“I had such a hard day yesterday. I felt exhausted and out of sorts. In the end I let the older two watch TV and had a bath while the little one played on the floor!”
“I’ve finally started to feel better after the flu, instead of utterly drained by the end of the day.”
Two comments I’ve heard from two friends in the past. And my inner response each time: “But that’s how I feel almost every day!”
I’ve been aware for a long time that I don’t seem able to cope with as much of life as many of my friends. I have put it down to various things … insomnia, post-natal depression, Crohn’s disease.
But I think I have finally found the real reason. I can’t put into words the sense of illumination that I experienced upon discovering the term ‘highly sensitive person‘.
I dislike the term intensely. It brings to mind shrinking violets, hot-house orchids, and people who fuss incessantly because everything isn’t ‘just so’.
But as I read through the list of characteristics, stumbled upon during an innocuous internet search, I could feel my inner self screaming with excitement: This is me!!
I have always reacted more intensely to pain and unpleasant sensations, crying more easily, and tiring more easily than many of my friends. I think deeply and intensely about everything, from which coffee to choose at the cafe, to why I am here and the meaning of suffering.
As I have thought through the implications of this trait, I can see how it has affected every area of my life, from infancy when my poor mother had to put my shoes on six times until there were absolutely no wrinkles in my socks, to my depression in my early twenties, to my current struggles as a mother of three.
I have always felt that unpleasant sense of being somehow less than other people, and perhaps this is because only 15-25% of the population would identify as highly sensitive, and among those there would be a spectrum. I suspect I am on the more extreme end, as I identified with every single trait, many of them strongly.
I think for people who are not very sensitive (which is about 40% of the population according to the research done by Aron), it would be very difficult to understand those who are. And I don’t think the chosen label helps very much with that. All it means is that my brain processes stimuli far more intensely, which means, practically, I will feel sensations and emotions more intensely.
The trait has been likened to autism (though it is not connected), in that the highly sensitive person will struggle to filter out things that the average person can. So an average person can filter out the extraneous noises in a room, while a highly sensitive person will have a harder time doing that.
What does it mean in real terms?
When I was a child, being hit on the head by a stray football in the yard would shake me up for a long time, even as a teenager. I would watch other kids laugh it off and carry on playing, while for me the pain throbbed, and I would be bombarded by emotions: shame and humiliation, especially as tears welled up in my eyes and I experienced fear that others were going to notice and laugh; an overwhelming urge to run away and hide somewhere quiet until my heart stopped pounding and the pain subsided; as well as a profound sense of shock. Netball was a tortuous experience. My instinct was always to duck rather than catch the ball, leading to mockery and disdain from my fellows and even, sometimes, the teachers.
I remember adults expressing extreme irritation and impatience towards me, as I began crying yet again, or failed to throw myself into whichever experience they had decided would be good for me, including running through freezing hail, mud and rain, flinging myself with abandon over a hard and heavy pole, and practicing throwing and catching a hard missile that threatened to slam into the side of my head at any moment.
I can see how, if you are less sensitive, a child who cries easily, startles easily, and is cautious must seem a bit pathetic and fragile.
I feel an intense pity for my child-self, and for any child who is trying to grow up in such an intense world, and a world so intent on admiring and exalting those who are bold and confident.
I’m hoping to write a series of blog entries about this, exploring how it has affected different areas of my life, starting with my emetophobia, in the hope that it will help others affected by the same trait, and also that it will help me process my life and find new reasons for joy in it.
Because although it is easy to see this trait as a negative thing (and believe me, I often wish I could be ‘normal’ and cope more easily with ordinary life), it has a wonderful flip-side. Although unpleasant experiences are felt more intensely and can lead to a life of avoidance, the highly sensitive person will also experience the highs and joys more intensely. They are quicker to appreciate beauty in nature, art and human expression. Sweetness is sweeter, joy is deeper, and pleasure more intense for the highly sensitive person.
I have often felt different for this reason too – my heart soars at the sight of mountains, oceans, sky, trees, flowers, babies. (Of course, this is not to say that the ordinarily sensitive cannot experience such joy also, just that it may be easier for the HSP to access these pleasures).
So although this trait comes with a hefty dose of negative, I wouldn’t exchange it. The joys are too great for that.