I’ve never been easygoing. Not uptight exactly. Not high strung. Just not a dance through the tulips without a care kind of gal.
Now this is not to say that I’m a stick in the mud. No, I am a big fan of fun, laughter, and all manner of silliness when the opportunity arises (as my 4 year old will attest). But between romps through happy land, it's been suggested (alternately as a compliment and criticism), that I err on the side of ‘intense’. This is not by choice mind you. Intensity has not served me especially well over the years, and given a chance for a do-over, I’d certainly opt to come back as Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde over say, Cate Blanchett in just about anything (riveting as her intensity always is—and I am a huge fan).
Life has just always felt intense to me. The good, the rotten, even the seemingly innocuous, manages to power right through to my core with something akin to laser like precision. According to my mother, this is how I came into the world—feeling everything very deeply, and taking it all very personally. No protective coating. No psychic safety suit. And in this often prickly world, that’s a whole lot of “Ouch!”
Now I’ve done my share of work to lessen this intensity, all its many expressions and manifestations. There is no alternative modality, therapy, spiritual or contemplative practice that I have not at some point given my all to, no theory I’ve not explored, no book addressing the subject–even peripherally–that I’ve not cracked, all in an attempt to lighten, soften, and just generally create a little more ease around my existence. And my efforts have not entirely been in vain. I am indeed a few shades sunnier than in years past, but alas, I am still a far cry from the lighthearted lass I long to be.
Now, I know I’m not alone with my unwitting ‘intensity’, so if you’re reading this and thinking, “hmm, this sounds a bit like me”, then the first piece of good news is that there is a name (and hope!) for the likes of us: Highly Sensitive People. Yes, this is a real thing! High Sensitivity is in fact an official psychological category (Sensory Processing Sensitivity being the scientific term), thanks to the groundbreaking work of research psychologist, and the author of Highly Sensitive People, Dr. Elaine Aron.
As I learned from the recently released film Sensitive: The Untold Story, High Sensitivity is not a disorder or condition but rather an innate temperament trait, possessed, it is estimated, by 20% of the population (that’s 1.4 billion worldwide, so take heart fellow HSPs, we’re in good—or at least intense—company!). As it happens, I found this on the website of Alanis Morissette (the Grammy winning musician and fellow HSP, who happens to be a stellar source of inspired info and resources). And she is hardly the only well known sensitive soul, as you will find at theHighly Sensitive and Creative website.
In an interview where she explains this trait to the other less (though not ‘in’ sensitive) 80%, Dr. Aron describes High Sensitivity as “a survival strategy that involves being more aware of your surroundings, processing and thinking about it more deeply, and being more emotional, emotionally responsive, having more empathy and more sensitivity to subtleties. It also comes along with being easily over stimulated”.
Now, before you poo poo this as sham psychology (as even I did when I first learned about it), this is a well researched—as in brain studies and genetic analyses—condition. At Medical Daily I learned about some research that explains a bit about the neuroscience of High Sensitivity.
“People are genetically predisposed to their sensitivity”, finds a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Your genes may influence how sensitive you are to emotional information, according to new research by a UBC neuroscientist. The study, recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that carriers of a certain genetic variation perceived positive and negative images more vividly, and had heightened activity in certain brain regions.
“People really do see the world differently,” says lead author Rebecca Todd, a professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology. “For people with this gene variation, the emotionally relevant things in the world stand out much more.”
“Emotions are not only about how we feel about the world, but how our brains influence our perception of it,” says Adam Anderson, professor of human development at Cornell University and senior author of the study. “As our genes influence how we literally see the positive and negative aspects of our world more clearly, we may come to believe the world has more rewards or threats.”
A very eloquent Sarah Dolliver puts it into more everyday terms: “Sights, smells, sounds, touches and tastes all come through at heightened levels.” She further explicates: “Sensitive” does not refer to our emotions. All too often, HSPs are thought to be emotionally sensitive. That’s a mistake. The nature of the sensitivity is not around emotions. Emotions can become part of the equation, though. When an HSP is overstimulated by their sensory experiences, it is quite easy to get to an emotional edge where breakdowns or outbursts occur.”
It is at once reassuring, validating, and weirldly upsetting to find out that the thing that has so plagued me throughout my life is in fact an inborn trait vs. a personal failing. If only I’d had the knowledge and the language to explain this from the get go! The heartache, conflicts, and self-excoriation I could have saved myself. All those years of beating myself up for not ‘just being normal’. But now I know: I am not crazy. I am not Hyper-sensitive. I am not flawed. I am simply hard wired for high sensitivity. Sigh.
For some helpful tips on how to manage the day to day of HSP-ness, please check out The Weight of Mortal Skin: Part 2!