ADHD and the Highly Sensitive Person
When researching ADHD, I stumbled across Elaine N. Aron’s excellent book, The Highly Sensitive Person.
Just when I thought I was getting a handle on my new identity as an adult with ADHD, along comes Aron and blows me away with another book describing traits that were completely familiar.
Aron’s book reminded me of my sister’s comments when we first talked about my having ADHD:
“Within our family, if there were arguments, we would think it was something little and for you it was huge, just huge. Something that I considered sort of like a little spat or insignificant, I think you felt was enormous.”
I began to include the question, “Have you been called too sensitive?” in my interviews with other adult ADHDers. Denise’s response to that question sounded familiar:
“My parents would say, ‘You need to toughen up. Don’t be so sensitive. Don’t be so influenced by what others think about you.’ I still find, even now [as an adult], if I’m fighting with peers, I might have the tendency to take things more personally. I’m also more sensitive to environmental things, like noise. I need to get into a forest, get somewhere else every once in awhile. I feel overwhelmed by information on a regular basis.”
If you’re like Denise and me and have been told “you’re too sensitive!” don’t worry: like ADD, there’s a bright side to being an HSP as well.
Aron and many ADHD researchers and authors agree that sensitivity is an inherited trait. According to Aron,
“This [being highly sensitive] is a normal biological individual difference in personality and physiology inherited by about 15 to 20% of just about all higher animals.”
Like other co-morbid conditions that are often seen with ADHD, the fact that there are similarities and differences between ADHD traits and those of an HSP, can lead to confusion in diagnosis. Sorting out the two and finding where we fit in is a great exercise because it helps us to hone in on what makes us tick, and can help us to learn to tick more optimally.
While it varies from person to person, some of the differences and similarities seem to be:
- HSP’s are more reflective than others, learning slowly but thoroughly
- When noise levels or activity is at an ok level or interesting for others, it’s too much for HSP’s; ADHDers, on the other hand, might be looking for more stimulation
- HSPs tend to pause and reflect before acting, whereas ADHDers can be impulsive and jump in before thinking
- HSP’s can focus well in a calm environment, whereas ADHDers have trouble focusing, and might even get bored
- HSP’s can be better at tuning out distractions
- Both can present as extroverts or introverts
- Both can be easily overwhelmed by prolonged, intense, or chaotic sound, sights, etc.
- Both tend to be intuitive and creative
- HSP’s can be more prone than others to be anxious or depressed if they had a troubled childhood or negative life experiences (from The Highly Sensitive Person: A Refresher Course); I would suggest that the same goes for ADHDers
- HSP’s and ADHDers are generally born that way, although there are exceptions
- We can both be easily distracted
- We can both appear to be spaced-out or agitated when overstimulated
- Both can be neurotic, anxious, unhappy, and lacking in confidence due to negative judgment received early in life from well-intentioned parents, teachers and others
- We’re both often misunderstood and accused of “making up” our traits (see Aron’s newsletter)
Clearly, there’s a lot of overlap between ADHDers and HSP’s. I think Aron jumps to the bottom line when she writes:
“Remember all the contributions you make to the world, just by being yourself, and all the benefits you yourself enjoy because you are highly sensitive.”
I would add: or have ADHD!
For further discussion on this topic, visit:
Certified Life Coach Jenna Avery’s blog post here.
Kessler, Z. (2011). ADHD and the Highly Sensitive Person. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 6, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/adhd-zoe/2010/04/adhd-and-the-highly-sensitive-person/