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. 🙂