see it because I recognise the observations that inspired it.

The authors found themselves in a rabbit warren of online forums for those who self-identify as HSPs. This is where they say they observed lots of narcissistic behaviours. I’ve been there too. I get it. But I’m just not sure this study is the best response.

What IS Narcissism?

The word “narcissism” has overwhelmingly negative connotations in the minds of most people. It is an undesirable trait. It’s even become a weaponised term we see used to distinguish the good guys (people like us) from the bad guys (people like them). And to pathologise certain political, business, and cultural leaders.

The authors of the paper acknolowedge this. They tentatively recognise that by “overlapping” it with narcissism they are potentially pathologising sensory processing sensitivity in the minds of readers.

Elaine Aron has always sought to de-pathologise sensory processing sensitivity through her work. So I can imagine her disappointment at seeing this study appear in such a well read and respected journal. This will have far reaching implications; potentially undoing so much of what she has helped positive advance over the years. And she is understandably concerned that it will lead therapists back to viewing high sensitivity as a personality problem to be fixed, not an innate trait to be understood and integrated.

No, Not THAT Kind of Narcissist

The study isn’t even talking about “narcissism” as the kind of verbose selfishness, arrogance, and dandy vanity we might associate with the word in popular understanding. The research isn’t attempting to “overlap” this grandiose kind of narcissism with sensory processing sensitivity.

The narcissism they focus on is “Hypersensitive Narcissism“, which is related to feeling overly vulnerable and self-conscious.

Narcissism Is A Personality Trait

Differential susceptibility is the impact of childhood experiences on an individual’s physical, mental, and social health. It is a vital aspect of all research into sensory processing sensitivity but as Aron points out there is no mention of it in this research.

Vulnerable narcissism can emerge from a troubled childhood, which means as Aron says, it will show up in some HSPs. She suggests however, that this is not enough to describe high sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism as overlapping traits. And without understanding the impact of differential susceptibility (which requires clinical awareness and observation) the research is highly undercooked and lacking usefulness.

I See Narcissists…Everywhere!

The authors say they based their hypothesis on anecdotal evidence and that the study was informed by observations of online discussion forums. Very interesting. It starts to make sense. The project was inspired by particular snapshots of “high sensitivity” being used as a label wherever, however, and by whomever is using it in online and popular culture.

The researchers have noticed that many of these self-described highly sensitive people are exhibiting narcissistic behaviour. I imagine as a psychology researcher, this would be an intriguing and at times rather irritating thing to observe.

A Symptom of Internet Culture

There is a lot of clickbait and content generation by platforms using high sensitivity as a commodified niche. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of unrelated and invented characteristics have been attached to writing on sensory processing sensitivity over the years. The demand for a fresh flow of content can lead to more and more of the bombastic descriptions that Scott Barry Kaufman sees in online forums, articles, and books for highly sensitive people.

These platforms are likely to want more people identifying themselves as highly sensitive people (bigger customer base). And they do this by encouraging people to believe that being a highly sensitive person makes them exceptional, special, and even superhuman. Marketing materials often prey on feelings of loneliness and unmet emotional needs like approval, acceptance, and belonging.

A Symptom of Language

Language is at the centre of this divide. We often see sensitivity idealised and painted as a “superpower” or a “curse”. The researchers flagged these terms, saying they demonstrated the kind of familiar self-importance and entitlement we observe in narcissism.

Elaine Aron rightly points out that the study doesn’t “consider how many HSPs may completely ignore” all of the online forums. And that many HSPs don’t align with the portrayals of sensitivity as a superpower or special burden to carry that is found in lots of this self-help literature.

Describing High Sensitivity (The Age Old Problem)

There is also a longstanding question about how to describe sensory processing sensitivity without alienating people from it.

First, how do we speak to those who might have struggled through life due to their innate sensitiveness (but haven’t ever had a framework for understanding it)? And secondly, how do we talk about something that only applies to 15-20% of the population without alienating everyone else?

I’ve had many conversations about this over the years and there are no simple answers. I wonder if this study is a symptom of the second question. Especially in response to words we might see used to describe people (gifted, genius etc).

Certain ways of describing the trait can sow a sense of “otherness” in the way we hold it. For example, if someone is considered gifted or genius, it implies that everyone else is less than that. When we use words that hold an inherent social value it might appear self-aggrandising and narcissistic. Likewise, the term “highly sensitive” when construed as a burden or curse can imply a victim status, e.g. “no one understands what it’s like to be me”.

But there has to be recognition for what goes on in groups who have “felt mistreated as a minority”. Aron suggests that this might include HSPs too. Pointing out that there is an implicit assumption by the researchers that “everyone is like us”. There is suspicion towards difference and a distrust of any reality that doesn’t seem normal to them.

A Symptom of Individualism

This study draws the conclusion – through watching online groups – that highly sensitive people cut themselves off and inhibit their capacity for personal growth. Again demonstrating the narrow scope in their observations of what at this point has become a rather caricatured version of “The Highly Sensitive Person”.

These groups indeed exist. There is likely a reluctance to personal growth and social development in a bunch of members. But this is something we see everywere. Across a range of communities, especially online. It’s not just true of one particular group but is a growing trend in society at large.

Over the past couple of decades, we have seen an increasing propensity to silo ourselves into like-minded “tribes” or “communities”. The ease with which we can now gather together around interests and identities is perhaps a symptom of the lonely fragmentation that emerges in a highly individualistic age. And the more we do this the more we might see the world through simplistic and paranoid eyes. Looking for safety behind closed doors and viewing everyone “out there” as “other” (something to fear).

When You Feel “Seen”

People respond to life’s “aha” moments in different ways. And those speaking loudest are quite often those who understand the least about the thing they’ve discovered. This has definitely been the case at times with sensory processing sensitivity.

When people find what feels like a significant missing piece of their jigsaw they might get excited and shout about it. Suddenly they see everything through this new personal paradigm. This shift can be disruptive and confusing. But it’s an important part of a personal growth journey as we integrate this new information into our way of being. This often requires experienced, wise and professional support, whether in the therapy arena or amongst mentors and role models.

My vision for The Haven reflects Elaine Aron’s observation, that “most HSPs don’t think much about their trait as either a superpower or a burden once they have integrated it into their thinking”. This journey of integration takes us to a place of freedom. Freedom to enjoy life in a meaningful, sustainable, and energising way.

A label is useful until it has served its purpose (raising awareness, understanding, and acceptance). After this point it can become an unhealthy crutch. Or like a solid rocket booster that fails to jettison when the shuttle reaches orbitting height. It hinders and even sabotages our ability to reach the next stage in our journey of becoming.

Our Responsibility

I think we all are responsible for how we engage with and talk about high sensitivity. It’s easy to get caught up in the use of language that divides and separates us from one another. We shouldn’t police it, but we can learn to recognise how we hold and use these ideas.

This feels like an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve reached in our conversation about high sensitivity. Are we supporting or sabotaging the flow of good information? Are we allowing people to engage with who they are in compassionate and gentle ways? Or are we commercialising and atomising something that should be fundamentally free and universal?

This study has reinforced my commitment to working with people who want to understand themselves in light of their innate sensitivity. Not as an ideal to live up to or something we over-identify with. But as a source of self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-acceptance. So we can integrate ourselves inside and out, and enjoy our place in this beautifully complex web of humankind.

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