Would you describe yourself as “sensitive”?
Given the choice, I think few of us would. In a culture like ours that values strong work ethic, leadership and extroversion, sensitivity is often associated with weakness or fragility.
Until recently, I steered clear of the word myself. Growing up with a self-identified sensitive mother, I made it my mission as a teenager to be as un-sensitive as possible.
My brother and I would always roll our eyes when my mom would turn off the local news because the crime reports caused her too much anxiety, and we hated the fact that she sat in the back row at concerts because she found the loud music overwhelming. To me, being sensitive meant not being able to handle the exciting stuff. And no teenager wants that.
But last week I had one of those painful yet liberating “Oh my god, that’s me!” moments in which I realized that not only am I just as sensitive as my mom, but that “being sensitive” isn’t something to be ashamed of.
Turns out sensitivity is a well researched field of human psychology, and embracing where you fall on the sensitivity spectrum can be hugely beneficial to your health and potential for success.
My “Oh my god!” moment came when I stumbled upon Kate Stefan’s website. She’s an emotional eating coach who works specifically with Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), and although I didn’t identify with everything she had to say about emotional eating, her description of what it means to be highly sensitive immediately resonated with me.
Researchers have determined that HSPs make up about 20% of the population (equal numbers in men and women). They process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly than others due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.
According to Kate, HSPs naturally pick up more sensory inputs from their environment, and because of this high level of processing and analyzing, their bodies and minds are “more likely to become overwhelmed, overstimulated and overaroused.”
Emotionally, HSPs feel things more intensely – both their own feelings and those of others – and often end up becoming “a sponge for the stress of the world.” They like to reflect deeply before acting, and making “bad” or “wrong” decisions upsets them greatly. Basically me in a nutshell. (See last Monday’s post.)
Perhaps the biggest red flag for me was the fact that “HSPs are often physically sensitive to specific foods, making digestive issues and autoimmune disorders commonplace.” If you’ve read about my healing journey, you know that I’ve struggled with allergies and a sensitive digestive system for most of my life.
The deeper down the rabbit hole I went, the less I could deny that I fit the highly sensitive mold. It explains so much. Like the reason I can only get work done in complete silence and I have to sleep with a white noise track playing on repeat. The reason a dirty kitchen stresses me out. The reason I usually need to take a timeout in my room when I have company over. The reason I feel physically drained around negative people. And probably the reason writing appeals so much to me.
Well for one thing, whether you’re highly sensitive or just trying to live a stress-free life, it’s crucial to understand the impact that the “inputs” of our modern world have on you as an individual.
When you’ve got a brain like mine that feels anxiety and even guilt when it can’t give equal attention to every piece of information, adopting a lifestyle like primal or paleo that focuses on cutting out the noise (literally and figuratively) can be hugely beneficial. It gives the brain a chance to absorb and embrace its surroundings in full – the way it craves – without having to waste energy tuning out unnecessary distractions.
Biologically speaking, none of us were designed to live in a world filled with blaring sirens, air pollution, rock concerts or even light bulbs. Our ancestors didn’t have to deal with the huge physical and cognitive load that gets placed on us every day.
It’s on us, whether we’re trying to live primal or just stay sane, to consciously avoid the “inputs” that aren’t serving us.
We have a responsibility to our bodies and our minds to be diligent and selective about what we let in. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and burnt out. For us HSPs, the responsibility is even greater. My mother was no fool sitting in the back row.
But that’s not to say Highly Sensitive People are doomed to a life dictated by neuroses and anxiety. On the contrary, HSPs are born with the tools to experience life’s highest highs and realize extraordinary success.
We notice and appreciate the world’s profound intricacies automatically. We have the capacity to see what many others miss, and we’re able to quickly connect with and benefit from the primal perks of life: the rays of sun on the back of our necks, the skillful needlework on the sleeve of a wool sweater, the texture of a perfectly juicy slow-cooked pulled pork.
We are out-of-the-box thinkers and passionate pursuers. It may take us a bit longer to make up our minds, but once we do, we make profound, innovative and productive contributions to the world thanks to our analytical and creative inclinations.
We are more aware of inner emotional states, both our own and those of others, making us great empathizers and emotional communicators. This emotional awareness also makes us well equipped to create richer and more profound creative work as writers, musicians, actors and artists.
We feel life to the fullest, without even having to try.
As much as it would pain my 15-year-old self to admit it, I’m quite proud to be sensitive. And now that I’ve begun to focus my energy on understanding and embracing my sensitivity rather than fighting it, I am so much better equipped to live a more productive, emotionally stable and joyful life.
What about YOU?
Are you a Highly Sensitive Person? What are your strengths and what do you struggle with? What strategies do you use to keep your stress levels in check?
If you want to find out, check out this self test created by Dr. Elaine Aron, one of the leading psychologists studying human sensitivity. Share your feelings (ha!) in the comments!