How I Became a Highly Sensitive Person Specialist
When pursuing a niche of working with Highly Sensitive clients, many psychotherapists become overwhelmed as to where to start. With no formal certification or training program for working with this population, there is no obvious path towards becoming an HSP specialist. On top of that many mental health and medical professionals are unaware of the HSP trait, otherwise known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, as the research is not yet well known, which creates additional barriers when networking with other clinicians and advocating for our clients.
Despite these obstacles, many therapists appreciate working with the HSP population because these folks enjoy the therapeutic process, tend to be conscientious about payment and scheduling, and are often very loyal clients. Additionally, Highly Sensitive clients will thrive more than non-HSP clients when working with an attuned therapist due to our vantage sensitivity. We respond quickly and clearly to positive intervention and supports of any kind, making the process very fulfilling for both client and therapist.
Whether we are aware of this innate trait or not, the reality is that we’re all working with HSPs since they make up approximately 50% of psychotherapy clients. The more we educate ourselves on the characteristics of the trait, the more we can effectively counsel our Highly Sensitive clients to create more suitable lifestyles to support their temperament. The question is, do you want to elevate this knowledge into a specialty?
Below I share my own reflections on becoming an HSP specialist and answer many of the questions I often get asked about this process.
Levels of HSP Expertise
One of the most common questions I hear from therapists who are educating themselves on the HSP trait is how to convey their level of training and knowledge to others. Without a certification program there is no set standard, but I have found it helpful to distinguish our levels of expertise based on the tiers listed below.
Novice: has newly discovered the trait
Specialist: has read extensively on the trait and its research, focuses solely on working with HSPs and has begun to formulate original ideas
Expert: has worked with HSPs for many years, authored books on the subject and/or has conducted research about the trait
Moving from the “HSP Novice” to “HSP Knowledgeable” level can happen quickly, but reaching expert status is rare and takes many years of commitment to deeply understand the trait. Specializing in working with Highly Sensitive clients will involve a commitment to self-directed education and experience with this population over an extended period of time.
For some, but not all, part of becoming an “HSP Knowledgeable Therapist” includes completing the requirements to be listed in the therapist directory on www.hsperson.com, Dr. Elaine Aron’s website. As the bestselling author and pioneer of HSP research, Dr. Aron’s site creates a high volume of traffic and can help local HSP clients discover your practice. To get listed, you will complete the following steps:
Read Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person or watch the DVD: A Live Seminar on Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person.
Buy the corresponding Book Test or DVD Test from Elaine’s site, depending on your preferred method of learning. The test is self-paced and “open book” meaning that you can answer the questions as you read the book or watch the DVD. You’ll receive the test as an attachment via email and can print out a hard copy to use as you study. To pass, you’ll need to get at least 40 correct answers out of the 50 questions on the test.
Email your completed test, a copy of your license and the directory listing form to email@example.com.
Although it can vary, it typically takes at least two weeks for your listing to be approved and posted.
You can find a detailed list of these requirements here and purchase the materials here. If you already own the book or need to order it from another source to reduce shipping costs, you can purchase the book and the test separately.
Why is there no formal certification program?
Although it would be helpful to have a clearly laid out methodology of supporting Highly Sensitive clients, the reality is that High Sensitivity is a complex trait which intersects with many other parts of our personalities and life experiences. With HSPs making up 20% of the population (and 50% of therapy clients), no two HSPs will present exactly the same, making it impossible to create a cookie cutter approach. Therefore, it’s important to filter your therapeutic modality through the lens of your client’s personal experiences as an HSP. The more you know about the trait, the easier it becomes to differentiate the trait from other presenting issues or concerns.
Ways to Increase Your HSP Awareness
I want to emphasize that there are many paths to learning more about High Sensitivity and no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone. To help you get started, I have outlined what steps and reputable resources have worked on my own journey over the past five years.
Read my Guide to Working with the Highly Sensitive Client: I created this document to offer a brief introduction to the characteristics of the trait and resources to dive deeper.
Watch the Sensitive Documentary: Written by Dr. Elaine Aron and featuring Alanis Morissette, this film presents the qualities and research behind the trait in an accessible and entertaining format.
Read Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron: This is THE reference book for working clinically with the HSP, offering insights on assessment, common presenting issues, differential diagnosis, treatment and more.
Seek out Consultation: Being able to ask questions and discuss your impressions with an HSP expert can quickly deepen your knowledge and efficacy when working with Highly Sensitive clients.
Deepen Your Awareness: Once you establish a foundation of knowledge about the trait, the next step is to increase your understanding of the research and complexities of how the trait intersects with other issues. I recommend reading through Elaine’s blog archives and research papers.
Self-Reflection: Begin to filter what you have learned about the trait through your own experience working with Highly Sensitive clients to create new insights.
Attend Live Workshops & Training Events with HSP Experts: Engaging in dialogue and spending time with other Highly Sensitive folks helps the research material come to life and validates your own experiences.
Highly Sensitive Person & Therapist Events
HSP Workshops & Weekend Intensives with Dr. Elaine Aron & Alane Freund, LMFT
HSP Gatherings with Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC
HSP & Horses Workshops with Alane Freund, LMFT & Dr. Elaine Aron
San Francisco Bay Area Yoga Gathering with April Snow, AMFT & Shanna Dew, RYT
Highly Sensitive Therapist Retreat with April Snow, AMFT & Beth Dawson, LCSW
A Note on Marketing to the HSP
Since Highly Sensitive People are a diverse crowd with varying degrees of awareness of the trait, advertising your therapy services becomes a bit complicated. You have to decide whether or not you will use the term “Highly Sensitive” in your marketing copy. If you do, you may want to include a bit of psychoeducation for folks who don’t know about the trait or have a negative connotation from being called “too sensitive”.
The other approach is to focus on what specific difficulties your ideal HSP client is struggling with. Perhaps you work best with teens suffering from anxiety and perfectionism or new moms who feel overwhelmed and guilty about taking care of themselves. These folks are most likely Highly Sensitive but not labeling themselves as such, so you can use the language they would use when describing their presenting problem during an intake call to form the basis of your marketing approach.
In my experience, focusing on Highly Sensitive People in general can be too broad of a category. It’s more effective to get specific in deciding what subset of the HSP population you want to work with.
If you are currently specializing in working with Highly Sensitive clients or considering it, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me about your own journey.