Highly Sensitive People

I took the week off yoga last week, and boy was that an eye opener.

I’ve known for a long time that yoga helps to manage the anxiety and panic attacks, and this year when school started I tried to really commit to a regular yoga schedule. Last week I thought I was getting sick and I didn’t want to push it, so I gave myself the week off. And, as I said, I learned some things.

One of the biggest realizations to come out of this whole experience with anxiety is that I’m a highly sensitive person. For those of you that don’t know what that is, people with this trait are easily stimulated – and often over stimulated – by things that would be normal for other people. This can be anything from light to sound to being in a chaotic or crowded place to reacting strongly to a violent movie. HSPs are frequently what a lot of people would call introverted, but these two things are not exactly synonymous.

For most of my life, I viewed “sensitive” as a negative thing. It implied weakness; it implied that I should be able to handle something but couldn’t; withdrawing or breaking down equaled failure. I always felt like I felt things too deeply, like I should be getting over this breakup quicker or I should totally want to spend every weekend in a loud bar shouting at my friends just to be heard. It felt like something that I should be constantly apologizing for. I want to be clear that no one ever said this to me and it was never implied by any of my family or friends; this was a case of me looking around at the people I knew and drawing the wrong conclusions. I could never figure out why things were a bigger deal to me than they were to everyone else, and I felt like something was wrong with me as a result.

When I read The Highly Sensitive Person as part of my anxiety research, it was like someone had written an entire book about me. Not only did I see a lot of myself in it, but I was able to make connections I had never made before. Part of being a HSP, for me, is being sensitive to light, sound, and smell. Suddenly I had an explanation for why those fucking beeps in the hallway at work drive me nuts, and why I need to sleep with white noise playing and an eye mask to make it dark, and why I was getting headaches every other day.

And I could also start to articulate why it’s so important to me to be considerate and conscientious, and why I pick apart word choice with half the things people say to me. Part of being a HSP is being aware of subtleties; for some people, that’s a physical comfort thing. For me, it’s language and communication. Word choice is important and revealing, and it should be deliberate. Nothing pisses me off more than being told and not asked. If you ever want to make me angry, that’s how to do it. The assumption that I’ll do or be ok with something that you have not asked me about drives me through the roof. A lot of that is because it makes me feel like the choice is taken away from me, and we all know how fiercely I guard my ability to make choices. The other part of it is that it makes me feel like a doormat. It’s so galling. Of course I’m going to put together this lesson plan that you only gave me 2 hours notice about, or cut our hang out time short so that you can go do the thing you need to do. But ask me, because I’m not your fucking yes man, here for you to take advantage of. Show me that you care about my feelings and the decisions that I make and that you respect that.

Ok, so I got sidetracked there. Rant over.

I struggle with this piece of it more than anything else. The physical stuff I can handle; it’s the sensitivity to language and behavior that I have so much trouble with. I’ve worked really hard to start to speak up for myself, to say no, to ask people to do things for me, because it’s just not in my nature. Ask any of the people closest to me and they will tell you that I’m considerate to the point of self detriment (not that I can’t be self-centered or oblivious, because I can, but considerate is my default). They will also tell you that while I can appreciate the good things that come from confrontation, I prefer to avoid it if I can and usually do so by being overly considerate. And with this comes the feeling of needing to apologize all the time. It’s a frustrating way to live, because a lot of the time I end up saying I’m sorry for something that I’m really not sorry for. Or my old favorite, saying “it’s ok” when someone apologizes to me. I am working so hard not to do that and to say “thank you” instead, because sometimes, it’s actually really not ok.

This also means that I have a lot of trouble with people who are negligent about their behavior and word choice. I take those things very seriously, because to me they are signs of thoughtfulness, of consideration, of empathy. I take it personally when people are flippant or dismissive, and I take it very personally when the common courtesy of asking is not extended to me. Of course, because I’m a HSP and prone to anxiety, this means that I ruminate over everyone’s behavior and language, including my own. Sometimes, this can be really helpful: last year I had some difficult interactions at work that I felt were not handled in the best way, and that resulted in us having a couple of honest conversations about behavior, word choice, and tone. Those relationships have felt better this year, and I’m glad I said something. Being sensitive to language and behavior helps me be a better partner and friend, too, because I can explain why something bothers me or empathize when I’m the one who needs to reexamine their behavior.

I digress.

Once I started really seeing all of the ways that my sensitivity made itself known, I started also seeing its connection to my anxiety. Many of the physical things that I’m sensitive to are also things that can make me anxious when they are abundant: for instance, being sensitive to light and sound can make it hard to sleep, and a couple of nights of short sleep almost always leads to crying, if not a full on panic attack. Thankfully, I’ve gotten pretty good at managing the physical things that I’m sensitive to: a strictly limited caffeine intake, close my classroom door and put on music so I don’t hear the incessant beeping, etc etc.

What I didn’t put together until last week is how much yoga helps with the non-physical things that I’m sensitive to. Not only did I find some physical things more irritating than usual, but I felt like everyone in my life was out to annoy me. Not doing yoga and having that dedicated space to retreat and process made it really hard to move past some of the inconsiderateness that happened at work. It made it harder to be patient with my students, and I felt kind of sullen and off. It made me think of that episode of The West Wing, “Noel”, where every time Josh Lyman hears music he re-experiences the shooting at Roslyn. He doesn’t really know what’s happening, he just knows that he’s getting more and more irritated and amped up until finally he can’t take it anymore and jams his hand into the window pane. Thankfully I didn’t get to that breaking point, but I definitely started to feel the cumulative effects and become exasperated more easily.

To be honest, I feel a little silly. Because the rational and logical part of my brain knew this already. It knew that yoga helps to destress and let go of things. But I’d never been committed to doing it regularly the way I was this fall and winter, and so I’d never really felt what it was like to be doing it consistently and then to stop. I seriously underestimated how much it was helping me with mood regulation and stress relief, and I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake again. At least, I hope not. Because I still really struggle with the idea that being sensitive is a good thing. And it is a good thing. It means I’m attuned to people in a way others are not. Being highly sensitive is a big part of what makes me a good teacher: I can see the subtle changes in students that others might write off as them just being teenagers, and recognize the importance of those changes. It makes me a better partner because I can tell the days when the dude really needs to work or has had a frustrating day, and I know to mostly leave him alone without him having to tell me. It means that, when I put my hand on my sister’s stomach and her baby kicked it, I cried because I can feel how our lives are going to change and how much I’m going to love that kid – how much I already love that kid. And that’s awesome.

It’s hard to see it in this positive way, and most of the time I still feel like it’s something I need to apologize for. I don’t really feel like I’m making progress, but that’s kind of the way everything is: often I feel like I’m not really getting anywhere, and then it all just clicks. It happens every year in March with my students, it happened when I started meditating, and I know it will happen with this.

But until then, I’m getting back on the mat.

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