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As I walked through the grade school halls on my way to deliver materials to a classroom, I heard a child’s sobbing. My heart clenched. I looked around and saw a young child, tears streaming, standing alone with a teacher. I couldn’t make out what the teacher was saying to the child, but the scene and all that it emoted brought a lump to my throat and I wanted desperately to get out of there fast.
Back at my office in another school building, I relayed the scene to my coworkers. I had no way to hide the distraught I felt. I didn’t know any details but I felt intense sorrow that I couldn’t contain. Of course, my coworkers tried to console me, and probably passed eye-rolls amongst each other, telling me the child was probably fine by now.
This is my life as a highly sensitive person. I feel things that are out there in the invisible ethers, things that are not mine. When I enter a crowded big-box toy store at Christmas time, I find myself swept up in internal chaos and a strong desire to beat every other shopper to the dolls and bikes and train sets, even if it means ramming my shopping cart through aisles, disregarding other people. Yes, I have feelings of the “hunt” that belong solely to me, but those personal feelings are amplified by the level of feelings circulating the environment. Moments like these can be disturbing, very disturbing, until insight filters into my brain. Ah, I’m picking up environmental stuff, I remind myself, and am able to relax.
For the introvert, life is rich. Add to it the trait of high sensitivity, the ability to pick up and have awareness of input of all sorts, and it becomes a highly stimulating environment that, yes, is rich, but also somewhat of a challenge to function in effectively. Thank goodness for researchers and writers who have elevated the status of the highly sensitive person above the labels of “too sensitive,” “a crier,” and “an over-reacter.”
According to Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D, author of The Highly Sensitive Person , though people who have the highly sensitive trait have historically been dismissed as flawed or odd, even unstable, the trait is not imaginary or defective. In her book Aron affirms for the highly sensitive person (HSPs, she calls them) that they are not crazy.
“Having a sensitive nervous system is normal, a basic neutral trait. You probably inherited it. It occurs in about 15-20 percent of the population. It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations.”
Aron goes on to confirm that HSPs can easily be overwhelmed. No kidding. The world is a very loud place filled with scents and sights and activity and emotions. All that input is useful, but also highly stimulating. And highly stimulated is a state that can lead to exciting revelations and insights as well as agitation and exhaustion.
High sensitivity can make an HSP an interesting person to be around. Life for us is very intense. Lots of things just make sense, as we use influx of input. Life also can be a challenge for the non-HSP because they’re not bothered by the noise of a nearby barking dog or the scent of the perfume of a passing woman. But the HSP is bothered. A lot. Just ask my husband. I’m apt to complain to him soon after being seated in a restaurant. The music is blaring or the people at the next table have an odd smell or the lobster tank in my line of sight is makes me sad and angry. Walking through the grocery store I can hardly think because the “background” music is so loud for me. It’s terribly distracting and need I say, annoying? This is not simply me hearing well. It is a heightened awareness of sound. As author Andrea Bartz pointed out in her article for Psychology Today, “Sense and Sensitivity,” the HSP’s low tolerance for environmental stimuli can make him or her seem like a complainer to the non-HSP.
“HSPs often have a heightened sense of smell or touch and, say, zero tolerance for itchy fabrics or sudden sounds—reflecting their low threshold for sensory input. They complain about things no one else notices; a colleague’s deodorant or a scented candle gives them headaches. And there’s that damn light buzzing in the otherwise quiet office. An hour or two into a party or other sensory-rich event and they’ve withdrawn to a corner, a prelude to announcing they need to go home.”
But as Aron and others point out, while for HSPs the experience of living can be intensely emotional and anxiety-producing, it also is an intensely interesting and pleasing experience. Note Bartz’ observations.
“The proverbial thin skin of HSPs covers a highly permeable nervous system. Gentle ribbing or an offhand jab can leave them brooding for days. But just as likely, an unexpected compliment or kind exchange can send their mood soaring, while the sight of a dad playing adoringly with his child can bring on tears fueled by a rush of warmth.”
Exploring Is Beautiful
High sensitivity is not limited to introverts. It is not gender-specific, either. According to Bartz, research reports that about one in five HSPs are extroverts, and if it appears that women more than men exhibit the trait, that’s socialization of boys having an impact. But whatever the personality base, male or female, an HSP needs to appreciate what is going on for him or her, and time to process the ever-ongoing stream of input. In our world that’s not an easy task. Pause? Process? That’s allowed, you ask? As one introverted HSP to anyone, I suggest not only pausing for processing and sorting out what’s “mine,” “yours” or free-floating, but tolerance for all the various types of people who populate the world. And if you suspect you or someone you care about is an HSP, take time to check out available information and explore the possibility that high sensitivity is at work. Take Aron’s test. Read the tips in her book suggested for helping HSPs navigate life. As she writes, what you don’t realize (about yourself or a familiar HSP) will hurt you. Better to knowledge up and welcome the many facets of being human.