Your “affective comforters”, in of flesh and soul (Odile Jacob), published sixteen years ago, didn’t they pave the way for the hypersensitive people we talk about so much today?
Boris Cyrulnik: It was while working on mother-child attachment theories that, in the same social and affective context, we noticed that people reacted differently from an emotional point of view: some were “necessarily” sensitive, others surprisingly insensitive, and others hypersensitive! ! In 2006, these notions were still very vague, and I chose the term “emotional nurturing” precisely because it was vague and not exclusive. Today it is estimated that 70% of the population, in a normal social and affective context, will develop normal sensitivity, while 30% of children and adults will have difficulties controlling their affectivity. It seems fair to me.
Also to discover: Hypersensitivity strength or weakness?
Can you be born hypersensitive?
Boris Cyrulnik: If, during her pregnancy, a mother has faced difficulties, she will secrete many stress hormones that will cross the placental barrier and be swallowed by her baby. She is in no way responsible for it (…), this transmission occurs naturally, despite herself. But we know that everything that worries and shakes the expectant mother will affect the fetus: a bad relationship between the couple, a precarious economic situation, professional burnout, complicated family relationships, without forgetting an extreme context of war or exodus. It is acquired in utero, not innate, which plays a minor role. In this sense alone, one can be born hypersensitive or become very early, depending on the interactions of the environment and what happened before or after our birth.
But not all trauma to the womb inevitably “makes” hypersensitive adults…
Boris Cyrulnik: Indeed, because the brain is not a “finished” organ when the child comes into the world. The brain machine is very plastic. After our birth, our sensitivity is filled with interactions with our mother, then with everything that surrounds us, our family, our culture, but also the nature that surrounds us. During the first years of his life, if the child has not had the opportunity to grow up in a fairly reassuring environment, there is nevertheless a great risk that he will become unhappy hypersensitive! If these exchanges are rich, relaxing, reassuring, they will reassure the child and allow him to display her great sensitivity, which will become an extraordinary tool for him. He will be able to apprehend the world in a much finer and more subtle way, with many more colors.
Can we talk about inheritance?
Boris Cyrulnik: Hypersensitivity is not written in the genes, so no! But if our parents are very sensitive, we are more likely to be too. What will change the situation is how they will have experienced their hypersensitivity.
Can you become hypersensitive during your adult life?
Boris Cyrulnik: One may discover his hypersensitivity late, but it was there long before. However, a very violent and punctual traumatic experience, such as a rape or an attack, a situation of war or exodus, can give rise to high sensitivity. It will be a little apart, rather a high emotional sensitivity linked to a well-defined traumatic context, and no less disabling.
Is it possible to ignore this singularity in us all your life?
Boris Cyrulnik: It is difficult to recognize if you do not know the cause. However, almost all affected people are unaware of the traumatic cause at the origin of their hypersensitivity. In reality, this is the same process that got en route to maltraitance: an adult who has risen to the type of trauma in children is going to “feel” when there is already a threat in the air, and well ahead of them. others. Without him being aware of it, the trauma is inscribed on him. He has antennae, they are an alert. In the hypersensitive person, an intermittent light is also turned on in the face of a potential risk or unconscious danger to him. The high sensitivity of it will prevent it at the slightest signal.
Is our society ready to recognize the value of this character trait?
Boris Cyrulnik: Talking about it, even if it is excessive, helps to make a great sensitivity more acceptable and valued, but our society is still very individualistic, technological, performance-based… cold. If sensitivity is now better perceived as a value, it is not necessarily considered a profitable value. This does not facilitate its recognition by the individual himself.
But can we stop being hypersensitive?
Boris Cyrulnik: I find it very difficult when hypersensitivity comes from childhood. We are hypersensitive and will remain so until the end of our lives! It is part of our personality. It must be repeated, it is neither a disorder nor a deficiency, but a “signature”. The important thing is not to fight it, but to know that you can go from a suffered and painful hypersensitivity to a full and happy hypersensitivity. This presupposes first of all knowing and accepting this particularity with us.
Am I hypersensitive? What does science say? How to recognize yourself but also experience hypersensitivity as a couple, at work? Discover our special issue on newsstands this week, which tells you everything about this delicate topic.
However, some see it as the symptom of a pathology…
Boris Cyrulnik: We tend to “pathologize” everything, because then everything is easier to explain, but it seems clear to me that we less and less understand extreme sensitivity as a disorder that needs to be cured. Otherwise, it would mean that at least a quarter of the population is sick! Hypersensitivity can however be the symptom of a pathology, but in this case it will be accompanied by other symptoms: aggressiveness, violence, depression, insomnia, delirium… This set of pathological features could then designate a physiological and biological dysfunction. But there is also this essential difference: being of a hypersensitive temperament does not prevent one from feeling fulfilled and happy in life, which is much more uncertain in the case of a psychic disorder.
What advice would you give to hypersensitive people, but also to those around them?
Boris Cyrulnik: Above all, it is not about turning off this great sensitivity that speaks of our humanity and gives relief, color, value and meaning to life. But you also have to know how to channel it. To do this, the hypersensitive must put themselves in conditions that reinforce their affectivity. They need a way of life compatible with their high sensitivity: a stable love relationship, reliable friends, an activity that values them and allows them to test their imagination, sometimes even develop their creative qualities. Family members should be benevolent, smile perhaps, but without mocking, and when things go wrong, simply wait as long as necessary for it to pass.
Last published book: the plowman and the wind eaters, Odile Jacob.