Learning to Love My(sensitive)self
A glimpse into the struggles and rewards of being highly sensitive.
Just shy of 38 years and I’m getting to know myself. My therapist, who has become a dear friend, brought to my attention a trait that I now believe I was born with. I never knew I had this trait and that had caused a myriad of problems in my life, relationships, aspirations and goals, as well as my overall wellbeing.
I am a highly sensitive person. Which means my nervous system is more sensitive to stimulation and therefore my threshold to overstimulation is much lower than the average person. This trait is seen in humans and other mammals at a rate of about 15–20%. An illuminating fact from The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron is that no one, whether sensitive or not, enjoys being overstimulated. We all have a point when the sights and sounds and interactions with people of everyday life become too much for us to process and then we become frazzled, shut down, or even faint. We all have this point, but for highly sensitive people, it requires much less stimuli to get there.
Or, looking at it another way, since we take in and process so much more than the average person, perhaps we become overwhelmed by the same amount of stimuli, but it takes less time for us to get there in the average day. Aron likens our information processing to a fruit sorting machine. While the average person sorts the “fruit” they come across during the day into three categories of size; the highly sensitive person sorts their fruit into ten sizes. Taking the metaphor a little further, I would argue that the highly sensitive person(HSP) then sorts the different size fruits into even more categories, such as color and blemish level, etc.
In short, we comprehend more of the variation in everything we come across.
A highly sensitive friend of mine shared that before he knew about his trait he found it very difficult to maintain acquaintances and build them into friendships. He had assumed that was due to people not liking him, once they really got to know him. Though he has some longtime friends and many likable attributes. In fact, “HSPs are known to be highly observant, intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic, conscientious, loyal, and creative.” -Melody Wilding. Now, however, he understands there were likely instances when he was overstimulated and flustered, causing people to think he was either awkward or that he did not want to interact. He unwillingly pushed potential friends away because of his trait.
These days he makes sure to limit his calendar. And when he does have a social event he allows himself quiet alone time beforehand so that he is well rested. Have you ever met a new person at a party and completely blanked when trying to make small chat? My friend has a great tip for meeting new people at social events. He reads a few interesting articles the day before so he has something interesting to talk about with whomever he meets. It may sound silly to those who are not sensitive and introverted (the two almost always go hand in hand) to prepare talking points for a party or social gathering, but it makes him feel confident and ready to mingle. And who doesn’t want to feel confident?
The more successful social interactions one has at these types of engagements, the less preparation is needed and the easier it becomes.
If you are highly sensitive, or think you might be, I recommend Aron’s popular book. Although it is dated, it looks at the trait thoroughly and offers practical advice for HSPs in all areas of life. For many sensitives, just understanding there is a physiological reason for the way they interact with the world can be life changing. If you are an HSP, I encourage you to be gentle with and to give yourself much grace as you are learning how to cope with being different. Our society’s ideal is the powerful extrovert. But you have your own power! You have the ability to sense things that most will miss. Your intuition and ability to notice details makes you a valuable asset to the whole. Every one is different of course, even among the highly sensitive. But it takes all of us to make a successful society. And our differences is what helps to make such a beautiful world.
Thanks for reading.