Friday, March 1, 2024

Just Wired A Bit Differently: My Year Of Being A Highly Sensitive Person

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When Sarah Lang first heard the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’, she took the questionnaire and found out she got 27/27 on the HSP charts. One year later, she talks about how it has helped her make sense of both herself, and the world around her.

A Highly Sensitive Person is, according to author and educator Dr Elizabeth Scott, “a neurodivergent individual who is thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli”. This pertains to a specific set of behavioural traits, and is nota clinical diagnosis (and definitely isn’t a mental illness).

‘I think that identifying as [an HSP] is actually helping me ‘be in the world’ better.’

The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by clinical research psychologist Dr Elaine Aron after she did research in this area. She subsequently set up a website, wrote books on the topic, and established The Foundation for the Study of the Highly Sensitive Person to educate the public about and fund research on the topic.

Aron also developed an online questionnaire: If you tick more than 14 of the 27 statements, you qualify as a Highly Sensitive Person.

Here are nine of them:

“I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.”

“I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.”

“I’m bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.”

“My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.”

“I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.”

“I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.” 

“I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things”.

“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.”

“When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.”

That’s… ME?

When I did the questionnaire a year ago, I got… 27 out of 27. Say what? The highest possible score?! I did it again, thinking really hard about each question, and got the same score. Dang.

When I told my husband that I thought I was an HSP (and explained what it was) he said ‘of course you are!’. When I told my mother that I thought I was an HSP (and explained what it was) she said ‘of course you are!’. My mum then said she’s always thought I was a little neuro-divergent.

What? My family know more about me than I do? I guess they’re the ones observing my behavioural traits, whereas I’m just so used to them.

Right after this discussion, I wrote an article called ‘The Highly Sensitive Person: Are You Or A Loved One An HSP?’. But I didn’t mention myself, because I was still thinking, ‘could this term really apply to me?’. I wanted to wait on that.

Now, a year later, I’m looking back on ‘My Year Of Being a Highly Sensitive Person’ – and, by that, I mean the process of realising that, yes, I am one.

As an HSP, I experience Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which, according to Psychology Today, is an “increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli – pain, hunger, light, and noise – and a complex inner life”. My nervous system is just wired a little differently.

Knowing that I’m a little neuro-divergent has, in a weird way, made me feel more normal. Because I know it’s not just me. According to Psychology Today, about a fifth of the population are HSPs.

Oh, and 30% of us HSPs are extroverts. We can absolutely be fun, funny and good company. We just need to recharge ourselves like a phone.

The Upsides and Downsides of Being HSP

As a child I was told a few times that I was too sensitive. But what I like about the term HSP is that being highly sensitive is not the same as being too sensitive. There’s no judgement.

Being an HSP has upsides. As a Psychology Today article puts it, “high sensitivity is thought to be linked to higher levels of creativity, richer personal relationships, and a greater appreciation for beauty”.

Some other HSP traits can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on their extent. HSPs tend to be more sensitive to the needs of others (‘is your drink topped up? Do you need the air conditioning on?’). And HSPs tend to have strong empathy. I can put myself in another person’s shoes, thoughat the same time I try not to take on too much of others’ suffering (something many HSPs struggle with).

How It Changed My Life

What have I learned, changed, and adapted to over the last year?

For starters, if I’m at a loud-ish party or event – and need to duck into another room or go outside for a bit – I either just do so or, if needed, I cite my Sensory Processing Sensitivity, explaining it as ‘the need to put headphones on for a bit’. The people that I’ve mentioned it to seemed to get that Sensory Processing Sensitivity is real a thing, ‘cos it sounds official’, as someone said. I’ve also mentioned being an HSP to a few friends, and hopefully they didn’t I was throwing a ’buzzword’ around, but you never know what people are thinking.

All I can control (to an extent) is what I think. And I think that being an HSP explains a lot about me. I also think that identifying as one is actually helping me ‘be in the world’ better.

Historically, I have often taken offence too easily, but now I do it less. I’m still sensitive to what I instinctively interpret as ‘criticism’ (for instance if I’m asked to rewrite a story, or get a negative Instagram comment). But now I’m more likely to think, well, this person likely has a good point, and/or perhaps I shouldn’t take this personally.

I also recognise that when I feel criticised, my default position is being defensive. When my husband recently said something that was intended to be helpful but that I considered critical – ‘if you clear the bench before you cook, you won’t accidentally break things’ – I caught myself wanting to yell ‘you make the frigging dinner then!’. Instead I recognised I was feeling defensive, and said ‘thanks for that feedback, but I’m the one making dinner tonight so I’m doing it my way’.

Part of being an HSP is having what’s called ‘a complex inner life’, which can be a good thing when it comes to having ideas, etc. But I now realise I can ruminate too much, and have been trying to climb out of my head and instead be mindfully aware of my surroundings and my five senses.

And look, if someone sees me as an overdramatic ‘self-diagnoser’, that’s fine too. As the title of a book says, ‘what you think of me is none of my business’. I know that I’m not just an HSP (sometimes I can be relaxed and fun, honest!). I’m not clinging to this label too tightly. But it does help me understand myself better, ‘be in the world’ better – and that’s gotta be a good thing.

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