Depth of processing is the central attribute of the highly sensitive trait. The better you understand how it manifests in you, the better you can care for yourself.

In this four-part series, I’ll explore the four key characteristics all highly sensitive people (HSPs) share. Each article will feature a dahlia from my garden.

Why dahlias? In Are you highly sensitive? 4 commitments you need to thrive, I describe how HSPs have a lot in common with these gorgeous flowers. Dahlias need different treatment from the average plant: we have to dig the tubers up each fall; wash, sort, label, and store them at a certain temperature (not too hot, not too cold!); then re-plant them in the spring. A lot of work! But in return, we get a riotous explosion of blooms, enough to fill our house with bouquets for two months each year.

In my time off from growing dahlias, I’ve studied in depth what I need to thrive as an HSP. The result? My life and happiness have bloomed. Information about our trait is key for sensitive people, and the motherlode of that information is the work of Dr. Elaine Aron.* Dr. Aron was the first to identify the HSP trait and to describe the four key characteristics all HSPs have in common: depth of processing, emotional intensity, overarousal, and sensory sensitivity (“DOES” for short.)

Today I’ll write about the first of these characteristics, depth of processing. But first, I’d like to give you two tasks. Each, as it happens, requires you to use the very deep processing abilities we’ll be exploring:

  1. Pause often as you read and ask yourself, “Is this familiar? How does this particular aspect of sensitivity show up in my own life?” Think of specific examples.
  2. Then ask yourself, “How do I manage this aspect of my HSP trait? Am I pleased with the way I handle it? Or is it a challenge for me?”

Why are these questions important? Because your answers will reveal how successfully you are caring for yourself as a sensitive person. Your self-care has a profound effect on your peace, happiness and effectiveness in life, and you are in charge of that self-care.

So, what does depth of processing mean, exactly? On the most obvious level, it means sensitive people think about things a lot.That’s very true. But you may be less aware of these three indirect manifestations of your deep processing ability:

We search for meaning:

HSPs crave and look for the deeper meaning in everything we do. We don’t take words or events only at face value: we reflect long and deeply about what they mean.

The compelling need for meaning shows up in our work life too: many HSPs have done a variety of kinds of work, trying to find something that is not only physically and emotionally manageable and financially sustainable, but also personally meaningful. It’s important to understand this. Too many HSPs think there is something wrong with them because their career history looks so different from their non-sensitive peers.

Our inborn tendency to search for meaning carries a notable risk: we may assign meanings that simply aren’t there. Because our HSP intuition is sometimes spot-on, we may leap to conclusions without even realizing how many assumptions we are making.  I’ve learned the hard way to check out my stories. I’ll say, “I’m telling myself a story that you really don’t want to do this, but you won’t tell me directly because…etc. etc….Is that accurate?”

We value depth in our relationships

Our deep processing characteristic shows up in our relationships too. HSP’s value deep conversations and typically have little tolerance for superficial small talk. If we are going to expend energy interacting, we want meaning too.  We are capable of an unusually high level of empathy towards others (when we are fed, watered and rested, that is!) That’s because we actually spend time wondering what life might be like in the other person’s shoes. This, along with our ability to attune to others, can make us wonderfully attentive friends.

For similar reasons, many HSPs are passionate advocates of animals and of nature. In fact, HSP empathy extends beyond human beings to the earth as a whole. I’ve always worried about things like global warming and the loss of the rain forests, and I thought I was crazy or neurotic. I was so relieved to hear Elaine Aron say that many HSPs do the same.

The pitfall of this wonderful empathy is overwhelm and burnout. HSPs too easily find themselves in the role of stand-in therapist for others in pain: we are flattered to be needed, and we feel satisfaction seeing how much we can help others with our attentive listening. But we can get overwhelmed trying to care for a friend in distress or worrying the plight of endangered elephants in Africa.

How well do you know and enforce your own limits in these areas? If you feel burned out or resentful,  it means you’ve given more than you had to give. Whether it is a friendship or a cause that is draining you, you need to take steps to make it sustainable or your contribution can’t last:

  • Set a time limit on stressful or intense conversations
  • Watch yourself for signs of overwhelm and excuse yourself kindly but firmly when you need a “time out”
  • Limit your exposure to global and environmental tragedies and reserve your energy to focus on areas where you can contribute to meaningful change

We struggle to make decisions

Deep processing has a major impact on our HSP decision-making style. It means we can’t move forward until we’re satisfied we’ve thought through all the possible permutations, implications, connotations, and ramifications of our decision. “What will this mean? What might that mean?” The sheer volume of questions can overwhelm us.

In addition, you may have what Elaine Aron calls “decision trauma” from a past decision you made that went terribly wrong. I worked with a client who had met the love of his life. He wanted to propose to her, yet at the same time the very thought of it overwhelmed him with anxiety. He was terrified to trust his sense of rightness about the decision because he had made a bad choice the first time around but stayed in the marriage for agonizing years (out of loyalty and conscientiousness, another HSP trait) before finally leaving.

Over time he learned to use his deep processing skills and empathy to understand why the younger “him” did what he did, and to perceive how different he is now….and he is now happily engaged to be married.

If complex or important decisions leave you paralyzed or overwhelmed, take time to consider the source of the overwhelm. 

Perhaps you recognize in yourself the signs of decision trauma. If so, Focusing and Inner Bonding can help you come into a kinder, more compassionate relationship with the part of you that made the “bad” decision so you can re-establish trust in your inner sense of rightness—that powerful “HSP intuition” which serves you so well when you can access it.

Or your overwhelm may result from your attempt to work out a complex decision in your head. In this case, try getting your decision onto paper. I write down my situation, describe what I want to have happen, lay out a proposed solution, then brainstorm every advantage and disadvantage I can think of. By the time I’m done, I’m much calmer and much clearer whether my solution would serve my needs.

Last but not least, HSPs hate to be rushed to decide. If that’s the case, can you buy yourself more time? Is there a way you could avoid this pressure in future similar situations?

Focusing and Inner Bonding: tools for a happy sensitive life

I searched long and hard to find practices that would help me care better for my HSP dahlia self, and I found those practices in Focusing and Inner Bonding. That’s why I share them with my clients. With Focusing you can make full use of your deep processing ability to sense and articulate the richer, deeper meaning underneath your experiences. This, in turn, helps you access that sense of inner rightness that allows you to take clear action. Inner Bonding nurtures an inner dialogue with yourself to you can get clear on your needs moment by moment and set healthy boundaries. Most important, both practices connect you to your spiritual intuition, which is the ultimate source of self-care.

*Aron, Elaine (2010): Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, New York: Routledge.
*Aron, Elaine (1996): The Highly Sensitive Person: New York:  Broadway Books.