It should be no surprise with the rapid advances in genetics these days that they have identified a gene that may help to explain what a lot of folks call the Highly Sensitive Person. A researcher at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Levenson, postulates that a variation of the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17 may may account for people who feel their emotions very acutely. This serotonin transport gene can have two common variations-- the "short allele" or the "long allele" version. It's the short allele version that seems to be responsible for some people feeling things more intensely. This gene variation also seems to be correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety and ADHD. Which bolsters what clinicians who work with those populations have noticed for decades-- that if you have anxiety, depression or ADHD, you are likely to have not just one of those but two or even all 3. And that if you have some of those difficulties you are also likely to see those same problems in blood relatives, hinting that there is a genetic linkage.
Dr. Levenson posted a fantastic youtube video that explains his research in a very understandable and fun format (he even uses emojis!). If you resonate with the idea that you tend to feel things more deeply than others you may want to look at other sources of information about this trait such as the wonderful website The Highly Sensitive Person which has books, videos, research links, self-tests and more.
So if you are a highly sensitive person what can be done about it? Well, years ago I encountered a theory in psychology that seemed so completely WRONG to my therapist's ear-- that the goal of therapy should not be to change people but teach people who they already are and how to live the in the world given who they are.
Anyone who reads my blog or does therapy with me knows that I am a huge fan of splitting the difference, finding the middle path or blending opposing ideas. So while at first I balked at what sounded like a completely hopeless perspective-- that we should not try to help people even try to change-- I came to realize that there is room for some of this perspective in my view of personal growth. Whether you are a Highly Sensitive Person, someone with ADHD (you can be both of course), an extrovert or on the spectrum, all of which are known to be highly genetically determined, or have some other genetically linked trait, you CAN make some changes to how you operate in the world. And, at the same time, there WILL be things you cannot change and, as the old 12-step saying goes, it's learning "the wisdom to tell the difference" that is the key to really thriving. So if the idea of a highly sensitive person resonates with you I encourage you to learn more about it and educate those that are close to you so that your behaviors do not get misinterpreted. Then set about learning how you can navigate the world with a little more comfort.
A few examples of HSP that I have known or worked with-- one woman notices that too much noise is very overwhelming for her, so she has skin-colored ear plugs that she wears if she is going out in public (like the mall, a noisy restaurant, etc). They dampen the ambient sound but she can still hear the people she is talking to just fine. If this idea appeals to you I suggest trying the off-the-rack cheap kind first and if you really love them you can order ones that are more high-end or even have them custom made by shops that cater to musicians.
Another HSP I know gets a lot of anxiety when entering into social situations because of the increased complexity of interactions. The combination of more voices, conversations bouncing around, more eye contact, etc. just jangles her nerves and she used to find herself making excuses and not joining into groups. Once she learned that she was an HSP she experimented with different methods of entering into groups that reduced her feeling of exposure to the increased input. She found that when she enters a room, house, venue, etc. if she can wait a minute (she can pretend to check her cell phone, go find a restroom, etc.) her nervous system has time to acclimate to the new environment. Once she has done that if she is still feeling a bit overwhelmed she can stand sideways to the group (this does not have to be too noticeable, the main thing is the have your torso perpendicular to the group but your head can be facing them). This has an interesting impact on the mammalian nervous system. Mammals are most physically vulnerable when their guts are literally exposed. So when one mammal faces another mammal if their torso is exposed the mammalian brain notices this and there is a deep evolutionary alarm that can sound and may feel like anxiety. This is especially likely if the group includes people you don't know or if you are in an environment you have never been in before (a new restaurant, a new friends house, etc). But by simply turning your torso 90 degrees, like you would if you were fencing, your mammalian brain is more likely to ratchet down the threat level and you will relax more.
For this particular person she even had a third level of "defense" for her nervous system if the first two things did not help enough-- she to develop particular imagery that was settling to her nervous system (if you are not familiar with the amazing power of guided imagery I recommend taking a look into it!). For this person imagining standing behind a huge one-way mirror when she was entering a new group was helpful. In the mental image she could see others but they could not see her. This deactivated her fight-flight response that was predicated on the idea of being seen. Again --to go back to how we are just large bipedal animals dressed in clothing-- being seen is the first step to being eaten. So for some HSP just being looked at can trigger a lot of anxiety. Because the brain, while in some ways is extremely sophisticated, in other ways it is very dumb. Sometimes the brain does not always know the difference between a very well rehearsed imagery and reality (just try thinking about biting into a lemon and see what your salivary glands do). So once this person had locked-in to that image as one that reduced her anxiety and she had rehearsed it numerous times she could call it up when under stress in social situations and it would reduce her feelings of being overwhelmed.
Again I am not suggesting that a HSP can turn themselves into a non-HSP. On some level we are who we are. But learning strategies to help modulate one's innate responses can give us more flexibility in our lives and lead to less stress and anxiety.
If you feel you are an HSP therapy can be a wonderful way to learn about yourself and get some help managing your beautiful but slightly tricky nervous system. Our office offers FREE 30-minute consultations so you can see if any of our therapists would be a good "fit" for you. And if you are an HSP in a relationship couples therapy can be a wonderful way not only to learn about yourself but to have your partner also learn about you in ways that can deepen the intimacy and de-personalize some of the problematic things that can crop up with a HSP in partnerships.
As always I wish you well in all of your endeavors and explorations in life, whether you are an HSP or not. The world has room for all of us and we all contribute in meaningful ways to create the rich diversity of the human condition.
PS If you have found this blog to be helpful PLEASE help us reach more people! "Like" it on Facebook or "tweet" about it on Twitter. Or share it in whatever other social media aps you use! And thanks for helping us get more mental health information out to the public!
I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that families that promote shame lack certain fundamental qualities that protect against shame. These qualities are accountability, intimacy and dependency. If these qualities are present in sufficient amounts in a family system children can grown up without undue amounts of shame. To break these
Again if these qualities are not present enough kids will end up feeling toxic amounts of shame. When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood.
“Children are especially vulnerable to shame." commented Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW in this article in Huffington Post. "Self-centered and dependent, young humans will easily translate, “You did something bad,” into, “You ARE bad.” We need to be aware and careful about the messages we send.
One potent quote I heard about shame was this --
Shame is a lie someone told you about yourself
(that you believed).
Whether it is intentional or not we need to be careful about the messages that we transmit to kids. That they are frustrating, that they are "too much", too needy, too demanding, incompetent, embarrassing or not measuring up to our standards. They may believe these falsities many, many years into the future.
Perhaps one of the reasons that shame is such a persisting emotion and so hard to "un-learn" is that it is tied to our very survival. Shame is centered in the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately the human brain, in some ways, is pretty dumb. It cannot distinguish between physical threat and emotional threat, just like on a brain level it does not distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain (see my earlier blog on this). When the brain perceives any kind of threat it responds by booting up "crisis mode"-- the autonomic nervous system. This is the response of the brain to shame, probably because shame implies a threat to important relationships. Especially in childhood our relationships with caregivers are life and death matters. If we are being shamed by our caregivers we respond as if our survival has been threatened-- because it has. Just like being attacked by a bear we have the urge to hide or flee. If that does not work we resort to attack. Shame is hard-wired in to these deep areas of the brain (the ANS) that are designed to protect us from actual annihilation. So once these areas have been reprogrammed to feel shame it can be very hard to root out.
Shame proneness in kids is sadly predictive of numerous problems in adulthood, including alcohol abuse, high risk sexual behavior, legal problems, suicide attempts and social isolation. Shame proneness, while not associated with age or socioeconomic level, is also associated with low self-esteem and PTSD as well as the problems mentioned above (Ashby et al. 2006, Crossley & Rockett 2005, Feiring & Taska 2005, Stuewig & McCloskey 2005). Shame-proneness assessed in the fifth grade predicted later risky driving behavior, earlier initiation of drug and alcohol use, and a lower likelihood of practicing safe sex (Tangney & Dearing 2002). Similarly, proneness to problematic feelings of shame has been positively linked to substance use and abuse in adulthood (Dearing et al. 2005, Meehan et al. 1996, O’Connor et al. 1994, Tangney et al. 2006). For people who are HIV positive, having persistent feelings of shame predicted t-cell decline, showing compromised immune function (Weitzman et al. 2004).
Shame-prone people also engage in aggressive acts more than those who are not shame-prone. For example they tend to verbally attack, blame and externalize as well as the more passive-aggressive option of simply talking badly about someone behind their back. Shame-prone folks are also more aggressive physically, either interpersonally or by attacking objects/possessions important to the person they are angry at (think keying someone's car). Sadly the shame-prone person may also harm themselves or simply ruminate in their unexpressed anger. Interestingly these individuals admit that their anger gets them into trouble and is destructive of relationships but they seem to have trouble not being triggered into these negative behaviors.
Brene Brown has written and talked extensively about shame and how to become less shame-prone. She suggests the following steps to help recover from a shame-prone upbringing:
For more help with shame I recommend Brene Brown's Ted Talk or her book on shame. She also has other resources available on her website.
Therapy can also be a wonderful tool to work on deep feelings of shame or surviving a shaming childhood. People can heal from toxic shame and learn to more fully love themselves and live the lives they truly deserve.
Wishing you happiness and peace,
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Shame, embarrassment and self-interest are powerful motivators. They can keep us from letting others truly know us. We tell ourselves that "what they don't know won't hurt them" or "it's not relevant" or "they wouldn't understand". But if you truly examine why you don't tell those close to you these difficult truths it usually comes down to the trifecta of secrecy: shame, embarrassment and self-interest.
Why share? How harmful are these undisclosed bits of ourself? Isn't everyone entitled to their own private lives?
In a recent post on the blog "Mirror of Intimacy", Alexandra Katehakis and Tom Bliss wrote of disclosure that "Keeping secrets from, or telling lies to, your partner can be an enormous burden that will ultimately get in the way of your sexual intimacy. A guilty conscience is not sexy, but making yourself vulnerable is". They went on to say that "Exposing your true self means facing your shortcomings and any accompanying shame you feel about your actions. Speaking the truth about things that make you feel bad about yourself can be scary or painful, but is essential if you want to build your relationship on honesty. Living a life of secrets and lies doesn't allow love and sexuality to flourish but, instead, suffocates them."
Katehakis and Bliss recommend that we "Take time today to think about what an act of courage it would be for you to disclose any secrets and lies you're holding that separate you from your partner. Are you ready to face yourself and stand up as an adult? Keep current with your partner by banishing secrets and lies from your relationship, and experience what it's like to live in honesty every day."
That's a tall order for many of us. Especially if you grew up in a dysfunctional family where secrets and lies were the norm. Many of us were taught that being vulnerable would be met with blame, punishment, shaming, teasing or attack. Certainly this would train us to keep anything difficult or potentially self-incriminating to ourselves. And to those of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes not only does this secrecy seem normal, it seem smart! Why make ourselves open to the slings and arrows of those around us? Haven't we suffered enough?
If only that strategy worked. I often tell those who work with me that I am a huge pragmatist. I really am. I aspire to do what works because in the end I just want the desired result. If lying or keeping secrets or sequestering parts of ourselves away from our loved ones worked I would have no issue with it. If it did not ultimately cost us, if it did not ultimately lead to loneliness and damaged relationships, I would encourage it. Whatever road leads to health and happiness I am fully prepared to not only walk myself but lead others on.
Unfortunately keeping secrets, lying (by omission or otherwise) and partitioning off parts of ourself so that no one knows the true us really doesn't work. It may serve to keep us safe in the moment, but ultimately it keeps us apart from those we yearn to be close to. It leaves us feeling that existential angst of "born alone, live alone, die alone". Which I firmly believe is NOT true! In fact, of all living organisms, humans are born to need others MORE, not less. We are inherently pack animals, desperately in need of connection to maintain our own mental and physical health.
When I work with people on trying to deepen connection to others I am fond of explaining the concept of "laddering intimacy". Relationships deepen when each person reveals something to the other that represents an emotional risk. This prompts the other person to respond with their own escalating level of emotional risk. The process builds on itself, giving each person the feeling that they are being trusted with important information. This bonds people together. When we fail to disclose risky material to our partners or loved ones our relationships wither and become flat. We drift apart. We no longer have that feeling of being tightly bound together. What we do to protect ourselves ultimately cuts us off from the very relationships that we need to survive emotionally.
I encourage you to take stock of your intimate relationships. How vulnerable have you made yourself? Are there parts of yourself that you keep hidden? Do you lie by omission? Keep secrets? Revise the truth? If so, what toll do you think it has taken on your relationships? Are you truly close? And what are you really afraid of?
Many years ago while still in training a wise supervisor (Dr. Marc Rathbun) told me "marriage isn't about having fun, it's about growing up". I think those words are true for any deep relationship, not only marriage. I think that being close to someone is about growing up and realizing that we cannot continue to protect ourselves while expecting others to be vulnerable. We cannot be halfway invested and yet reap the full benefit of intimacy. Part of being an adult is moving past one's fear, past one's selfish desire to protect oneself at the expense of another. Withholding, lying and secrecy leaves the relationship inequitable. We hold cards the other doesn't. This is the currency of childhood, of a time when centeredness is the natural phase of our development. But it holds no place in adulthood and cannot lead to truly deep bonds with others. And circling back to my pragmatism, the good news is, if you practice disclosure and put all of your cards on the table, you will be rewarded with the same. In this way you create the intimacy we all need. The price, I would argue, is worth the benefit.
Wishing you health, happiness and closeness with those you love,
By now many of us have heard about the idea of attachment in infancy. There is a strong movement for attachment-informed parenting which promotes consideration of attachment research in child-rearing practices. Since we now know that attachment style in infancy has long-reaching implications most psychologists advocate that parents familiarize themselves with this information as they shape their own parenting behaviors and family culture. And there is good reason to consider attachment! Securely attached infants are observed to be more resilient, tolerate stress better, explore their environment more, settle more easily and derive more comfort from their caregivers.
As they mature they tend to be preferred by peers and into adulthood suffer less psychological problems such as depression, substance abuse and even divorce. We now know that secure attachment in childhood provides a significant advantage in one's adult life. According to work by Feeney, Noller, & Callan (1994), securely attached adults are more satisfied in their relationships than insecurely attached folks. Their relationships have more trust, last longer, involve more mutual and satisfying interdependence, show more commitment and even involve using their partners more as companions in their exploration of the world (Fraley & Davis, 1997). Think of that lovely older couple who retires and travels the world together, exploring new and exciting cultures and growing together rather than apart.
Not only are securely attached adults more likely to get support from their partners when distressed, they are more likely to give support to their distressed partners (Simpson et al, 1992). Their relationships are truly reciprocal, fair and interdependent. And as if that's not enough reason to promote secure attachment for relationship health, these secure partners even view and interpret the behavior of their partners during and after conflict in ways that reduce negative feelings. For example, if my partner and I are arguing about where we will spend Christmas this year, when he brings up how uncomfortable he is around my chaotic family I would be more likely to hear this as a gentle reminder of previous years where we both were frustrated with my family dynamic rather than hearing "I hate your family and how insensitive you are to make suffer by forcing me to see them". Thus it's not only the behaviors that secure partners emit that make the relationship so secure, it's how the secure partner does not project negativity into their partner's statements even when the conversation gets heated. One can see how this generous style of interpreting communication, where the best rather than the worst is assumed, can smooth over many potentially combustible situations.
So what are our chances of reaching adulthood with secure attachment? Most research puts secure attachment rates at about 50% in infants/toddlers. Attachment systems are thought to be somewhat malleable until the age of 13 and can even change after that if a large enough stressor is applied (abuse/neglect, severe trauma, etc). Fortunately for those of us who did not achieve secure attachment in childhood there is still hope! The concept of earned security has been investigated over the past few decades and results indicate that even people who had insecure attachment in childhood can learn secure patterns by adulthood. According to Dan Siegel, MD, this "Earned secure/autonomous status is most often achieved through supportive personal or therapeutic relationships (for example, marriage or psychotherapy). The implication of these findings is that even with difficult past childhood experiences, the mind is capable of achieving an integrated perspective – one that is coherent and that permits parenting" (and I would argue partnering) "behavior to be sensitive and empathic. If integration is achieved, the trend toward transmission of insecure forms of attachment to the next generation can be prevented. Achieving coherence of mind thus becomes a central goal for creating emotional well-being in both oneself", one's marriage and "one’s offspring."
If you or your spouse had a difficult childhood or find it hard to maintain satisfying intimate relationships you may have an insecure attachment style. Therapy can help you to learn the skills necessary to model secure behaviors, thus allowing you to reap the benefits of security mentioned in the research above.
Thanks to our amazing brains we can overcome where we have come from. The rewards are tremendous and I encourage you to consider taking the journey.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.