Many of us sensitive people grew up with the sense that we had something different.
Many of us kept a lot inside.
We knew all along that our inside worlds are rich and abundant, but that some 80% of the population regards us as too quiet, too closed off, or timid. We might have struggled to find our voice amidst a larger culture that is constantly demanding that we are too anxious, too “in our heads,” and too easily exhausted.
Finding a name for my differences — my active mind, my awareness of subtle cues and emotions, and my sensitivity to highly stimulating environments — changed my relationship with the world around me. If, like me, you’re also a highly sensitive person (HSP), you probably knew it on some level all along, but took a long time to put words to it. And you probably sought great refuge and comfort in Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person.
Well, fellow HSPs, I may be quiet on the outside, but I have a lot to say on the inside. And I think many of you will relate to these honest confessions from the mind of an HSP.
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9 Confessions of a Highly Sensitive Person
1. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt over the fact that my family is entirely too much for me.
I arrived on this planet as the highly sensitive child of a wonderful family who happens to be very loud, very nosy, and very indifferent to alone time.
I’ve made peace with the fact that I can love them exactly as they are — and I’ve accepted that their idea of fun and comfort might not be the same as mine. However, there were many years during which my sensitivity to their natural tendencies made me feel cruel and ungrateful because it has always been difficult for me to spend long periods of time with them (cough, also an empath).
For me, there has been nothing more settling than to learn to embrace our differences and understand that my “variation” does not mean I love them any less. And, family? I need you to know that, too.
2. My anxiety is never higher than when you’re watching me perform a task.
By the time the task begins, I have already internalized what I believe your judgments about me might be (because I’ve been preparing diligently). Being observed at work is torture, and I’m likely sweating profusely and stumbling over my words in a way that’s generally atypical for me.
It’s not that I am nervous because I feel I’m incompetent, more that I’m hyper-aware of your attention, and I can feel it throughout my body. As a former collegiate athlete, I took on-the-field personal failures so hard that I often let perceived criticism become a symbol of my self-worth. Striking out in front of a crowd, for example, was devastating for me; my inner critic (influenced by what I thought you believed about me) was often abusive.
It can be hard to avoid in some situations, but in general, if you find yourself hovering over an HSP, you’re not helping. Give us some space or ask us if we can let you know when we’re done.
3. I’ve had issues with my relationship with food (especially sugar) for as long as I can remember.
Why? Because excess food and excess exercise help numb my internal experience. And for an HSP, that inner experience can be overwhelming.
For many years, before I understood why my system was so easily frazzled (which I now identify as a trademark quality of highly sensitive people and empaths), quieting the world with food (always alone), was the only way I understood how to cope. As I was practicing them, I knew the behaviors were unhealthy, but the need to escape from the constant stimulation had a mind of its own.
Fortunately, as I’ve learned more about my high sensitivity, I’ve also learned there are more balanced ways to deal with my emotions and the overwhelm I sometimes experience.
4. When I’m neglecting my creative outlets, you can tell.
As an HSP, my inner world is very much alive, and I’m working hard nonstop to keep up with it. If I haven’t gotten the words, the ideas, the feelings, out of me somehow, I clam up and become emotionally blocked.
Those who are close to me describe it as a hollowed-out version of the person they know. During these times, I’m even more likely to retreat from a social obligation, call out sick from work to spend a day alone, or become highly irritable in my relationships. Long story short — I’m far from my best self.
Pressure to make art doesn’t help, but people taking an interest in my creative work does. If an HSP in your life seems stressed, try asking them about their creative work and take the time to listen. It could be enough to “unblock” them and get them back to making important, soul-healing work.
5. If possible, I nearly always reach for a drink when I walk into a social gathering.
I’m not proud of this habit, but if there are more than a few people that I’ll be forced to socialize with, I find an adult beverage as soon as possible. I’m painfully in tune with the energy in the gathering space buzzing with electric noise, smells, and sounds; a glass of wine lowers my threshold to the environment. (There’s also a great chance you’ll find me outside with the dog thirty minutes into the party!)
Party hosts: Yes, having a crowded rager can be fun, but please try to create quieter areas, too.
6. I am prone to anxiety and depression.
While being an HSP comes with many gifts and strengths, it also comes with its difficulties. In my case, my constantly overworking mind and sensitivity to the outside world means that I feel anxious often. When left unresolved, my anxiety can spiral into depression. This won’t happen to all HSPs, but because we respond strongly to our environment and to stress, it’s not uncommon.
As I gain awareness about the traits of highly sensitive people and empaths — and the ways in which they impact my everyday life — I’m also finding more ways to take care of myself. For example, I practice noticing, identifying, and labeling my triggers as they arise. I let myself rest and work backwards when I catch my inner critic wanting to inflict shame on me for requiring more downtime than others. And I am diligent about sharing my internal state with a few loved ones whom I trust greatly, even though it is painfully difficult for me to do.
7. As a kid, I took books to slumber parties because I knew I’d need to escape.
I’m not anti-social! And, in all likelihood, I was looking forward to the sleepover. But there’s an even greater chance that by 8 p.m., I would be completely overwhelmed with the screaming girls, the new surroundings, and new and unusual foods — and I would regret coming.
Around age 7, I learned that I could last a little longer before snapping into overdrive if let my mind escape into a story for awhile. (Let’s just pretend that I didn’t also bring 1-4 of my best imaginary friends along to further diffuse my experience.)
Today, I practice yoga and mindfulness meditation instead, and I work to be conscious of my breath in everyday situations in order to tap into stillness in a world that seems to be moving at warp speed. Before these practices, my daily life felt a lot more chaotic and unmanageable — especially at social gatherings.
8. No, I don’t think my clothes are trendy or super flattering either…
…but if a shirt with a scratchy tag over a poky bra and a tight pair of jeans were my reality, I wouldn’t hear a word you’d say all day.
In high school, I marveled (often aloud) at how everyone else could manage to look so comfortable when I could conjure hives just thinking about a pair of low-rise jeans. I am forever grateful that I’ve finally gained adequate insight about what my “red light” fabrics are, and I avoid them with swine-flu level caution. Also, that athletic clothing somehow became married to casual clothing in a wonderful cataclysm of HSP bliss.
9. Finding someone you can share your alone time with (and hell, actually want to) is the greatest feeling in the world.
When the world is loud, and you’re ready to be alone at the end of the day, there’s nothing more comforting than knowing you have someone to share that peaceful space with — someone who gets you. Having “your people,” whether that person is a romantic partner or not, is critically important to helping the HSPs of the world feel safe, comfortable, and loved.
If there’s an HSP in your life, be the person person who will listen, empathize, and enhance their downtime. Your presence will be recharging to them on a whole new level.
Of course, we highly sensitive people will always need time alone, but having a person who understands and complements our energy is the most inexplicably peaceful experience we can have.