A Highly-Sensitive Person Goes Birding

Beaver with mouthful of seaweed v3 (640x414)

Beaver with a mouthful of aquatic plants for a mid-day snack. (Click to enlarge)

I want to tell you about a conversation I had with a stranger yesterday while I was out birding. To understand the significance of it, you need to know that one of the things I experience as an HSP is an above-average sensitivity to sudden and/or loud noises.  I know that most people will be startled by a sudden noise –like a car backfiring — but I have problems with things most other people don’t even seem to notice. Movie theaters are a good example: At a movie with my husband last week, I had to cover my ears for much of it because the sound was so loud I couldn’t concentrate on what the actors were saying. It felt like it vibrated to the core of my body, jangling every last nerve to the point that I felt like running away. And it wasn’t even an action movie. (You’d think I would have learned to take earplugs to the theater by now!)

This kind of response to noise is common among HSPs; we can be so overstimulated by the way the sound feels that we can’t focus on anything except getting away from the source of it. It’s one of those things that can be a minor or major problem, depending on the particular situation. Luckily, birding isn’t usually a noisy activity. Unless you’re watching a big flock of Canada Geese or Sandhill Cranes, that is. 🙂

Can you believe this pair nests here every year, right beside a shooting range?

Can you believe this Osprey pair nests here every year, right beside a shooting range?

But there’s a section of our favorite metropark that’s located next to a gun club, and when we go there to enjoy nature, we’re also bombarded by the sudden and loud sounds of frequent gunshots. Despite knowing that there’s a fence between us and the guns, and that they’re shooting at targets and not at us walking in the woods, I find myself tensing up at every shot, waiting for the bullet to hit me.  Not a very pleasant place to bird. And that gun club is the reason we avoided this part of the park for years.Sign for trail closing due to eagle nest

But as I got more into birding and wanted to find more birds, I finally forced myself to “get over it” and go there occasionally. After all, there’s a way cool Osprey nest on the cell tower there, and now there’s also a Bald Eagle nest there too. (I wrote about the “secret” Bald Eagle nest a couple posts back, but since then the park has put up signs about it so it’s no longer secret. They’ve also blocked off parts of the trail to protect the birds.)

Anyway, here’s the conversation I had yesterday with a stranger I met on the trail right beside the gun club fence. We said hello and then this:

Him: I’m going out to see the eagles…there’s supposed to be a nest out here somewhere.

Me: Yes, there is.

Him: I’m out here all the time and I didn’t even know about it. I’m a club member next door (indicates the gun club on the adjacent property).

Me: Yeah, they’ve blocked the trail off to protect the eagles, but you can see the nest from across the pond. (Then I told him where to stand and which direction to look to see it.)

Him: Ok.

Then we exchanged a few more words about the Osprey nest nearby, then said goodbye. A few steps later I turned around and we had this further conversation:

Me: Excuse me…do you know if there’s any particular day or time when there’s no shooting going on at the club? I’d like to be able to come see the birds without the sound of gunshots.

Him: (Proceeds to tell me which days they have certain shooting events…which I didn’t care about, then he finally says that there’s no shooting on Tuesdays.)

Me: Oh, good! I wish I’d asked about that years ago…

Him: It’s not that much shooting, really. They’re just target shooting behind the fence…

Me: Oh I know, but it just bothers me. I find it sort of jarring and not conducive to enjoying nature.

Him (looking at me oddly, or is that in my imagination?): I guess I’m just used to it. [Pause] Well there’s less shooting now because nobody can find any ammo…. (He then tried to have a conversation with me about why they’re hoarding their ammo when they can find it, and how the government is trying to take their guns, etc. I extricated myself from that as politely and quickly as possible and went on my way. It was a beautiful day and I was there for birding, not politics.)

I wanted to tell you this story because at the point when I told him I found the sound of gunshots “jarring,” I found myself feeling like there was something wrong with me because I had to make a big deal about something that most people seem to accept without much fuss. And that self-criticism about being sensitive is something I really don’t like. It’s not like I’m choosing to feel the noise of the guns all the way to my bones — it’s just the way it is. I can’t change the way my nerves send signals to my brain, can I?

So why do I feel I have to apologize for trying to avoid things that make me uncomfortable like that? I think it’s because our culture has such a strong prejudice toward extroverts that we’re all conditioned, throughout our lives, to think that our sensitivities are abnormal. I guess since HSPs only make up about 15-20% of the population, we are probably technically “abnormal.” But you know what I mean, right?

But we’re judged enough by the non-HSPs around us, and we need to not judge ourselves so harshly on top of that. There’s nothing wrong with arranging your life the way you like it, and that includes avoiding things that upset you and allowing time to recuperate after an event that overstimulates your nervous system. No matter what anyone else says or thinks about our sensitivities, we need to honor our own needs before we can be of any use to anyone else in our lives. Remember the emergency instructions the flight attendants give us before each flight? “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting anyone else.”

As I write this I feel like I’m giving a speech — standing on my soapbox, so to speak. But it is what it is. I’m feeling braver about talking about HSP issues since so many of you have sent me comments and subscribed recently. (By the way, thanks for all the lovely comments on my “About Me” page last week.) But even so, I’ve edited this post over and over for days, not really sure what I wanted to admit publicly, and I keep hesitating when I’m almost ready to publish it. But you know what, I’m going to be brave right now and send my thoughts out to the blogosphere. If even one person is helped by my perspective, then I can tolerate the judgment of all the rest. (That feels really good to say!)

Now, where are those birds?

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5 Responses to A Highly-Sensitive Person Goes Birding

  1. Littlesundog says:

    You know me Kim, I feel the same way about noise. In fact, almost ALL of the time I can hear high-pitched electrical noises all around. I’ve learned to tune some of it out, but the only way to truly get away from it is to spend time outdoors. I appreciate you putting into words just how I feel, especially when it comes to how the majority of the population responds to HSP’s and even introverted people. I think it’s important to listen, learn and respect others for their situation and needs… not so much to expect the lessor percentage to conform to the majority. It’s about appreciating everyone and having understanding and compassion. Great post, Kim!

    • Kim says:

      I agree, Lori, we definitely need more compassion in this world for minorities of all kinds.

      Hearing electrical noises all around you must be rough, but I’m glad you can tune it out most of the time. I find myself being distracted by the sounds of traffic often when I’m in the woods — of course “the woods” are never too far from roads around here. I absolutely love going to places like Yellowstone where you can really get away from ALL sounds of civilization for a while. Those places are becoming much harder to find in the modern world, and I find that so sad.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, Kim! I don’t have as much trouble with noise as you do, but I am like that with smells. And trying to explain to people why a smell is bothering me when they can’t even smell anything is very frustrating. I’m glad you were able to discover a day you can go birding at that location without the background noise.

    • Kim says:

      Kristie, I have the problem with smells too. I avoid candle shops like the plague, and being stuck in an elevator with someone wearing strong perfume or cologne is sure to give me a migraine. Luckily for me, I don’t have to be in elevators much at all anymore. ~Kim

  3. Robin Hicks says:

    I am so glad you took the chance to explain your true feelings. I can’t tell you how much your site has helped me and I have just signed up. I have been extremely sensitive to noise all my life and have had to avoid it but at the same time feel very isolated because of it. It’s very frustrating, but like you, can’t help it. Not only do I have HSP but I am also an introvert. Maybe the two just go hand in hand. I feel like you are speaking directly to me and just letting me know I am not alone and there are others of us out there. Thank you Kim for being so open! Robin

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