On Being Highly Sensitive


highly-sensitive-peopleMy mom called me her “flapper” when I was a baby. Whenever I got excited, I would flap my arms, like I was young chick taking off for flight … in front of a hawk. I still do that, to some extent, but I manage to keep the arm movements to a minimum extension.

I am easily excitable, a “highly sensitive person,” as defined by Elaine Aron in her bestseller, “The Highly Sensitive Person.” If you answer yes to most of these questions on her website, you’re probably in the club, which holds 15 to 20 percent of human beings:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

This is not a terrible curse.

We, highly sensitive people, have gifts and aptitudes unavailable to the person who is oblivious to the fly that just landed on his eggs and that girl who doesn’t wonder if there is some symbolic meaning in the leaf that has just fallen from the oak tree in front of her. In fact, we excel, at many things because of our heightened sensitivities. I once interviewed Douglas Eby, a writer and researcher, and the creator of the Talent Development Resources series of sites, including HighlySensitive.org at TalentDevelop.com, on the “perks” of being highly sensitive. He named these five traits:

Sensory detail: One of the prominent “virtues” of high sensitivity is the richness of sensory detail that life provides. The subtle shades of texture in clothing, and foods when cooking, the sounds of music or even traffic or people talking, fragrances and colors of nature. All of these may be more intense for highly sensitive people.

Nuances in meaning: The trait of high sensitivity also includes a strong tendency to be aware of nuances in meaning, and to be more cautious about taking action, and to more carefully consider options and possible outcomes.

Emotional awareness: We also tend to be more aware of our inner emotional states, which can make for richer and more profound creative work as writers, musicians, actors or other artists. A greater response to pain, discomfort, and physical experience can mean sensitive people have the potential, at least, to take better care of their health.

Creativity: Aron estimates 70 percent of those are introverted, which is a trait that can also encourage creativity. As examples, there are many actors who say they are shy, and director Kathryn Bigelow, who recently won an Academy Award, has said, “I’m kind of very shy by nature.” The star of her movie The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner (who was reportedly shy as a child) has commented that “in social situations she can be painfully shy.”

Greater empathy: High sensitivity to other people’s emotions can be a powerful asset for teachers, managers, therapists and others.

If you aren’t aware of your highly sensitive disposition, however, it can make you crazy and cause erratic behavior.

For example, before I recognized the fact that I did not do well in places like malls, carnivals, and arcades – where all five senses are bombarded by stimulation—I would push myself to do the kinds of things that normal people enjoy: shop and hang out in loud places. When my kids were young, especially, lots of moms would gather at the mall to let them goof around in a central play area.

Now I was not in a good place for most of my kids’ very early years. On top of being highly sensitive and depressed, I had a host of hormonal issues going on thanks to a pituitary tumor.

Because I also had poor boundaries, I agreed to babysit a friend of my son, who was four. So I took my two kids plus one more to the mall—one two-year-old and two four-year-olds. From the start I was accosted by kiosk people spraying me with perfume, asking me to try a curling iron, shoving a brochure into my hands about a Chinese acrobatic show coming to the Kennedy center. I was trying my best not to lose the two four-year-olds who were running ahead, despite gazing at the Victoria’s Secret bra and underwear ads (“I wish I had that body”) and balancing the two-year-old on my hip.

I saw in the horizon what appeared to be an oasis, a tiny bathroom at Starbucks. So I gathered the herd and locked us all in the bathroom while I proceeded to have a bona fide meltdown—crying, hysteria, snorting, etc. My kids were, of course, used to this behavior from Mom, but the other kid? He looked up at me as if he had just discovered Barney the Dinosaur was an alien dinosaur.

That was the moment I vowed never again to take small children to the mall, and, if I could pull it off, to keep my visits to that place under three a year—never between Halloween and New Years. Around this same time someone told me about Aron’s book. I devoured her pages, as I was relieved to know that there were other people in the world who hated amusement parks—even as kids—and got overwhelmed in grocery stores, people other than me who had to find a body of water somewhere by which to think, reflect, and just be still.

“Why do you find Whole Foods overwhelming?” my ten-year-old asked me the other day when I sat in the parking lot, stalling my entry into this world comprised of upper-class, health-conscious people.

“It’s hard to explain,” I said.

My 13-year-old son get it. He will do anything to get out of having to tag along to the grocery or any store. He already orders anything he needs online.

“It’s a lot of color and noise and choices hitting you all at the same time,” I tried to explain. “Plus I hate running into people I know at the store. And every time I shop here I run into at least two people I know.”

She looks up confused–not as puzzled as the four-year-old who had never seen an adult meltdown–but a tad baffled. Those reasons are exactly why she loves Whole Foods.

She will probably never lock herself into a tiny Starbucks bathroom in the mall.

However, if you do, know you’re not alone.

For a visual explanation of what highly sensitive means, watch my video.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

Image: lonerwolf.com

Join “The Highly Sensitive Person” Group on Project Beyond Blue, the new community for persons with depression.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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3 Responses
  1. Shanti

    You are God sent to me. I bless you each day.

    Our daughter has all the things you described & more. She how ever blames us for all her misery that takes place as an adult. Her failed relationships with friends & boyfriends I never met. She blames me for her fall and spraining her ankle. She has blamed me for her exams she failed. She has blamed me for having her wallet stolen & when she was mugged or when she got beaten up by her friends. Her ” shrink” has blamed me for not teaching her how to teach her ” not to be a victim.”
    I truly feel there are many more voices in my child’s head than one that is not being addressed.

    Blaming is just nurturing & illness by bad shrinks to fill there gravy bowls.


  2. Shel

    I agree that most psychiatrists are often hazardous patients mental health. However, there are a few that are life-saving…It just takes finding the right one and that may take some time…