Not too long ago, my husband and I were watching The Lorax on DVD. By the time we reached the ending, I was in tears. I kid you not. “What’s wrong?” my perplexed husband asked me, as I reached for the tissue box. “It’s only a movie!”
It dawned upon me later that if an anti-consumerist, pro-environmentalist kids’ movie can reduce me to tears...I guess I really am more sensitive than the average person. After all, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “You’re too sensitive!” Similar variations of the same theme include: “Come on, toughen up!” or “You need thicker skin!” or my all-time favourite, “Man up!” As though being a woman is something that needs, you know, rectifying.
For someone who’s been on the receiving end of said statements, discovering Dr Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive People (HSP) felt like an epiphany. I discovered Elaine Aron, the author of The Highly Sensitive Person, on an off-chance google search. It was such a relief to discover a genetic basis to my sensitivity - 15 to 20% of the population are also Highly Sensitive People, like me. And, believe it or not, my sensitivity is something that could be valued in a different kind of culture. In my excitement, I went on a Highly Sensitive Book Binge, and purchased her books on The Highly Sensitive Child, The Highly Sensitive Boy, and the Highly Sensitive Person in Love.
As HSPs, we’re more easily bombarded by external stimuli, things that non-HSPs don’t even blink an eye at. Many of us have a sensitivity to caffeine, prefer quiet restaurants to louder venues, and race in and out of loud shopping centres to escape the noise. We also tend to avoid watching violent movies, because it’s too distressing. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we go out with non-HSP friends, who are unfazed by what we perceive as an overabundance of stimuli. Thankfully, it’s good to know that Dr Aron says such positive things about HSPs - being one herself, she can definitely relate to the frustrations that come with being inherently sensitive in a world that is often determined to beat it out of us. I felt validated by the scientific research that backs up the fact that HSPs are normal, and our brains simply work differently to non-HSPs. There is a strength that comes from recognising and celebrating our uniqueness.
We live in a world with a bombardment of stimuli, from constant twitter feeds, Facebook updates, to loud TV advertising and garish billboards. There’s always some kind of cognitive overload for a HSP. I spoke to a fellow HSP who is a PhD candidate in a challenging field, and when I asked her how she coped, she gave me a fascinating answer. “That’s easy. I just go into a quiet space inside my head.”
Practising Tai Chi has actually helped me gain that quiet space, where my internal landscape is finally silent. When I practice the different stances, I experience the relief of being out of my busy mind, and into a different zone of a lot more peace.
Things usually get a lot less peaceful with non-HSP confrontations. How many of us HSPs can relate to the nightmare of interacting with a far less sensitive person? Specifically, the more callous variety. You know, the person who just says it as it is, with no filtering mechanism. The one who gasps, “Oh wow, your house is a mess!” on the day when you’ve been just too tired to clean up. The one who says, “You look awful!” on the day where you’ve been feeling more run down.
Encounters with these non-HSPs feels like scrubbing your skin raw with a steel mesh scourer. In the interest of not being offended by the majority of the population, I’ve learned the importance of balancing out my innate sensitivity. Maybe the non-HSP really didn’t mean it that way. Maybe she really thought she was being funny. Or maybe I was feeling a little more vulnerable than usual. It’s self-defeating to have a grudge against 80% of the population, especially when, in my case, you’re married to a non-HSP.
Dr Aron is also married to a non-HSP. Like her, I’m learning to navigate the journey of marriage to someone who is fundamentally very different to me in terms of sensitivity. My husband can have a busy day at work, head home, and then be happy to head out to visit friends. I, on the other hand, prefer a quiet night with a book after a day of working on my writing projects. We compromise by making sure we have at least a few days of down-time at home. My husband can knock back a few cups of coffee during the day. If I have a skim mocha in the afternoon, I can’t sleep till one in the morning. We compromise by saving coffee for special occasions. When we watch movies, my husband watches quite tranquilly, whereas I’m all kinds of emotional. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s said, “It’s just a movie.” I’ve stopped trying to explain that to me, it’s not that simple, I’m emotionally invested and affected by everything around me, including what I watch on TV. So I stick to cartoons and comedies, and he watches kung fu movies on his own.
The beauty, and the challenge, of marrying someone on the opposite spectrum, is that there’s plenty of opportunities for growth for both of us. My husband came along to Tai Chi with me, and now we both enjoy it. I tried capoeira for a little while, which was completely out of my comfort zone, because my husband enjoys it. I’m slowly learning to brush things off the way my husband does. Because he’s an interesting blend of a non-HSP who’s higher up on the scale (almost a Highly Sensitive Person but not quite), living with him an exercise in trying new things, but at a pace that I can actually handle.
It’s interesting how Dr Aron encourages HSPs like myself to not give into the temptation of staying at home all day, where it’s safe. She strongly recommends going out there and experiencing what the world has to offer. Otherwise, it’ll get even harder to step outside our comfort zone.
Being a highly sensitive person does have its perks. It’s not all about sensory overload and needing to unwind in a dark corner. We experience the world with more richness and depth, and we see things that other people miss. We make great philosophers, counsellors, musicians, writers and artists. We’re also less likely to say thoughtless and insensitive things that hurt unsuspecting friends, family members, or even strangers. I’d like to think that it’s our sensitivity that makes us kinder people.
There’s always a downside, as with everything. As a HSP, I know that I’m likely to nurse a grudge far longer than necessary. It’s harder for me to have a busy and stimulating day and go out and socialise at night. Certain personalities exhaust me, and I choose to keep a wide berth. I’ve realised that striking a balance is key, because I can’t shut out the world. I can choose to take my down-time, and come out and face the world again.
There’s a nifty self-test on Dr Aron’s website, to help you check if you’re highly sensitive. Give it a shot. You may be surprised. Or maybe, like me, you’ve known it all along.