“You’re so sensitive!” If you’ve heard this statement (or similar) over and over throughout your life you don’t need me to tell you how frustrating it can be. Have you ever felt that, while, on one hand you kind of think the same about yourself, on the other hand you want to fight back and say, “I’m not trying to be this way! It’s just how I roll.” If you can relate, you may want to look into the research that Elaine Aron has been working on since 1991.
While I’m certainly no expert and am actually a bit reticent to write about this, I do find this information helpful with my clients so I want to dedicate a blog post to it. Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is not a dysfunction or condition; its a trait, like being brown-eyed or blue-eyed, or having fair skin or olive skin. It is found in about 15-20% of the population. And while, for many it can go undetected for many years, recent information suggests it is something to seriously consider when looking at any mental health problems. For reference it is also known in clinical circles as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
For someone with HSP I’ve heard it said that it can feel like you’re walking around without skin on. Every nuance, change, sound, touch is noticed and taken in. The ability to filter out stimulus is very difficult and so this leaves the individual feeling very overwhelmed. “Overwhelmed” can translate to many symptoms including, but certainly not limited to: negative perceptions about self, anxiety, depression, risky behavior, and isolation.
To cope with the overwhelm the individual builds mechanisms that develop over time into mental health symptoms. Since it is rather new to the scene many children (you might have been one of them) have tried to navigate their experience of this trait on their own. Since their caregivers didn’t understand them or help them with how to manage the expressions of the trait these children are left to assume the worst of themselves and/or the world, leading to feelings of low self-worth, disconnectedness and withdrawal. While we’re not necessarily in the business of blaming parents for not “getting us” it can be helpful to know whether or not you carry this trait. And here’s why.
There are great resources available, now, to help individuals with HSP learn how to care for themselves, validate their experiences, and empower them to use their trait for good (it is a gift). Going back to the skin as a trait comparison. For someone with darker skin their skin care regime likely looks very different than for someone with fair skin. Some of us have to be more careful in the sun, for example. It is much the same with HSP. Self-care looks much more intentional and unique for these folks, and paves the way for empowerment and peace.
If this trait applies to you, it can be very important insight to have as you resolve painful experiences of the past (trauma and adversity). It could be that much of your adversity circled around the theme of being misunderstood and mishandled by caregivers. This knowledge can be helpful for looking at ourselves with more compassion and understanding. Additionally, this insight can help us forgive our caregivers for the ways in which they hurt or invalidated us. Both, very important aspects of leaving the past in the past.