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'Highly Sensitive' Author Finds Refuge in Noe
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Elaine Aron arrives at our interview fresh from a late-morning ocean swim at the Dolphin Club. The Jungian psychologist tries to start most days with meditation, followed by a bracing dip in the sea.
But lately, it's been hard for Aron to stick to her normal routine. Since the paperback edition of her bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You was published last summer, she's been on the road more often than not, promoting the book at lectures and readings while still tending her burgeoning psychology practice, which she operates out of an office at 24th and Castro.
The day before our interview, she returned to her Eureka Valley Victorian from El Paso, Texas, in the morning and saw six patients in the afternoon. That's how the last several months have gone. If it's Sunday or Monday, she's in Noe Valley. If it's Tuesday, she's driving to Santa Cruz to see patients there. On Wednesday she's back in Noe Valley. Then on Thursday she's on her way to Phoenix, St. Paul, or Any City, USA.
"It's been draining," says Aron, 53, "because I have a full practice and a newsletter [called "Comfort Zone: The HSP Newsletter"], and the publisher wants to see a proposal for my next book [on temperament and relationships]."
That schedule would be tough on anybody, but it's a real stretch for someone who bears the genetic trait for "high sensitivity," like Aron does. She says scientists now estimate that 20 percent of the population may be born highly sensitive-- more cautious and discerning than others.
According to Aron, these highly sensitive people, or "HSPs," as she calls them, "process incoming information from their five senses differently, more carefully. And they like to reflect on things. These two differences tend to make them intuitive, creative, conscientious, and concerned about others."
Highly sensitive people also may grow up to be great artists and thinkers.
That's the good news.
"The not-so-good news," says Aron, "is that we are more easily overwhelmed. When the noise or stuff going on is about right or interesting for others, it may be too much for us. I think the classic example is when an HSP is out with friends, he or she wants the volume down on the radio in the car. Another example involves an HSP spending the day with friends shopping or at the museum. When the day is done, the HSP wants to go home and be quiet and go to bed -- they've had enough -- but their friends want to go out to a nightclub or to a movie."
In writing The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron drew from her surveys, interviews, and clinical experience to devise a self-assessment test (see sidebar). In the book, she tackles problems that sensitive people commonly face, such as anxiety and depression, as well as the challenges they may encounter in their personal relationships and at the workplace.
"Being born highly sensitive doesn't mean you're automatically neurotic, anxious, unhappy, submissive, or lacking in confidence," says Aron. "However, you may be a little more prone to these sorts of difficulties."
But the reasons sensitive people are likely to feel depressed or seek therapy may have more to do with how the world treats them than with any inherent weakness, she says. "First, in this culture, the [highly sensitive] trait is not the ideal. We admire boldness and toughness and outgoingness, especially for males [Aron notes that just as many men as women are born with the trait]. So even the most well-meaning parents and teachers are trying to help HSPs by telling them 'Don't be so sensitive' and 'Don't be so shy.' That makes it hard to grow up feeling good about yourself.
"Second, HSPs can be a little more prone than others to being anxious or depressed if they've had a troubled childhood or if their other life experiences have not been so hot." In other words, if you start out with a sensitive temperament and then have a stroke of bad luck, such as the loss of a parent, "it can be sort of a double-whammy," Aron says.
Since high sensitivity is frowned upon by the majority of today's population, doctors and therapists often look for a "cure."
"When my family doctor heard what I was going to write about, he said, 'Oh, tell your audience that we've got a cure for this. Just give them antidepressants.'"
But drugs may be totally unnecessary. Aron points out that many HSPs excel as writers, teachers, scientists, and philosophers. Abraham Lincoln, Carl Jung, Emily Dickinson, and Jimmy Carter are a few examples.
"I suspect that Jimmy Carter was our last HSP president," she ventures. "He is a creative person, and he tended to be quite serious and conscientious in office. He didn't feel like a sensation seeker, which I think Bill Clinton is right now. Clinton is a good example of somebody who's almost driven to be in the limelight."
Aron stresses that it's important for HSPs to not see themselves as having a tragic flaw. She also acknowledges that it can be a struggle to train yourself to look at the bright side. In fact, as she explains in her book, it took her 25 years.
"As a child, at home, I hid from the chaos in my family," she writes. "At school, I avoided sports, games, and kids in general. What a mixture of relief and humiliation when my strategy succeeded and I was totally ignored."
By her early 20s, after a brief marriage and graduation with honors from U.C. Berkeley, Aron entered graduate school. "I was provided with an office to which I retreated and cried, trying to regain some calm," she writes. "Because of such reactions, I stopped my studies with a master's degree, even though I was highly encouraged to continue for a doctorate.... It took 25 years for me to gain the information...to understand my reactions and complete the doctorate.
"When I was 23, I met my current husband and settled down into a very protected life of writing and rearing a son. I was simultaneously delighted and ashamed of not being 'out there.' I was vaguely aware of my lost opportunities to learn, to enjoy more public recognition of my abilities, to be more connected with all kinds of people. But...I thought I had no choice."
Finally, there came a turning point. "I had to undergo a medical procedure from which I assumed I would recover in a few weeks," she writes. "Instead, for months my body seemed to resound with physical and emotional reactions.... So I tried some psychotherapy. And got lucky. After listening to me for a few sessions, my therapist said, 'But of course you were upset; you are a very highly sensitive person.' To her, such sensitivity was hardly a sign of a mental flaw or disorder."
Still, even today, despite having authored a book on the subject, Aron often wants to forget that she's sensitive.
"I always laugh that if I'd seen my book at a bookstore, but not written it, I would not think I was an HSP," she admits. "Some sensitive people are in a lot of denial about it, and I think that's a big issue for me. It's so difficult for many sensitive people to slow down and live the way they're supposed to and not violate their own operating instructions. That's been a constant task for me. I can advise other people, but I have a hard time doing what I advise them for myself. I'm still absorbing it."
If you're one of those who's sensitive and you start to feel overwhelmed, Aron counsels that you stay away from activities that are too distracting.
"Avoid TV and radio," she says, "because they can be overstimulating. Also, avoid violent movies, and stay away from crowds. If you're at a party or event and start to feel overstimulated, just walk out if possible."
Sensitive people should also maintain a regular routine and set aside time to relax every day, she advises. "Walks in nature, meditation, yoga, spending time near trees and water, reading a book -- these are the types of down-time activities that help HSPs cope."
Although 80,000 copies of The Highly Sensitive Person are currently in print, Aron's success has not come quickly or easily. Her agent spent two years in search of a publisher. Then when she found one, the publisher set an initial print run of only 6,000 hardcover copies. It also provided very little publicity. Even now, Aron says, there has been little national press attention for her book.
"I think the media see it as too narrow a topic -- or maybe it's just not a very glamorous-sounding topic," she laughs.
Still, Aron's book has garnered enough attention in the Bay Area to earn a spot for 19 weeks on the Chronicle's bestseller list, including five weeks at number one.
"I could probably say more HSPs are in the Bay Area than practically anywhere in the United States," says Aron, "and I think absolutely that Noe Valley attracts HSPs. I can't think of a better area for sensitive people to live close to.
"HSPs are often attracted to urban environments because of the arts and culture. Or they may be involved in those fields," she continues. "So if you want to get ahead with your ideas, an urban area is a good place to be. But then you have to find within that urban environment some place that is as 'un-urban' as possible, and Noe Valley is a unique place in this city. It's still a neighborhood. There's a feeling of community, that people want to support you in whatever you're trying to do, whether it's getting an apartment or starting a small business. People in this neighborhood are very understanding."
Plus, Noe Valley offers several soothing places for HSPs to relax.
"I love the top of Kite Hill [at Corwin and 19th]," Aron says. "It's absolutely peaceful. I think another reason Noe Valley is popular with HSPs is that people have back yards here more than in other parts of the city.
"Another place I really love is Holy Innocents Church on Fair Oaks," she adds. "They have those beautiful gardens, and the church itself is beautiful. The natural light, the fountain. It's just a lovely place."
Still, Aron says, no place beats the ocean and getting under the covers.
"Paddling around in the water," she says, "and lying around in bed are the two most wonderful places for me."