Living As a Highly Sensitive PersonI am a Highly Sensitive Person.
I am a Highly Sensitive Man.
By most standard conventions of society, those two statements are almost certain to get you labeled as at least “a bit strange,” but more likely as a “sissy boy,” “doormat,” or “girly man.” 95% of men– even those who are sensitives, themselves– would feel hesitant to make such a statement, openly. I feel sad, when I think about that.
It used to bother me a great deal that I seemed, somehow, “different” from the rest of the world. As a boy and a young man, I had a slight “softness” in demeanor, and in my approach to life. It wasn’t that I was “effeminate” in any way, it was more a case of my being less aggressive and boisterous than my peers; lacking in stereotypical "male toughness;" memories of wanting to save the frog in the creek, rather than squash it; of wanting to work with my friends, rather than against them. I tend to prefer "cooperation" over "competition," and that often got me tagged as "odd." And yet... I also "stood out," because I was very tall (6'3" by 13-14) and I made excellent grades without really trying.
Although the idea of someone being “Sensitive” has been around for a long time, and may have its original roots in C.G.Jung’s “Melancholic Temperament,” the current definition of what makes someone a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP for short) can be attributed to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, whose research and 1996 book established that 15-20% of the human population are actually born with nervous systems that are more sensitive. The implication, of course, is that “sensitivity” isn’t just some “personality quirk” or "pathology," but a substantial and normal genetically inherited trait. What’s more, in spite of the historical tendency to label Sensitivity as a “female trait,” there are actually equal numbers of male and female HSPs.
I mention this because I read that book, and it offered me some insights that changed by life direction almost completely. I made peace with the essence of who I was, in a sense... and embraced the idea that I was a little "different." I write this rather lengthy story because I feel it's important that sensitive people understand themselves, and don't feel like they have to accept labels like "weird" or "freak."
Some skeptics dismiss sensitivity as something that is “all in the mind.” In some respects, they are exactly right– when subjects have been hooked up for EEG or fMRI scans, it has been shown that the brains of HSPs fire in manner that’s not the same as the rest of the world. Being Highly Sensitive may be “in the mind,” but it is certainly not “in the imagination.”
So what exactly is “High Sensitivity?” How does an HSP feel different from other people?
There are a number of different aspects to being a highly sensitive person, and there are actually different “kinds” of HSPs. At the heart of High Sensitivity is the idea that because HSPs have more “alert” and finely tuned nervous systems, they are more easily overstimulated by a variety of inputs from the world around them. As a result, HSPs have a greater need for “quiet time” to recharge their batteries after certain events. It’s important to keep in mind that high sensitivity is a neutral trait– it has both upsides and downsides. For example, a “good” thing might be that I can smell a gas leak 30 minutes before you can, but the “bad” thing is that I’ll very likely get a pounding headache from the scent of ordinary household cleaners.
If you are curious as to whether you might be an HSP, I’d suggest that you take Elaine Aron’s Self Test for High Sensitivity on her web site:
Now, I'm not trying to "sell a label" here. I'm more interested offering an alternative to people "labeling" themselves (as did I, some years back) as "too sensitive" and "needing a thicker skin."
For me, being highly sensitive means that I am particularly sensitive to bright light, loud noises, strong smells and rough touch. I am also very easily overstimulated by sudden movement, crowds of strangers and having to do multiple things at once– especially if I have to do them in front of an audience. I tend to have a long “reflection period,” which means that even though I am (by conventional measures) “highly gifted,” it’s difficult for me to think of “snappy answers” on the spot. Being in crowds and noisy company can wear me out fairly quickly, even though I don’t mind being there. This is different from Social Anxiety, in that these things don’t actually scare me, or concern me– they just tire me out, very quickly.
More specific HSP characteristics include a tendency to be overly conscientious or perfectionistic; being profoundly empathic– often to the point of having trouble separating another’s feelings from your own; very high sensitivity to caffeine, drugs or other stimulants; a tendency to be overwhelmed and upset by life changes, roughness, violence and upsetting situations, in general; a tendency to get hurt feelings very easily; very deep reactions to music, art, nature, beauty and feelings– sometimes to the point of breaking into spontaneous tears; a very finely tuned awareness of people’s intentions, the environment around you, as well as very subtle changes.
During the past decade, I have learned to become far more particular, in choosing both friends and activities. Many of my more recent contacts and friendships have been with fellow sensitives... after all, nobody "gets" what it's like to be highly sensitive like someone who is also highly sensitive.
Sorry about the "dissertation;" I'm just happy to find this group!