I’ve been doing a lot of reading into Highly Sensitive People, in order to try and figure out some strategies for being in the world in a healthy way, rather than an anxious, burnt-out way. I’ve also found some new books that I haven’t mentioned before, by psychiatrist Judith Orloff. All of this reading is also helping me feel not quite so isolated and strange in being highly sensitive.
What is high sensitivity? (Or, as Orloff calls it, intuitive empathy?) It’s having a nervous system that processes sensory input in a different way from the rest of the population. From my own experience, it feels like being inside a huge sensory amplification system, and not being able to shut it off. Sounds, smells, physical sensations, emotional cues from others – they bombard my nervous system so incessantly that I (and about 15-20% of the population) become quickly overwhelmed and exhausted. I need a lot of time in quiet solitude to recover my equilibrium and energy.
Here are two simple tests that I scored 100% on. They’ll help give you an idea of how a highly sensitive person experiences the world. The first is from Elaine Aron:
- I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
- I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
- Other people’s moods affect me.
- I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
- I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
- I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
- I have a rich, complex inner life.
- I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
- I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
- My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.
- I am conscientious.
- I startle easily.
- I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
- When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done in order to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
- I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
- I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
- I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
- I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
- Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in my, disrupting my concentration or mood.
- Changes in my life shake me up.
- I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.
- I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
- I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
- I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.
- When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
- When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.
- I have been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive.
- If a friend is distraught, I start feeling it too.
- My feelings are easily hurt.
- I am emotionally drained by crowds, requiring time to be alone to revive.
- My nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk.
- I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please.
- I overeat to cope with emotional stress.
- I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships.
Despite recognizing myself in all these descriptions, and realizing that many other people experience the world the way I do, I still feel an incredible amount of shame for being the way I am. Partly because when I was growing up, I witnessed how high sensitivity was often misunderstood and ridiculed by those who didn’t experience it. Also, in my own unconscious attempts over the years to cope with being physically and emotionally overwhelmed, I developed habits (such as withdrawing from social activities and highly stressful relationships) that were seen by others as very strange and unfriendly.
More to come on this ongoing exploration…
Detail from an untitled art journal spread, August 2005. Wax crayon and collage on paper.