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The Highly-Sensitive Temperament

Some people mistake them for shy or introverted, but about twenty percent of people have an inborn temperament characterized by heightened sensitivity.

A person with a highly-sensitive temperament observes before acting. This person notices subtle details, processes the input thoroughly, and reflects on it deeply. The highly sensitive mind naturally works this way. On the other hand, the larger portion of the population acts more quickly, appearing more confident and comfortable by comparison.
The term “temperament” describes a person’s innate manner of thinking and behaving, such as the traits of introversion and extroversion, as defined by analytical psychologist, Carl Jung. A person who behaves in an introverted manner, appears quiet and reserved in social groups as compared to the majority, and prefers solitary activities or time spent with close friends to larger social gatherings. Extroverts prefer social activities to solitary and feel energized in the company of others.
Sensitive Individuals and Overwhelming Situations
In large groups or activities where a lot of activity, the highly-sensitive person may feel overwhelmed by sensory input before the majority of participants reach a similar need to pull away from stimulation, and rest, process, and reflect on experiences. This susceptibility to over-stimulation can result in introverted behaviors such as a preference for less social activities and more solitude than the majority of persons.
Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (Replica, 1999), emphasizes the following points:

  • The highly sensitive temperament is normal, although it is a minority at fifteen to twenty percent of the population.
  • The highly sensitive temperament is innate, is found in most or all species, and reflects a type of survival strategy that complements other strategies.
  • The highly sensitive temperament is not synonymous with introversion or shyness. About thirty percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts.

Shyness and Social Disorders

Shyness results from fear. A person learns to act in a shy manner based on harmful or frightening experiences. The highly-sensitive person naturally operates in a cautious, thoughtful manner, based on taking in more sensory input than the majority of people.
Social dysfunction, such as social phobias, anxiety disorders, autism, Asperger syndrome, and other psycho-biological conditions, result from fear, negative past experiences, chemical/hormonal imbalances, or other physiological causes. Although a highly-sensitive person may suffer a psychological disorder, this does not result from the temperament.
The highly-sensitive temperament carries valuable qualities that complement other qualities. For example, a highly-sensitive person’s thoughtfulness complements another person’s bold action. Think of the balanced partnership between an advisor and a activist or leader. The variety of temperaments can serve a cohesive purpose when each receive equal value.

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