In an article in Psychology Today,* I again found comfort in the knowledge that there are others like me out there, and my particular brand of weirdness is not “damage” but an inherent brain architecture I am born with. Just like others are born with blue eyes or musical ability.I speak of those in our species who live with Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which is the scientific term for this trait. More colloquially, it is known as HSP- Highly Sensitive Person, a collection of traits that was identified in pioneering research by Elaine Aron, PhD.
- Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population–too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you.
- It is innate. In fact, biologists have found it to be in most or all animals, from fruit flies and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) actually work a little differently than others’.
- You are more aware than others of subtleties. This is mainly because your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply. So even if you wear glasses, for example, you see more than others by noticing more.
- You are also more easily overwhelmed. If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time.
- This trait is not a new discovery, but it has been misunderstood. Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called “shy.” But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extraverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion. It has also been called inhibitedness, fearfulness, or neuroticism. Some HSPs behave in these ways, but it is not innate to do so and not the basic trait.
- Sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told “don’t be so sensitive” so that they feel abnormal.
So each time I find an article about it, I read it with hunger, because it serves to validate me as a worthy human being with special skills that are often misunderstood, but are also responsible for providing the world with some of the greatest, art, music and writing we have ever known. It tends to concentrate itself in creative people, or perhaps more accurately, creative people are more often than not, HSP’s.In regard to Why it’s hard to be a highly sensitive (HSP) introvert then, I felt I could have actually written this article–meaning, the author echoes so many of the particular idiosyncratic things about myself that are so hard to explain to others. Some of my reactions are not quite as extreme, but this has only been true in the last ten years, since finding a balance in certain areas; but overall, she describes ME in this article. Like:
“As a highly sensitive person who needs to minimize auditory stimuli, I don’t do well when another person likes having TV or loud music on all the time as background noise. I’m extremely sensitive to other people’s moods; when someone is angry, judgmental or irritated, those emotions come through my skin and into my cells, making me even more uncomfortable. Worst of all, if I don’t have my own space to retreat to and recharge, I’ll eventually have a meltdown.”
I recall one incident at my best friend’s house where I was trying so hard to hear the TV over the other stimuli in the room. My friend was talking on the phone, her ancient, diapered, toothless poodle was walking back and forth in front of me making a smack smack smack nose along with a sound that was like hoo-hoo followed by some grunt one would normally only hear an old man with dementia. Perhaps ironically, I kept turning the TV up louder because I couldn’t understand what was being said in the program I was watching. I even drew a cartoon of this event, and gave it to my friend, which to this day, she laughs about.
The reason for this is, as an HSP, I have a hard time filtering out stimuli. I hear all the sounds at once. For me, this tends to blend into one droning dirge that becomes some version of auditory torture. Add to that the other senses of sight, smell, tactility, and include being empathic and sensing the emotions of others, and it’s a cocktail for that meltdown she mentions. Dr. Biali continues,
“As an introvert, being around other people drains me (as opposed to extraverts, who gain energy being around other people). That doesn’t mean I don’t like being with others, in fact I love it – but I can only do it for so long before I have to go into my cave and refuel.”
I am this way as well, but it does depend primarily on who those people are. If they are people I know well, who aren’t energy-vampires, then I absolutely ADORE being with them. But even so, I do need recovery time after a highly social event. It’s a precarious and delicate balance and I have had to learn to read myself well, and know when it’s time for me to make my exit, curl up on the sofa in front of the fireplace with a book or magazine, or watch TV. I don’t necessarily have to have silence to recharge. I just have to have control over the content and do something that relaxes me. Often, the best thing for me is to watch a program I enjoy, or journal or paint a picture, or get out the clay and sculpt something.
Biali also nails it with her comments about phones….
“I don’t like being on the phone. The only exception is talking to my husband while we’re apart, or someone else who I’m so similar to that there’s an effortless endless flow of conversation. I dislike awkward silences or pressure to come up with fascinating conversation topics, even with people I know well…What they don’t realize is that I really don’t call almost anyone “just to chat”, unless I have a specific reason that I need to to talk to them – it’s not personal, and I keep asking Armando to explain that to them! Email and Facebook are completely different, I love to communicate that way…”
I can talk for hours with my best friend, but she knows me so well and our conversations are effortless and they flow and they are full of interesting and entertaining things. I do, however always have to have a headset or Bluetooth, because I can’t bear the sensation of being trapped by the phone. It took a while for me to realize that part of my problem with being on the phone was because it was usually plugged into a wall, and I didn’t have my hands free, either, and couldn’t move around. Now, with cell phones, and headsets and blue tooth, I can clean house, or go refill coffee or whatever, while talking, so I don’t feel trapped. I also prefer emails and Facebook and texts most of the time, because I have complete control over that, and it’s not a demand, like a ringing phone can be. Though my first choice will always be a one-on-one interaction with someone whose company I enjoy.
“As an HSP, I also pick up all kinds of subtleties in people’s voices or comments that make me uncomfortable if they have personal (negative) significance. This intuitive sensitivity works really well when I work as a personal coach over the phone, as I’m able to pick up what’s behind a client’s words and use it to unblock them or help them move forward, but in personal conversations it can be too much information.”
I have the same experience, here, as well. I prefer one-on-one communication, because I have a better chance of picking up on body language and visual cues, so that it’s easier to discern meaning accurately. And even then, if I sense any negativity directed at me, personally, it can feel very much like a wound. That old childhood chant, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me” just simply isn’t true for me as an HSP. Words do just as much harm to me as a physical assault.
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off…They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.”
With only a partial list like that, it’s easy to see the contributions that HSP’s have made in this world. And thus, more difficult to dismiss them as different, introverted, eccentric, crazy, or in the pejorative sense, too sensitive. Being an unwitting HSP is most likely the cause of many tragic stories in the creative community, and I believe that many of those creatives who escape through drugs and alcohol and extreme behavior, or who attempt or commit suicide are probably HSP’s, simply because they can be so easily overwhelmed, and without healthy coping skills to live in this world, it becomes too much for them.
I have a foot in many creative things. I am an author (I write in 14 genres, but love writing books, and have authored 24 of them to date), an artist (painting, sculpting, pottery, mixed media, photography ), singer-songwriter (over 200 songwriting credits and formerly co-founder and member of two bands). If being HSP means expressing myself creatively, I am definitely a prime example. But long ago, I realized that this world would kill me, if I didn’t figure out how to exist here within the parameters of who I am. In my younger years, I tested almost exclusively right-brain dominate. So I developed my left-brain over many years, and even elevated my IQ. (For a long time it was believed that you are born with a certain IQ and it couldn’t be changed, but now, with all the research into the neuroplasticity of the brain, we know that intelligence can indeed be increased. I took myself from a 120 IQ to 149). I learned about philosophy and logic and disjunctive reasoning, so that today, I test whole-brain. And I think it’s what saved me. This did not suffocate my creativity, however. In fact, it served to inform and expand this area. But it comes with its own sets of issues. For instance, I can feel one way emotionally, but also feel another way intellectually. While this can often be a battle of wills inside my mind, and make me feel I have two personalities, overall, it serves to temper me; it offers me some balance that keeps me from falling into the sensitivity void. It didn’t make me any less of an HSP. It just allowed me to survive. It’s still a challenge to be who I am. As I have said before, Am I too much for the world, or is the world too much for me?