Highly Sensitives -Elaine Aron

Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person:

Improving Outcomes For That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients

Dr. Elaine Aron

New York: Routledge Press, 2010, 228 pps.


Too sensitive! Is it an accusation, a complaint, a fate to be bemoaned or a gift to celebrate? In North American society, where extroversion is the ideal, sensitive, reflective souls often struggle. 

   Social psychologist and Jungian analyst Dr. Elaine Aron has been studying and writing about the subject of sensitivity for the last fifteen years since the publication of her first, best selling book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Dr. Aron has a personal stake in the subject since she is, by her own research criteria, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) herself. She is far from alone. Her research suggests that ten to fifteen per cent of the general population would fall into the range that she considers “highly sensitive” and Dr. Aron proposes that this innate trait creates characteristic experiences and vulnerabilities.

   The first psychological discussion of the problems of hypersensitive and hyper-responsive people appeared in the 1930’s when Carl Jung was elaborating his ideas on personality types. He speculated that approximately twenty-five per cent of his therapeutic clients were individuals who were inordinately sensitive to the stimulation coming from their surroundings. This sensitivity included strong responses to sound and light and sensations on the skin, as well as emotional sensitivity; these clients were easily affected and also very aware of other people’s feelings. He noted as well a heightened attention to details of all sorts. He proposed that this sensitivity was related to a character trait which he called “introversion” and that it was also connected to the quality of “intuition.” Jung himself commented on the experience of the sensitive individual:


A certain innate sensitiveness creates a special prehistory, a special way of experiencing infantile events, which in their turn are not without influence on the child’s view of the world. Events bound up with powerful impressions can never pass off without leaving some trace on sensitive people. Some of them remain effective throughout life, and such events can have a determining influence on a person’s whole mental development.  

(Jung, Collected Works 4, para. 399)


    Dr. Aron has made a life’s work of studying and writing about how sensitive individuals are emotionally and psychologically impacted by their special experience of life. Her most recent book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes For That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients, is the fruit of fifteen years of research and clinical experience working with a sensitive clientele. In this book she pulls together the essentials of the information previously published in all other sources.

    Her book title is based on Jung’s observation that early life experiences can have particularly strong impacts on the eventual mental health of individuals who are more highly sensitive so that a greater percentage of sensitive individuals will find their way to psychotherapists of all sorts. Aron goes so far as to suggest that thirty to fifty per cent of all therapy clients will be above average in their sensitivity. In a scholarly article she cites Jung:


This excessive sensitiveness very often brings an enrichment of the personality and contributes more to its charm than to the undoing of a person’s character. Only, when unusual situations arise, the advantage frequently turns into a very great disadvantage, since calm consideration is then disturbed by untimely affects. Nothing could be more mistaken, though, than to regard this excessive sensitiveness as in itself a pathological character component. If that were really so, we should have to rate about one quarter of humanity as pathological. (Jung, CW 4, para. 398)


    Although she is a psychoanalyst and this book is intended for professional therapists and mental health care workers, Aron has chosen to write in a language which is accessible to everyone. One does not need to be a therapist to follow and understand her clinical descriptions or her reflections and proposals. The book is well salted with case descriptions which she has composed out of many clients’ stories to bring her subject alive. While she recognizes that sensitivity sometimes leads to mental and emotional difficulties, her voice is always compassionate and she never pathologizes the phenomenon unnecessarily. 

     It is part of her literary style to suggest appropriate therapeutic questions or observations that therapists might make and it is irresistible as one reads these questions not to answer them internally. As a result, reading the book becomes something akin to having a series of therapy sessions with Aron herselfa very thought-provoking exercise which brings home to the reader how very sensitive any of us can be at some times in the areas of life that she considers.

    She includes a helpful chapter which offers an overview of the scientific studies which have been done on the concept of High Sensitivity. For psychotherapists in private practice, the differential diagnostic annex will propose an interesting alternative vision of clients who present with puzzling symptoms which resemble, but do not quite fit, diagnoses such as ADD, PTSD, personality disorders, as well as anxiety and mood disorders which have symptoms which overlap with sensitivity.

     This is the most comprehensive book on the subject of sensitivity that currently exists and will be of interest to anyone who wonders about their own sensitivity or the sensitivity of important others whose lives they share.

      Sensitivity in Aron’s eyes is neither good nor bad. It is simply one more aspect of human possibility, but as Jung himself points out, a sensitive person:


 ... will meet with special difficulties and perhaps with more unusual tasks in life than a normal individual who as a rule only has to follow the well-worn path of an ordinary existence.  (Jung, CW 4, para. 572)


    Aron’s new book is a light shining into the sensitive life which does its part to assist sensitive individuals and those who try to help them to see their way more clearly.


                                                                                                              Susan Meindl