Highly Sensitive Refuge
a woman embraces being highly sensitive

How I (Finally) Embraced Being a Highly Sensitive Person

When I learned I’m a highly sensitive person, it felt as if an instructional manual, separated from me at birth, had been recovered.

Learning I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) came quite by accident. While at a yoga and health retreat center in picturesque Western Massachusetts with my partner one September weekend, I would have preferred to have been in my favorite small fishing village of Cape Cod. There, my weary soul is naturally soothed. At the retreat, we attended a workshop, the subject of which was not appealing to me but important to her. 

On the first morning, we had a small disagreement, prompting my desire to escape an already uncomfortable situation, considering we were sitting in a small room and asked to break into groups, a directive routinely signaling alarm bells for me. Pairing off with strangers to share responses to questions without ample time to process is, at best, nerve-racking. (If you’re an HSP, you can probably relate! We like to take our time thinking through things.)

Needing self-nurturing, I opted to explore the natural landscape of the Berkshires. Before ever making it to the front door, I was intrigued by a sign posted outside one of the larger conference rooms asking several interesting self-assessment questions, the most notable being, “Do you have vivid dreams?” Indeed, I do. Intrigued, I walked down the entrance ramp toward the large room filled with randomly dispersed people. 

Instead of sitting in chairs, many were scattered on the floor: some had blankets, some were lying down with their eyes closed. Feeling invasive, I slipped quietly into the far back corner with the intention of staying briefly to determine what this was all about. A woman was speaking. It turned out to be Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person.

She spoke about the word “equanimity” and I was curious. She spoke about Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork and I wrote it down. She spoke about an innate temperament trait with which 15-20 percent of the population are born. The more she spoke, the more I felt as though she were talking to or about me. Yet I’d never heard of this sensitivity trait. I was captivated. 

During the first short break, I made my way to the other presenter, Alane Freund, a therapist who works with highly sensitive adults and youth, and asked for clarification. She generously shared with me the introductory slides I had missed. I told her my partner had recently asked me, “Have you always been this sensitive?” Freund’s immediate reaction, as if smelling curdled milk, told me all I needed to know. I saw myself in the slides and naively asked, “How could I have not known?” Surprisingly validating, she responded, “You’ve been too busy surviving.”

Discovering I’m an HSP Made Me Feel as Though I Belonged (Finally!)

Enthralled by all this information, it felt as if an instructional manual, separated from me at birth, had been recovered. For a little while, it made sense and felt amazing. Scoring a 100 percent on Dr. Aron’s HSP quiz at the conference, I clearly belonged in this group of people: They immersed themselves into learning more and basking in the company of others sharing their intense feelings, thought processes, and propensity for becoming overstimulated. I suddenly had a hidden treasure trove of people who shared my experience of always feeling different and misunderstood; an inexplicable sensation that had followed me throughout my life, situation to situation and relationship to relationship.

Shortly after the weekend ended, I crashed. The reality of it had sunk in, “Wait, this means I am different!” My never ending thought process was not the way everyone thinks; in fact, 80 percent of the population does not think the way I do. Already belonging to other unchanging minority groups, I suddenly wasn’t so thrilled at having a lifetime membership into another one. I would later learn this initial grief reaction is common.

The leaders of the workshop I unexpectedly attended strove to leave the group with palpable camaraderie and empowerment. And it also left Alane Freund’s parting words lingering in my head, to claim my sensitivity and be seen.

So that’s exactly what I did.

Claiming My High Sensitivity

After 16 months, two relevant movies, several books, online research, another in-person workshop, a virtual retreat, and participation in a social media group, I am ready to embrace my innate sensitivity traits! Claiming my spot in the 15-20 percent (or more) of the population, I boldly state, “My name is Melissa and I am a highly sensitive person.” 

I find myself excited to educate people who clearly misunderstand what it means to be highly sensitive. For instance, as an occupational therapist, it is my job to speak to patients all day. While my assistant sees this, she doesn’t see the invisible impact this continuous chattering has on me by day’s end. I welcome times I can talk about my personal battery running low and how it needs to be recharged frequently. As an introvert, my battery needs daily recharging, but the HSP in me does, too

Similarly, it’s become easier to explain why I seldom turn on my office light and keep the shades perpetually drawn in my effort to reduce the noxious stimuli my body absorbs, leaving me with an HSP hangover for my drive home. Previously left to wonder about the frequent headaches, now I recognize them as a product of my overstimulating work environment.

Referring to myself as an orchid is a preferable starting point rather than explaining the high sensitivity trait, also known as the sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) trait, especially since the word “sensitive” frequently conjures up negative associations in society, such as being “weak,” “thin-skinned,” or “too much.” People are far more receptive learning that dandelions, sturdy and hearty, refers to those who can thrive in any environment, whereas orchids require more supportive environments and, under good conditions, can be beautiful and resilient. If the person seems receptive to hearing more, I share more about my sensitivity trait. If not, I’m satisfied with laying the foundation for raising awareness about a little-known, hard-wired trait, and those people trying to thrive in a society that doesn’t seem to readily value what HSPs bring to the table, like our attention to detail, appreciating beauty in the littlest of things, and our empathy (we can’t turn it off if we tried!).

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Understanding Myself Better Now That I Know I’m an HSP

Retrospectively examining my life, things make more sense now that I know I’m an HSP. Young me liked to create small womb-like spaces out of hanging blankets to form a physical separation from the rest of the world, something I was teased about. In a way, I’d created my very own HSP sanctuary without even knowing it!

In early adulthood, when I sought time alone, I’d retreat to my car, taking long drives to nowhere in particular, or I’d sit in the small, enclosed space, enveloped by calm and feeling protected. At conferences, my M.O. was to get up early to reserve an aisle seat near the back of the room, along with the seat next to it, thus ensuring an easy escape (as well as creating a natural barrier of space around me). 

And, despite having a family to come home to, I often extended my stay to linger in the quiet of a hotel room and decompress from the previous day’s continual flow of stimulation. It’s like I had an emotional hangover and needed peace and quiet to overcome it. I’d also always request a room on a low floor to avoid spending more time in crowded elevators. 

Additional time alone was achieved by exiting early for lunch to avoid crowds and retiring to my room for some much-needed solitude. I consistently declined invitations to “go out on the town” with my colleagues, too, and limited socializing to one night with one friend. (We HSPs value deep conversations and close friends, as you may know.) 

I also have a startle reflex so strong, people joke about wearing bells around me. Plus, there’s my preference for donning stimuli-reducing baseball hats and scanning restaurants for the level of activity before stepping inside. I also avoid large celebrations and parades, despite my proximity to New York City, where people often flock just for its ability to throw a good party. The exception being the Pride parade; attending this very crowded event was challenging, but felt like a rite of passage.

Never stopping to think why I did these things, they just became part of the routine. But now, it all makes sense, and I love knowing the reason behind my behaviors. 

My Highly Sensitive Toolbox for When I Feel Overstimulated

Those times I was labeled “moody,” I was likely overstimulated; balancing numerous facets of a busy life can manifest as stress. And, being short-tempered could be indicative of being overwhelmed and overdue for a self-care break. Being told I’m “too emotional” likely meant I was mentally and emotionally flooded

Having an increased awareness of myself — while acquiring new language in terms of being a highly sensitive person — provides an opportunity for self-reflection, planning, and explanation. Welcoming the information I am now privy to and, short of the occasional “If I knew then what I know now” moment, I am carving out better paths for myself with increasingly more strategies. Tools in my toolbox for finding balance as a newly realized highly sensitive person include:

  • allotting time in my day and week for rest
  • controlling the physical environment (when possible) to reduce stimuli
  • creating a mini sanctuary, a calming place to be creative or reset
  • savoring moments of solitude
  • seeking out nature whenever possible (which is a must for HSPs)
  • anticipating unavoidable stressors (like holidays) while limiting additional overload
  • resisting the temptation to “power through” (which can lead to burnout)
  • connecting with other HSPs (i.e., specific social media groups unique to these traits, like the Highly Sensitive Refuge one on Facebook)
  • recognizing signs of having an emotional hangover, flooding, and overwhelm as soon as possible, then minimizing additional overstimulation and planning accordingly for immediate rest and recovery
  • embracing my sensitivity traits, educating others, not feeling guilty for being hard-wired this way, and recognizing what I need and asking for it

HSPs’ sensitivity trait can be vastly misunderstood, which places the onus upon the 15-20 percent or so of us to educate the remaining 80 percent if we want to feel completely invited and feel welcome to sit at the table with our vulnerabilities and our strengths. It’s important to remember that, while a minority trait, sensory processing sensitivity has been identified in over 100 species and is considered an evolutionary strategy for promoting survival within the species. HSPs have much to share with the world, but the world must first know we exist. So let’s all step up and be seen!

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