Normally when I think of feathers, I conjure up images like these….
Photo by Ray Hennessy and Photo by Jenelle Ball both on Unsplash
But this week I was thrown into complete apoplexy and I was “spitting feathers” when I turned to the pages about personality in my recently purchased book “How to be Human. The Ultimate Guide to Your Amazing Existence”. The book is a New Scientist book, a popular science forum, so I wasn’t expecting detailed coverage of the finer nuances of personality theory. I also had no expectation whatsoever of any reference at all to the Highly Sensitive Person (though it would have been nice). But I was expecting something that was objective and largely evidence based.
I can only describe what I read as the worst form of stereotyping, bordering on parody, that I have seen on the subject for a long time and I needed to refer to my thesaurus of emotions to fully comprehend my visceral reaction to what I read. If you want to look at the book it’s on page 18, but I replicate below the key features:
|Cheerful and radiate joy||Seldom amused|
|At home in crowds and parties||Loners|
|Friendly and Open||Reserved|
|Always busy||Happy to take things easy|
|Lovers of Excitement||Overawed by commotion|
Added to which were some simple pictures to further illustrate the differences…(Extrovert: super smiley face, party popper, man conquering mountain, all in a bright, happy yellow…..Introvert: slightly concerned looking/mildly miserable looking face, lone man reading, lone man under a tree, all in a dark, slightly gloomy purple).
Well, it my HS brain launched into full-on emotional response, I mean COME-ON New Scientist, I thought you were better than that?! So my week has been spent constructing various responses to share through the appropriate channels in due course, starting here with the personal bit.
Words Really Do Matter
The strand of spaghetti that has come loose this week has been all about the negative language that so naturally seems to attach itself to the words “Introvert” and “Highly Sensitive” and which seem to paint the picture that all introverts and HSPs are either too much hard work (‘too’ sensitive, quiet, emotional, weepy, fussy, reserved) or just not that great to be around (humourless, loners, dull and boring).
Language is such an important part of how we gain an understanding of who we are and how we ‘fit’ into the bigger picture, and sadly this conceptualisation of Introverts is ridiculously common, even though it’s not a true reflection of us at all (although I think sometimes we come to start believing it just because it’s said so often, that we begin to think surely it must be true?). And anyone who’s an HSP will know that it’s even worse for the sensitive among us. (If you haven’t seen the TED talk from Elena Herdieckerhoff The Gentle Power of HSPs take a look, it sums up the issue beautifully).
So as a Highly Sensitive Introvert I have grown up constantly rubbing up against other people’s focus on the negative aspects of both traits, with little affirmation of the positive ones, and blimey that’s hard – especially when all that brain-spaghetti is reflecting, interpreting, ruminating, about this constant, sometimes subtle (more often as subtle as being whacked on the head with a mallet like those ‘whack-a-mole’ games), feedback that how we are is somehow ‘wrong’. But because we’re introverts, we don’t talk about it. And if you’re HSP as well, you are acutely aware of just how different people perceive you to be, so we don’t want to draw attention to it, so we don’t mention it. We therefore remain un-blissfully unaware that actually there are quite a few other people who are feeling the same, even people we know, but who are also pretending that they’re not.
The ‘Story’ of Temperament
I recently watched a TED talk by Barry Schwartz called “The way we think about the world of work is broken”. He argues it’s broken because so many of the systems used don’t actually sit very well with how human’s actually operate. It drew many parallels for me with where we have ended up in terms of our skewed society, which is very one dimensional in terms of what we overtly value in a person. It’s all about the stories that we make up.
The concept of Story is a big one (and I can feel a dedicated blog on this in the ether), but for now suffice to say that human nature is such that ‘story’ is a massive part of how we operate. It’s how we create certainty in an uncertain world, and our brains like certainty. The problem is that we create this certainty even if it’s not true (and this is a core part of any therapy – getting the root of false stories and changing it to better reflect the objective reality).
Schwartz highlights the issue of story for work and organisations, which is that unlike the technology of ‘things’ whereby if technology, or the design of something is bad, it ‘dies’. With ideas, he argues, they can perpetuate even if they’re not true. He says “false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe they are true”, because if people believe they are true they construct systems around them that are consistent with this idea. And because we are a highly adaptive species, we mould ourselves to fit, whether or not it’s good for us (us being ‘us’ as individuals, and also ‘us’ as a collective species).
For me this is precisely what has happened with temperament (and if you go along with Susan Cain’s argument in her book ‘Quiet’ it stems from the same place as much of what is wrong with modern workplaces too – i.e. Industrialisation). Inadvertently, as the discipline of psychology has evolved, and the study of personality alongside it, there has been a merging of this industrialisation ‘story’ that the gregarious, outgoing, alpha male extrovert is the ‘ideal’ with the ‘story’ of abnormal psychology that the optimistic, ‘happy’, easy-going, talkative ‘extrovert’ (as opposed to the morose, solitary, fearful, depressive ‘not extrovert’) is the healthy, well adjusted place to be, to create a modern world story that to be well adjusted, you need to be an extrovert. Over time, the constructs and taxonomies that have been used to understand our natures have simply resulted in self-serving and reinforcing those views, even though they are not really true, because everything is ‘framed” in an extrovert context. The evolution of The Big 5 personality taxonomy, which has become the ‘go to’ framework for personality theorists since the 1970s, has perpetuated this ‘myth’ about introversion, because rather than being seen as a different underlying trait from extroversion, it has been used as a means of describing the ‘opposite’ of extroversion, the ‘low-scoring’ end of the Extroversion-Introversion continuum.
The same is true of High Sensitivity. For decades having a more sensitive disposition was seen as a ‘vulnerability’, making you far more likely to ‘suffer’ mental ill-health and related social problems. Consequently therapies and other social ‘interventions’ were constructed on that basis. And of course this created the story that if you have a highly sensitive nature you are inherently more fragile and ‘flaky’.
These perceptions are in significant part the result of the extrovert paradigm within which researchers were (and still are) operating, which contributed to the creation of labels such as ‘shy’, ‘fearful’ ‘hesitant’ ‘reserved’, ‘hyper-sensitive’, ‘anti-social’, ‘slow to warm-up’ ‘timid’ – all of which can be true of introverts and HSPs, but which are not necessarily true, and which are certainly not the only defining features of being introvert or HSP, (and which some extroverts experience too, sometimes). But when children are labelled in this way, they grow-up believing this to be true, because this is how the world talks about them and interacts with them. And so the story survives.
The Key of Neuroscience
Neuroscience will be the key to helping us change these deeply embedded perceptions as it will give us a new language. We already are able to demonstrate what HSPs and Introverts already intuitively know, which is that we are just wired differently. And this different wiring simply means that we interact differently with the world around us and we think differently. We also now know that being Highly Sensitive can be a disadvantage, but ONLY where the person has received poor parenting during childhood. With the right conditions, being Highly Sensitive is actually a positive advantage – supporting the development of greater resilience and better outcomes in life (look out for future blog post on Orchids and Dandelions).
Time to start making some noise?
The world of personality psychology seems to be being slow to catch on though. Since Susan Cain’s book and TED talk, which have been read and watched by millions of people, and which saw the ‘launch’ of the Quiet Revolution (which has, there is no doubt, lead to greater open debate, more writing on the subject, and the beginnings of change in workplaces), I have not noticed a commensurate change in the way in which personality research is framed or interpreted. The Big 5 remains the mainstay and in its’ present usage does not allow for a way of viewing personality and temperament that accommodates these more recent findings. It’s time for a step-change in the wider scientific community on the subject of understanding temperament in order that the language used to frame and interpret temperament is better reflective of the whole range of characteristics associate with a trait, not just a select few. It’s time to start making some noise so those scientists start hearing!
How has language affected you? Do you think it’s time to shout louder? I’d love to hear your thoughts!