Recently I was trying to explain to my boyfriend why I have such a strong aversion to violence and gore in TV shows and movies.
It’s not that I’m some delicate flower who can’t face the harsh realities of the world, I tried to say. It’s that I literally feel these things. When I see someone get shot or stabbed, I experience physical pain. When I see blood, even fake blood, I feel like I’m bleeding.
As I said these words, I felt frustrated, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making any sense, and partly because I wondered whether I really was a delicate flower and just didn’t want to admit it.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my unusual sensitivity extends far beyond on-screen violence. In real life, if someone is in physical pain–whether from a gaping wound or a simple sore throat–I feel it. Heck, if someone is in emotional pain, I feel that, too, even if they’re trying their best to disguise it. I soak up the vibes of those around me like a sponge.
Well, folks, it turns out that there’s a psychological term for this stuff. I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which author Susan Cain discusses scientific, historical, and sociological perspectives on introversion and provides advice on how introverts can leverage their unique strengths. I just finished a particularly interesting chapter pertaining to a personality trait that is often associated with introversion: high sensitivity.
When I first heard this term, I kind of brushed it off, probably because I envisioned a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who loves babies and puppies and cries every time he or she watches The Notebook. But according to Dr. Elaine Aron, a California-based psychotherapist and leading researcher in high sensitivity, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) affects 15-20% of the population (including some extroverts) and has as much to do with responsiveness to physical stimuli as to emotional stimuli. And the more I learned about the trait, the more I thought, Oh my goodness, this is me. And I’ve never even shed a tear during The Notebook.
On her website, Aron offers a quick self-assessment to gauge if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. As I went down the checklist, I couldn’t believe how many of the items I was able to tick off (including, of course, “Other people’s moods affect me” and “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”). A few other examples:
“I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.” Some of my most vivid early memories involve unpleasant sensory experiences. Once upon a time, I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to purchase a sparkly Little Mermaid costume from the Disney Store–only to find that the sequins sewn all over the outfit made it unbearably itchy, and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Another time, I participated in a day camp in which members of a local high school dance team taught us some simple steps and then led us in a performance during halftime of one of the school’s basketball games. I was so excited to show off my moves–until the other participants and I filed into the gym and the noise from the crowd, the court, and the speakers nearly knocked me off my feet. My hands flew to my ears for protection, and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. I hated that I wanted to cry, but everything just felt so incredibly loud that I could barely stand it. Luckily, some of these sensitivities have lessened a bit over the years, but others remain. For example, I sleep with both earplugs and an eye mask because apparently even at night, the world can be too bright and loud for my liking.
“I have a rich, complex inner life.” You may have heard of “resting b*tch face”; I have “resting zoned out face” because, as I mentioned in my last post, I tend to get lost in the La La Land of my own thoughts. If you’re talking to me, I’m listening intently, but the minute the discussion stops, farewell, friend! I’m off to another dimension. My vivid imagination is a blessing as well as a curse, because the same creativity that enables me to dream up new and exciting ideas also allows me to think of every possible bad thing that could happen, ever. But either way, there’s always a lot going on up there.
“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” It’s a good thing that I’ve been able to slowly adapt to louder and louder noises over the years, because one of my favorite things to do is attend concerts. (I still try to avoid being right up near the speakers, though, and it often takes me quite a while to wind down after such sensory overload.) Music isn’t just a fun diversion for me, it’s practically a spiritual experience. The right song at the right moment (or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” anytime) can easily give me goosebumps, bring me to tears, or both.
“Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.” This is SUCH a first-world problem that I’m trying to overcome, but I am literally the reason why “hangry” became a word. So out of concern for those around me, I pretty much always have a granola bar with me just in case.
“When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” Just ask anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat when I’m trying to park a car. Or sometimes even turn on a car. It’s bad, guys.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
As you can probably tell, I love learning about personality, temperament, and what makes people “tick,” especially when it provides valuable insight into my own thoughts and experiences. For example, studying introversion has helped me to better understand how to take care of myself and leverage my strengths in both personal and professional situations. It’s also helped me to feel less ashamed of my weaknesses–and realize that, as Cain argues in her book, some of my “weaknesses” are actually just neutral personality traits that feel like flaws in our extrovert-oriented society. And discovering that my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ) is shared by less than 1% of the general population has certainly helped to explain why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.
Similarly, finding out that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has helped me to make sense of so many experiences I’ve had throughout my life, from racing thoughts to intense feelings of self-doubt to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and muscle tension. Researching the condition has enabled me to manage it more productively and communicate my struggles to others. And perhaps most importantly, by embracing my diagnosis, I’ve been able to separate my illness from the essence of my being. I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.
And now, I may have another piece of the puzzle–I’m likely a Highly Sensitive Person, and that’s not the same as wimpy, picky, or just plain weird. I mean, I totally am weird, but there’s a lot more at play there than my sensitivity.
I do realize, though, that there’s a fine line between using labels to better understand myself and using labels as excuses, and I’m still trying my best to find–and avoid crossing–this line every day. I want to know and take care of myself so that I can better know and take care of others, not so that I can live in a bubble free from anything that makes me feel anxious or overstimulated and totally ignore the needs of those around me. This might be my first instinct, but I don’t have to let my instincts become my actions.
I’m constantly presented with opportunities to enter into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve a greater good. Most of us are. And I don’t intend to let my introversion, anxiety, or high sensitivity stop me. Rather, I hope that by developing a greater sense of self-awareness, I will be able to find a balance between leaning into the discomfort and respecting my limitations. Maybe I need to leave a party or event earlier than everyone else. Maybe, after a particularly impassioned discussion or difficult confrontation, I need to take some time to be alone and restore my emotional equilibrium. Maybe I need to arrange my home or office to reduce the likelihood of sensory overload. Maybe I simply need to dive in headfirst to the situations that scare me the most just to prove to myself that the world won’t end as a result.
What do you think about the concept of high sensitivity? Do you think that you or anyone you know might be a Highly Sensitive Person?
Do you like learning about personality types? Why or why not?