Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Highly Sensitive

Shy, introverted, quiet, sensitive. These are words that have been used to describe me throughout my life. Most often, and quite painfully, the word “too” was added to each of these words—too quiet, too sensitive, too shy. When I was about 10 years old and a gymnast, I recall that my coach implemented a “one word per minute” rule for me because she felt I was too quiet. She thought her rule was funny, and rarely enforced it, but I felt ashamed, different, singled out. There is nothing more terrifying for a quiet person than someone highlighting her quietness. While I am less quiet now, I still find that I am still quite sensitive, and I get over-stimulated easily. And, once in a while, someone will use those dreaded words – “too sensitive” – to describe me.

After having a conversation with
Reality Mom, another sensitive artist-type, I discovered a lovely book by Elaine Aron called The Highly Sensitive Person. While I am apprehensive about the label “HSP,” for labels can feel restrictive and effectively immobilize or pigeon-hole us, I learned so much about the nature of being a sensitive person from this book. What struck me most was how unaware I was about the sensory overload in my life. It rarely occurred to me that perhaps my stress at a party, for example, was due to the noise or the crowded environment. I just thought my shyness was stifling me. Aron writes that “[o]ften we get used to stimulation. But, sometimes we think we have and aren’t being bothered, but suddenly feel exhausted and realize why: We have been putting up with something at a conscious level while it is wearing us down” (8). Ah-ha! Eureka! So, that’s why after a social gathering, I often want to curl up in a dark, quiet room! And, that’s also why some of my clients feel stressed after a “normal” day of work, and retreat to my massage room for a session of quiet relaxation. They want all of their senses to be treated delicately and with healing intention.

Luckily, sensitivity is often considered a gift in my line of work as an artist and a healer. My sensitivity enables me to deeply understand my clients’ issues and concerns, and because I feel so deeply, I often can “read” my clients and intuit what might help them heal the most effectively. And, sensitivity is essential to the art and writing that I do. I need to be able to tap into my innermost feelings in order to create. Over the years I have learned to love my sensitivity, and while feeling deeply sometimes causes pain or overwhelm, I am learning to channel that distress into positive actions like writing and art.

If you are at all interested in learning more about your sensitivity, I recommend reading Aron’s book. I found it affirming and enlightening. And, if you’d like to take the “highly sensitive person” self-test, you can do so
here. While no test is going to define you, it may be insightful and revealing. I scored a 24, which is quite high. What do you score? Do you find that the stress in your life is often a result of your sensitivity? What things cause you to feel over-stimulated? What do you do to care for yourself when you are feeling over-stimulated and overwhelmed?


Anonymous said...

I identify with what you are saying and appreciate the reminder that it can be exhausting. Thank you again.

wheylona said...

Hey Otis, I've finally subscribed to a new feed; hopefully I won't miss more posts. :-)

I scored 14, which is the low-end of sensitive. I have certainly been labeled as (too) shy and (too) quiet. I still consider myself very shy and quiet, though interestingly I don't hear others label me as such now.

I completely relate to the need to withdraw and be alone or in a very safe, low-key environment after being overstimulated. People definintely overstimulate me, though often at the moment I am not really aware of it, instead I tend to just shut it all out. Still, it all takes a toll and I end up feeling exhausted, drained, and cranky. I've also become much more aware of my sensitivity to noise and smell--my tolerance levels (or my ability to block out that which hurts me) have definitely lowered.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I am another "quiet girl" who was told she was too shy and too quiet. Even as an adult, I've had work situations when co-workers took it on as their personal task to be sure I talked at meetings and had my "voice heard." The thing is, that when I need to say something, I say it. I just don't fill the inbetween time with a lot of meaningless words. And you know the upside? I've noticed in many situations, when I talk, people listen intently and deeply.

I scored a 16 on the test, certifying me as a highly sensitive person. But I already knew that. My husband is often flabergasted by my ability to pick up faint odors, or to be driven crazy by a noise he can't even hear. I sense shifts in light, in temperature, in people's moods. I can often predict when someone is about to knock on my door because I can feel the subtle shift in the house, in the air. It sounds crazy, but it is true.

I like being highly sensitive. It is a good fit for someone who loves nature, who picks out the shape of a tiny bird in a tree, who notices when a flower first blooms, who can follow a faint trail of animal tracks. It makes me wonder all the things that other people miss--that they overlook--each day.


Courtney Putnam said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Wendy and Kristen.

Wendy, I resonate with that feeling of not noticing the over-stimulation until later. Sometimes I am so immersed in an experience that I forget to pay attention to how my body-mind is handling stimulation. And it is so interesting to notice the differences in how we view ourselves and how others see us!

Kristen, my "quiet girl soul sister": It is so true that sensitivity enables us to see and feel deeply and to notice the intricacies of life. Celebrate your sensitivity, your conscious quietude, and your ability to know when you need "down time" when life feels too overwhelming.

Keep noticing those animal tracks!

Jaz said...

I've just started learning about HSP and am coming to realise that I may have this. I scored 20 out of 24. I've always been shy and very socially aware and very needy of 'me' time. I do strange things like close off doors in the house of rooms that I am not using, just so that I can forget they are there. I don't really know what else to say but thank you for the read!