According to Elaine Aron, author of several books on the highly sensitive personality trait, a person who is highly sensitive (or an HSP for short):
- is more aware of subtle changes in the environment than others
- is more easily bothered by intense stimuli: loud noises, scratchy clothes, strong smells
- is affected more deeply by everything, especially emotional events, including beautiful music or stunning scenery
- is typically conscientious
- easily senses the emotions of others and is good at picking up subtle body language and facial expressions
- has difficulty when pulled in too many directions at once (can you say, life of a homeschooling mother? )
- often wants to retreat into quiet spaces to regroup
- has a rich and complex inner thought life
- as a group, are more often introverted, creative, and/or gifted (of course not all HSPs are these things, but many are)
If you are highly sensitive, you’ve often known it for a long time. You’ve been told you were “too sensitive” growing up, or struggled with the intensity of sounds and number of people in school, didn’t like many foods or when your sweaters itched or your socks had that funny line in the wrong place. You could tell your mother was mad just by walking into the room she was in, and you knew immediately that your friend was hiding something even though she said she was fine and no one else saw anything wrong. Sensitivity can also increase in our later years, so things that didn’t bother you at 30 may bother you now at 49. If you are unsure about being an HSP and would like to find out, here is a self-test for “HSPness” developed by Aron based on empirical research on the trait.
How does this play out in my own life?
I’ve been sensitive for as long as I can remember. As a child, I couldn’t stand the lines on socks, or turtlenecks, or polyester, or foods with strange textures or smells. I felt the emotions of people in my family strongly and often internalized them. I would cry at the drop of a hat over things that others could brush off. I was often told I was “too sensitive.”
Now, I have outgrown most of the food issues but still can’t stand chunks of fruit in yogurt or ice cream (I’m gagging just writing that). Smells bother me quickly – this improves my mediocre housekeeping skills, but also drives me nuts when it’s a smell I can’t remove, like when someone is mowing the lawn nearby, or when the smell of the cleaner is irritating me as much or more than the smell I was trying to get rid of.
Certain clothes still bother me, and I can’t stand to wear fleece or anything too polyester-y. If my socks are poly-cotton, I’ll feel weird by the end of the day. (Weird being the technical term.) Clothes have to fit just right.
I have sensitive skin, I can’t stand to hear people chew too loudly, and I crave, but don’t get, copious amounts of time to be quiet and alone.
I startle easily and tire more easily after any day that isn’t peaceful and quiet (read: most days). I am still moved to tears quickly, but am better than I was when younger. I’ve learned to stuff down those feelings to prevent embarrassment — I’m not sure that was ultimately wise.
I think my biggest trigger is noise, and after being talked at all day long, in addition to the normal noises of a full household, my ears physically hurt. Being constantly interrupted is particularly jarring, and is something we are working on fervently here. Four girls do a lot of talking, and my son especially feels he needs to just start talking whenever he feels like it to have any chance of being heard.
I can force myself to endure any and all of these things, but it’s at a cost to my health and sanity when it goes on for to long without self-care.
For years I had thought that self-care was selfish at worst, optional at best. Now that I find myself perpetually burnt out and exhausted, I realize how off base that really is. I think we know we are to be sacrificial as mothers, and us HSPs take that to heart, and to extremes. I’m slowly learning, day by day, to embrace my sensitivity and that of my family members, and to help others understand and love me for who I truly am, sensitivity and all.
How does sensitivity play out in your life? I’d love to hear about it.