For a long time, I felt like there was something wrong with me. But then I learned to reclaim my high sensitivity as a positive trait rather than a flaw.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve always been emotionally sensitive, and I’ve never for a second thought I wasn’t. If I did, my parents would have snapped me out of that fantasy the moment I tried to convey it.
There was a time, however, when I did not identify with my visceral presence in this world (you know, the one that gives highly sensitive people (HSPs) our trademark sensory “superpowers”) and I lived largely in my head (and other fantasy lands that I kept to myself). Compared to my textbook-HSP best friend, who I bonded with as a teen over our preference for “deep” talk, I was the playful and energetic one who could talk her way through a room with ease — though even that, at its root, was largely an incomplete judgment of my internal experience during those galivants.
Nonetheless, since I felt so spaced out all the time, I did not realize how much my environment impacted me. But, looking back, I think that the intense impact from my environment is what catapulted me into space in the first place. Luckily, I came back down to earth in college, and have been living as a healthy HSP ever since. So, if you have ever questioned whether you, too, are highly sensitive, here is the story of how I “lost” (and reclaimed) my own trait of high sensitivity.
The Highly Sensitive Child
Some of my earliest childhood memories are with my grandma. Since my mom left early for work in the mornings, she was the person who ran my bath and washed my hair with apple-scented no-tear shampoo (we thought it would stop me from crying — ha!). You see, I was too afraid to put my head under the faucet because the feeling of water near my eyes, even without the soap, was atrocious. (In fact, I still prefer to crane my neck to avoid submerging my full face under the showerhead — but that’s a different story.)
After bathing me, she would wrap me in the softest towel and carry me to her bed. She would then present the outfit she chose for me that day, which we quickly learned could not have any inside tags that touched my skin and could absolutely not include a turtleneck. Tutor Time was my next destination, where my pre-school teachers would let two-year-old me visit the babies because I was so gentle with them. My mom was so proud that she gushed to the whole family about it.
There were other instances, however, that left my mom feeling perplexed. When she took me to Disney World, for example, I would have a meltdown every time we stood outside to watch the fireworks. In fact, I was very prone to meltdowns for seemingly nonexistent reasons during my youth, which often invoked the dreaded phrase from others, “You’re too sensitive.” Sometimes, my meltdowns did have a clear cause, but did not make sense to others around me. For instance, my mom had no idea what to do with herself when I busted out into messy tears during Miss Hannigan’s drunken rendition of “Little Girls” in the Annie movie.
These intense sensory reactions during my youth shaped my eventual aversion to new sensory experiences. I felt consistently misunderstood — and labeled — by my peers for being a “crybaby,” a “goody-two-shoes,” or generally unwilling to play. I found solace in fictional characters and Bratz dolls, where I could create and immerse myself in other realities, since in my reality, I felt like there was something wrong with me as a person.
Eventually, I learned to deal with the fireworks, the clothing tags, the crowds, and basically every sensory input that I “overreacted” to — all of which led me into my period of “forgetting” that I was highly sensitive (but didn’t yet know it, of course).
The Heady T(w)een
As I grew older, I often found myself disconnected from my body and very much in my head. While I considered myself a deep thinker, I had no problem going on “autopilot” and whizzing through a list of activities. My deep thinking tended to occupy the rest of my time — with physical experiences playing an auxiliary role in my life — and I held pejorative attitudes toward those who enjoyed rich sensory experiences. This often isolated me from my peers and left me to swim in some heavy feelings that I was never fully able (or wanting) to disconnect from.
As I entered my teen years, I became more openly gregarious and playful, though often still serious when compared to friends. By the time I hit high school, I would have never even related to the idea of being overstimulated — I was so “out of my body” that I was seldom aware of my physical surroundings. This was a running joke between my not-yet-identified HSP best friend and me. In fact, I sometimes even pushed her to not spend so much time processing and “just do it.” But I was always aware of my emotional state and tendency to tire out in large groups, along with the undeniable fact that I reacted more strongly to these circumstances than others.
By my freshman year of college, I had rallied up a small group of close friends who possessed milder personality traits than I did (or, in a few cases, extremely contentious extroverts who were likely HSPs themselves).This was also the year that I discovered the art of meditation. Though I didn’t realize it then, my irate reaction to the sound of my roommate “click-clicking” on her laptop when I tried to sit still was an early sign of reclamation. And as I got better at meditating and seemingly less bothered by my roommate’s typing, I found myself relearning how to exist inside of my body (rather than what felt like above it).
One morning after a particularly successful meditation session, I felt more grounded than ever. I found myself feeling empowered, walking with slow intention to the dining hall for lunch and listening blissfully to a song on Spotify. But as I neared the dining hall, the sound of my music began to fade as the sound of a leaf blower grew closer. (As I write this, I shudder.) The deeper into the grass-filled complex I walked, the more landscapers (and the more machinery) there were. I remember exactly where I was standing when I felt my forehead scrunch and a waterfall pour out of my eyes. As the tears flew, my mind filled with questions: Why am I crying? I got over my weird noise thing in fifth grade. I haven’t cried at loud noises since the 4th of July in 2009. Why can’t I stop? I was mentally and emotionally flooded. After taking a leap forward, I suddenly felt like I had taken a giant leap back. But, as someone once famously said, this was the dark before the dawn.
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The Highly Sensitive Adult
A fated synchronicity that day led me to a tweet (via Maryam Hasnaa) about the trait of high sensitivity. It emphasized that being sensitive to your surroundings is a challenge when not properly acknowledged, and a strength once you learn how to clear your energy. This lit the flame for a longtime, ongoing journey of reclaiming my high sensitivity as a positive character trait rather than a character flaw.
Here are some ever-shaping conclusions I’ve reached about relearning what it means to be highly sensitive (beyond the label of “too sensitive”):
- Sensitivity is not inherently good or bad — it is a genetic trait that I have, and I choose to love it since it’s mine. I grew up harboring an oscillating inferiority-superiority complex, especially when it came to my emotional sensitivity. After the initial wave of shame, it was tempting for me to believe that my sensitivity made me “better” than others in some way after learning about the strengths of HSPs, like I had secret powers. As of late, I have found the most solace in using my knowledge of my high sensitivity as a guide for understanding the way I process the world and how this shapes my experience — whether that means emotional reactivity or heightened empathy is up to me.
- I am not trapped into any limiting patterns due to my high sensitivity. I’ve realized that I have the power to take care of myself, and even enjoy, stimulating experiences on occasion. High sensitivity is not a limitation, and it does not doom me to a fate of taking on the emotions and sensations of the world without rest. This ties into my first point: when I take care of myself and listen to my body, I can show up in the world in a more vibrant, empathetic, and authentic way. Sometimes, this even means enjoying a group outing and dancing with friends, which I can do because I know my body will tell me when it’s time to retreat.
- I can choose to savor enjoyable sensory input and play a greater role in constructing both my physical and emotional resilience. Owning my first Himalayan salt rock lamp was a game changer for me — I never realized how much easier it was for me to wind down at night with a simple shift in lighting! I have also come to appreciate flower essences, rich foods, the sound of trees blowing in the wind, and countless other sensory inputs that make me feel at peace (and sometimes even in euphoria). Even though I am more sensitive to less enjoyable input, I am also more sensitive to more enjoyable input — and this makes me even more susceptible to the benefits of restorative practices.
I am still young, and there is still so much to experience. But if there is one thing I know, it’s that I am with me for this entire lifetime. So if you, like me, are a born-again HSP, I hope you find the courage to claim it: not for the superpower, but for the peace that comes with accepting yourself as you are.
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