Let’s start at the beginning… An HSP is a Highly Sensitive Person. It is not the same as being introverted, though most HSPs are also introverts. I am one of those.
Some signs of being an HSP are that you’re very aware of other people’s moods, that you react strongly to noise, colour, smell – basically any sensory input, that you’re empathetic and feel deeply. Most people have some HSP traits, I score 24 out of 27 on the test.
I’ve known for years that I was an HSP, and that that was an actual, real, neurological thing, but it’s only really in the last year and a bit that I’ve started to deal with it and really accept what it entails.
For most of my life I’ve been trying to ignore it, to “toughen up” (I cannot count how many times I’ve heard that throughout my life, from all corners), which has led me to more or less repress my sensitivity. I’m currently working on letting my sensitivity back into my life without being completely overwhelmed.
I was in therapy last year, and was confronted with the fact that ignoring my sensitivity could be the root to some weird and seemingly unexplained ailments, which I think basically boil down to stress and anxiety.
My mother is also an HSP, and has also been repressing that most of her life, until she ended up getting ME (aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) – now in her fifties. Over the past few years she has done so much work to deal with this, find her way back to a productive, gratifying and balanced life (she always struggles with wanting to do everything) and accept her sensitivity. And I am so proud of her. But it’s also a warning sign for me. I don’t want to go so far down the same path that I end up getting ill.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting next to the radiator. It’s cold winter’s day. The radiator is emitting a constant humming noise. I’m trying very hard not to get distracted by it, but it really bothers me. Boyfriend would not have noticed that it’s even making a sound. That’s just one of the many little challenges you face on a day-to-day basis as an HSP. But, I mean, there are a lot worse things in life than annoying radiator buzzing sounds.
There’s a lot of good stuff about being an HSP. I love my vivid imagination (though sometimes, when I’m out running in the morning by myself and think everyone I meet is going to kill me, not so much), I love my creativity, my connection with art and literature, how into books and movies I can get, the deep connections I make with my close friends and family and generally how deeply I can care and feel about people, animals and nature. It’s really a gift.
So why have I been ignoring it? Surely the above good stuff more than makes up for the fact that I’m sensitive to noises, violence, pain, hunger etc.?
Well, yes, it does. But there’s more to it. Now this is the part where I do not blame society, but rather try to explain why society and my upbringing in general was not suited to HSP traits. It’s really not anybody’s fault.
I believe my parents were both pretty extreme HSPs, but they both had their ways of repressing it. My mother was very strict with herself, always working really hard, always “pulling herself together” and powering on and through. Because that’s what she had been taught. She did not always have a lot of understanding for my sensitivity either, as she did not accept it in herself, so she would transfer the lessons she’d learnt to me – and so I also learnt that I should pull myself together, and that it was not OK to be tired, overwhelmed or to not be able to do as much as others.
I was sick a lot as a child, and also had long bouts of unexplained illness that were actually a little ME-like (but this was the early 90s so that wasn’t really a commonly known term). Looking back, I think this was my body’s way of dealing with being overwhelmed and overstimulated and not having anybody in my life who accepted this or knew how to deal with it. When I read Elaine Aron’s book on HSPs last year I remember that it said that children who were HSPs and were accepted and even appreciated for their sensitivity tended to be sick less often than other children. I guess in my case the opposite happened. It made me very sad for what could have been.
I’d like to emphasise again that this is not about placing blame, and I genuinely do not blame my parents, society or any other person or instance for the troubles of my childhood – I say this just to illustrate my path and how it has shaped me. And maybe some of you can recognise yourselves in this.
My father’s way of repressing his sensitivity was turning to drugs and alcohol. Which is something I’ve done myself later in life as a way of dealing. My drug just happened to be food rather than marijuana. My father had a very rough life, and given the time and the circumstances he was born into, I have nothing but understanding for the way in which he chose to deal with (or actually not deal with) his sensitivity. But again it makes me sad for what could have been. He was a wonderfully sensitive and creative spirit, but he blunted his creative instrument with drugs.
So, led by two bad examples, and having no one to explain to me what it was to be highly sensitive, how to deal with it and how it can bring you joy, it’s no wonder I’ve faltered a little.
In my next post I plan to elaborate on how I’m currently dealing with (rediscovering) my sensitivity – so if you enjoyed this post, stay tuned!
And I very much appreciate anyone sharing their own experiences with sensitivity. It always helps to know you’re not alone.