“Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” ~Edgar Allen Poe
As long as I can remember, my hyper-sensitivity has been a running theme in my life.
When I was a child, I could easily pick up on the subtle undercurrents going on in my house. When the mood shifted from normal to tense, I was quick to notice it and quick to try to set things right. My mom called me “the little peacemaker.”
When things did get tense or volatile in my household, I felt overwhelmed with the intensity of the negative emotions whirling around me. It made me extremely anxious, and if I couldn’t do anything to make things right again, I’d find a way to escape — through books or play or spending time with a friend.
If any of that tension or anger were specifically directed at me, I was quick to change my behavior or apologize in order to regain emotional equilibrium. I got my feelings hurt easily and was thrown off-balance when someone would say something biting to me.
I felt other positive emotions quite deeply as well. I felt intense love for my parents, became strongly attached to my friends, enjoyed hugs and physical affection, and was easily touched by moving stories, art, or music. I could sense someones’ mood or needs and instinctively knew how to pull the right groups of people together.
As I grew older and lived on my own, I discovered other interesting sensitivities. I was highly sensitive person and more sensitive than most of my friends to medication, caffeine, crowded and noisy environments, and making life changes. And my intense feelings around conflict, arguing, and violence never abated.
But also as I grew older, I learned I had to adapt to a world that wasn’t filled with equally sensitive people if I was going to thrive and be happy. I had to manage my sensitivity where appropriate and learn new skills for reacting and responding to situations that turned up my emotional juice. Does any of this remind you of yourself — or someone close to you? If so, you aren’t alone. And you aren’t crazy or weak or “too sensitive.”
Being highly-sensitive (also known by its scientific term as SPS, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity) is a normal trait found in 15-20% of the population.
Dr. Elaine Aron is a psychologist, researcher, and pioneer in the study of the innate temperament trait of high sensitivity. She is the author of the books The Highly Sensitive Person, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You, and The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them. Dr. Aron has found that not only is high sensitivity a normal trait, it is also innate. In fact according to Dr. Aron, “biologists have found it to be in most or all animals, from fruit flies and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates.” However, the brains of highly sensitive people actually work a bit differently than other people’s brains. The sensitivity trait actually reflects a survival strategy of keen observation before action. Here are some other interesting facts about highly sensitive people listed on the Highly Sensitive Person web site:
- 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.
Some of the traits of a highly sensitive person include:
- feeling easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input
- keenly aware of subtleties in my environment
- easily affected by other people’s moods
- feeling very sensitive to pain, physical or emotional
- needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place to have some privacy and relief from stimulation
- particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine
- easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells,coarse fabrics,or sirens close by
- enjoys a rich,complex inner life
- feeling uncomfortable by loud noises
- having a nervous system that sometimes feels so frazzled that you just have to go off by yourself
- highly conscientious
- easily startled
- easily rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time
- readily knows what needs to be done to make it more comfortable in a physical environment (like changing the lighting or the seating)
- quickly annoyed when people try to get you to do too many things at once
- trying hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things
- making a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows
- becoming unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around you
- reacting strong when hungry, disrupting concentration or mood
- feeling shaken up by life changes
- noticing and enjoying delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art
- finding it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once
- making it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations
- feeling bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes
- when competing or being observed while performing a task, you become so nervous or shaky that you do much worse than you would otherwise
- as a child, being seen as sensitive or shy by parents and teachers
It was a great relief to read Dr. Aron’s research and realize that my sensitivity doesn’t make me an emotional oddball. In fact, being highly sensitive has many benefits, not the least of which is feeling the good, happy, meaningful things in life even more intently.