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?