I lived 50 years of my life believing that my sensitivity was a “weakness,” something to be mastered and beaten into submission. I was wrong.
While recovering from burnout, I listened to a podcast where the presenter spoke about Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Themes were discussed that felt familiar to my own life experiences and I knew this was a book that would resonate with me. So I immediately bought itand devoured all it had to say. I was 49 years old. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to make this discovery about myself — that I was (am) a highly sensitive person (HSP).
The obvious questions ran through my head. Why didn’t I already know about this? Why had no one ever told me? What different choices might I have made in my life if I had understood my sensitive personality trait better?
Of course, these questions don’t have answers, at least none that could change my present situation. What mattered from this moment on was to try and make sense of what I’d learned, understand myself better, and find a way to move forward. Learning that I’m an HSP as an older adult culminated in three things, and perhaps you’ll be able to relate.
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How Discovering I’m an HSP at 50 Changed My Life
1. I reframed my childhood experiences into more positive ones.
Making the discovery that I’m an HSP at almost 50 years old came with a range of emotions. There was a huge sense of relief that I was not “abnormal” — I did not have a disorder.
Understanding that being highly sensitive is simply a personality trait where my brain works a little differently from others — and that there are actually other people out there who were experiencing life in a similar way to me — was liberating. In fact, almost 30 percent of the population is highly sensitive, so there are quite a few of us!
There were also moments of joy when I realized the beauty and advantages that are within the realm of sensitivity. This includes the wonderful ability to think and feel more deeply. But there was also an enormous amount of frustration and sadness that this knowledge had escaped me for so many years.
Dr. Aron talks about four useful approaches people can benefit from when they discover they are highly sensitive: self-knowledge, reframing, healing, and respecting your boundaries. Reframing the past was particularly crucial to me, in order to achieve healing and move forward. Aron states that reframing is important in helping us understand that things we may have viewed as “failures” actually resulted from a lack of understanding from yourself and those around you regarding being an HSP. By looking back and reframing our childhood experiences in a more positive light, we can gradually work on improving our self-esteem.
With this knowledge, I was able to review my childhood through a different lens and make sense of many memories I have. I am now able to understand, for example, why I couldn’t watch TV shows like Lassie without ending up in floods of tears. Or why I hated playing musical chairs (or other high-intensity games). Or why criticism impacted me so deeply.
I was described as “too sensitive” or “too shy” and became fearful of doing something wrong, being told off, or upsetting others. I can still recall how I seemed to find some events more distressing than my peers, resulting in my having nightmares and feeling anxious for days afterwards.
2. I used my HSP knowledge to make better sense of my adulthood.
With 50 years of life as a highly sensitive person under my belt, there has been a lot of
reframing to do. This isn’t just a case of a few childhood years. This feels like a lifetime!
Those years have included study, careers, becoming a parent, and many other major life events. I have been reframing why I made particular career decisions and why some situations have always felt so difficult. It’s big stuff, but it’s also small stuff.
It’s a long list. But experiencing the freedom that comes with this understanding is life-changing. I now get that seeking solitude isn’t running away — alone time is what I need to feel restored. My dislike of busy shopping centers is because my senses are overstimulated, and this can feel unpleasant. “Fun” for me might include reading, gardening, and spending time in nature. I have a tendency to ruminate over events (or conversations) for months, even years, afterward — and now I know why.
There have been a multitude of discoveries and my life now makes so much more sense. Reframing these memories also enables me to be a kinder friend to myself. The intensity of my feelings and reactions were entirely normal for a HSP: I wasn’t being “too sensitive” or moody or emotional. I was being real.
However, being real as an HSP is often contrary to what our Western society tells us is acceptable. We are told that bustling events, festivals, and the like are positively stimulating. Being “busy” is viewed as a badge of honor. We respect strong leaders and the high-achieving, driven personality.
In contrast, those of us who are more empathic, or emotionally engaged with society and its issues, are often described using derogatory terms such as “do-gooders” or “bleeding hearts.” Growing up in a world that doesn’t value — or understand — sensitivity can lead to HSPs feeling not quite good enough.
On a personal level, I became very aware that I had lived 50 years of my life believing that my sensitivity was a “weakness,” something to be mastered and beaten into submission. A “flaw” — if only I could only “overcome” it, it would allow me to better cope and succeed in life. Continually attempting to fit in with society’s expectations eventually led me to experience burnout, which is actually common among HSPs.
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3. I let go of any regrets — instead, I focus on the present.
This is where feelings of regret sneak in. I regret not understanding myself as a HSP at an earlier age, because this led to me placing unbearable stress and pressure on myself. In order to avoid experiencing strong emotions, I did all I could to control my environment(s). Control my reactions to things. Control how I presented myself to others. Give 110 percent to everything so that I did not have to deal with criticism. If I could be “perfect,” nobody would get upset or feel disappointed.
But in doing all this, I have realized that I was never myself — and my perfectionism was driven out of fear and anxiety.
I wish I had been kinder to myself, too. I wish I had realized that the emotions of others were not mine to bear. I wish I had known that nobody can be perfect — and, in fact, nobody expected me to be. Everyone is just trying to do their best.
I also wish I had appreciated that traits such as empathy, deep thinking, and intuition could actually be benefits rather than hindrances to my life. (I now see the difference!) I wish I had understood that having good intuition can also mean being open to lots of inner voices and lots of suggestions, which can make decision-making difficult.
Without a doubt, the biggest regret of not understanding myself — and my sensitivity — at an earlier age is the impact it has had on the type of parent I became. I’d encouraged my children to be “strong” and “brave” — to take risks, be independent, and believe they could achieve whatever they wanted to in life.
Perhaps these were good qualities to encourage, but in doing this, I feel I negated the power of sensitivity and the beautiful gift that it truly is. Both of my children have sensitive natures, but my daughter especially has struggled with the emotional intensity of being an HSP. I am heartbroken that I couldn’t nurture that sensitivity in her sooner.
Fortunately, she is now a young woman learning to live and thrive as a highly sensitive person. This is a journey we are both taking and, if I can be grateful for anything, it is that she doesn’t have to wait 50 years to make the same discoveries that took me so long to find.
Fortunately, I see that there is no point viewing the past with regret, and reframing has helped immensely in achieving this. Regret and sadness require energy from me to think negatively about my past, and this is not where I want my energy to be spent. Instead, I choose to be grateful — not only for this life that I have the opportunity to live, but for the love and support that has brought me to where I am now. I choose to be thankful for the awareness about highly sensitive people that I now have and can use to positively influence my life.
Looking Toward the Future as a 50-Year-Old HSP
I am now 50 and making up for lost time. I have developed a thirst for knowledge around sensitivity. I am currently studying the amazing book by Barrie Jaeger, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person, and I am gaining further insights as to why my career, and work life, look the way they do.
As an older HSP, this book has been particularly beneficial in my efforts to reframe and gracefully accept my past. Where I once felt shame or disappointment around what I viewed as career “mistakes” and challenges, there is now peace and acceptance.
Poignantly, in The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron writes, “Eventually, many, if not most, HSPs are probably forced into what I call ‘liberation,’ even if it doesn’t happen until the second half of life. They tune in to the inner question and the inner voices rather than the questions others are asking them to answer.”
Liberation is exactly what I feel. Free to live to the wisdom of my own inner voice. Free to have made the life-changing decision to leave my paid employment and start my own nature therapy business.
I believe high levels of sensitivity evolved for a reason. The world needs us. Like Dr. Aron says, we need to recognize our strengths and what we can offer a broken world. It is never too late to understand yourself better and live a life more aligned to your values. I am truly blessed, and by embracing my sensitivity as a valuable resource, I know that I can live the second half of my life with greater purpose and deeper meaning.