BLOG POST:Solving the Riddle of the "Highly Sensitive Person".
Updated: May 31
For a while I told people that I was shy. They looked at me like I was insane. When that didn't work, I took the label "introvert" out for a spin, but that didn't seem to fit exactly either.
I can be outgoing and gregarious, I work in the entertainment industry and was in the public eye. Sometimes I love being the life of the party, other times, I have to retreat to my inner sanctum, physically and emotionally, for hours, days, sometimes even weeks.
A few years ago, the word "empath" was being thrown around like crazy. I tried it on. It felt like a trendy but itchy sweater so I quickly discarded it.
What WAS I? WHO am I? Why was a label so important to me anyway? Recently the term "Highly Sensitive Person" has been getting a lot of buzz (or HSP for those who like to abbreviate). I inwardly rolled my eyes the first few times I heard it. My thought process was something along the lines of "great another woo-woo term for a sub-set of folks who feel that they are 'different'". And then I delved deeper. According to Wikipedia (the new gold standard for information) a Highly Sensitive Person is someone… " with sensory processing sensitivity" ( SPS for you-know-who-you are). "SPS is a temperamental personality trait involving "an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli...
...the trait is characterized by a tendency to 'pause to check' in novel situations, greater sensitivity to subtle stimuli, and the engagement of deeper cognitive processing strategies for employing coping actions, all of which is driven by heightened emotional reactivity, both positive and negative". It was as if the sky parted, a beam of light came down, and the angels started to sing. It wasn't a "flaw" or a "condition" it was simply a trait. A trait that had unconsciously dictated every decision that I have ever made. This is ME. The me I never had the words for. It was all coming clear. Now I was coming clear, to MYSELF, for the first time…ever! Sure, I loved performing, and getting attention, but too much stimulation freaked me the hell out. So, how to do both? I became a radio DJ, I sat in a room by myself, talking to others, yet all alone for hours each day. On the rare occasion that someone did walk into the studio, they would laugh at barefoot "hippie Melissa" with the lights and music turned down low. Guess what? It wasn't an affectation...shoes feel restrictive. Light and noise rattle me. Liberation! Validation! Elation! Volume, whether it be music, conversation, or even background noise like a fan, can be intolerable to me. I can't eat certain foods because of texture. I sense the slightest shift in someone's mood or behavior before they do. Being around people for too long depletes me, I absorb and adopt their emotions and I need to recharge. I pick up on people's energy, be it good, bad or indifferent, I can read a room (although for my own self-gratifying humor, I often tend to ignore my assessment and tell the inappropriate joke anyway). Highly Sensitive Children are often misunderstood by their teachers and family. They are often labelled difficult or stubborn. They can have very strong preferences about situations and things, but they don't have the language to explain. Because only 20 percent of the population are HSPs, until now there wasn't enough knowledge, to acknowledge, let alone come up with a methodology for serving this segment of society. Yes, being highly sensitive is not an illness, simply a survival strategy hard-wired into the anatomy of some. Even cooler, it's not just humans who have this trait! (keep reading...)
Clinical Research Psychologist and author of the book "The Highly Sensitive" Elaine N. Aron says, "the HSP subset is 15 to 20 percent of the population, not only human, but most or all higher animals, whose nervous systems are designed to perceive subtleties and to process them deeply". She goes on to say, "...because of their strong empathy and emotional responsiveness highly sensitive people often enjoy a special connection with animals". And all is right with the world, my world at least. Exciting stuff, I was solving a puzzle I didn't even know I had been struggling with my whole life. The conundrum of me. So, back to my earlier question... why are labels important sometimes? Labels are often used to divide, separate or differentiate, yet they can also unite, explain, clarify, and make us feel understood and not so alone.
Can I get an "Amen" my highly sensitive brothers and sisters? (Although if you could whisper it, it would be much appreciated, and for the love of all things sacred, please no clapping!)