HSP Topics: OK, so I'm an HSP-- NOW what?
This article is part of an ongoing series about the realities, joys and challenges of living life as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). For more background information about HSPs please read my original article The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction which also contains a listing of all my other HSP-related articles.
Having Doubts? Not sure you WANT this "HSP thing" to be true...?
Discovering, understanding and coming to terms with this idea that you're a Highly Sensitive Person doesn't always happen overnight. And whereas it can be very exciting, it's not always comforting, nor does it necessarily fall in line with how we perceive ourselves. I know these certainly were considerations for me...
Most people are familiar with how it feels to have a new insight. Some insights are powerful, wonderful and fill you with instant joy and excitement, while others are not so positive... and some can even leave you with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach and a sense of "Greaaatt... I'm not really sure I want this to be true."
Maybe you find yourself at that point, right now-- having discovered that there is this "thing" that seems to fit you to a T, yet not overjoyed at the idea of being officially labelled "sensitive," and perhaps even feeling offended by the idea that there's a "label" that applies to you.
Maybe you already sort of knew that you were "sensitive" because you have been described that way by family, friends and/or co-workers-- but likely it has not been a positive "label," but perhaps a cause of shaming and anxiety.
Maybe you're bothered by the fact that you thought there was something genuinely "wrong" with you-- something that could potentially be "fixed"-- and now you're having to face the reality that this "thing" isn't actually fixable...
These are not at all unusual responses!
The Highly Sensitive Person: THE Book!
If you read no other book about high sensitivity, you should read this one! It completely changed the way I viewed my life, and the way I "function" in life.
A quick note, before we go any further...
Not everybody who's exploring "being highly sensitive" arrives on this page because they have read Elaine Aron's book on the topic. ►
So if you're reading these words because you are "curious" or because "other people have told you" that you're highly sensitive, or "an empath," you really owe it to yourself to read this book! I'm not saying that as some kind of "sales pitch," but because Dr. Aron's insights about the HSP trait turn out to be life-changing for most who read them.
Seriously, it's the best $8-10 you'll ever spend.
The second reason I feel it's important that every HSP or potential HSP reads "The Highly Sensitive Person" is that there's a lot of opinion and speculation about what it "means" to be highly sensitive... opinions that actually have little or no basis in fact, but a lot of basis in people's needs to either manipulate each other, or even deceive themselves.
Understanding what high sensitivity really IS (as opposed to what you "think it might be") is an important part of learning to live peacefully with the trait.
A good place to continue learning
If you already read "The Highly Sensitive Person" as your introduction to the HSP trait, the companion Workbook is an excellent way to take your learning to a deeper level. Some of the exercises can be quite challenging, as they ask you to dig around in your old personal history... but so worth it!
So, back to this "sensitivity" thing...
When I first learned about the trait-- in 1997-- I was actually pretty resistant to the idea. In fact, I felt pretty sure that-- whereas the description fit me-- this was just another "New Age Mumbo-Jumbo Label," invented to make socially awkward people with anxieties feel better about themselves, while allowing some author to sell self-help books.
Sounds pretty cynical, right?
Perhaps my reluctance was also fueled by the fact that I am male, and conventional societal values regard sensitivity as a "less than desirable" attribute when it comes to male characteristics. In time, I came to realize that male HSPs face an additional set of challenges, when it comes to integrating their sensitivities into daily life... and that made me doubly resistant.
Still, I couldn't escape the fact that the words I had read in Elaine Aron's book "The Highly Sensitive Person" represented an uncannily accurate description of how I had experienced my life.
The first thing I had to come to terms with was that it couldn't hurt to at least examine this "trait."
The idea of sensitivity was not exactly not exactly new to me. When I had previously studied the connection between intelligence and introversion, I repeatedly came across the research of Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, which included findings that as person's IQ/intelligence increased, so did the likelihood that this person would display symptoms of heightened (or "Hyper") sensitivity. Whereas this was interesting to me, I didn't pay too much attention to it, at the time. I felt like I had been offered a partial explanation, but gained no real answers on how it would affect my interaction with the world.
Next Step: Start learning, learning, learning...
For most people, the best way to get comfortable with a new topic is to simply learn about it-- as much as possible. As one of my Teachers once pointed out:
"Our thoughts about a thing are usually much worse than the thing, itself."
There's a great deal of truth in that statement, and it didn't take me long to realize that my initial dislike of "sensitivity" had more to do with societal biases (including some of my own!) than with the actual fact that I was just "highly sensitive." I soon accepted that even if I never told another soul that I was highly sensitive, learning about the trait and how it affected me could obviously help me negotiate life a lot more smoothly.
And so, the first step in your journey to understanding what it "means" to be a highly sensitive person should be to learn enough-- for yourself-- to understand what the trait is really about. It's a much better approach than relying on "what you've heard," or perhaps other people's opinions (or even your own preconceived notions) about what it means to be sensitive.
HSP or Introvert? Or Both?
Author Susan Cain is BOTH an introvert and an HSP. Although her best-selling book is about introverts-- in general-- it is definitely written through the lens of perception of the "introverted HSP."
Throwing OUT some misconceptions about High Sensitivity
It's important to understand that the term "HSP" can't just be arbitrarily applied to the host of different cultural interpretations and "meanings" of "high sensitivity." The term applies to a pretty specific set of characteristics.
No, high sensitivity isn't "the same thing" as being an introvert. Some introverts are HSPs, some introverts are not. Many HSPs are introverts, but 25-30% are not. HSP Introvert Susan Cain's best selling book (see inset below, right) is also highly recommended reading for HSPs. Ms. Cain also happens to be an HSP.
No, "getting your feelings hurt easily, ALL the time" does NOT alone make you an HSP. Which leads to another, greater, mis-assumption: Emotional sensitivity is NOT specifically the single defining factor of someone being a Highly Sensitive Person, as Elaine Aron defined the trait.
It's also important to understand that being an HSP is an inborn trait. It's not something you "develop" or "have" or can be "diagnosed" with. It's something you ARE. It's as much a part of you as "blue eyes" or "big feet." And just like you can't "fix" blue eyes, you can't "fix" sensitivity.
A word of caution about "becoming highly sensitive:" A number of people assert that they "became" HSPs at some point in their lives. Whereas I don't want to negate anyone's experience, it is impossible to "become" an HSP... usually something else is present.
Most likely, what they really became is a particular form of "hypervigilant" that typically arises from prolonged abusive situations and trauma resulting in complex PTSD. Whereas I-- in no way-- wish to diminish the reality of such sensitivity, it is not the inborn trait Dr. Aron identified. Insisting the two are the same is akin to insisting that allergies and a cold are "the same thing" because the symptoms show up as a runny nose.
Last-- but not least-- sensitivity is NOT anxiety, ADHD, social phobia, Asperger's, SID or any other clinical "disorder." In fact, being an HSP is not a "diagnosis," at all.
Understand the Different Aspects of Sensitivity
For a number of HSPs, sensitivity can be almost exclusively environmental. I largely fit into that category, myself-- very sensitive to noise, harsh light, loud sounds, acrid smells and so forth. In my case, none of those have anything to do with the emotional side of sensitvity.
As I learned more I also recognized, for example, that my reluctance to participate in "exciting" and "thrill seeking" activities are not about dislike or fear, but about the fact that my body releases adrenaline very quickly (high startle response) but metabolizes it very slowly.
Phrased differently-- I'm not afraid of the actual rollercoaster ride, I just dislike that I end up feeling "jittery" for a couple of hours afterwards, while everyone else seems to have settled down again, five minutes later. That's an effect of physical sensitivities, and it has everything to do with physiology, and nothing to do with "being a sissy."
Another place I experience being highly sensitive is in a medical context, or being at the doctor's office. My body is very sensitive to the effects of prescription (and other) drugs. I can often get the desired effects from 1/3 to 1/2 of what's considered the "normal" dose, while the full dose might actually result in my feeling worse. This is confusing to many people, as I am a rather large person.
Some HSPs experience their strongest sensitivities empathically-- they feel everything people around them feel and take on other people's feelings and emotions like a sponge. Crowds completely overwhelm them. Violence and pain on TV and in movies horrify them.
Yet others deal with the more "traditional" interpretation of sensitivity: their feelings are very easily hurt.
For many, a blend of these are present.
DOES: Elaine Aron's 4 Basic Aspects of HSPs
In the course of two decades of research into, and study of, Highly Sensitive Persons, Dr. Elaine Aron has established that HSPs basically just have four fundamental "building blocks" in common-- shortened to the acronym "DOES."
Depth of Processing-- This is where conscientiousness, creativity, "mulling things over," making decisions carefully and having a deep understanding of "actions and consequences" manifest.
Easily Overstimulated-- this refers to being more readily overwhelmed by noise, deadlines, pressure, stress and having to work in groups or generally chaotic environments.
Emotional Reactivity-- This is an important aspect to understand; refers to reacting strongly to feedback, easily moved to tears by a variety of inputs, deep feelings of empathy for others, worries about how others are feeling. Keep in mind that this much more than "hurt feelings."
Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli-- in an HSP, this means noticing small things others generally miss, from slight changes in temperature to slight changes in someone's mood; often thought of as very detail oriented.
HSPs in Relationship
Along with understanding OURSELVES as HSPs, it is also important that we understand how we RELATE to others around us. HSPs in love and friendship often have different priorities than the rest of the world. Dr. Aron'd book about HSPs in relationships offers valuable insight into an area many HSPs find very challenging.
HSP Subcultures-- or "Not All HSPs are the Same"
Jacquelyn Strickland-- a leading expert on what it means to be Highly Sensitive-- has identified a number of "HSP Subcultures." On her web site, she outlines and describes more than a dozen distinct "types" of HSPs. These are all very different people... and yet? They all fit the criteria for being "A Highly Sensitive Person."
You might also consider reading my previous article "Not All Highly Sensitive People are the Same," which goes into greater detail about the many ways HSPs are unique and individual people.
Key learning point: Familiarize yourself with all the different facets of high sensitivity, and then spend some time examining what applies to you, and how your sensitivity manifests. Very few people are going to fit Elaine Aron's "standard" definition 100%.
I also recommend reading the books shown on different parts of this page.
Moving Forward: HONOR your sensitivity, but don't IMPOSE it on people
Once you have a basic understanding of the way being a highly sensitive person is reflected in your daily life, it becomes time to look at ways of making your daily living a little easier.
But first, a caveat: There's often the temptation to go "on the offensive" and go overboard on telling everyone "I'm an HSP, and here's what I need." Not a good strategy, even though I have come across scores of people who try to do just that.
Embracing high sensitivity, and creating a lifestyle that incorporates the trait is primarily about how you choose to approach living, not about making demands of others to accommodate you. And while "others" sometimes are part of the process, I highly recommend working towards compromise, rather than making demands.
Perhaps this sounds obvious, but a surprising number of people turn their difficulties in living with high sensitivity into "an issue about other people." If you feel unsure about this distinction, please a moment to read the companion article "Highly Sensitive or Highly Touchy?"
Point of learning: Always remember that high sensitivity is a neutral trait, not a pathology. And whereas it may be tempting to hide behind the "I'm an HSP" label, being an HSP does not grant us license to stop being engaged in life, nor to blame others for our struggles.
Making HSP-friendly choices, and living an HSP-friendly lifestyle
Using your new learning about the HSP trait, and incorporating it into your daily life can take many forms, from a few tiny changes to a complete re-invention of your lifestyle. The degree to which you make changes will-- of course-- vary from person to person. Here are a few basic concepts most HSPs can apply to their life:
Get enough rest: One of the points Elaine Aron makes about HSPs is that because we get easily "overstimulated," it is also extremely important that we get enough rest. And keep in mind that it is not merely the quantity of rest that matters, but also the quality.The "quality" of your sleep can be improved by following a schedule that gives you some time to "get calm" before you actually go to bed. Make a point of spending 30 minutes before bedtime reading, meditating, or engaging in some kind of "low stimulation" activity. One person I know simply plays with and pets her cats before bed, essentially using them as "therapy animals."
Spend your energy wisely: You may have identifiied some situations or people that overstimulate you easily, but don't necessarily want to cut them out of your life. Instead, give yourself a time limit. Maybe you enjoy going out with friends, on Friday night-- do go, but make an agreement with yourself that you need to go home by a certain time-- and then stick to the "agreement." Or if you enjoy some activity or sport, by all means participate, but learn to recognize when you're "on the way" to becoming overwhelmed, and then stop, even if you think "I'll be OK for a while longer."
Learn to say NO: Highly Sensitive People are often "people pleasers" and find themselves getting involved in activities, and with people, they really don't care that much for. As part of the "HSP self-care" process, it's essential to develop good boundaries, and to learn to say "no" when presented with options that really don't fit us. Saying "no" can be difficult sometimes, because we want people to like us, but ultimately we'll be better off by only saying "yes" to those activities and people that give us energy, while saying "no" to those that feel draining and overwhelming.
Ted Zeff's "HSP Survival Guide" is filled with useful tips to make HSP life easier
Examine your habits, and "take inventory"
Stop comparing yourself! HSPs often get in trouble because they compare themselves to other people and feel like they "should" be able to do the same things. Whereas comparisons are-- perhaps--part of human nature, we tend to fall into patterns of only comparing negatively. Remember: Your life is your life, not someone else's. Also, remember that it may seem like some friend can "keep going forever," but there are also many things/talents you have that they don't.
"Don't should on yourself!" Related to the negative patterns of comparisons, telling ourselves that we "should" be able to do things generally serves little purpose other than to create frustration and negative thought patterns. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. As HSPs, it sometimes might feel like our "weaknesses" are things everyone else takes for granted. But we also have strengths and abilities relatively few others have. Rather than do battle with things you believe you "should" be able to do, put your energy into developing your strengths.
Longer Term: take Inventory of your life: Part of the process of embracing sensitivity involves literally pausing to examine our life, and what's in it. The reason this is so important-- especially when the idea of being a highly sensitive person is new-- is that our life-to-date has been based on assumptions that didn't consider the HSP trait. "Taking inventory" means looking at our habits, our work, our choices, the people in our lives, and asking whether they actually serve our best interests.
For some, this can be a challenging and even unpleasant time of self-discovery. We may have to come to terms with the fact that we have friends we're "holding onto" who really don't fit us, but we have kept because it seemed like we "should" be friends with them. Perhaps we continue to try to have a relationship with a toxic family member, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, even though we feel bad about ourselves every time we spend time with that person. Maybe we're clinging to a job that stresses us out, for no reason beside other people telling us we're "successful," or we have persuaded ourselves we have "no other options."
This "taking stock" process is a long-term project. Depending on the core issues you're looking at, it can take from a few months to (possibly) decades. However, it is crucial to most HSPs' well-being.
Befriend other HSPs: One final, and quite important, suggestion is to find and befriend other Highly Sensitive People. Although many HSPs describe themselves as introverts and loners, having a "peer network" of fellow HSPs can make the self-discovery path much easier. After all, nobody else "gets" what it's like to be an HSP, like another HSP. For more specifics about where and how to befriend other HSPs, I suggest reading the articles "HSP Gatherings, Groups and Workshops" and "The Challenge of Friendships."
In summary: Learn what it means-- to you-- to be a highly sensitive person. Once you have a good understanding of how sensitivity affects you, make adjustments to your lifestyle and choices that honor that sensitivity, but do so without becoming disengaged from life.
© 2008 Peter Messerschmidt
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