The Highly Sensitive Person

September 12, 2013 LifepsychologyThoughts  One comment

For a very brief period of time I worked at Barnes and Noble. And while I loved the store, generally liked the people I worked with (even my bosses), and really enjoyed the discount, I had a hard time with the job.

For the month I was there I was mostly at customer service, and while it is in a book store, you are still working in retail and selling a product. You are working with people all day long. I would work a seven hour shift and come home completely exhausted and drained. On my days off I couldn’t get off the couch. I often felt very overwhelmed and felt like crying. I instantly became this weak person. I didn’t feel like myself. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t “real” – like it wasn’t real life. I just didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I was more than capable of performing the actual job and I got complimented often by the customers, so why was I feeling so bad?

Whilst working one day (bonus points for the use of whilst!) in the self-improvement section, I saw a book on the shelf called The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Cue the singing of the heavenly hosts and the golden spotlight from above. So I picked it up, devoured it, and learned so much about myself and how I work. Let me tell you, my mind has been blown. My whole entire life makes sense now.

The author of the book, Dr. Elaine Aron is not only a highly sensitive person (HSP) herself, but also a psychologist who has studied the trait. The trait of being highly sensitive has been recently (relatively speaking – in the psychology world) recognized as a legitimate trait completely separate from that of being introverted. The two traits are highly correlated, but not the same thing.

HSP’s nervous systems and processing of stimuli is much more sensitive than the average persons. And therefore, we take in more information and get overwhelmed faster.

Some traits of HSP:

– more aware of subtleties in the environment

– affected by other peoples moods

– tend to be sensitive to pain

– find themselves needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or place where they can have some privacy and relief from stimulation. “Often we can get used to stimulation. But sometimes we think we have and aren’t being bothered, but suddenly feel exhausted and realize why: we have been putting up with something at a conscious level while it was actually wearing us down. Even a moderate and familiar stimulation, like a day at work, can cause an HSP to need quiet by evening. At that point, one more ‘small’ stimulation can be the last straw.” (pg. 8)

– easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by

– have a rich, complex inner life

– made uncomfortable by loud noises

– deeply moved by the arts or music

– conscientious

– get rattled when there is a lot to do in a short amount of time

– meet the needs of those who are uncomfortable in a physical environment (by changing seating, lighting, temperature, etc)

– get annoyed when asked to do too much at once

– become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around them

– greatly affected by hunger

– disrupts concentration or mood

– shaken up by changes

– notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art

– make it a high priority to arrange their life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations

– as a child, parents or teachers may have saw them as shy

– soulful and deeply in touch with the spiritual

– in tune with the suffering of others

– greatly affected by their environment, especially work environment. “Because you’re more sensitive, you don’t need extra discomfort or stress around you. A situation may have been deemed safe but still be stressful for you. Likewise, others may have no problem with fluorescent lights, low levels of machine noise, or chemical odors, but you do. This is a very individual matter, even among HSPs.” (pg. 132).

Positive traits:

– better at spotting errors and avoiding making mistakes

– able to concentrate deeply

– especially good at tasks that require vigilance, accuracy, speed, and the detection of minor errors

– able to process material to deeper levels of what psychologists call “semantic memory”

– able to learn without being aware you have learned

– especially good with language and with learning new ones

Most HSPs have nervous systems that make them:

– specialists in fine motor movement – good at holding still – “Morning people” – more right-brained (less linear, more creative in a synthesizing way) – more affected by stimulants – more sensitive to things in the air

Work and the HSP

HSPs are not lazy. They want to do work that is meaningful, but a lot of the careers that our culture deems as meaningful are very demanding, overwhelming, overstimulating, and time consuming. All things that are not very conducive for the HSP to be a happy, productive worker.

Most likely, you’ve already chosen a job that allows you autonomy, time alone, and is not too overwhelming. If you’re not in a position you like right now, know that you are capable of doing the job. You are strong enough. But there is no shame in looking for something better suited to your needs. You will be good at the right job – comfortable, productive, and useful.

The things that make it hard for me to hold a “regular” job is what makes me an effective writer – observant, emotional, sensitive, creative, aware. You’re strengths may not be conventional, but you do have them and in the right setting, you can be a powerful force with something to contribute to the world. “You were born to be among the advisors and thinkers, the spiritual and moral leaders of your society.” (pg. 20)

¬† If these things describe you, you should experience some relief at knowing that you’re not alone and that being highly-sensitive is a real thing. If this is you, you need to learn how to be nice to yourself and make the appropriate adjustments in your life to avoid situations that are too overwhelming for you – even if they seem totally normal or doable for other people.

For example, the other day my husband and I went to an arts and food festival in our home town. Our town is not that big so I figured it wouldn’t be that crowded. I was wrong. It was packed, hot, and too many things going on at once. There was lots of different venues to check out but too many people in the way, all the different smells from the different food stands clashed with each other, and to top it all off, there was a marching band. A day that I was looking forward too such much quickly became overwhelming and distressing. I was too hot, it was too loud, and I was ready to leave in less than thirty minutes. We left and I spent the rest of the day exhausted and on the couch. I was so upset with myself for ruining the day for my husband. Luckily for me, he is pretty great and understanding. He had no problem leaving.

Sometimes you just have to put your hands up and walk away from the situation. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just work differently from others. Accept yourself and get someone in your corner to back you up and support you (chances are you already have one or a few).

For more information on the highly-sensitive trait, I strongly encourage you to pick up the book and head over to Dr. Aron’s website, The Highly Sensitive Person.

I do not own or claim any rights to the information posted here. All information is directly taken from or paraphrased from Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person.

Farewell & may your life never cease to be filled with wonder and curiosity.

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