- Mental Health
HSP Life: How I Learned I was a Highly Sensitive Person
A Highly Sensitive Person's Journey
Normally, I write about HSPs and living as a Highly Sensitive Person from a mainly "practical" and educational perspective, as part of an effort to create broader awareness of high sensitivity (scientifically known as "Sensory-processing Sensitivity") as an innate inborn trait.
This article takes a more personal approach, describing my own experience of learning that I was an HSP-- shared here as an example of just how life changing this discovery can be.
If you are because you are looking for information about what an HSP is and what the trait is about, I'd like to recommend this fairly extensive page: The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS That?
Making sense of feeling out of step with the world
I was always a bit of a strange kid and-- in time-- I grew up to become a bit of a strange adult. I didn't exactly try or go out of my way to be "strange"... it just seemed to happen that way, simply as a result of me, being me.
Being "different" was never easy.
What troubled me-- starting with my earliest memories of life-- was always this sense that the world was very rough, aggressive, loud, forceful and violent... yet nobody seemed to be concerned about this. Things that felt emotionally and physically painful to me seemed like a joke to them. When I didn't see the "funny" part... then it seemed like I became "the joke."
My mother sometimes called me "sensitive" and "finicky" but I never paid much attention to it-- I was generally seen as a "good" kid who didn't get in trouble and I was always able to entertain myself with my rich and complex "inner worldscapes."
During most of my childhood, I generally avoided people because they didn't feel "safe" (due to aforementioned "roughness") and because it felt overwhelming to become "trapped" in what felt like a raging river of loud voices... the more people, the louder they got.
Early on, I understood that I was "different" in some way, and it made me feel "apart" from the world... but I didn't understand how I was different.
I found peace in nature... and was fascinated by it. I also "felt better" after having spent time by myself outside in the garden, or just riding my bicycle through the local woods. It would be many years before I realized that nature has healing powers for HSPs.
My family "worried" about me... but since I was a "good" boy, they didn't really do much-- aside from my mother's persistent efforts (she was quite the "social butterfly") to get me "involved" in things I mostly wanted to run screaming away from.
My school years were difficult, filled with memories of bullying and reinforced my sense of feeling disconnected from the world. I didn't quite understand how I was different, but the pervasive sensation of not fitting in gradually depressed me to the point I became quite suicidal as a teenager.
That said, I managed to escape from my teen years with my life still intact and went off to college, no wiser and still confused.
College was an eye-opener in the sense that I "gave up" being morbidly depressed and instead "adopted" a sense of quiet resignation.
Life just felt hard and painful.
I found a measure of joy in attending a university with 53,000 students-- even though it was "crowded," I was now away from home and discovered the luxury of being completely "anonymous" in a crowd of thousands.
During my freshman year I discovered psychology. Suddenly, I wanted to learn everything I could about why I felt so WEIRD, compared to other people.
Over the next 15 years or so, I studied a myriad different aspects of the human psyche, from archetypes and temperaments to abnormal psychology and mental disorders. I did learn quite a bit about myself... but didn't feel like I was really a lot wiser. As I went along, I made quite an "inventory" of myself, but my list didn't really match up with anything specific I had learned.
I was a loner. I quite liked people and I didn't fear them, but their company exhausted me. Noise-- and basically anything loud, rough, abrasive, crude, bright and "excessive"-- felt like being beaten over the head with a board. I didn't like most of the activities "people my age" claimed to enjoy.
I tried really hard to be "normal," but normal felt like a scratchy wool sweater two sizes too small.
In spite of my studies of human nature, I still remained rather a mystery to myself-- and those around me-- until, one day, I quite accidentally came across a book-- and the concept it explained-- which suddenly got my strange world to "make a lot more sense."
This, then, is the story of how I learned that I am a "Highly Sensitive Person," or HSP... and the profound impact that had on my life.
The Many Ways in which we Feel Different
Studying psychology-- even though it was not actually my college major-- had not been a complete waste of time. I had learned quite a bit, and had managed to at least identify most of the ways I felt out of synch with the "normal" world.
People seemed to overwhelm me, yet I wasn't shy or socially anxious. Crowds were especially bad. I was generally OK with one person at a time... but even that felt exhausting, at times. Sometimes it felt like their energy "stole" my energy. Yes, I identified as an introvert, but this was something more than introversion.
Loudness-- from voices to music-- felt like an assault on my senses, and I had an uncommonly strong startle reflex. This had been true since I was a little kid. I also would get very bothered by minor sounds like an out-of-balance ceiling fan, or the buzzing of fluorescent lights.
Rough clothing, artificial fabrics, even the labels in clothing-- which my mom had to cut out, when I was a kid-- really bothered me. But I didn't fit the overall criteria for sensory integration disorder.
I loathed violence of any kind-- when my college friends would go to horror movies or "blow-everything-up" movies I'd always find an excuse not to go. No matter how I approached the issue, I felt so put off by it. There was an underlying "meanness" there that basically offended my senses.
I seemed to have an exceptional sense of smell. Great, when I could "smell bacon, at 600 yards." Not so great when the faintest whiff of ammonia cleaner would give me an instant pounding headache.
I never understood-- or got into-- the whole male competitive posturing thing, instead always feeling like we should all be able to "get along." I wanted people to cooperate, not compete. But it wasn't an issue relating to being "wussy" or effeminate... there was nothing wrong with my testosterone levels, or my libido.
I was pretty good at many different things... yet would always develop an instant case of clumsiness if anyone was watching. And yet, I still wasn't shy. Someone asked me to describe it, once... and the closest I could come up with was that the presence of one or more people would "divert" some of my attention from what I was supposed to be doing to them and I would start making mistakes.
I was easily moved to tears, by all sorts of things. This was rather awkward, for a large framed 6'4" (193cm, for you metric folks) man... but it was like I felt all the pain of everyone in the world. Including animals. Someone once half-joked that I needed a bumper sticker that read "I cry for road kill." Annoyingly true... but not very funny.
As a kid, teen and younger adult I didn't realize that many of these were relatively "normal" experiences for HSPs.
An Afternoon at Borders Books...
One weekend afternoon in January 1997, I found myself in a Borders Bookstore in Austin, Texas where I lived at the time. I'd gotten some gift certificates for Christmas, and was looking forward to using them on some of my favorite things: Books!
I was going through the travel section, looking for some good guide books to Ireland. Annoyingly, someone had left a book in one of the racks, laying flat on top of the travel books... a bit "wedged" in there, so the other books were difficult to pull out.
I dislodged the offending book. "The Highly Sensitive Person" by Elaine N. Aron, Ph. D. I really wasn't interested or paying attention... but the subtitle caught my eye "How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You."
A "must read" if you even THINK you might be highly sensitive
So this is the book that not only changed my perception of life, but has changed the lives of millions. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages and is the "gold standard" in terms of offering an explanation of high sensitivity as a genetic trait. If you even think you might be an HSP, you owe it to yourself to read this book... SO many things will suddenly make sense, when you do.
"Highly Sensitive?" Seriously?
It was the word "Overwhelms" that got me to pause. The world had always felt overwhelming, to me. Not "scary." Not "anxiety making." Just... "overwhelming." The supposedly "normal" life everyone else seemed to just deal with sometimes felt like living inside a pinball machine.
Having studied psychology, I was blessed to not have any of the stereotypical "male hangups" about spirituality and self-help books being "something only women read." That was not an issue. However, living in Texas-- "where men are MEN, and everyone is bigger, stronger and tougher" than anywhere else-- I felt a bit put off by the word "sensitive."
Well. At least my "Public Ego Self" felt that way... although I knew--on the inside-- that lots of people had called me "too sensitive" a million times, over the years, including my mother when she would make excuses for my being "fidgety" and "picky" about what I liked.
Anyway, I flipped open the book and started "skimming."
A few pages in, I came across a brief quiz; a "self-test for sensitivity," which has subsequently become the de-facto standard for determining whether or not someone fits the criteria of a "Highly Sensitive Person."
Being as objective as possible, I answered "yes" to all but three questions in the "inventory." Clearly-- according to this author-- I was a "highly sensitive person."
A Period of Mixed Feelings
Just to set the record straight, I was not planning to buy a psychology self-help book on that January day but what sold me on it was the "self test" questionnaire. If I that emphatically fit the profile, maybe there was "something there," even if I didn't like the idea. Although I felt a little uneasy about it, it couldn't hurt to learn more about this thing called a "Highly Sensitive Person."
I pretty much "devoured" the book in a matter of a couple of days filled with a remarkable number of "Aha moments."
Then in the course of the next couple of months, I slowly made my way through the book again, taking notes and recognizing myself in so many of the things Dr. Aron shared.
That said, I wasn't exactly happy with the situation. Yes, there was a certain sense of relief in knowing that this "thing" that had felt odd all my life was actually based on science (or at least psychology) and not purely on "me, being crazy," but at the same time I wasn't exactly overjoyed that this same "thing" was turning out to be a genetic trait rather than some kind of "syndrome" I might eventually be cured of.
In essence, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that the "answers" I'd been seeking for all those years weren't exactly what I was looking for. Or thought I was looking for. Bottom line: I had really hoped for a solution, a "fix."
For a while, I was even ready to dismiss the whole thing as another example of "New Age Mumbo-jumbo." After all, in 1997, there was very little to back up Dr. Aron's claims, even though she (often working in tandem with her husband, Art) was a highly respected research psychologist.
Take Elaine Aron's Free Sensitivity Self Test!
Dr. Elaine Aron's brief "inventory" was developed in 1995 in conjunction with her research on high sensitivity, and has gone on to become used by thousands of therapists and others as the most reliable screening tool to determine whether or not an individual might be considered a "Highly Sensitive Person." Although it has been somewhat revised, this is essentially the same quiz I found in Aron's book, in 1997.
The test is free, requires no registration or signup, and only takes about five minutes to complete.
Take the Test!
- Are You Highly Sensitive?
Take this test and find out if you're a Highly Sensitive Person.
Keeping in mind that "High Sensitivity" is a genetic trait, not "a way of feeling," I'd like to know your familiarity-- and relationship-- with high sensitivity
Which description best fits you?
A Few Months Later: I Might as Well Go With It!
I don't remember exactly what my motivation was, but a few months later I was sitting at the computer and it occurred to me that I should try to look up "Highly Sensitive Person" on the Internet.
Keep in mind, this was "pre-Google days;" back then the best option for finding things was called "Search.com." And searching the Internet was not the "highly targeted" experience we have today.
There were not many results to be found... but one caught my eye: A listserv (basically an "online group," in today's lingo) dedicated to discussing and exploring Dr. Elaine Aron's book "The Highly Sensitive Person."
This is the companion workbook to the original "Highly Sensitive Person." It's a perfect book for those wishing to do some more in-depth learning about the HSP trait. For some, it may feel a bit daunting, simply because some of the exercises will have you "digging around" in old hurts and experiences. That said, highly recommended.
I joined the group... and that ended up not only changing my attitude towards high sensitivity, but also the direction of my life. Here were 30 other people, all of whom had had very similar life experiences to my own. These were not "emotionally sick" people or "chronic whiners" looking to validate and enable each other's dysfunctions-- rather, they were mostly "perfectly normal" folks who'd always lived with an element of "confusion," related to never quite being able to put a finger on why they felt "different" from others, and why they tended to feel overwhelmed by life.
In some ways, talking to others "like me" was perhaps the most important thing that could have happened... moreso than merely reading the book. For one, the people in the group shattered my skepticism centered around the idea "Yeah, this is all well and fine, but where ARE these 'HSPs' you write about?" Second, I found some instant healing in the simple understanding that I was not alone; that I was not "uniquely crazy."
Twenty Years Later: Life as a Highly Sensitive Person
The journey from "then" to "now" is a long and twisting one-- and far beyond the scope of this article.
What I have essentially learned is that a lot of people around us are HSPs, and-- even though the concept is now over 20 years old-- the vast majority are completely unaware of what "ails" them. I have learned that the single most important thing we can do for ourselves-- and for others-- is to become aware of the trait, and to learn all about it we possibly can.
"High Sensitivity" (now scientifically referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity) is a "real" thing; it's not "just in your head." It's an inborn neurological trait-- HSPs are simply "wired differently," from birth. It affects an estimated 15-20% of the population to some degree; it is found in men and women in equal numbers... although there appear to be more HS women than HS men... primarily on account of cultural biases. As a result, Highly Sensitive Men have their own unique set of challenges... I should know!
"Work" and finding meaningful work is typically the most discussed challenge facing HSPs. Most HSPs tend to have an idealistic nature, as a result of which they tend to fit poorly into "conventional" workplaces. Jaeger's book takes on the issue of finding "work purpose" from an HSP angle... helped me change the way I thought about-- and defined-- what work even "looks" like.
High Sensitivity is not a "condition" or "syndrome" and it's also not a "diagnosis." It simply is who you ARE. There's no "fix," and there are no drugs that will "cure" it. The challenge lies in learning how to manage your life-- and you CAN-- to where you are mindful of how your sensitive nervous system affects your daily being in the world. You can learn how to "find your way." That way may not be the same way as everyone else's, but that does not mean you have to accept living any "less" of a life than the rest of the world.
Keep in mind that HSPs share one trait, but are otherwise unique and individual people. It's tempting to think that because you're an HSP, "all other HSPs" will be just like you. Not true. HSPs come in all shapes, sizes, races, persuasions and nationalities. That said, we are often drawn together because of similar experiences and similar interests, which have led us down similar life paths.
"Work" seems to be one area many HSPs struggle with-- I know I certainly have, and after many years of feeling like a misfit in conventional workplaces, I ended up going the self-employment route, and I have never regretted it.
Learn More: Web Sites and Resources for HSPs
- Dr. Elaine Aron's web site
Dr. Aron's web site has information about the HSP trait, about retreats, workshops and events, self-tests, an online store and the entire archive of the past 16 years of her "Comfort Zone" newsletter for HSPs.
- The HSP Notes Blog and Web Site
This is my own HSP blog and web site, where I have been posting articles, information and general musings about HSP living since 2002. Extensive section of links and articles; now also an HSP Bookstore with content hand selected for HSPs.
- Jacquelyn Strickland's Web Site
Jacquelyn is a professional counselor and coach for Highly Sensitive People, as well as the creator and organizer of 30 HSP "Gathering Retreats" since 2001.
- Dr Ted Zeff: Healing for Highly Sensitive People
Dr. Ted Zeff is an author and one of the leading experts on the HSP trait, and his focus in recent years has been primarily on highly sensitive men and boys.
Video: A Brief interview with Dr. Elaine Aron about some of the basic attributes of being an HSP
Personal Postscript from an HSP
Much like Dr. Elaine Aron often states that she never had any intention of writing something that would become a best-selling self-help book, I never had any inclination or intention of becoming a "public voice" for High Sensitivity.
Yet, somehow, that seems to have happened.
I'm not a Doctor, or a Psychologist. I don't hold a doctorate in anything. In fact, I have a Business degree, and a minor in English.
Ultimately, I'm "just some guy" who set out on a journey to try to understand why he always felt like the proverbial "square peg" trying to fit into an existence that seemed to be almost exclusively made up of "round holes."
Because I'm a writer-- both by nature and by trade-- I simply chose to "document" my 18-year (and counting!) journey with hundreds (if not thousands) of blog posts and articles. Perhaps the only thing that sets me apart from a myriad other HSPs is that I chose to make all most of my findings, experiences and opinions "public," rather than hiding them away in personal journals and private blogs.
Why? Why would I do such a thing, when it's typically part and parcel of HSP nature to be very private and feel anxious about "being watched?"
I'll be the first to admit that it has had its awkward and unnerving moments.
But the bottom line is that I write and share about the HSP Experience because it matters. In fact, it matters enough that I dedicated an entire article to Why it Should Matter to You that You're an HSP.
Consider this: By a conservative estimate, there are as many as 47 million HSPs in the United States, alone. Even though the concept "highly sensitive person" has now been scientifically verified and has been in the public arena for 18 years, it's doubtful that more than 5% of all HSPs even know the trait exists.
It matters, because high sensitivity falls within "the normal spectrum of human emotions," and yet... there is little doubt that millions have been misdiagnosed with a variety of "conditions" and "syndromes" and are being "treated" with costly therapy and pharmaceuticals to no avail... because there is nothing to be "treated!"
It matters, because there are millions of people out there-- just like you and I-- who may be feeling like "weird misfits" (as I did) and might even have developed dubious self-esteem issues as a result... and all they need to make quantum leaps towards healing is someone showing them an article with the words: "Hey! This sounds a lot like you! I guess you really AREN'T crazy, after all..."
Read This Book!
On a personal level, this book helped me understand myself MORE than any other book I have read since "The Highly Sensitive Person." It helps explain WHY we HSPs often struggle with boundaries, and with feeling "overlooked" and shows how it often is our own "life strategies" that put us in these positions of feeling "one down" compared to others.
A REALLY Important Book for HSPs!
After 18 years of studying and learning about what it "means" to be an HSP, I often get asked what the "best" books are. Alas, there's no single answer to that, because we all have different stories and backgrounds.
That said, I have listed several books within this article, because I personally learned a lot from them, and they seem to be consistently recommended by other HSPs, often as "life changing." These are all recommendations that were personally valuable and beneficial to ME.
I'd like to make this final recommendation of a book by Dr. Elaine Aron which is not about being an HSP.
In my opinion, this is actually Dr. Aron's most important and helpful work for HSPs, since the original "Highly Sensitive Person" was published in 1996. It (unfortunately!) tends to get overlooked for a variety of reasons... from people not liking and feeling put off by the word "Undervalued" to fact that "highly sensitive person" or "HSP" isn't in the title.
This book explores the "strategies" we use to go forth in the world, and how they affect the direction of our lives. As HSPs, we tend to focus on a strategy of "linking" and cooperating/connecting... which oftentimes leaves us feeling "left out" in a world that's focused on "ranking" and competing.
Over 10 years in the making, "The Undervalued Self" looks at how we can learn to use both strategies in sensitive and meaningful ways so that we can more authentically navigate the world, as HSPs. Again, although the book is not specifically "about" HSPs, it basically "speaks" to HSPs. Whole-heartedly recommended!
Thank you for reading!
If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it with others! The more public awareness there is of the HSP trait, the better off we ALL are.
At upper left there are some nifty "share to social media" buttons-- please use them. Or better still, share this article directly to your Facebook timeline, or on your blog or even add a link from your web site.
Don't do it for me. Do it for the many HSPs who are feeling "a little lost" and maybe like "something is WRONG" with them because they haven't yet learned that this trait exists.
Thank you! And "thank you" on their behalf, as well.
Read More about being a Highly Sensitive Person
This article took a somewhat more "personal" approach than most of my writing about being an HSP. If you'd like to learn more about high sensitivity, I have dozens of articles published on this web site and others.
If you need a fairly thorough introduction to HSPs, consider reading "The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS that?"which is an "ongoing" page I have modified and added to since 2007. As I happen to be male, I have also written about "Understanding the Highly Sensitive Man," an often overlooked subgroup within the HSP spectrum.
Typically, I write about specific topics that seem especially challenging for HSPs: I briefly touched on "Work and the Highly Sensitive Person" in this article, because it's an uneasy relationship for many of us. Speaking of "relationships," my most read article takes on the topic of "HSPs and the Challenge of Friendships," which many seem to relate deeply to.
© 2015 Peter Messerschmidt