On being sensitive, not insufferable

Walking through life as a highly sensitive person can feel like this. (Photo by Nicolò Paternoster on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

As many lights as Elaine Aron’s groundbreaking The Highly Sensitive Person turned on when I discovered it years ago, a red flag popped up, too. I remember thinking: Wow, a highly sensitive person can be a force for good … or a pain in the ass. I did not, and still don’t, want to be That Person who complains often, takes offense easily, and makes the atmosphere sticky.

Knowledge about ourselves as highly sensitive persons is power, right? With that power comes the responsibility to make more authentic choices about everything from careers and relationships to the smallest interactions with our world. Those of us who are wired to experience life intensely, feel the pain of others, and draw energy from down time can use those traits to make the world a saner, kinder place. We can also gum up the world’s works by being reactive or making others responsible for our well-being.

Aron’s research indicates 15 to 20 percent of us have the traits of high sensitivity, also known as sensory-processing sensitivity. More recent research on brain activity points to physical, structural differences in the brains of highly sensitive people. It’s not in our heads — well, it is, but you get the picture.

So how do we HSPs thrive conscientiously in 21st-century America? The answers to that question are a work in progress, but here are my current thoughts.

Own it 

We may be outnumbered, but we’re not out-powered. Though we cannot control the crowds, the noise, the news, the behavior of others, or the thousand other potential sources of overwhelm and overstimulation, we can control our exposure and response to them. We do this through caring for ourselves, setting boundaries, and believing we are worth the effort and retraining it takes to do so.

Yes, retraining. We may have spent years grinning and bearing whatever and trying to make up for being “too sensitive.” So mustering the initiative to leave a party a wee bit early, ask your spouse for what you need, or say no to yet another request or demand may feel like scaling Mount Everest.

Won’t there be pushback? You bet, and it will be damn hard to resist. But when we can stand up for ourselves without making it about the other person(s) — that is, without judgement or blame — we get real. Wouldn’t you rather deal with a real person than one who is trying to shrink or stretch to please others? I sure would.

Handle empathy with care

Highly sensitive people and empaths can often sense what is really bothering the client who doesn’t like our design, or its fifth revision. We can observe how the family dynamic in the waiting room may sabotage the patient’s follow-up care. We know the horse we are grooming is sad, and we may even be able to tell it’s because his buddy in the next stall went to a new home last week. Well-managed empathy can not only tell us what’s wrong, but map the gentlest route toward making it right.

However, the good we can do with empathy is diminished when we take on others’ pain and burdens. Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. Taking on someone else’s “stuff,” instead of helping that person, expands the problem and leaves less room to find a solution … which may not be ours to find in the first place. And if others are rude, unkind, or downright horrid, that’s on them. Judith Orloff has some good books, last year’s The Empath’s Survival Guide in particular, about navigating these minefields.

The good we can do is also undermined when we don’t use discernment and discretion about the impressions and information we get through our sensitive spidey senses. Some of it, like the “Don’t get into the car with him” vibe, arrives ready to use. Some is best silently received and released. The rest has to go through the “Is it true/fair/kind/necessary?” mill before we share or act on it.

Empathy can actually be a check for sensitivity’s pain-in-the-ass potential. If we are quick to feel hurt, yet remain clueless about the impact of our own behavior on others, our sensitivity is a liability rather than an asset. This can happen to anyone, especially during times of stress. Good self-care and boundaries help us regain our empathetic balance.  However, if this one-sided sensitivity is business as usual, that’s misery all around. “The Happy Sensitive” coach and blogger Caroline van Kimmenade goes so far as to say sensitivity minus empathy equals narcissism.

We can walk a fine line between the building-up and tearing-down sides of sensitivity. Using empathy wisely helps keep us on the constructive side.

When in doubt, follow the Golden Rule

We may feel everything, but we don’t know everything. You’ve seen the quote attributed to Brad Meltzer: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” It reminds me of that bit about treating others the way we would want to be treated, which still works.

The world needs folks like us … just as it needs folks not like us, and compassion is needed more than ever. Let’s bring our best selves to the task.

Sensitive revolution

“The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You,” by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. (Revised ed., 2013)

“I’m off the charts on this Highly Sensitive Person quiz,” I remarked.

A sigh issued from the other side of the room. “Ohhh, Lord.”

That was probably in the late 1990s, and I’d just read a brief about a new book about highly sensitive individuals, with a miniature version of the “Are you an HSP?” questionnaire. Up to that point, the word “sensitive” was usually preceded by “too,” and so I’d tried not to be. It had never occurred to me that sensitivity could be a natural trait, let alone a positive influence. So when I read the book, it was an eye-opener.

This revised edition adds expanded scientific research into the trait of high sensitivity and a new description of it: DOES (gotta love those acronyms). D – depth of processing; O – being easily overstimulated; E – emotional reactions and empathy; and S – sensitivity to all the subtleties around us. There is also a more extended discussion of psychiatric medications.

Aron paints no pretty pictures of sensitivity. It’s not always an advantage, and it has its costs. Feeling everything so intensely (and some of it not even ours) puts us on a path that sometimes intersects with the mainstream but more often does not. Instead, she walks us through all aspects of life as an HSP — from childhood experiences to work and relationship issues to health and spirituality. It’s not an easy road, and if we’re not careful, we can become easily offended, demanding, and difficult. Being sensitive is about what we have to offer, not about what we think the world owes us.

In the section on spirituality, Aron writes of four particular experiences she’s had with HSPs: “spontaneous deep silence creating a hallowed kind of collective presence, considerate behavior, soul/spirit directness, and insight about all of this.” HSPs are the priests and prophets, artists and poets, she says. We are the ones with the rich inner lives that help us find meaning where there is precious little in evidence — Victor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp and wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is a prime example given.

We are not necessarily smarter, nicer, or better than our non-HSP brothers and sisters. However, learning more about the trait of high sensitivity and how to manage it can help us stop perceiving ourselves as weak or inferior.

That is the primary message I’ve taken from this book, both the earlier versions and this revised edition: Sensitivity does not have to be a liability in life. Like other traits, we can turn it into a gift or a curse. If we can find a way to make it work for us and for the benefit of others, we all come out ahead.