When my family doctor told me over thirty years ago that I was an emotionally oversensitive person, little did I know how much those three words would be a part of my life and my work.
As a former support group facilitator, teacher, and director of a private school, I have worked with many emotionally disabled students. The two most frequent questions that parents used to ask me was “What is the difference between an emotionally disabled person and an emotionally sensitive person?” and “Will my child ever be normal?”
Emotionally Sensitive Person
There are many variations of the phrase ’emotionally sensitive person’ – ‘ emotionally oversensitive person’, ‘highly sensitive persons (HSPs)’, ‘highly sensitive person (HSP)’, highly sensitive people, ‘highly emotional person’, ‘highly emotional people’, ’emotionally sensitive person’, or ’emotionally sensitive people’.
The phrase ‘highly sensitive person’ was defined by Dr. Elaine N. Aron in 1996 in her book The Highly Sensitive Person. According to Dr. Aron’s book, 15 to 20 percent of the population are highly sensitive people. The fact that Dr. Aron does not clearly distinguish between an emotional sensitivity and sensitivity to one’s physical environment might make the phrase ‘highly sensitive person’ confusing to some readers.
Since there is no medical definition or any standard diagnostic test for a highly sensitive person, I still use my family doctor’s definition. “You feel everything ten times stronger than anyone else.”
I know my family doctor was talking about both my emotional sensitivity as well as my physical sensitivity.
My family doctor’s definition of a highly sensitive person was based on Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961) who called it ‘innate sensitiveness’. Jung was a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. In his work, Jung explored extraverted and introverted personalities, archetypes, the collective unconscious, dream analysis, and Eastern as well as Western philosophy, alchemy, astrology, sociology, literature and art.
Emotionally Disabled Person
Carl Jung’s use of the words ‘innate sensitiveness’ is the best way to distinguish an emotionally sensitive person from an emotionally disabled person. Innate sensitivity or emotional sensitivity relates to a person’s ‘innate’ nature – an inborn, distinctive, instinctive, inherent, or intrinsic nature.
The innate or intrinsic characteristics of an emotionally sensitive person can easily lead to an emotional disability due to extrinsic factors.
Like the words ‘highly sensitive person’, there are many variations of the words ’emotionally disabled’. An emotional disability may be called ’emotional disorder’, ’emotional distress’, ’emotional disturbance’, or ‘mental disorder’.
Unlike the phrase ‘highly sensitive person’, the phrase ’emotionally disabled’ does have a definition. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Regulations: Part 300 / A / 300.8 / c / 4 / (i), an emotional disability or emotional disturbance applies to a student if he or she is displaying one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that it adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
Do you want your child to be normal?
Distinguishing between a child’s innate emotional sensitivity and extrinsically caused emotional disability is crucial when teaching children.
Support group facilitators, teachers, and even principals are not psychologists. While facilitators, teachers, and principals can provide a safe extrinsic environment for emotionally sensitive children, only psychologists are trained to access and analyze the depths of a child’s intrinsic energies. Failure to know one’s boundaries as a professional can cause more harm than good and endanger a child.
Many students that attended my school were initially emotionally disabled. By providing them with a safe and supportive academic environment, I was able to diminish some of the extrinsic factors that contributed to their emotional disability – academic stress, peer pressure, relationship issues, health environment, intellectual factors, and sensory input.
In contrast to a psychologist, I did not need to analyze my students. Within a safe academic environment, those students were able to redirect their energy away from a ‘survival’ instinct to a ‘growth’ instinct. By the time my students had discovered the true purpose and meaning of their emotional sensitivity, – their destiny to be writers, actors, painters, dancers, musicians, philosophers, or even yoga teachers,- my job was done and it was time for me to let them go.