Tag Archives: highly sensitive

“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. 🖖🏾

Why “Claws” Autistic Character Dean Should Be Played By An Autistic Actor

EDIT 7/14: Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared, and discussed this article. With that said, I’d like to make a few clarifications, since I’d been thinking about this article and researching on both ASD and high sensitivity (HS) a lot, as well as discussing it within my personal circle.

Firstly, I must make absolutely clear that I am not officially diagnosed with ASD. I have “diagnosed” myself with HS, since that is, as Dr. Elaine Aron describes, a “character trait.” What I have noticed from various ASD quizzes I’ve taken, however (which also shouldn’t be taken as a clinical diagnosis), is that I exhibit traits along the ASD spectrum, which, as I state in my article, I could investigate more with a doctor if I was so inclined. To be even clearer about it, I exhibit a mix of both neurotypical and ASD traits, which definitely fits the bill for neurodivergence, but I think a self-diagnosis of ASD would be overreaching for me, since I am not a trained doctor. Hopefully I made that as clear as possible in the original article, but this edit is here to clear up any confusion because the last thing I want to do is 1) wrongly lead people on and 2) take up space in a conversation that, while I can add to it with my own experiences when it comes to social and environmental stress that both HS and ASD-diagnosed individuals face, might be better suited to those who have actively and historically identified with ASD. In the future, that’s what I plan on doing.

There is, from my past research, an overlap of sorts in how emotional overstimulation can occur in both ASD individuals and HS individuals, so much so that some in HP and ASD forums have asked each other about the possibilities of having both. Indeed, more research needs to be done on the possible relationships between emotional overstimulation across individuals with HS and ASD-diagnosed individuals. However, something that also should be taken into account are newer studies that have shown that autism isn’t just something that affects a limited few–autistic traits are found across the general population, leading some scientists to believe there is a continuum across the entire population, not just a “spectrum” that only pertains to people who have been either self-diagnosed or clinically diagnosed (self-diagnosis is accepted within the autism community for various reasons, ranging from cost of diagnosis, the lack of sensitivity towards women and people of color when it comes to the process of diagnosis, and the lack of qualified professionals who can diagnose adults in general).

The idea of a continuum not only rocks the boat as far as the general consensus of “neurotypical” brain function is concerned, but it also opens up the possibilities to study how autistic traits affect others on a less acute basis; how all of us who aren’t diagnosed are more “neurodivergent” than we think. That realization should propel all of us to exhibit more sympathy to others and hope that they are properly represented in the media, as well as in other areas in society. Perhaps the continuum theory could also explain why there’s at least an emotional overlap between some HS individuals and some AS individuals and why it can be very confusing for some to differentiate between the two.

I say all of this to say that 1) I stick by what I wrote about my preference for Dean being played by an autistic actor. I feel that, despite talk of a continuum, there are some experiences that are only best understood by those diagnosed as being along the spectrum, and it would have been great if an autistic actor was chosen for that role for the reasons I list in the main body of the article below. 2) After thinking about it for 48 hours, researching, and using my own instincts, I felt like I should further clarify that I’m not officially diagnosed with ASD, but rather I exhibit several ASD traits, which may or may not be my own misinterpretation of HS traits. Experiencing the “Spock” analogy on a regular basis (which is explained in the first video in this post) is something I do have personal experience with, regardless of what name my neurodivergence takes in a clinical setting. As I have written before, the overlap between certain traits of ASD and HS and the resulting experiences can be confusing to people in both camps, as illustrated in this article about the term “sensory processing sensitivity,” which is used for both ASD and HS.

The ASD spectrum is a difficult and confusing one to get to the bottom of because of the wide range of ways it can express itself, from no outwardly visible behaviors or traits to very severe expressions of traits. Combining that with a possible (or, at least where I’m sitting, probable) continuum across the general population, autistic traits in some can be hard to pinpoint into one specific diagnosis (many people, girls and women in particular, have been misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, as you might read in some of the articles linked in the main body below). In short, I feel I’m in no position to self-diagnose a clinical condition as serious and wide-ranging as ASD. I am an eccentric, highly-sensitive deep thinker with a sarcastic sense of humor, and that’s about all I can say about my neurological state with any confidence.

With all that said, I have realized even more so that there is a dearth in positive representations of neurodivergent POC. I’ll work on highlighting this issue more on this site, but I’ll make sure to utilize more voices aside from my own, as I have done with other longform pieces. ♦


TNT’s hit show CLAWS, which has just been renewed for a second season, is firing on all cylinders, for the most part. From having a bisexual crime boss, a butch lesbian of color, and a woman of color in the lead role, the show is teaching others in the business what intersectional TV can be. However, notice I said “for the most part.” One of the points of contention with this show is Harold Perrineau’s character Dean, the brother of Niecy Nash’s Desna. Dean has autism, but Perrineau does not.

Perrineau’s portrayal of a person with autism falls in a long tradition of non-autistic or otherwise non-disabled actors portraying autistic or otherwise disabled characters. However, these kinds of portrayals are not authentic to the unique experiences of people who are actually on the autism spectrum.

Acting Autistic When Not

In a recent interview with Ebony, Perrineau went into his creative process when developing Dean’s character.

“Well, because he has autism, I thought it was important to figure out what that means to be autistic. One of the things that I found out is that it’s certainly not a disease. While there are people whose brains help them learn in a very typical way, there are people who have autism and their learning process is very atypical, I think that’s the word for it. What I wanted to do was understand the range of possibility that a person who has autism might have. We talked to a doctor. I think the writers pointed me to a doctor who helped them. I have some friends who have children with autism. I talked to them a lot.”

He also added that he spent tons of time on the internet and read books on autism, including Holly Robinson Peete’s book on the subject (Peete has an autistic son). “I had all of these different sources, and it took me like months to figure out, because [with] the range of autism, you could be anywhere on the spectrum. While it offers me the opportunity to do anything, you have to find the specifics of each person. That’s where I started looking. I just talked to people [and read].”

The fact that Perrineau took the time to research autism before diving into his characterization—particularly learning about how people along the autism spectrum manifest the potpourri of symptoms in different ways, and not always exhibiting all of the possible symptoms along the spectrum—is appropriate, to say the least. In fairness, Perrineau’s work on developing Dean as a character has paid off in some respects. The fact that he has added a layer of humor and relatability to Dean that isn’t often found in other portrayals of autism is better than most. Dean comes off as someone who is entirely aware of himself and his unique view of the world. He’s an artist and is also someone who is well aware of his own emotions and how to relate to others, including his sister and Judy Reyes’ Quiet Ann. He knows how to form friendships and feels loss just like anyone else. By approaching Dean from a humanistic perspective, Perrineau has elevated the character of Dean from just a basic stereotype.

However, there’s still the fact that Perrineau himself isn’t autistic. He’s putting on the mantle of autism in a role that could have been given to an autistic actor (unknown or otherwise). Then, there wouldn’t be any confusion or overwhelm when portraying Dean because the actor would be able to draw from his own experiences with autism.

The particular expression of Dean’s autism that Perrineau chose is something I have a tug of war with, personally. Even though Perrineau stated that he pulled from tons of sources, it doesn’t seem as if he referenced one person in particular. This is of particular concern because without a clear reference, there’s a window open for the usual autism stereotypes to come through. And to a degree, they do, despite everything Perrineau has done to give Dean more life than most autistic characters on screen. Dean still has a moment in which he loses self-control of his emotions. He still has movements that harken back to Dustin Hoffman’s movements when portraying Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. Even with the amount of emotional depth Perrineau gives Dean, Dean still has moments of portraying the childlike, non-sexual stereotype assigned to many disabled people, including autistic people. This is not to say that Perrineau’s characterization of Dean speaks to no one with autism—on the contrary, as stated above, the autism spectrum ranges from those with mild expressions of autism, such as Asperger syndrome (borderline and high functioning) and Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), to what is called “classic” autism, which has its own range of severity even within that diagnosis.

Things get even more complex for girls, particularly girls with ASD (otherwise known as Asperger Syndrome); from what I’ve looked up about the subject in relation to myself, the “symptoms” of ASD in girls can manifest in very sly, nearly undetectable ways, much differently than how they can manifest in boys. This is not even counting the possible relationship there is to ASD and being highly-sensitive. As someone who has looked up both and counts herself as highly sensitive and as a candidate for being diagnosed with a high-functioning form of Asperger Syndrome, I definitely think there’s some validity in considering the possibility of hypersensitivity being another side of the coin of the autism spectrum, since it seems the key emotional component in autism is experiencing emotional overwhelm that goes unnoticed or misunderstood by non-autistic people. That emotional overwhelm is explained especially well in this video:

In any case, the point is that autism has a number of different expressions, and full knowledge of the spectrum itself is still a mystery to doctors studying the condition, since there are many people who area along the spectrum who haven’t been diagnosed because their symptoms go undetected. With all of this knowledge out there, and with all of Perrineau’s research on the topic, for his characterization to still fall back on elements of the standard autism portrayal in the media is a sticking point. While Dean is a great character, a character I actually like despite the possible anti-Dean tone of this article, there still seems to be the perception that all people on the autism spectrum have the same symptoms and showcase them with the same severity. As you’ve seen in the video and read in the links above, that’s not the case, and science has yet to get to the bottom of the well of understanding autism’s complexity.

To reiterate, while Dean does showcase one version of autism, Dean’s case is not the only way in which autism can manifest. It would be great if television and film did more to outwardly showcase autistic characters that demonstrated the diversity of the condition.

Real experiences with autism can’t be taught

There’s a lot more that goes into the autism spectrum experience. Actor Mickey Rowe gave The Huffington Post a perfect description of what it feels like to be along the spectrum. Rowe became one of the first actors with autism to play an autistic character on a major stage when he was cast to play 15-year-old autistic character Christopher in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He was also the first autistic actor to play that specific character.

Rowe, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 21 years old, wrote to The Huffington Post in an email about the types of challenges people along the spectrum face, and how those challenges helped him play Christopher.

“Autistics use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job as an autistic is to make you believe that I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life; this is also my job on stage as an actor…As an autistic, I have felt vulnerable my entire life. To be vulnerable on stage is no biggie.”

In his main interview with The Huffington Post, he said that someone with autism playing an autistic character is better than someone putting on the mannerisms.

“There is so much information and so many stereotypes around autism because we nearly always learn about autism from others instead of going straight to the source and learning about autism from autistic adults.

Ideally someone with a disability could play any role, and not have that role be about disability. A wheelchair user could play Hamlet and not ever mention the wheelchair, or someone who is legally blind and autistic like I am could play Puck. But until we see that happening, the least we can do is give disabled people a voice to represent our own communities in a way that is more about honest and less about stereotypes.”

Here’s Rowe in his own words:

And here he is playing Christopher, a character with a different expression of autism than his own:

And here he is playing Christopher again as well as other characters, including one from Shakespeare:


Rowe is a great example of how an autistic actor can not only lend authenticity to autistic characters, but also successfully play any character that’s usually ascribed to a non-autistic person. One of the key ways an autistic actor provides authenticity to an autistic character, aside from being autistic themselves, is showcasing the amount of stress autistic people are under to appear “normal.”

Speaking from personal experience, I might not look, sound, or act non-autistic in day-to-day life. At most, I might not look you directly in the eye when I’m talking (despite training myself on this since I’ve had to do in-person interviews for my various jobs). But, with my neurodivergence (as I write above, I’m somewhere in between being highly-sensitive and having high-functioning ASD see edit at the top of the page), I’ve experienced a vast amount of stress trying to appear “normal,” even though most of my life is spent consumed by emotion, much like how that one guy in the video above described with the “Spock” analogy. The stress and vulnerability Rowe mentioned is something that is an innate experience to those who are neurodivergent, and it’s an element I’m not sure is quite as apparent in Dean’s characterization as it should be, despite the effort being shown to illustrate Dean as a caring person who wants to look after his sister. This particular element is why it’s important for autistic actors to get cast more often.

The character of Dean would have been a great opportunity for a black actor along the spectrum to be discovered and cast. There are so few instances of black autistic characters onscreen, with Billy from Power Rangers being the most notable one. However even then, actor RJ Cyler is playing at autism since he himself isn’t autistic. But that’s a footnote at the bottom of what has been hailed a nuanced performance by Cyler. Overall, Hollywood should do more to showcase a varied range of characters with autism. They don’t all have to be stereotypically marked, and neither do they all have to have “passing” privilege. But there should be a wide assortment of characters autistic viewers can choose from and be able to see themselves in those characters.

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.