Mr. Robot & the Highly Sensitive: Elliot’s Complicated HSP Life

Elliot Anderson is a fidgety, nervous, highly intelligent, strange, closed-off individual, yet he’s also the hero in the fight against debilitating capitalism. I’ve written for Entertainment Weekly how Mr. Robot‘s Elliot  (Rami Malek) is the Superman of the post-post-modern age, but in that article, I wrote about his superheroism from a costume history point of view. This time around, I’m writing about his heroism from a very personal point of view. Like all superheroes, Elliot has a superpower, and even though he’s a hacker, his superpower isn’t his hacking skill. It’s his high sensitivity, the innate thing that allows him to see what others can’t see about his environment and society.

High sensitivity is something that was (and to some degree, still is) seen as a character flaw in a person. If you were someone who was easily disturbed by loud external disturbances, the emotions of others, and even your own emotions, you’ve probably come into contact with some who have either said you were making up stuff or blowing things out of proportion. You might have even been told you were weak and needed to toughen up. I was told that at five years old by a elementary school nurse. Thankfully, the school counselor was there to reprimand the nurse. “She’s sensitive!” she yelled, angry in my defense. I was appreciative, but the label “sensitive” was still something I didn’t understand, and since I didn’t understand what she meant, I took at is meaning that I had a fatal flaw. In mind, that fatal flaw kept representing itself every time I was moved to tears to by something, or failed to do something “quick enough,” or failed to react like a lot of the other kids around me, or when I felt scared and tense when the class would act up (leading to tons of noise from the kids and the teachers). In short, school was never my favorite, even though I excelled.

I didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday, but I came to dread the times we did go to church. Not because of the long wait time until church let out, but because the pastors would scream excitedly. Then everyone would start screaming excitedly. It was too much for me to deal with, so because of that, I could care less about going to church. (Well, there are other reasons I could care less about going to church, but that’s another article).

All throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I was certain something was wrong with me. I was certain I was too sensitive and needed to toughen up and hide my emotions so I could be perceived as “normal.” Personally, I think my deep satisfaction led to a lot of mental strife, like OCD, particularly Pure O symptoms, in which you think there’s always something wrong with you and worry that you might have missed some horrible thing about yourself that others could find out about. I was so worried about hiding myself and becoming “normal” that I caused more mental damage than I realized at the time. But once I read about high sensitivity, things started clicking into place a lot faster.

A quick overview of high sensitivity is that highly sensitive people (HSPs) are quick to be affected by small and large external and/or emotional disturbances.

Dr. Elaine Aron, the leading expert on the mindset of the highly sensitive person (HSP), states that about 20 percent of Americans are hypersensitive, which, despite still being a minority percentage, is still a surprising lot, given how Americans are often stereotyped by the rest of the world (and sometimes other Americans) as being loud and obnoxious. Aron lists some of these traits common to highly sensitive people on her site, hsperson.com: 

• Being overwhelmed by bright lights, coarse fabrics, sirens, loud noises, or strong smells

• Getting rattled and flustered when tasked with doing a lot in a short amount of time

• Needing to withdraw to yourself to ease overstimulation to the environment

• Arranging your life “to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations”

• Having a “rich and complex inner life”

The site Highly Sensitive People states that HSPs  are”mainly seen as shy, introverted and socially inhibited (or can be socially extroverted). They are often acutely aware of others’ emotions. Sensitive people learn early in life to mask their wonderful attributes of sensitivity, intuition and creativity. Highly Sensitive People also defines HSPs as having “low tolerance to noise, glaring, strong odors, clutter and or/chaos,” as having more body awareness than others and instinctively knowing when their environment isn’t helping them. HSPs are also described as probably feeling like “misfits,” as people who enjoy time alone and need time by themselves to recover from social interaction. “HSPs compensate for their sensitivity by either protecting themselves by being alone too much, or, by trying to be ‘normal’ or sociable which then over-stimulates them into stress,” states the site. The culture HSPs might grow up in could exacerbate their feelings of not belonging. “Culturally, HSPs do not fit the tough, stoic and outgoing ideals of modern society and what is portrayed in the entertainment media,” it states. “Spiritually, sensitive people have a greater capacity for inner searching. This is one of their greatest blessings.”

MR. ROBOT -- "br4ve-trave1er.asf" Episode 106 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: David Giesbrecht/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT — “br4ve-trave1er.asf” Episode 106 — Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson — (Photo by: David Giesbrecht/USA Network)

So what does my personal testimony and all of this information have to do with Elliot? For one, I’ve never identified with a character as much as I do Elliot. Second, I think a character like Elliot is a character we should see more often on television. We all can’t be overconfident, exuberant extroverts like Beaumont Rosewood from FOX’s Rosewood, for example, who is the epitome of the “Confident, yet Complicated, Virile Male” trope. Or the Marvel Cinematic Universe superheroes, all of which are now bleeding into each other by how similar their personalities and character quirks are. How can everyone on that team compartmentalize their emotions and have the energy to provide witty banter? Does no one have a mental breakdown from all of that stress? Even Ichabod Crane from FOX’s Sleepy Hollow is too strong to be real at times. If anyone should be deep in their feelings, it should be him, since he’s a man out of time and he’s someone who never got to properly say goodbye to his family.

Women are generally characterized worse than men. We’re only just now getting complex female characters, thanks to Orange is the New Black, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Orphan Black, House of Cards, and others. But still, women’s emotions are often second fiddle to the fashion or makeup she’s sporting (or the lack thereof). Too many times, the fashion makes the character instead of the character’s emotional landscape being the prime informer of character decisions. Or, even worse, the character falls into trope. She’s “complicated” because she’s a sexy assassin, or because she’s a doctor who doesn’t play by the rules, or because she’s an undercover operative who uses her sexuality to gain information (too often, a woman’s “complicated” characterization revolves around how much they allow themselves to be a sex object for the male viewership). “The complicated relationship between women characters, beauty, fashion, and worthiness can be another article by itself, but the point is that a woman’s characterization still needs work, and most characterizations don’t portray a woman who faces depression, OCD (real OCD, not the cutsey, stereotyped stuff usually shown on TV), high sensitivity, and society’s mischaracterization of both, but still manages to get the job done despite everything thrown her way.

What the character Elliot gets right about people facing high sensitivity is that they are not only misunderstood by the world, but they are misunderstood by themselves as well. Because no one really teaches about high sensitivity as being a normal way of thinking and interpreting the world, people often come down hard on highly sensitive people for “not being tough.” This is paramount in those scenes featuring young Elliot facing his berating mother, who tells him he’s not worth anything, that he’s weak. She abuses him into “toughening up,” but she can’t see the form of toughness Elliot already possesses. Because of this, Elliot grew up seeing himself as weak when he’s always been the complete opposite. Because of his mother’s abuse (and maybe because of something we don’t know with his dad’s death), Elliot has rejected himself and strives to find his “true,” “acceptable” self by self-medicating with cocaine, becoming a loner, and by taking on the mantle of a hacking vigilante. One thing that’s really interesting about Elliot is that despite his loneliness, he refuses to let many people, including his psychiatrist, inside to understand his world. This point is made clear in what I feel is probably the best scene of television, hands down:

The scene says a lot about the HSP, their perceptiveness, their rich inner world (to paraphrase Aron), and the disappointment many HSPs experience when it comes to the rest of society. Elliot, like a lot of HSPs, can interpret certain subtleties about life that others might miss. Elliot knows his environment—American society—is wrong on many levels, particularly when it comes to letting money, apathy, and hardness rule instead of allowing sensitivity its day in the sun. But the fact that he knows his environment doesn’t suit him pales in comparison to how much his inability to fit in makes him feel like a huge mismatch with his world. Everyone else around him is able to belong, but his depth of feeling, his ability to feel and see a lot that most people miss or want to ignore, has him feeling out of place to the point of nihilism.

MR. ROBOT -- "br4ve-trave1er.asf" Episode 106 -- Pictured: (l-r) Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss, Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: David Giesbrecht/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT — “br4ve-trave1er.asf” Episode 106 — Pictured: (l-r) Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss, Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson — (Photo by: David Giesbrecht/USA Network)

However, despite Elliot feeling like a failure and a weak person, Elliot is constantly demonstrating his power and inner strength. He kicked his cocaine habit by himself, for one thing (which is actually quite dangerous). He has sent people to jail from his hacking skills (which means he’s not afraid of the risks involved, including getting caught). He (and/or Mr. Robot) formed the hacking group that took down Evil Corp. Meanwhile, Elliot calls himself “just a tech.”

Elliot’s actions are a huge reminder to other HSPs out there, that no matter who says we can’t do something or that we’re too weak, we aren’t too weak to do whatever we want to do. We, like Elliot, just have a different form of strength. Our strength is to take in the subtle and sometimes unspoken messages the world sends to us in the form of the emotional output and come to conclusions about how to provide help and healing. What Elliot is doing is dangerous, no doubt, but in his own way, he’s trying to heal his world using his superpower of high sensitivity. A highly sensitive person’s superpower is to protect the emotional self and the emotional selves of others; to me, that’s why we’re so connected to emotions in the first place. Elliot can sense that the emotional state of the world is in danger, and he’s going to great means to fix it, because fixing it means that he’ll finally have a place he can call home.

Most of us aren’t going to hack our way to a new world order though, so what we in the real world can do is protect our own emotional selves first. If us HSPs can reject what we’ve been told about “toughness,” honor our own unique gifts, and become excited about how we view the world, then we’ll be able to provide our talents more freely and without fear of rejection. One thing we can take away from Elliot’s quest to erase capitalism is that we have the ability to give power back to ourselves. Just like no corporation should hold power over people, no single person should be able to rob you of your personal power. You don’t have to hack society to say you belong. All you have to do is say “I belong,” and believe it.