The most damaging and hurtful criticism frequently spoken over me as a child was this simple phrase: “You’re too sensitive!”
I was three or four the first time I remember hearing it. The hours I spent playing in our small sandbox were punctuated by frequent requests for my mom to take off my navy blue sneakers, dump out the sand, and then retie them. I imagine she was worn out by the repetition and one day, the words leaked out. Even though I was quite young, I knew it was not meant as a compliment.
I can now tolerate sand in my shoes but I’ve not outgrown many of my other sensitivities. Extended time in buildings with artificial lights and no windows often results in a headache. Particular sounds (e.g., styrofoam against cardboard) can make me feel like I want to hurt someone. Visual imagery continues to profoundly affect me. I can still recall scenes from Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Tales from the Crypt, some forty-five years after watching them as a teenager. (Apparently, this is quite common for higly sensitive people, also known as HSPs.) And you might agree with my mom’s charge if you peeked into our bedroom and saw all of my sleep accouterments including blackout shades, mounds of pillows, four layers of foam, earplugs, eye shades, air filter, and fan. (Just imagine what fun it would be to travel with me—and then buy my husband a drink the next time you see him.)
It has always seemed that the barrier separating me from the world is see-through and utterly permeable—like sheer silk—and no amount of self-actualization or CBT can change this reality or help me to develop a proverbial thick skin. Because my sensitivities were not exactly celebrated, I learned to cope by withdrawing and denying my reality. By the time I was a young adult, my self-opposition had morphed into self-hatred.
Then in my late twenties, a close friend tentatively (but sagely) suggested I read The Highly Sensitive Person, by Dr. Elaine Aron. The subtitle says it all: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
Indeed, life did overwhelm me. It was often too bright, too noisy, and too abrasive. I longed for an internal dimmer switch.
I took the self-test at the beginning of the book and answered true on all twenty-three questions. (According to Aron, “answering true to twelve or more indicates that you’re probably highly sensitive.”) Sample questions include: I tend to be very sensitive to pain (check); I startle easily (check); I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time (triple check).
For what it’s worth, hell, for me, would be working as an office manager in a cavernous room full of extroverted telemarketers with fluorescent lights, air fresheners, mindless pop music, and highly caffeinated drinks. (Which explains why I can’t write in a café.)
Before I finished chapter one, I was in tears. Finally, someone was offering me a new paradigm. This book, coupled with a few years of therapy, allowed me to reframe my sensitive nature as an asset rather than a liability.
All HSPs are not alike. Some of us try to compensate for our sensitivities by being strong and controlling. Others are fragile and exceedingly shy. As is true for many highly sensitive people, I’m incredibly responsive to the spiritual realm. I once walked into an unfamiliar bookstore and instantly felt ill at ease. I soon discovered why; the back of the store was filled with occult paraphernalia. I notice subtle relational dynamics which can lead to co-dependency if I’m not careful. I see colors and designs that other people overlook: a total win in my photography work.
Despite the many benefits, my sensitivities are often inconvenient. There’s only a limited number of movies and TV shows that meet my criteria of not too suspenseful, violent, or sexual. (The Great British Baking Show anyone?) Potential vacation homes have to be carefully screened for potential triggers including proximity to hospitals or busy roads (earplugs only do so much when you’re an HSP), the presence of pets, and mattress firmness (think Goldilocks). My highly extroverted husband has to leave many social events earlier than he’d like because when we stay out too late, I’m up most of the night processing, sorting, and filing all the sensory experiences.
If you want to be my friend, you have to be endlessly patient and sympathetic; I am unequivocally high maintenance.
It’s taken me many decades to get here but I now believe that the benefits of being in relationship with me outweigh the costs. I no longer deny or fight against my sensitivities. I accept them as God-given gifts meant to enrich my life and the lives of those around me. I truly am fearfully and wonderfully made—even though I sometimes wish God’s design had included a dimmer switch.
Photo credit ©Dorothy Greco: dew drop on spider web.