What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses | I recently discovered that many of the sensory and emotional experiences I've had throughout my life are indicative of a trait known as high sensitivity. Understanding what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has helped me to better understand myself, but I also recognize the potential for danger if I use this label--or any other label--as an excuse for avoidance and complacency.

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.

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My brain 95% of the time, with approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all thoughts being totally irrational worst-case scenarios.

“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.

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My brain the other 5% of the time, when people are watching. What is this “driving” of which you speak?!

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.

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My first reaction to pretty much any situation involving people, places, or things.

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?

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Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It’s Taught Me About Managing Anxiety

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It's Taught Me About Managing Anxiety | Inspired by fellow creatives, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and added gratitude journaling to my morning routine. And I'm so glad I did! But even though the practice has helped to reduce my anxiety and bring more joy to my days, it has also taught me that the relationship between gratitude and anxiety is more complicated than I originally thought.

I recently started a gratitude journal, and oh my gosh, you guys.

But before I launch into a discussion of the many benefits I’ve experienced, I should point out that I was initially pretty hesitant to adopt this practice. I participate in a number of online communities for writers, bloggers, and entrepreneurs (hey, a girl can dream), and even though it seems like everyone in these groups is constantly singing the praises of gratitude journaling, the whole thing sounded a little too “kumbaya” for me at first.

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Let’s all gather ’round the campfire, friends, and write in our gratitude journals!

Plus, being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I was always concerned that I would, like, do it wrong or something. I puzzled over questions such as How many things should I write about each day? Should I use numbered lists, bullet points, or paragraphs?  Do I simply state the name of the thing I’m grateful for, or do I write a brief description of why I’m thankful for it? Can I repeat items, or do I have to come up with unique entries every day? And so on and so forth until I began to wonder how I manage to accomplish anything on a regular basis.

So in summary, between the perceived cheese factor and the Great Formatting Dilemma of 2016, I avoided jumping on the gratitude journal bandwagon for quite some time. More specifically, I avoided it until I started feeling like my morning routine was missing something.

I’ve discussed morning routines here before and how overhauling mine has improved my mood and ability to handle stress in so many ways. For example, getting up extra early allows me to savor some quiet time and gear up for a full day of people-ing (#introvertproblems), and engaging in an activity I love (like yoga or writing) first thing gives me the energy I need to tackle the not-so-fun items on my to-do list later on. But even though my morning routine has greatly improved over the past few months, I felt that it was time to take things a step further. Everything I was doing was very “me”-focused, and I wanted to incorporate something that would turn my attention outward a bit more–to others and to the world around me.

Then I read Kate Wilkinson’s post Why I Write a Gratitude Journal (And You Should Too), and I couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon any longer. Kate helps creative entrepreneurs turn their passion into a successful business, so her take on gratitude journaling was very practical and actionable. I loved how she described the practice as a tool for “training your brain” to appreciate the goodness in your life right now–even as you strive to achieve bigger and better things in the future. Plus, she totally annihilated my lame excuses and resolved the Great Formatting Dilemma by providing a free downloadable template. I’ve since deviated from this outline a bit as I’ve grown in my own journaling style, but it was totally the jumpstart I needed to initially get going.

So now every morning, before I dive into writing or exercising or any of my other pursuits, I pause, pull out my notebook and pen, and reflect on three things I’m feeling especially thankful for that day. Sometimes these are Big Important Things, like my faith or my family or a recent experience that really moved me. Other times they’re silly little things, like the cup of coffee I’m drinking as I write. (Actually, most mornings it’s the coffee, but I force myself to write about something else instead so that my journal doesn’t turn into one long Ode to the Greatest Beverage on Earth.) 

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

I also jot down my prayer intentions for the day, since my prayer life has definitely gone down the toilet this past year and this is part of my effort to fish it back out. (But that’s a whole other post for another day.)

And you know what, guys?

The results have been amazing. Team Kumbaya all the way. I’m considering making t-shirts, really.*

Taking just a few minutes to deliberately practice gratitude each morning truly impacts my mindset throughout the entire day. For one thing, I simply notice more of the blessings in my life–and for someone who’s constantly lost in the La La Land of her own thoughts, this is a big deal. Simply observing the many good things in my life brings me back to the present moment much in the same way that repeating a mantra does. Instead of being haunted by worries of what might go wrong, or enticed by daydreams of how much better things could be, I’m able to focus on what actually is. And more often than not, this reality offers a number of blessings, even if I have to dig through some pain and disappointment in order to unearth them.

Secondly, when I truly appreciate something, I tend to treat it with a bit more care and respect. This has proven especially important when it comes to the people in my life. When I consciously think about how grateful I am to know them–and, conversely, what my life might be like without them–I’m much more likely to seek ways to better love and support them, to truly cherish our time together, and to overlook small annoyances in favor of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

All of this kumbaya business got me thinking about whether starting a gratitude journal sooner would have benefitted my anxiety recovery process–or even prevented my anxiety from getting so out of control in the first place. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but what I realized is that the relationship between anxiety and gratitude is more complicated than a simple “increase gratitude, decrease anxiety” formula. Based on my own experiences, I think it’s possible to be so deep in an anxiety disorder that truly appreciating anything is nearly impossible, and other steps must first be taken to reign in the fear and apprehension and create space for gratitude.

Six months or a year ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I could rattle off all the “blessings” in my life like a kid reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I knew that I had a roof over my head and food in my fridge and people who loved me, and at least on an intellectual level, I recognized that for those things, I should be grateful. Yet thinking about what I should be thankful for didn’t do anything to ease my anxiety; in fact, at my lowest points, it only made everything worse. It made me feel both intensely guilty for being unappreciative and totally alienated from everyone else who was able to experience genuine gratitude. I truly think that I needed to get to a certain point in my recovery process before a practice like gratitude journaling had a place. I needed to take medication and get all those neurotransmitters back in order. I needed to see a therapist who could help me give my ugly thought patterns a much-needed makeover. And I needed to allow my exhausted body and brain to soak up some genuine rest. All of these steps have enabled me to feel something other than worried, isolated, guilty, and hopeless.

And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

Have you ever tried gratitude journaling (or any other method of practicing gratitude)? Share your experiences in the comments below!

*Darn, it looks as though someone beat me to it.

The Adventurous Life: How to Define Your Own Brand of Bravery

The Adventurous Life: How to Define Your Own Brand of Bravery | Don't think of yourself as adventurous? Think again! Learn how living adventurously can mean something different for each of us--and how to identify the risks truly worth taking in your own life.

When I hear the word “adventurous,” the first image that comes to mind is someone who spends his or her free time doing awesome things like skydiving and zip lining and scaling mountains. I picture someone who seizes every opportunity for new and fun experiences with little or no hesitation. I envision someone who thrives on taking risks both large and small and whose life motto is essentially “why not?”

When I hear the word “adventurous,” I also think of the exact opposite of me. As much as activities like skydiving and zip lining and scaling mountains sound awesome, they also sound kind of dangerous and expensive and let’s be real, I’d probably be equally content spending time alone writing and drinking coffee from my favorite mug (#turndownforwhat). I don’t think I’ve ever seized an opportunity without totally overthinking it first, and my idea of living on the edge is keeping my library books past the due date. And because I’m an INFJ obsessed with finding meaning and purpose in every freaking thing, my life motto is definitely “why?” as opposed to “why not?”

However, my conversations with my amazing therapist over the past 5 months have begun to shift my view of what it means to live adventurously–and for that matter, why it’s even important to do so in the first place. 

I’m about to make a big claim here, but it’s my blog, so…here goes nothing. I believe that the greatest adventure in life–and the bravest thing we’ll ever do–is to become the person each of us is meant to be. (And as a Christian, I believe this means becoming the person God created each of us to be.) Consequently, living adventurously means constantly challenging ourselves to step outside of our comfort zones in order to better align our actions with our values, goals, and unique strengths. Skydiving, zip lining, and scaling mountains may be out of my comfort zone, but is it imperative that I do these somewhat arbitrary things in order to live adventurously? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on what I hold most dear.

For example, developing and sustaining deep and meaningful relationships is very important to me. I don’t need a large social network to be happy, but I do need a tight inner circle with whom I can be my most authentic self. However, as an introvert with a lot of social self-doubt, it feels much safer for me to hang out alone than to invite a family member or friend to catch up over coffee and risk feeling like a bother. And if we do end up meeting, it feels much safer for me to gloss over the tough stuff and act like everything’s fine than to admit to my struggles and risk being viewed as a Debbie Downer or an over-sharer. So for me, living adventurously means taking these risks on a regular basis anyway, because that’s really the only way to cultivate the types of relationships I’m after. And it also means returning the favor and being there for these individuals when they need me the most, when they’re scared to reach out or share, and loving them wholeheartedly, no strings attached.

As another example, having a fulfilling career is very important to me. This is not because I view my career as the pinnacle of my life and happiness but rather because I want to enjoy the many hours I put into my job and also feel like those hours are making a real difference in the world. But the further I get in my process of job searching and self-discovery, the more I realize that in order to achieve most of my professional goals, I’m going to have to step way outside my comfort zone. Leap outside it, really. My dream is to someday run my own online nutrition and wellness business, but that will be difficult and scary and require a significant shift away from the 9-to-5 mindset I’ve held for so long. (Even typing the words here is totally freaking me out.) It’s also likely that I will need to go back to school at some point and become a registered dietitian, which, after the completely overwhelming graduate school experience I completed just a few short months ago, is not exactly my favorite thing to think about right now. So living adventurously will mean going after these grand goals anyway, believing in myself even if no one else does, and knowing that I’ll still be enough even if I fail.

So maybe someday I will skydive, zip line, or scale a mountain. But if I do, it won’t be because I feel I need to in order to prove that I’m “adventurous” in some vague and arbitrary sense. Instead, it will be because it fits with my own brand of bravery and brings me closer to the person I was put on this planet to be. And that will be a risk truly worth taking.

What does living adventurously mean to you? How do your goals and values help you define your own brand of bravery?

Letting the Journey Unfold: How Living in the Moment Can Reduce Anxiety

Letting the Journey Unfold: How Living in the Moment Can Reduce Anxiety | It's incredibly freeing to let go of what we can't control and deal with each moment as it comes. Here's how I put these ideas into practice one night when things weren't going as planned--and ended up having a spectacular time.

It’s rough being both a night owl and a morning person.

On one hand, I relish the peace and promise of the morning, and on the other hand, I crave the depth and darkness of the night. Both are times when my creativity soars and I can imagine that I have the world all to myself. (No offense to, like, other people and stuff. I’m just an introvert; being alone is my jam.) Honestly, the afternoon hours are the ones I dislike the most; if I could hit the fast-forward button from approximately 1 pm to 5 pm each day, I’d be totally set. Reading an engrossing novel until 2 or 3 am? Yes, please. Sipping coffee with the sunrise? Count me in. Anything at 3 pm? No, no, and no. I’ve found some ways to lessen the sting of this long, harrowing trek from lunch to dinner (such as drinking lots of water and tea or taking a quick yoga break), but it’s still by far the worst part of the day. Perhaps we Americans could take it a step further and jump on the siesta bandwagon? Is that a political issue we could all get behind? #adultnaptime2k16

Anyway, so here I am, running on a grand total of 4 hours and 15 minutes of sleep, actually enjoying an early-morning writing session before work. My eyes are a bit puffy, and my mind is a tad slow, but the stillness and solitude are totally worth it. The reason that I was out so late last night was that I attended a concert in Indianapolis with my mom and sisters–although it might be more accurate to say that we kind of attended a concert, or that we attempted to attend a concert. First, we arrived at the outdoor venue only to find that the show was being postponed indefinitely due to the severe thunderstorms in the forecast. Then, although there was hardly a drop of rain during the entire 2-hour delay, it started pouring once the concert finally began, and lightning struck in the distance. So we stayed for a bit and then headed out before the final act.

But despite everything, I had a truly wonderful time, and I don’t think the enjoyable experience was an accident, either. I consciously tried to avoid my knee-jerk response of worry, regret, and negativity and react in a more positive and productive manner. Instead of panicking about how late the show would start or whether we would get caught in a bad storm on the drive home, instead of beating myself up for not monitoring the weather more closely or calling the venue ahead of time, instead of mourning the loss of the money we spent on the tickets or the time we spent waiting, I tried, as my therapist would say, to “let the journey unfold.”

Although this mantra sounds like one of those cheesy phrases you might find printed on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper, it’s also one of the hardest things anyone has ever challenged me to do. I don’t want things to happen to me–I want to happen to things! I don’t want to go with the flow–I want to be the force driving the current! I don’t want to “let the journey unfold”–I want to make checklists and itineraries and read reviews on TripAdvisor first!

But when we arrived at the venue and were informed of the delay, I saw disappointment creep across the faces of my two younger sisters and realized that I would play an important role in determining how the rest of the night would go. I could react how I normally did and plant the seeds of worry and negativity in those around me, or I could try to relax and look on the bright side and hope that ease and gratitude would flourish instead. Wanting to choose the latter, I smiled at them and said, “Well, there’s not really much we can do to change the situation. We’ll simply have to let the journey unfold.” I said this with a hint of sarcasm, poking fun at my own propensity to whip out the cheesy mantra at every opportunity. But I also said it as a serious reminder to myself to let go of things I can’t control (like the weather) and focus my energy on the here and now, come what may.

And you know what? It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies–we saw about an hour total of the show, missed the main headliner, paid twice as much as we were expecting for parking, and may have ruined a few pairs of shoes–but as I mentioned earlier, we had a darn good time overall. While we waited, we munched on the snacks we had packed, played the Head’s Up app on my sister’s phone, and generally distracted ourselves with talk and goofiness. And once the show finally started, we sang and danced and let the rain soak us through and smear our make-up and ruin our hairdos. It turns out that the great thing about living in the moment is that, bad or good, comfortable or uncomfortable, you only have the that moment to be concerned about. You don’t have to re-live all the ugly things that happened in the past or anticipate all the potential disasters that could arise in the future. You can focus on appreciating the joys and dealing with the troubles of the present–and the present only. Letting the journey unfold can be scary and unnatural at first, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and freeing.

So there you have it: morning reflections on late-night adventures. I’ve got to leave for work now, but who knows? Maybe if I take things one moment at a time, even 3 pm today won’t be so bad. 🙂