My Personal Journey as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
I wasn't sure when I'd decide to write this post, but I feel the time has come after the week we have had here in Texas.
Texas was hit by Winter Storm Uri this past week. Power outages, water outages, freezing temperatures, and a lack of resources pushed Texans into a state of struggling to survive without basic needs being met (food, water, shelter, warmth).
This storm ironically hit only a week after I was quoted by Maryn Liles in an article for Parade.com on discussing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (the article can be read here). As I researched for and wrote this article, I found myself skimming past the lowest tier of the pyramid: basic human needs. These basic needs are luxuries that I have had access to throughout my life and haven't had to think twice about 95% of the time. Yet here I was this past week struggling to make it through without my basic needs being met. As I type this, I still don't have running water. It's worth noting that I'm one of the lucky ones.
This has prompted me to engage my own vulnerability. This has forced perspective into me that I didn't know I was lacking. This has also created a greater sense of love and appreciation for those around me who have reached out with comfort. I had my first shower after a week yesterday at my friend's house, and I've never loved her (or a shower) more.
With that preface, I'd like to share about the reflection this sparked for me in regards to my experience as an HSP:
Growing up, I had constant stomach aches. I was a worrier. I struggled with anxiety daily. My elementary school kept a large bottle of chewable antacids in the office with my name on it due to my frequent visits. At home, I sought comfort and quiet in hiding under my parents bed. I found my own little "magic garden" around the side of our house with rocks to gather and hold and a space that was my secret. I wrote in my diary often. I created elaborate fantasies in my head and let my imagination run wild.
I dreaded carnivals, festivals, concerts, and crowds. I got motion sickness constantly in cars and felt shame for it. I struggled to sleep over at friend's houses due to the different smells, textures, sounds, and change of environment. If I did sleep over at a friend's house, I always felt I needed a shower and change of clothes when I got home to wash off their house's "smell." I was very particular about the way my socks needed to line up just right in my shoes. I wouldn't wear shoes unless there was enough space for me to lift and separate my toes. I changed my clothes a lot during the day if I was home when I needed a shift in texture or if I began to smell sweaty from playing. I had a loud voice and projected it often, leaving me with a sore throat by the end of a day. I struggled to watch movies or TV if the lighting in the room wasn't right or the volume was too quiet or too loud. I startled easily. Despite it tasting delicious, smells of certain foods my mom would cook made me feel nauseas, especially if the smell lingered in the air. I cried secretly on behalf of kids who I saw being bullied or homeless people I'd see on the street. I cried and journaled from feeling the pain of others from seeing the news or hearing about crimes being committed.
I have been called "sensitive," "hard to please," and "emotional." I constantly sought solace in my own thoughts and the comfort of my own space. I struggled sharing my bed or space with friends or family when they came over or stayed the night. I always thought I was different, overly-anxious, and too difficult of a person. I assumed I truly was "hard to please."
As I navigated young adulthood through various friendships, romantic relationships, jobs, and moves to different cities, I began to notice some patterns. As I became more independent and was able to make all of my own decisions, I chose to really get to know myself. I moved into my own apartment for the first time and I created my space in my home just the way I liked it. My anxiety lessened. My nerves eased. My sensitivities also presented less and less. I was happier, but still felt different.
It wasn't until graduate school when I came across the term "HSP" that my entire life changed. I began reading every single book Elaine Aron had written and researched everything I could find on the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait (the original name). I felt extremely VALIDATED. There were others like me. I found forums and resources to connect with other Highly Sensitive People and Highly Sensitive Therapists. I began discussing and sharing about the trait in my graduate school classes since it wasn't part of the curriculum. I learned that over 50% of clients who seek therapy tend to be HSP and may not realize. I started to reflect on my childhood and my past and saw it more clearly. I realized that I wasn't broken. I'm Highly Sensitive. I'm highly tuned in.
What is High Sensitivity really? This is not a mental health diagnoses or disorder. It is simply a personality trait that we are born with. You can be an introvert or an extrovert and still be a HSP. In short, it's a heightening of the 5 basic senses: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Yes, this also presents as being emotionally or mentally sensitive. But not for everyone. There is a big misunderstanding among people about this trait. The title itself has the word "sensitive" in it and this commonly creates the assumption that HSPs get their feelings hurt very easily. While this may be true for some HSPs (just like any other person), we aren't as delicate as you may think. Click here to learn more about the Highly Sensitive Person.
Through my own research, I began to make sense of my childhood "quirks" and needs. For example, I now know that smell is one of my most sensitive senses. Large crowds filled with body odor, food, and cigarette smoke overwhelm me. In a car, I not only tend to feel a bit claustrophobic (which puts me on edge), but all of my senses are peaked depending on the car I'm in: the smell of the car, the temperature inside the car and outside, the taste and smell of the air, the physical movement that I can't anticipate, the volume or genre of the music, my equilibrium is off and extra sensitive, and even the texture of the seat cushion and seatbelt constriction. It makes sense why I get so easily motion sickness. My senses are just sensitive, damnit! :)
I had another realization about my desire for physical space (both literally and metaphorically). Before I learned how to cater to my sensitivity and limit the amount I absorb from the energies of others, I would get extremely exhausted from being around other people. I was constantly absorbing their emotions, feelings, energy and vibes. I would get worn out after lots of socializing and need to recharge much longer than some of my peers. My constant stomach aches and worrying while at school became clear. I was tuned in to everyone else's energies, the weird smells of school, the noise in the classroom, the temperature inside or outside...and overwhelmed by it all. The mind/body connection caused me to feel pain in my stomach and tension in my body.
I have even started to notice how often I tend to escalate and push the volume of my voice. I noticed my tendencies to chime in during class in graduate school to fill the silence or to jump in and share a suggestion or story when I felt nobody else would in social settings. I was fulfilling duties that nobody asked me to fulfill simply because I was so tuned in. This wore me down over the years. I didn't know how to set my own boundaries with my sensitivities or how to properly prepare before and recover after stimulating experiences.
The HSP is highly intuitive, whether they want to be or not. This means they pick up on the emotions and needs of others and can sense very small shifts in their environment. This also means the HSP is tuned in to their senses and any inch of stimulation in their surroundings is heightened. As children, HSPs begin absorbing the emotions of those around them and their senses are on high alert before their cognitive development has even caught up. This can present as irritability, frustration, anxiety, tantrums, crying spells, high levels of energy, clinginess, neediness, and more.
As our natural human development progresses, these different shifts adapt along with us. That's why an HSP teen may naturally desire more independence just like any other teen and longer hours of sleep developmentally. The HSP teen may also NEED more solitude, rest, recharge time, and reminders that their feelings are valid compared to a non-HSP teen.
As teens and young adults, the HSP typically has more capacity for overwhelm and has a higher level of resilience when it comes to recovering from highly stimulating situations. However, this is a very personal experience and is different from person to person.
An HSP adult may begin turning to drugs or alcohol to adapt with their peers. I used to drink more heavily in order to socialize in my college years and 20s. The alcohol enabled me to be in large crowds with loud noise and not feel overwhelmed. As an HSP, I've also always been very sensitive to substances (even over the counter medications). It didn't take much for me to feel the alcohol when I drank. I was able to "enjoy" crowds alongside everyone else. It seemed to lower my attuned superpowers so I wasn't constantly taking in everything around me. I could simply tune it all out. It granted me tunnel vision. Was this healthy? Absolutely not. Did I know what the alcohol was serving? Not at all. But it solved the problem temporarily. I was able to disguise myself enough to fit in with everyone else by being in those social settings. My anxiety, on the other hand, would sky-rocket when drinking, and I didn't always make the greatest decisions or react rationally in my interpersonal relationships. Reflecting back and understanding myself better now, I feel compassion for myself. I didn't know then what I know now and I was searching for a solution.
Present day, I rarely choose to drink. I'm too sensitive to it and feel it very heavily the next day (even one glass of wine). I now choose to remain attuned and practice creating my own boundaries so I can navigate life without the added anxiety alcohol created. I no longer fear my sensitivities.
As an HSP therapist, I specialize in working with HSP clients. I help my clients make small shifts where they can in their day to day life to create a greater sense of ease and lessen overwhelm. I assist clients in giving themselves permission to choose their needs first. The HSP often adapts into a people-pleaser, a fixer, a caretaker, or a helper. Clients often present to me with resentment toward their sensitivities. I help my clients embrace their gift and nurture it. Once we process our childhood attachment wounds and traumas, we can make the shifts we needed as children and reparent ourselves. This enables us to live an integrated and meaningful life alongside our sensitivities.
What I do now: In my day to day, I make sure to recharge adequately so I can show up for those I care about. I say no when I need to and I don't resent myself for it. I make my plans with intention instead of trying to keep up with my non-HSP peers. If I have a long eventful weekend, I make sure to rest the day prior and the day after. I treasure my home as my safe haven where I go for a refresh. I nurture my inner HSP child when she needs nurturing. I pull in my intuitive radar when in social settings so as not to absorb everything from everyone else and get overwhelmed. I validate my emotions, my heightened senses, and I cater to them all whenever possible. I communicate my needs to those I have relationships with and set realistic expectations.
Remember: We cannot pour from an empty cup. As a therapist, it is absolutely crucial that I follow this mantra or I wouldn't be able to do my job. I don't always do it well, but this last week in Texas without basic needs was a crucial wakeup call for me. In order to continue on this career path, I have to choose myself first. Always.
Whether you are an HSP or not, it's your job (and your job only) to figure out how to fill your own cup and nurture yourself. Therapy can help with that. Maybe it's time you got started?
You may wonder if there is any parallel to Autism? The biggest differentiator here is that HSPs are very much socially attuned (sometimes more than they want to be) where those on the spectrum struggle with social cues. Read more on this topic of Autism and HSP parallels.
Wanting more? A wonderful resources for learning more about the Highly Sensitive Person personality trait: www.highlysensitiverefuge.com
Thanks for reading,