Navigating the Hypersensitive Seas

Jessie Mannisto / September 16, 2023

Richard Dawkins and Scott Barry Kaufman are both seeing what our editor in chief is seeing: a shift in culture that it’s up to us to resist.

What is it to be highly sensitive, to be superstimulable, overexcitable even, and is it a good thing? If it is not necessarily good, but possibly good, then how can the sensitive person aim toward the good—toward the higher path? This is a foundational question here at Third Factor. As I’ve thought about this over the years, one thing has become ever clearer to me: the culture makes a difference. It’s the sea we’re sailing, which we must navigate.

And there are icebergs in that sea. In an essay published August 22, 2023 in the Evening Standard, Richard Dawkins wrote about an encounter with one. After tweeting about sex and gender identity—specifically, about the need to prioritize the former in athletic policy—he got a notification that someone had flagged his tweet for potentially violating community standards. (Upon review, Twitter, or X if you insist, ruled that the tweet had done no such thing.) Dawkins went on to make the following point:

I’m sure the complainant was sincere. And that’s my point. A certain type of activist has a level of paranoid hypersensitivity that almost literally warps their hearing. You can say, “I disagree with you for the following reasons.” But all they actually hear is “Hate hate hate!” So instead of putting a counter-argument (which I would be interested to hear), they resort to censorship. All too often it goes further, and they boil over in virulent abuse: “Transphobe! TERF!”

At least the above tweet was partisan. But so hair-trigger is the hypersensitivity, a mere invitation to discuss something is enough to set it off.

This is what I have seen, too. If this type of hypersensitivity is in fact what Kazimierz Dabrowski, in his theory of positive disintegration, meant when he talked about “overexcitability,” then we should disregard everything else he said about “developmental potential” and the “personality ideal.” Manifestly, hair-trigger rage and fragility are not what anyone “ought to be.” It’s bad for the hypersensitive person, bad for the people around him, and bad for the culture that coddles or even encourages it. Those who aspire to the higher path ought to reject this as a means to any end.

In this brave new digital world, unfortunately, too many (including some who use Dabrowski’s language) consider such displays righteous. Or at least, useful. The algorithms love them, which means that on some level, we must, too. This empowers hypersensitive people to move en masse to intimidate anyone who dares to say they’re being unreasonable. I have been in circles where this culture was embraced, as you’ll know if you’ve listened to Episode 4 of our new podcast. Some people now accept this behavior as normal, even a proper way of displaying “virtue.”

You know, I’ve given this some thought and decided that I’m not necessarily against “virtue signaling.” It’s just that we should have a chat about whether any given signal actually represents virtue, and if so, whether the signal is sincere. In any such conversation, I’d be genuinely interested in counterpoints to whatever I might claim. Unfortunately, as Dawkins said, this culture has hijacked some people’s sensitivity to the point that such conversation is impossible.

Where I’ve Encountered the Iceberg

These days, questions of transgender identity are often where many first see this hair-trigger go off. My guess is that this is because trying to become the opposite sex (or even neither sex) has such negative repercussions if it is a mistake; and is so dependent on other people’s seeing the person the way they want to be seen (i.e., “affirming”); and entails crossing boundaries that most would not otherwise dare to cross (e.g., cross-sex nudity in locker rooms; men on women’s sports teams); and that all this is undertaken by people who are already struggling to be accepted and therefore emotionally taxed. Now that’s a potent cocktail. If I’m right about this, then it’s not surprising that this issue is at the tip of the iceberg—the part that more and more people now see and say, “Whoa, hang on a second.”

If we focus only on the transgender issue, though, we miss what’s beneath the icy ocean’s surface. In fact, I would say that this other thing is the true issue, and ships can plow into it and sink even if they steer clear of the trans issue. This is also why it’s wholly possible to find trans people who are actually pretty well adjusted apart from their gender dysphoria and who are horrified at what’s being done by some activists in their names. Such chill trans people are some of those I’ve most readily clicked with through conversations about this topic. They were some of the first to see the iceberg, and they’ve been trying to warn us.

Meanwhile, a quick sail through the likes of Reddit or Twitter will show you myriad other manifestations of negative maladjustment, all characterized by this hypersensitivity and reactivity. Even those who don’t come in with these traits are will be affected by them if they spend enough time in those spaces.

High Sensitivity or Sensitivity Signaling?

Two days before Dawkins published his article, Scott Barry Kaufman published one that seems related. In a piece at Psychology Today called “Do People Signal High Sensitivity to Get What They Want?”, Kaufman explains research that points to a significant difference between genuine high sensitivity and sensitivity signaling. Apparently, there’s evidence to suggest that many who claim to be HSPs actually aren’t. In modern culture—and this is a striking change from when even elder Millennials like me were young—claiming you are sensitive gives you a certain currency. Kaufman’s article is worth reading in full, but here’s a key passage for our reference:

[W]hile being a highly sensitive person was related to the “behavior inhibition system” that is designed to avoid negative and fearful responses (which is consistent with prior research), signaling high sensitivity was more related to the “behavioral activation system” that is more about the motivation to approach others (not avoid others) in order to receive personal rewards.

These findings suggest that high sensitivity is not the same as signaling high sensitivity, and that people who tend to regularly signal their high sensitivity in order to be treated specially are probably not actually highly sensitive (by Elaine Aron’s definition) but instead are motivated by a drive to exploit resources and receive personal rewards.

It seems safe to surmise that the theory of positive disintegration would be subject to the same problem. As Kaufman and I discussed in an interview here at Third Factor in 2020, the idea that one has some special “developmental potential” will attracts a certain percentage of vulnerable narcissists, which is a term that probably describes the sort of people Dawkins ran into.

What Happens When You “Pause to Check?”

The problem that Kaufman describes is especially acute in creative and activist cultures. In my experience, both of these sorts of spaces are rife with high sensitivity and are appealing to those seeking power or status. And if the culture encourages piles-on and reactive expression of anger—if those things afford a person power and status—then that’s going to be an especially wretched situation for anyone with an especially sensitive “behavioral inhibition system.” It’s worth recalling what Elaine Aron herself says of a challenge quietly faced by HSPs:

I have seen too many [highly sensitive children and adults] whose depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem prevent them from expressing whatever talents they have. The gifts are there, in the sense of more vivid dreams, for example. But is a person gifted if they are unable to live out their gifts? How can we tell if a child is gifted or say he or she is if that child is too afraid to ask questions, too upset to learn big words, or too depressed to have a subtle sense of humor?

In other words, highly sensitive, overexcitable people are often the first to wilt under the hair-trigger culture that Dawkins described. When they “pause to check,” as Aron has said HSPs will do, the check will never signal that it’s safe to speak in these cultures. (I might add that creators and activists in particular need free speech culture if they’re to be effective.) Unfortunately, if they venture forth to talk about the challenge of having this type of nervous system, they find yet another messed up culture, shaped by those seeking status for having such sensitivity.

Ay, there’s the rub: for in these spaces, it can be hard to say who is or is not “actually highly sensitive.” Sometimes it’s obvious, sure: patterns of self-serving manipulation are a pretty solid hint. But I’m hesitant to draw a firm line between high sensitivity and sensitivity signaling. First, I’d speculate that some who are genuinely highly sensitive are also being taught that it’s acceptable, even virtuous, to signal sensitivity as a way to get what they need. When I talked about the specific stakes for transgender people above, it’s obvious that plenty of people in this situation are genuinely highly sensitive, suffering, and deserving of compassion; and it’s also pretty clear that some bad eggs are benefiting from the situation. Either type could be very reactive. This issue of course also applies to any number of other sensitivity-related struggles that are less visible. All of them are a delicate matter, because sometimes it is necessary and good to talk about sensitivity, its struggles, and how a little compassion can make a big difference. Kaufman himself is a champion of the needs of HSPs and mentions in that article that society could do a better job celebrating this trait as a gift.

On balance, though, these cultures shaped by the hair-trigger types are not going to help sensitive people to harness and channel their intensities for good. Nor are they compassionate themselves, to outsiders or to each other: their reactivity precludes that. I have seen this new normal lead to a vicious circle of hypersensitivity, and my conversations with Gen Zers (such as my chat with Margo Margan in Episode 3) only make this clearer to me.

You Are an Agent of Culture

I’ve drawn your attention to Dawkins’ and Kaufman’s articles because, together, they describe the environment to which I consider myself positively maladjusted. (You should judge my response for yourself, of course; I don’t ask you to affirm mine, but rather, to point out what I’m missing!) It’s for this reason that I’ve zoomed in on it in early episodes of the new podcast; I’m writing this article in part so those who prefer reading to listening are on the same page.

So what should we do about it? How do we navigate these icy waters? It’s a tough question and I certainly don’t have a definitive answer for you, but the first step is to create a space where we can talk about it frankly. The Third Factor Members’ Forum is one such space. We are social, relational creatures, and we do benefit from having others to tell us what they make of our ideas and to compare notes.

It’s also helpful to consider positive examples. In this issue, we have another article from the great essayist G.K. Chesterton. I picked this one because I think it’s so clear that it comes from a highly sensitive mind that has truly harnessed that sensitivity. As Chesterton reminds us, virtue is not merely the absence of vice; it is something positive that we need to cultivate actively. That drive to cultivate it in a culture that doesn’t welcome it stems from what Kazimierz Dabrowski called the third factor of development, which you might guess (hint: see our title) is kind of the point of this project. We’re also happy to have Bill Tillier, a graduate student of Dabrowski’s, here to give us deep dive into that concept. As Bill’s piece will surely make clear, the decision on what you will do lies ultimately with you. Just as much as those hair-trigger activists, we are each agents of cultural creation. In such a climate especially, we can’t afford to be led by reactivity to approval and disapproval.

When Scott Barry Kaufman posted that article on his Facebook page, I asked him whether the difference didn’t essentially boil down to one of taking responsibility for one’s sensitivity. He gave me a very simple response: Yes :)

Remember that in the theory of positive disintegration, responsibility, too, is a dynamism. If we forget that, our ship is bound to sink.

Header image by Alexander Hafemann on Unsplash

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