Walking Naked Down the Road

Rochester Municipal Park bench and creek w sigI find myself feeling ambivalent lately about how I live with my high sensory processing trait, my HSP-ness, so to speak. Fifteen years ago, when I first read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly-Sensitive Person, it was comforting to discover a label for what I’d experienced my entire life, and it opened my eyes to some ways to adjust my life for the better. I found other HSPs to talk with, signed up for HSP newsletters, and generally spent a lot of time pondering this newly-understood aspect of myself. In recent years, I even made it a big focus of my blog, which drew me into conversations with people who told me they were grateful I’d written about it because it helped them understand themselves or someone they loved. (If you want to read more about what it means to be an HSP, just click that link in the first sentence above.)

With my new knowledge came a boost in my self-confidence. I became more likely to stand up for my needs at home and in social situations, and felt better knowing there are other people in the world who experience life the way I do. I wasn’t alone anymore! For a while it was empowering to embrace the label.

Rural road in Lapeer county with fall foliage w sigBut now I’m struggling with the idea that, perhaps, by spending so much energy reading and writing about high sensitivity I’m actually enabling myself to be more sensitive. If I wear a label on my forehead that says “Hi, I’m an HSP,” that sort of gives me permission to withdraw from social interactions because, well, “everyone knows I’m so sensitive,” so they’ll understand. They won’t question why I rarely join in the birding field trips. They’ll forgive me for skipping the party at the loud restaurant because, you know, “she’s sensitive.”

But sometimes I also think to myself, “Oh, I’m so sick of talking and writing about my sensitivities!” I get occasional glimpses of how I imagine other people see me and I suddenly wish I’d never started writing publicly about such an intimate part of my life. Because putting my heart out here in the world like this has made me incredibly vulnerable. Some days it feels like I’m walking down the road naked, just asking for people to throw (literal and figurative) rocks at me. And, frankly, some people are more than happy to do that.

Leaves floating on water with dappled sunlight and rocksSo how do I draw the line between too much focus on this trait and too little? I can’t deny or ignore such an important part of myself. It impacts every moment of every day, and every interaction I have with another human being. It enriches my life in many ways, but it also means that I feel everything more intensely than most other people do, and therefore I experience more emotional ups and downs during each day than 80% of the population does. Honestly, it’s exhausting just trying to maintain the “invisible shield” that helps protect me from being overwhelmed by the intensity of all the things I see, hear, smell, or feel during each day.

I think all of this internal conflict has resurfaced because of my recent relocation and re-entry into the workforce. I no longer have the luxury of “hiding out” for a few days when I need extra down time, because now I have more responsibilities to other people. And I’m struggling to adjust to lots of things that I thought I’d never have to deal with again, like working in an office with ringing phones and people coming in and out all day long.

So I’m often being pushed beyond my tolerance levels and finding myself unable to get away fast enough. More than once I’ve found myself crying on my drive home just because of the pent-up emotion from a chaotic day. But I’m getting better at it. Lately I’ve been taking short breaks to walk on the nature trail behind our office, and that seems to make a big difference in my ability to cope when things are stressful.

So why am I writing this now? Well, for one thing, writing helps me think things through. But also because, like everyone, one of my deepest longings is for people to see me for who I really am, and to understand me, and to accept me.  I know it’s not realistic to hope that everyone will like me (because I don’t like everyone I meet either), but I think it’s human nature to reach out and try to form meaningful connections with other people. And as difficult as that is for me, I can’t give up trying. It’s essential for my own well-being, and I also feel I owe it to other HSPs to continue my efforts to help our society begin to understand us better. We’re only 20% of the population, but we deserve to be accepted just like any other minority. And we won’t be fully accepted until we’re more widely understood.

And because we HSPs can play a valuable role in the world if we are nurtured rather than scorned, if we are appreciated for our insight and our ability to see things that go unnoticed by a less-attentive majority in this loud-and-busy culture. Did you know that some of the most celebrated leaders in the world were highly-sensitive people? And artists and creative people are often HSPs too. All of these people are or were thought to be highly-sensitive: the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, Alanis Morissette, Barbra Streisand, and, for you Star Wars fans, even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

If I’m even partially like those amazing people, that’s pretty darn good. I feel better now. Even if I am walking naked down the road. 🙂

People Who Need People

That title is a reference to the well-known song sung by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” The line from that song that has always resonated with me is this: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” I’m a bit of a loner and an introvert, tending to spend most of my time alone or with just a couple other people. But even though I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with being this way, I still feel a bit of shame at my inability to be the outgoing, always-on-the-run, busy-busy-busy personality that is more socially acceptable in this country.

Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk
Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk

As an HSP, I have a strong aversion to crowds and noise. Some people are stimulated in a positive way by being around lots of other people, but I have the exact opposite experience. After spending time at a large social function, I usually feel very tired and emotionally drained. We HSPs take in so much more information in any given situation than most people that our brains just get overloaded with stimuli. Because of this, I’ve learned to orchestrate my life so that I have lots of quiet time for recuperation and reflection on my experiences. Knowing all of this, you might wonder why I would voluntarily go to a birding festival where the most popular birding spot is a narrow boardwalk that gets so crowded you sometimes have to push your way between people. (The photo to the left is only a medium-sized crowd — it gets much worse in spots where a really good bird is spotted!)

Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!
Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!

It’s funny though, that because of the beauty and general awesomeness of the birds, I don’t really get as tense as I would somewhere else with the same crowds. Like, for example, if the crowds were that thick at a street art festival, I’d only be able to spend short amounts of time there. But the birds make all the difference. Even though I’m surrounded by throngs of people, my mind is mostly focused on the little flying creatures in the trees.  If you saw me on the Magee boardwalk, you wouldn’t necessarily think that I was any different from anyone else. You’d probably even see me helping other people to see and identify birds; I really do love interacting with people when I can teach or show them something interesting.

This year at the Biggest Week I had a moment where I was struck by something ironic: I’ve always thought birding was a healthy and fun way to avoid people, but I found that my love of birds has begun to bring me closer to people.

My festival name badge
My festival name badge

Like the moment when a complete stranger noticed my name badge and told me she’d read my blog and liked it. Wow, talk about having your mind blown….that was great. One of the most rewarding things someone can say to me is that they read my blog and enjoy it.

There was another moment where my blog started a conversation too. I was on the boardwalk in a very crowded section, trying to catch a glimpse of some warbler (I think it was a Golden-winged…). I exchanged pleasantries with a very well-known birder who began asking me about my HSP trait, telling me she’d read my blog and was curious about it. We had a quiet conversation right in the middle of a huge crowd of people, with people jostling for better vantage points to see the bird. I was so touched by this and made sure to thank her for talking to me about it.

It may sound egotistical, but I believe it’s a core human truth: We all like to know that we’re important, that we make a difference.  This is something I’ve struggled with in recent years because I don’t usually get this kind of feedback in my regular life. I question whether I’m doing anything useful with my life. These moments of connection meant SO much to me. I thought I was okay with my quiet, relatively isolated existence. It’s not that I’m not happy — I am. But my interactions with other bird lovers in the past month have added another dimension to my life, making it richer and more meaningful.

I’m still processing what this all means to me. For example, why have I never felt this type of connection to any other group of people before? What is it about bird people that makes me feel so good? I think it may be our shared concerns for the natural world, the tie that binds all human and animal life together.  Part of me doesn’t want to over-analyze the whole experience, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

After all these years, is it possible I really could be one of the “People Who Need People”?

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.  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 American 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?

Flip-Flop Guy

As I sat in the library waiting for my computer to boot up the other day, I opened the book I’d just picked up from the “New Releases” shelf on my way in. Titled “In Pursuit of Silence,” it was about noise in our society, the reasons for it, and the history behind why we’re so noisy. As I read the first paragraph, a guy in flip-flop sandals walked to the cubicle beside mine and started to unpack his bag. I noticed him mostly because his shoes made such a loud and distracting sound, particularly in the otherwise mostly quiet library.

I chuckled to myself at the irony, and continued reading. A page later, after the flip-flop guy had made two or three noisy trips past me as he settled in, I read this in the introduction:

“I reached a point a couple years ago when I’d had it. I was as tired of hearing myself complain about noise as I was about the noise itself. I was time to do something. I wanted to understand whether my sensitivity to sound and longing for silence was ridiculous….”

Like the author, I’m constantly in search of quiet. I know my sensitivity to sounds is more acute than most people’s, and I really really really wish I could ignore all the things that I find so grating in the world, but it seems to be something hardwired into me. In some ways I feel it’s a disability, because I often avoid places and activities that “normal” people enjoy when I know from experience that I’ll be too preoccupied with the irritations to enjoy myself. That’s the worst part, really. I even skip my beloved weekly knitting group occasionally when I know I can’t deal with the noise of 8 or 10 women all talking at once for 2 hours. Sad, huh?

Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading this book very much.

I’ve had two other instances in life of reading a book and having that moment of realization that there are other people who deal with some of the same issues I do. I know it reeks of self-absorption to say this, but I feel I’m alone in my feelings so much of the time that any chance I have to feel less alone is a reason to celebrate.

Highly Sensitive Person cover imageThe first “aha” moment was about 10 years ago, when I discovered the book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You,” by Dr. Elaine Aron. I actually cried as I found myself not only described perfectly in this book, but was told that my “disabilities” were really wonderful gifts that should be cherished rather than suffered through. And even more importantly, about 15% of the general population is like me in this way. So I’m not alone after all! That book changed my life and I always keep it handy for the times I find myself being overwhelmed by the world.

The second time this happened was only a few weeks ago when I read “Refuse to Choose,” by Barbara Sher. I’ve been frustrated my entire adult life because of my inability to identify a single career path and stick to it like I was “supposed” to. This book labels people like me “scanners”, and puts forth the theory that we’re genetically programmed to be like this, having interest in everything under the sun and wanting to try a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The author, like Dr. Aron, claims that there’s nothing wrong with being like this, and people like me shouldn’t feel pressure or judgment from the rest of society to conform to their idea of what we should do with our lives. Sounds simple, but it was so liberating to hear someone else describe us in such depth and make suggestions for how to live our lives happily.

Our society has lots of words to disparage people like me: “Jack of all trades, master of none”, dabbler, superficial, fickle, shallow, self-indulgent…. and I could go on.  Here’s what the author said about the letters she got upon publication of this book:

“The people who wrote me were unbelievably grateful to hear themselves described in positive terms — usually for the first time. For years they had struggled to understand why they were so different from everyone they knew. They had spent years of their lives bewildered and frustrated. Many had gone to therapists for help but couldn’t follow the program they were given to choose one path and stick to it.”

She goes on to talk about famous people who were Scanners, like Aristotle, Ben Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci. Yes, yes, I think this book will be good for my self-esteem….

I’m not used to baring so much of my soul here (it’s scary), but I hope somebody out there will find something useful in all of this. Who knows, maybe one of you is a “scanner” or a “highly-sensitive person” too, and will be helped by knowing there are others like you out there.