Sensory-Processing Sensitivity is common in approximately 20% of the population and describes how a HSP’s brain works slightly different than someone not as sensitive. Join author Rachel Smith as she shares “Why I’m Not Too Sensitive About Being A Highly Sensitive Person.“
Written by Rachel Smith
Be careful the next time you think about telling someone they are being too sensitive. You might be dismissing a part of them that in truth is valuable, but misunderstood. I’ve been called “too sensitive” or “a bit dramatic” many times in my life. Back then it used to bother me. I thought, “Is something wrong with me?” If you can relate, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person like me, and that’s ok.
In scientific terms its called Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, according to Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. and expert on sensitivity and a highly sensitive person (HSP) herself. It’s common in approximately 20% of the population and describes how a HSP’s brain works slightly different than someone not as sensitive. Our brains process information and reflect on it more deeply, says Dr. Aron.
Being highly sensitive is an innate trait and has differing cultural connotations. For instance, in the US, which tends to value bold extroverts overly intuitive, sensitive types, HSP’s are given messages their whole lives that something is wrong with them, they are “too sensitive.” In some cultures such as Japan and China it doesn’t seem to ever come up or be an issue. In fact, sensitive children are considered the best kind of friends to have.
Sensitivity should be distinguished from fear, or shyness. Sometimes they can overlap, but they are not one and the same. I actually feel comfortable speaking in front of groups, something many people fear. Sensitivity is as much a physical sensitivity as an emotional sensitivity. Its a common trait with people who gravitate towards creativity, writing, and spirituality. We’re also the ones that sign ourselves up for counseling more often as we seek guidance in processing all that we experience day to day.
When I was a child I hated many of the pretty dresses most girls liked, because they had scratchy lace or were a rough fabric, something more common in kids clothes back then than the soft fleece on sale today. I walked on my tippy toes for years, as if touching the ground with my full foot was too much stimulus to handle. The thought of going to a rowdy summer camp made me filled with dread.
I hated roller coaster rides, even though I lived in the same town as the State Fair. I’ve still never been on one and I have no intention of doing it. For me, the feeling of gravity pressing on me causes me to basically have a short circuit. Its just a sensory overload. I prefer peering at the bunny rabbits in cages at the Fair.
As I grew up a bit, big transitions were hard for me: moving homes, changing friends, growing up. I felt my teenage emotions so viscerally that those were particularly painful times when my heart was broken or a friend said hurtful things as teenagers sometimes do.
I was generally a good kid and didn’t have the desire to take the same risks as my friends which generally wasn’t considered “cool.” I definitely felt something was wrong with me but I didn’t have the knowledge I do now. Neither did anyone around me.
College was a big upset for me. I stopped eating first quarter, not to get skinny but I was just plain overwhelmed and the first thing to go was my appetite. I retreated home frequently for a respite from the dorm life. After a hard first year I was able to transfer to a really good situation where my brother was and we had a supportive social circle where I finally thrived. It was a place where my sensitive side was completely accepted, and nourished: campus ministry.
Looking back, I thrived whenever I felt safe, which was a more defined line for me than what others perhaps felt. A boyfriend kindly and patiently showing me how to ski when I was in high school, something I never would have tried otherwise, but I felt safe under his care. A gentle music teacher encouraging me to sing and gave me private lessons. I later left my music major because I had such physical symptoms of nervousness I couldn’t perform regularly, it really just got in the way.
In my adult life it plays out less dramatically but still just as real. Instead of coffee first thing in the morning like most of my peers I drink herbal tea and I swear just the temperature of the water wakes me up. I no longer eat sugar because I can feel its effects immediately. I still hate scratchy clothing and what I define as scratchy is almost everything. I wear a lot of yoga clothing.
Sensitive people have challenges in parenting and marriages. My baby’s cries on the monitor send me bolt upright in bed, my heart pounding. Good luck getting back to sleep after that! Being in close quarters with my husband who is not sensitive and happens to have a stressful job, I have to physically distance myself from him so as not to absorb the stress myself. Watching TV together is hit or miss as to whether I’ll enjoy it. His preference for action movies makes me so on edge I can’t relax afterwards. I much prefer quiet and a book.
You can call these quirks or being an anxious person, and I’ve definitely experienced depression. But defining being sensitive as just those misses the mark by a lot. I’ve been extremely relaxed, not anxious, and still been highly sensitive. Highly sensitive people like myself just tend to take it a lot more of everything (hearing, smelling, seeing, touching, sensing, feeling) than others. Its neither better nor worse, its just what it is.
Here’s my top reasons why I love being the highly sensitive person I am.
- I can brainstorm like a champ. I draw connections quickly and it usually triggers ideas that come pretty easily. It usually means I am a decent problem solver as well.
- Cooking is a huge pleasure of the senses. The smoothness of the eggplant, or the colors of the Chioggia beet does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. My sense of taste can guide me through cooking without recipes which I prefer to cook without when I can.
- Artistic expression is something that comes naturally and I’m not self conscious about it. I love to write poetry, paint, journal, dance. I feel deeply connected to art in its many forms, appreciate it and I make the world richer by creating art.
- I actively seek wellness. Perhaps this is because I can sense a cold coming on two days before it actually does. When I’m out of shape I feel it in my bones. I usually know right away when something isn’t right. So, I make it better. I don’t let symptoms go unchecked.
Not without its challenges, being sensitive has brought a nuanced quality to my life that I’m grateful for. I may have so much in my head at times its hard to articulate that, but I feel it everyday. So, if you want a great response to “Why are you so sensitive?” from a sensitive person like me, allow them to paint you a picture, give you a massage, make you a playlist to listen to, read you an excerpt, or write you an article. Allow space and quiet to give way to what could be their best asset.
To see how you rate on the sensitivity scale, try taking Dr. Aron’s self test.
Identity Magazine is all about empowering women to get all A’s in the game of life — Accept. Appreciate. Achieve.TM Every contributor and expert answer the Identity 5 questions in keeping with our theme. As a team, we hope to inspire and motivate ourselves and inspire you to get all A’s.
What have you accepted in your life that took time, physically or mentally?
I’ve accepted that I’m pretty sensitive inside and out. I have sensitive skin on the outside that matches a pretty sensitive interior as well. When I was pregnant I was so porous to everything I couldn’t hear about violence or eat red meat as it felt violent. I can’t watch really disturbing movies, or be in super chaotic environments for long without feeling frazzled and spent. I don’t even really like the hairdryer. I’ve learned that my anecdote is to snuggle under the covers with a good book in silence when I need it. I used to be more anxious when I didn’t know this about myself but over time I’ve learned that I can control it more than I’d originally thought. Recharging does me wonders!
What do you appreciate about yourself and within your life?
I appreciate that I am not what I seem on the outside and that’s perfectly fine. On the outside I seem very “mom,” “suburban,” “blond,” etc. There’s nothing wrong with those but they don’t really reflect my quirks and individuality, or what people assume I’m like when they see me. If they know me, they’d know I speak Chinese, I write dark poetry, I love electronic music, I practiced Kung Fu. If people don’t know me, they treat me like a doll or assume I drive a mini-van and watch Dr. Phil. But, I know I’m not like that. I also love meeting people who aren’t what they seem at first glance as well.
I also appreciate that I met a man who is very devoted to his family, even if it took me awhile to see that he was doing it in his own way, by achieving success in the early years of our marriage and at times being very, very absorbed in his work. He is truly a super-dad/husband. I think having a strong and capable partner to weather through life is extremely important.
What is one of your most rewarding achievements in life? What goals do you still have?
One of my most rewarding achievements in my life was giving birth twice and now, being a mom. It’s such a great responsibility and is at times chaotic but I can’t imagine my life without my daughters. They changed me for the better and I hope I earn their love as much as I freely give mine.
My goals for the future are a bit more me-focused. I think all women should have that opportunity to shift in their lives at some point from creating and nurturing life (pets, fostering, adopting, nieces/nephews, children of their own) to focusing on self-fulfillment. Or being able to combine both ideally. My goals include writing more. Articles, or possibly a young adult book centering on some formative experiences from my teenage years. Possibly a children’s book, or a cookbook as I love all things food. Or all the above. I want to travel more internationally when my girls get older. Garden some heirloom varieties for cooking. I want to produce some music or own a small restaurant/pub with my husband as a retirement gig.
What is your not-so-perfect way? What imperfections and quirks create your Identity?
If you saw my kitchen or my linen closet, you’d see I’m not a neat freak. Now, I love it when everything’s in its place, but it just doesn’t take a high priority in my day to day. There are so many more important things in life! I’ll do towel stacking and sheet folding if I have to, but if I don’t, well, I don’t. Yes, I sleep on wrinkly sheets. Maybe that’s why I love hotels so much.
I’m also highly critical of myself. As much as I am a “slacker” in the folding sheets and towels department I am neurotic at times in the self improvement department. In Confession once a Priest told me to “relax” as my penitence. Enough said.
How would you complete the phrase “I Love My…?”
I love my reflective side. It gives depth to my life, relationships and conversations. How many times have I heard from a friend, colleague, relative “I never thought of that…” I love that I can somehow enhance their life too, by reflecting on my own. I’m convinced if we all told our real stories more often we would all benefit. This is the main reason why I wanted to write for Identity Magazine.