"SENSITIVITY" IS NOT A DIRTY WORD: The Highly Sensitive Person
Updated: Sep 20
My friend’s son sees colors on a hypersensitive spectrum. When he pointed out and described subtle shades in one of the testing photos, I was surprised to learn that not everybody can see these things, because they were as clear to me as the difference between hues on a stoplight.
My hypersensitivity is such that I have been described as a “long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Loud noises, bright lights, sudden movements all startle me. I am the cartoon cat hanging by its claws from the ceiling, shivering. In martial arts, I’ve asked training partners to pleeeeease help bomb-proof me by purposely throwing light punches between my eyes or playing the Pink Panther Kato in the hopes of dulling my hypersensitive flinch response.
My standard experience of feeling sad is what others call grieving. My experience of joy is what others call ecstasy. My anger is rage and my embarrassment is mortification.
I am a Highly Sensitive Person.
It’s called HSP for short, but because “sensitive” has become even more of a dirty word than it was when I was growing up, some people prefer SPS - Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Of course, that one gets confused with Sensory Processing Disorder, so other people don’t like that one either.
Whatever you prefer to call it, here's an overview:
So there you have it.
Being an HSP is not a disorder. It’s not a disease. It is not a bad habit. It is certainly not a choice. I have as much capacity to control and change my sensitivity as I have over the color and texture of hair that spouts from my head. Sure, I can dye it, perm it, tuck it under a hat. I can even buzz it all off. But within a few days those natural tresses are going to sprout across my skull.
The biggest thing it is not?
Something that needs to be “fixed” or eliminated.
I have been told all my life that I need to “toughen up” and “grow a thicker skin.” The most common disparaging labels that have been slapped on me are:
How about this:
—In touch with my emotions and those of others
—Gifted with acute instincts about my environment
—Mentally agile & flexible
Quite a different perspective, isn’t it? After nearly half a century of having that first list hurled and hissed at me, I battle every day to view myself through this second lens. If you're maligned often enough by countless people around you, and if those who are customarily most supportive even use some of those words, it’s pretty hard not to believe it.
Yet somewhere inside me, I never truly did. I have always known that these traits were valuable. In fact, when it comes to the success and survival of the human species, I’d call them just as crucial as the more steady, solid, easygoing traits.
Time after time, therapists or friends, teachers and family members, well-meaning people trying to help me figure out these “issues” have assessed me with having low self-esteem. “You don’t value yourself,” they say.
It’s not that I don’t think I’m VALUABLE. I have come to understand that much of society does not VALUE what I bring to the table, because it doesn’t come in the handily familiar or acceptable package of the majority. It's not delivered in a 30 second sound bite or at max a 3 minute coffee break. I also don't swim on the surface. Not in person, and certainly not in my arts, but that seems to be the norm these days.
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HSPs only make up 15-20% of the population. (EDIT: We're beginning to suspect my inborn hypersensitivity is only one piece of a much broader range of neurodivergence that has gone undiagnosed all my life. But I'm female, I have early childhood trauma, my obsessions aren't mathematical or scientific, and I'm a heavy masker--lifelong actress, duh.)
Now add Moderate Traumatic Brain Injury to this. (1)
And cPTSD. (2)
The qualities of light and sound sensitivity, sensory overload, mental and emotional fatigue, the need to rest, reboot, be alone, sleep, have a lot of silence, difficulties with concentration and stamina, multitasking…these HSP traits were already exacerbated by childhood trauma and college age domestic violence. Then they got boosted to mass proportion with my four brain traumas.
So which are the most detrimental TBI symptoms when it comes to being a productive HSP in a world designed for the other 80-85%?
--Exacerbated sensory overload symptoms like seizures and blackouts
--Needing frequent rest, recuperation and rebooting of my brain
--Having to single-task and take my time with things
--The days I'm incapable of emotional and mental compartmentalization
--Difficulties with controlling emotional expression
--Verbal communication period
--The inability to speak professionally without profanity
You know that friend who “has zero filter”? Yeah, on my glitchy days, that’s me. It’s way better than it used to be, because that’s another neurological mountain I have made it my priority to scale.
But the toll it takes on me to zip my lips, to contain my Jim Carey-esque expressiveness, my intermittent involuntary profanity, and the overwhelming emotions that have always been too big for this little body?
Because I'm not just an HSP. Oh, no, I have to go all hyper-intensive overboard about being an HSP. I have multiple types of neurological sensitivity:
Because of this, I have said for many years that it's much like I have multiple people crammed into one body, and we're all vying for the time, energy, focus, and control of the hands and mouth.
Alas, I do not possess a set of fully synchronized clones, one for each personality facet. Instead, we have to take turns. And to be brave enough to let the full spectrum shine OutThere in a world that says I'm simultaneously "too much" and "never enough."
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: A MULTIPOTENTIALITE HSP - I Am Not a Specializer - In Anything
--OR: All my writing about Neurodivergence & Hypersensitivity
--OR: All my writing about Traumatic Brain Injury