I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately: I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, and it’s both great and terrible. For instance, getting engaged is awesome. It’s also brought up a lot of feelings that I didn’t know I had, and that’s been rough. Add to that the fact that the dude has been traveling for work fairly regularly and the stress of wedding planning and the fact that I’m sensitive and get anxious and, well, I had a few weeks of not feeling great about life. It’s not anybody’s fault.
For those who don’t know, Highly Sensitive People are just that – people who are incredibly attuned to their environment and to the people around them. A big part of me loves this because it means I can engage with my friends and family on a deeper level and be there to support them when others might not notice that something is wrong. It means that I care a lot about the mood and ambience of a place, and do my best to make my spaces welcoming: I can just tell when music is too loud and there’s always a blanket on my couch in case I get cold. It means that I love fiercely and am incredibly protective and loyal. It allows me to empathize, to take ownership, and it helps me swallow my pride and apologize.
It also means that much of what I feel is dismissed because only about 20% of people are highly sensitive, and most of the remaining 80% has never even heard of it. I can name at least 15 experiences off the top of my head where I have felt something strongly, voiced that in a serious way, and the person’s reaction has been dismissal or anger or they’ve made it a joke or told me I’m too sensitive or just being dramatic (anyone who knows me knows that’s the last thing I am, though I do love hyperbole). Then what usually happens is that their comment or reaction is even more upsetting than the original thing – because I feel like I’m being judged for something I can’t help – and I’m at a crossroads: do I voice the fact that I’m upset and, in their eyes, prove their point? Or do I stay quiet but deny what’s going on with me and let it can fester?
This happens over and over again, and, to be honest, I’m at a loss. I learned at an early age that expressing many of my feelings was a no-go, because most other people didn’t feel as strongly as I did, and I would be shamed or made fun of for it. As an adult, I’ve been working so hard to give myself permission to feel what I’m feeling, especially anger or a strong need. I’ve been working to vocalize that in a way that is calm, to varying degrees of success. I’ve been practicing acknowledging my feelings and then letting them go; if the thought goes away, great. If it comes back, then I know I need to say something. I’ve spent so much of my life denying what I feel, need, and want, and so it’s almost excruciating to feel like I’ve come so far in doing that, only to be met with dismissal or anger.
I often don’t know how to be honest about what I’m feeling without it seeming like every little thing is a big deal. I’ve been hearing some stuff lately that makes me feel like people think they have to walk on eggshells around me, and that makes me sad for both of us. I’m sensitive and I feel things deeply, and I am also a badass motherfucker. I can handle it, even though my reaction may really not look like handling it(and probably isn’t at first, to be honest). And I feel like I need to do some reframing here because the goal is not to say something in a way that avoids making me feel upset. I love when people are thoughtful about how they bring up an issue and try to do so in a way that’s compassionate and honest, but I also have no problem being upset. It’s not a great experience, but I’d rather be upset and honest and really get somewhere than not upset and sweep things under the rug and have resentment or fear or disappointment gnawing away at my belly. The goal is not to avoid feelings or avoid causing them. The goal is to have an open dialogue. To say things in a way that allows for openness instead of defensiveness, and then to have an honest conversation about whatever is going on. And if that conversation touches on ways that I make this person unhappy or annoyed or something else that I’m doing or not doing, I’m going to cry. I’m going to feel things. I’m going to be upset that I’ve failed to notice this thing about this person. And sometimes I’m going to be upset about things that other people see no reason to be upset about or can’t understand. That’s part of life, and it’s part of being in my life.
I so understand how frustrating that is for the people close to me. How tricky that must be- to know that what they’re about to say is going to provoke a reaction in me that’s very different from the one they would have and is, at times, unpredictable. To know that what’s coming is going to be uncomfortable at best and that they’re going to make this person they care about feel bad and they also may not understand why. How do you deal with wanting to voice what you’re feeling or your opinion and knowing that it’s likely that you’ll end up feeling like you fucked up but not knowing how you could have handled it differently, because you, too, are entitled to your feelings? I would hate to be in that position, and I’m sure it feels terrible for the people in my life who are close enough to me to experience it.
And I also hate being the person who feels things so deeply. I hate that an offhand comment can piss me off for hours. I hate that it takes a lot of internal work to deal with something that others can shrug off. I hate that, sometimes, this makes me incredibly sensitive to what I’m not getting and not at all receptive to the ways in which I can give someone important to me what they need. I hate that this thing that is such a gift, that makes me empathetic and thoughtful and a good listener, is also the thing that causes me and others in my life to feel a lot of pain, and, honestly, sometimes I really with I could numb it. I hate feeling like this thing that I can’t control – my emotions – is a problem. I’m working on trying not to let them overtake me, and anyone who’s worked on emotional management knows that’s tough going and can feel like a long road.
And that’s not even really getting into the physical side of it. I need a good night’s sleep and a sustained chunk of quiet time in my day, and if that doesn’t happen, I’m way more likely to let me emotions get the best of me(parenting is gonna be GREAT, guys). I don’t like rooms that are too loud and/or too bright: I’ve been to one concert in the last 10 years and I’m not going to any more that don’t have seats and a sound system that isn’t at full volume all of the time. What a lot of people don’t understand is that these things take a toll on the nervous system of an HSP; because we’re processing things more deeply, we’re putting more energy into EVERYTHING we’re processing: light, sound, temperature, conversation, tasks, all of it. This means that when you’re probably fine in a restaurant with loud music and the semi-shouted conversations of six friends, it’s agony for me. The sound alone is enough for me to have trouble processing the conversation, and the next day I feel hungover and headachey.**
HSPs require a different type of maintenance and sometimes that’s hard to sustain, especially for the HSP. I’m lucky that a lot of it overlaps with how I manage anxiety: yoga is great for anxiety because it helps me sleep better, it releases pain-blocking and mood-boosting endorphins, and it helps me enter a meditative state where I’m not ruminating. It also helps me be more resilient and open; when I’m practicing regularly, it’s easier for me to let things go and to welcome honest conversations. It’s easier to regulate emotions. It’s easier to choose vulnerability over defensiveness(though I am plenty defensive and stubborn). When I’m spending time with the people I love and really working actively on our relationships through listening, asking questions, and spending quality time together, things are almost immeasurably better. It helps anxiety because the fact that they want to spend time with me confirms our relationship and the way they feel about me. It’s not like I’m sitting here doubting their love for me, but I’m sensitive to feeling under appreciated and/or like I’m not a priority. More than most other things someone could do, quality time together helps me feel loved, cared for, and safe. It means I’m not making up stories about this or that little comment because we have a bank of recent positive experiences; I’m giving the benefit of the doubt because the time we spend together affirms our friendship, and so I don’t waste energy and cause pain by being angry or sad or beating myself up. And it helps as an HSP because, as mentioned, I’m really sensitive to that. It doesn’t go unnoticed when someone I’m close to isn’t texting as much or is perfunctory, or when I haven’t seen someone in a while. And I’m really sensitive to who initiates contact or spending time together, particularly when it’s unbalanced. When I start to feel like it’s me all of the time, I get all up in my head about why doesn’t this person want to see/talk to/spend time with me and our relationship isn’t a priority for them and they’re not putting in effort and I’m not important enough to them to do so – see how easy it is to start making up stories? It takes me no time at all to think I’ve got things all figured out – because sometimes I do, and I’m smart, and I’m sensitive – and that’s a problem. Spending time with someone, real time, talking about questions or thoughts or dreams time, is one of the things that helps me keep my high sensitivity in check. I’ve also found that framing something as a question really helps. Instead of dismissing something, I try really hard to ask “Why is this important to you?”. I’ve found it helpful to turn a statement into a question in nearly every aspect of my life, and I’ve noticed that my experience of conflict is really different when people do that for me. I’m way less defensive and more open to what they’re saying and to really considering what’s happening for them instead of what’s happening for me. It helps me set my own feelings and reaction aside for a bit. Brene Brown posted this on instagram a few weeks ago and I’m really trying hard to use it.
I mentioned before that there’s part of my that would like to numb my sensitivity. Not a lot, because it’s definitely advantageous in a lot of ways. Just enough to take the edge off. I do a lot of work talking myself down: don’t be angry, think about things from their point of view, apologize and take ownership, don’t be sad, don’t snap. I honestly would like to just turn the dial down a bit so that I don’t have such strong reactions, because often it’s the intensity that’s the problem – well, that and the fact that I honestly just really can’t handle noise and sound at the same volume or duration as others. It’s also difficult because I’m trying to own my emotions, but it’s hard to do that when I’m feeling a “negative” emotion (because let’s be real, here, no one thinks I’m “too sensitive” when I’m in a good mood. It’s when I’m angry or frustrated or hurt that it’s a problem). I want to be allowed to feel my feelings and deal with them. I want there to be trust that I’m trying to manage my reaction, even though I have varying levels of success with that. I want people to trust that I will come back and apologize when I’m out of line. And I want them to do the same. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether they get it or not; sometimes I just want people to take ownership even if they wouldn’t be upset about what I’m upset about. It’s about acknowledging that they know I’m sensitive and this is a thing for me, and an apology is one of the best ways to do that.
So, where do I go from here? I know there’s got to be a way to manage this better and there’s got to be a way to help those around me understand. I’m definitely going to be bringing it up in therapy. I’ve started making amends and explaining to the people who’ve had to deal with this. Part of me knows I need to experiment and that it will be a process. The other part of me is like “can we have a solution right now please?”
I don’t know if any of you are HSPs, but it’s pretty common among those with anxiety(some would argue that they’re the same thing sometimes). What do you do to manage it?
**Update: I’ve been trying out the dude’s noise-cancelling headphones. They definitely make a huge difference but might also give me headaches so the jury is still out.
4 thoughts on “The difficulties and joys of being a Highly Sensitive Person”
Hi Alexis, I am also an HSP and a person with anxiety and depression. I had never heard of HSP until about 4 years ago so can’t really blame people who have no idea that it’s a thing. It helped to finally have a name for the “oversensitive” nature I’ve had all my life and to realize that I am not alone. On the other hand, it’s almost more frustrating when (most) people don’t get it, especially those closest to me. I am lucky to know some other HSPs and reading about your experience is also very helpful. I guess I now know that I am never going to feel fantastic in really bright, loud, odiferous environments so I try to minimize my exposure to those types of places. Thanks for posting about it! -Elissa
Hey Elissa! I had the same thing – I never knew why I hated concerts so much or why I was so tired after family dinners, and it’s been really helpful to know there are others out there. Wishing you a quiet space!
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