You’re Too Sensitive! Or are you?

by helen on May 20, 2011

Have you ever been told you’re just “too sensitive”?

Have you been told to “suck it up”, “toughen up” or “get a thicker skin”?

Do you find that sometimes when you are frazzled and overstimulated, others around you raise their eyes to heaven or mock you?

Do you at times feel so overwhelmed or overstimulated that you feel uncomfortable in your own skin?

I have.  Multiple times.  Much to my pain and shame.

Until.

I was introduced to the work of clinical psychologist Elaine Aron’s work about Highly Sensitive People.

I took the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) test and was confirmed as an HSP.

I felt a huge wave of relief.  I wasn’t a freak.  Approximately 1 in 5 of the population may feel the same way as I do.  And it’s nothing I’m doing wrong, it’s just the way I was made.

HS-what?

From Aron’s website:

“Highly Sensitive People (HSP) have an uncommonly sensitive nervous system – a normal occurrence, according to Aron. “About 15 to 20 percent of the population have this trait. It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations. It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted.” An HSP herself, Aron reassures other Highly Sensitives that they are quite normal. Their trait is not a flaw or a syndrome, nor is it a reason to brag. It is an asset they can learn to use and protect.”

In everyday life….

So what does that look like?  Being that 80% of the population is non-HSPs, in general the world we live in does not really cater to HSPs.  It can be over-loud, time-crunched and a stimulation soup that boils with abandon.

For example, I was sitting in the lobby at the local YMCA waiting for my daughter’s dance class to end and I noticed I couldn’t even read a page of a book or retain anything I tried to study during that time.  The sliding doors constantly swished, there was a flickering neon light above me, other children were shouting and running, someone was talking loudly on their cell phone, two people were arguing – not even loudly but I sensed their anger and frustration, there was a cold draft from the outside, the area smelled of chorine and coffee.

I was overstimulated.  A non-HSP in this situation may have noticed 4 couches and 5 people in a lobby.

I noticed that my 10-year-old son who was sitting with me was taking a long time with his homework and seemed very frustrated.  It suddenly occurred to me that he may be feeling the same as I did.

I had shared this work with my husband, a wonderful and sensitive man, who is a non-HSP, but I hadn’t talked to my children about it.

I asked my son, “when Daddy comes here he sees a room, some people and some couches, when I am here…(and I described all the stimuli).  What do you see?”

And tears welled up in his beautiful green eyes as he whispered, “I see what you see.”

Then memories of him as a baby screaming throughout family functions, which were loud and jovial, flooded my mind.  I used to think there was something wrong with him.

Noticing and seeing this as feedback would have been helpful, but at the time I was wrapped up in a story – what was wrong with me?  What was wrong with him?

And the truth of it was – nothing.  This is how our nervous systems take in our environments.  Good to know.

Going back to the YMCA, now I know that if he’s going to be comfortable doing homework, the YMCA lobby is not the place.  We experimented, if he wore earplugs there he could get his homework done in a third less time with a third less errors.  Quite a difference.  If he just played in the lobby and did his homework in the quiet comfort of home, we had the same result.  All good information. Valuable adjustments.

My 8-year-old daughter is also an HSP, but her sensitivities are unique and different to her brother’s.  She likes to listen to music while she does homework but she is very sensitive to emotional states, scents and temperatures around her.

My children are loving, intelligent, active, fun, rambunctious, sassy and hilarious and also highly sensitive.

My non-HSP husband loves to have on all the TVs in the house and his music loud.  He’s as happy as a clam and were all vibrating – and not in a good way.

This calls for some empathy, adjustment and understanding for and from myself and others.  You learn what feels good and what doesn’t.  You honor the lessons from the feedback and you make the appropriate adjustments.

Strategies

Understanding this research has helped me create strategies for my personal and family wellness.

I plan for time where I make space to just be.

I give my husband space to have his music as loud as he wants while I go out and do other things.

I value practices I incorporate in my life to create and maintain peace, like meditation, yoga, quiet and quality time with loved ones or friends.

If I’m overstimulated I make a change in my environment, even if that means leaving an event early.

I pick which events I attend and how many in any week.

I play with new ideas and practices to see what works for me and also notice and encourage my children, and my HSP clients, to do the same.

I now see the gift in this trait, especially in my work as a coach.  I work around the challenges.  I try to embrace it as a part of me, no longer resisting it, apologizing for it, or feeling ‘less than’.

So whether you’re an HSP or a non-HSP, can you engage your curiosity, empathy and acceptance for the unique and different beings we all are in the world?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue May 22, 2011 at 8:09 am

How interesting!!!! A few months ago, I came across Elaine Aron’s work, too. AND I’m definately HSP!!!! It made me feel so much better to know that I was created this way and not just a freak. I guess I should have known that you, Helen, were sensitive in similar ways. It is sometimes difficult to work in a place which doesn’t value the sensitivities we have but I can tell you that individuals often value us for what we can give to them or help them with. Right now I struggle with finding enough quiet ME time, but some day I will have all that I need.

helen May 23, 2011 at 9:57 am

Hi Sue, Thanks so much for your insightful comment. Yes, it’s a wonderful body of work for the sensitive amongst us. I’m wishing you free and clear quiet you time to rest and restore and maximally enjoy your days! Kindest, Helen

Starla J. King November 2, 2011 at 8:04 am

Hi Helen… just discovering this wonderful post of yours… LOVE your son’s tearing-up reaction to realizing he is UNDERSTOOD. Interesting to note, I think I’m a “situational HSP” … sometimes I can flit from one stimuli to another, each one filling me with joy and energy, and I just drink it all in: every sense vibrating — in a good way. And other times, a small noise makes my skin crawl and my insides clam up. The volume on the tv sounds like a jackhammer. One bit of stimuli beyond my current focus makes me angry, agitated, frustrated, totally on edge and on the verge of total shutdown.

Thank you for this reminder that the way I react to my environment at any given time is unique to me, and it’s up to me to adjust my ways of working / ways of being according to MY needs.

xo

Helen November 2, 2011 at 10:15 am

Hi Starla, oh how I love your insights and noticing here. I so relate to what you’re saying. There are times when I might turn up the music super loud and dance around and be having a great time, and there are times when loud noise is almost physically painful. I had not noticed this before. The ‘situational HSP’ is such a wonderful concept. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Hxo

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