On being highly sensitive

Reading about ‘highly sensitive people‘ (HSP) is very calming for me — articles like this one seem to know me very well, and they tell me I am part of a normal variation within the human population. About 10-20% of all humans, fruitflies and salmons are like me: slower, more cautious, more careful, more sensitive.

It seems that our brains work differently. It is not Asperger’s and not introversion, although I am also introverted.

I observe that my characteristics that I believe are associated with HSP often annoy people — typical reactions are ‘don’t be so oversensitive’,  ‘you are always making such a drama’, ‘you take this way too seriously’. I am often embarrassed about it myself and think that it must be a question of willpower — only that it isn’t. It seems we are very different that what is thought ideal in our society — and perhaps even more in science — but I am really glad I am not alone in this.

Here are some aspects in which this shows itself to me:

1. I am very risk-averse and I am the opposite of a thrill-seeker. I find my life very stressful as it is and I have absolutely no wish to watch stressful movies or spend my free time by doing risky things like mountain climbing, or performing complicated holidays in faraway places.  I find it hard to truly understand people who enjoy these things.

2. I need much more downtime than any other person I know. If I don’t get it, I easily get ill, either with a migraine, feeling nauseated or catching a cold, which can be quite limiting, especially socially. When I was younger, the usual effect was that I could not sleep, probably just to get the downtime at night. I still sometimes have problems to accept this. Why can I not go out on a weekday evening? Go to the cinema at least? Why can I not work more? My limit seems to be in a totally different place compared to most other people. I just need more time to process things.

3. I almost  never enjoy conversations with several people at the same time. I have an unhealthy tendency to be hyper-attentive and trying to feel and understand the people around me. I am trying to get rid of this to some degree, since it is very bad for me if people around me are not sensitive or nice. I notice aggressive behaviour ‘between the lines’ and hierarchical behaviour extremely well, and I start to detest certain people for things that others apparently don’t even notice. I perceive many people as very rude, but of course I am aware that it is me who is different, so I needed to build up a huge amount of tolerance and empathy towards others to explain and accept their rudeness. But it wears me out. I also in general notice too many things about people, which makes social events very tiring.

4. I love deep conversations with one person at a time. I find people very interesting and I like to listen attentively to one other person, empathize with them and ask them questions, to find out how they see the world. I can remember things people tell me about themselves very easily. The majority of people seem to think that this makes me a doormat. They blabber along without ever bothering to ask a question back, enjoy the attention they get from me, and then move on. I on the other hand don’t like to talk if I don’t feel any real interest towards me, and so I often end up being very quiet, which is frustrating in the long run.

5. I am very slow with  making decisions, and see things from many, and probably often too many angles. I have been criticized heavily for this all my life, so it makes me very happy to know that there are also fruitflies who take longer with deciding. Maybe this is the most basic trait of being highly sensitive — I think and observe before I act, and that is good in some situations, but not so good in many others.

6. If people start to argue, if there is even an undercurrent of tension and stress during a meal, or if I am a little afraid of some people at the table, my stomach starts hurting and I lose my appetite. This can be extremely difficult and embarrassing if I am at an important dinner invitation. Food loses its a significant fraction of is taste whenever I eat with other people that I do not know well.

7. Since I was a child, I have always had some creative outlet. If I try to suppress my creativity, I get depressed. It appears being creative is very normal for us and one of the advantages of being a HSPs. For me it is necessary because I need to give something back in order for my brain not to get overfilled and stuck, and because I cannot transmit my experiences and feelings very well in conversations. Enjoying deep and complex art and literature is one of the things that makes me happiest in the world, probably because in this way I can deeply empathize with other people at my own speed.

8. Other people’s expectations, whether imagined by me or real, influence me very strongly, even if I fight it. I often feel myself becoming transparent around others, all my antennas completely focussed outwards, which is troubling.

9. It seems to me that my way of working is very different from other people. I have these peaks of efficiency, in which I am faster than most people I know, but I also spend a lot of time not being able to work for some reason, either because I am ill, or because I just cannot concentrate.

10. I react to lack of sleep, hunger, stress, alcohol more strongly than others. I sometimes think it is because my basic stress level is just higher than that of other people. Both hunger and lack of sleep can make me crushingly sad and depressed, or very angry, and totally unable to function.

11. I am slow with some things. And I mean slow. In particular with changing clothes and packing stuff. I have recurrent nightmares about both of these things. Maybe it is because both of these things announce a change, and changes are always difficult to me. I’m even not sure if I can truly say that I like traveling to new places, which took me forever to admit to myself.

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15 Responses to On being highly sensitive

  1. Thanks for this really interesting post, which I am sure will help others who are like you – and will also help those who aren’t to have more of an insight into those who are highly sensitive.
    I\’m a long way from HSP myself: I definitely have elements of points 1 and 2, but I don’t have other characteristics. But the one thing I have learned over many years is that you need to carve out a niche for yourself that suits you, rather than trying to fit in with others. Blogging can be good for HSPs I suspect, because you can interact with people and express yourself from the comfort of your room, as and when you want, in your own time. It has the downside that you can sometimes get negative comments, and I fear that as HSP you will take this badly if and when it happens – so I really hope it doesn’t and you aren’t put off. But my advice is accept who you are and arrange your life to avoid the stress points, rather than feeling the need to battle through them. I remember when I was younger how I used to try to do exciting things and stay out late, because I thought that I could train myself to be more adventurous and robust. It seldom worked, and I have learned that a peaceful regular routine is what makes me happy and productive. My colleagues find it weird that I am much more likely to accept an invitaiton to talk in Hull than in Shanghai, but that’s how it is. This piece by Guardian journalist Lucy Mangan says it all! http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2005/jul/27/1

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you for this nice comment! :) I think you are right — it would probably be a better use of my energy to stop trying to change who I am, and instead try to find an environment that agrees with me, and which also attracts more people that are similar to me. I have just started thinking about this, and it is a completely new viewpoint for me. My personality has never really been a factor that I have considered in life decisions. I thought this was something that I would eventually be able to change by sheer willpower. I have also tried to ‘toughen up’ by going out with loud colleagues until late, particularly in the last years, but it just does not work… and it also did not improve my social life at all. Btw, the article about travel is just hilarious. :)

  2. Truett says:

    You sound quite a bit like me. I find transitions difficult, learning & internalizing new things takes me a while, I’m easily overwhelmed by too many stimuli at once, at times I find it very difficult to see the whole of reality as I’m struggling so much to manage my own reality.

    I have been diagnosed with ADD–notably characterized by a “processing speed” that is significantly slower than that of most people in my age group/IQ level. You may find it useful to avail yourself to information about the condition. Even if you are not ADD yourself, you might find useful advice for other healthy coping strategies. Taking things slowly is definitely one of my favorites though!

    • zinemin says:

      Thanks for the comment! I just read up a bit on ADD — amazing what a wide cluster of characteristics this entails. Some certainly fit me, like hyperfocus or easily making mistakes in routine work. Others, like fidgeting, not listening well or attraction to risk don’t fit at all. But I am sure in 100 years people will shake their heads about all these things, like ADD, Asperger’s, or HSP, and they will be understood very differently in some unified theory…. maybe they are just related to us a significant fraction of us humans having problems to adapt to the crazily fast and busy, and yet mostly sedentary modern lifestyles? I agree, taking our time with things, even if we look slow to others, is certainly one of the best strategies for both ADD and HSP!

  3. Daimia says:

    I don’t think that I quite fit the definition of HSP perfectly but I can identify with some of the points that you mentioned. #1 and #10 almost exactly. I don’t understand why people would want to do things that could possibly hurt or kill them for fun. I also hate watching movies which require lots of thinking to understand the plot. I enjoy movies that are to-the-point and easy to follow along with. I can’t drink very heavily (one drink usually makes me sleepy) and my body does what I call “rebelling” when I don’t eat in a timely manner. As for my emotional state, I have no idea where I am. Sometimes I’m calm and rational and then something triggers the opposite. I get irritable, cry and descend into what I guess can be called a depression which takes a while to climb out of. I’ve concluded that I may need therapy but I’m terrified of seeking help from other people because I pride myself on being self sufficient.

    • zinemin says:

      I see deciding that you need help with some issue, and going to a therapist, as very grown up behavior, actually the opposite of being dependent on others, or weak. It is not so different from going to the doctor with a medical issue in the end. I found my therapy immensely useful, in particular for my relationship, and I think of the things I learned there almost every day. In my experience, strong mood swings as you describe usually try to tell us something. It is better to listen early than later…. I am trying to see my mood swings and migraines as friends who want to warn me about something, or tell me that I need to change something.

  4. Thanks, this was really interesting! I’ve sometimes wondered if I could be a hyper sensitive person but I’ve dismissed it because I don’t have social anxiety, I’m an extrovert and I enjoy being a part of a crowd. I’m also a bit of a thrill seeker. But I seem to have abnormally sharp senses. My hearing has actually been tested and it was very abnormal indeed.

    It was nice to get some medical validation for being so sensitive to loud noises! I’m also very ticklish and sensitive to pain, and sometimes normal clothes hurt my skin. I’m sensitive to smells too, and often I smell things that other people can’t perceive, and then I get told I’m just imagining the smell. If someone wearing perfume sits next to me at a concert or a movie, it ruins the whole thing for me because if I can’t get away from the smell, it makes me nauseous.

    I get easily stressed out if I’m overburdened but on the other hand, I enjoy a little chaos if it’s for fun.

    There are some other things on the self test list that I checked as well, like creativity, noticing small details and knowing what to do to make people comfortable… And strong reactions to lack of sleep, alcohol, stress, hunger – check! In the end, the only boxes I didn’t check were the ones related to social anxieties and the fear of change (I have a fear of monotony instead). So I guess I may be a highly sensitive person after all! That’s kind of… relieving?

    So thanks again, this was really enlightening! Also, empowering. I think many highly sensitive people end up being scientists or artists, or both. :)

    • zinemin says:

      Yes, this sounds you are very clearly an extroverted HSP! :) And there is apparently indeed a fraction of HSP who is ‘high-sensation seeking’, so that is not a contradiction either! Have you seen this: http://www.hsperson.com/pages/1May06.htm ?
      I think that is a great a combination to have, I would gladly give up my social anxiety and fear of change, but keep the rest! :)
      I know what you mean about people saying you are ‘imagining a smell’. I have that with food. Some vegetables sometimes have such strange side-tastes, yikes! Other people have no idea what I am talking about.
      Indeed, reading about HSP it becomes more and more clear to me that many artists are probably HSP… and that this is why I love art so much. I think bringing more art into our lives, and being more creative, is extremely good for us.

      • Well, looks like I’m buggered. :D I scored 18/20 on the HSS self-test, and I also scored pretty high on the HSP test. But I’m thinking my HSP side can’t be very dominant because I’ve done unsafe things like taking drugs, even a combination of dangerous ones. It was just to experiment and it was good fun, and I’d probably do it again in a heartbeat (though I’d stick to just one drug at a time and I wouldn’t want to make a habit out of it). I knew the possible side-effects, so I knew what I was doing and how big a risk I was taking. (Not very big, as I estimated.) As I said, it was fun but when the drugs wore off, I had a full-blown panic attack for having done something so reckless. I guess that was the HSP reaction to an HSS action.

        The article was very encouraging though, highlighting what a winning combination HSS/HSP can be if you manage to make the best out of it. I guess I’m doing pretty well but I realised that I do actually hide the HSP part of my personality from a lot of people. Basically only my parents, my brother and my spouse know that side of me, and my mum knows it to the extent that she says I’m strange enough to qualify for some sort of diagnosis. lol!

        “I think that is a great a combination to have, I would gladly give up my social anxiety and fear of change, but keep the rest!”

        Yes, I thought that the social anxiety can make being a HSP a pretty tough deal. No one likes to feel anxious or afraid. I don’t know, you might find some encouragement in this, so I’m just going to go ahead and reveal something pretty personal. On the other hand, it could also come across as bragging, or as if I’m implying that I think you could just “snap out of it” if you wanted to. But I know it’s not that easy, and though it was hard for me, it’s probably even harder if you’ve had social anxiety for a long time, so that it’s practically inbuilt. But maybe you don’t have it as bad as I did. You certainly don’t give that impression but it’s hard to tell online.

        Anyway, when I started university, I was suddenly overwhelmed with crippling social anxiety though I’d never had it before. Looking back, I can pinpoint the reasons: moving far away from home to a completely new environment where I didn’t know anyone, being anxious to make new friends quickly so that I wouldn’t become an outcast, the horror of not clicking with anyone immediately, plus all the new academic demands. It was just too much and I couldn’t cope with all of it.

        I ended up meeting the academic demands very well but shrinking away from all social things, until I felt I was totally isolated, and hardly dared to say “hello” to people I knew from my classes. My “saving grace” was my skill to observe things, so observe I did, and eventually I realised that everything that was isolating me from the other students, everything that was making me anxious, was inside my head. The other people weren’t shunning me, it was me who was shunning them! They didn’t think I was stupid or ridiculous, I just feared they would think so, and I assumed they thought so even though nothing in their behaviour supported that assumption.

        That epiphany made all the difference to me. I probably wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told it to me, but because I had realised it through my own observation, it was a significant revelation. After that I had the courage to start interacting with people more. I made some friends. Then I made a LOT of friends, and the social anxiety was truly gone. But it took years to get rid of it, and I still get small tastes of it occasionally. Like when I go to job interviews. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go to a job interview and appear to be anything else but a nervous wreck! I’ve still managed to get employed so I don’t let it hinder me, but it would be nice to be able to be more my normal self in those situations.

        So there you are! Now I’m practically a social butterfly and I don’t think anyone knows how anxious and inhibited I used to be, and I don’t really talk about it. I enjoy being with people, friends and strangers, and often I’m the liveliest person in a group of friends. But afterwards I need to recuperate by being alone and doing something slow and unproductive like writing a blog, playing the Sims 2, (or painting, if I have the strength left to do something that creative).

        I’ve revealed the skeleton in my closet, lol! Thinking objectively, it’s not such a shameful secret but it’s like this huge monster that I’ve overcome, and I prefer to keep it locked in the closet where it belongs. But I dragged it out because other socially anxious people have told me my story helped them to look at their situation more objectively, helping them to relieve their anxiety, at least a bit. I don’t know if you need to have the HSS trait to defeat completely, or just a lot of confidence. But maybe just observing and internalising the fact that other people don’t really judge you as harshly as you think they do, might lessen the anxiety.

        (Sorry… long comment… this HSP thing really got me going!)

      • zinemin says:

        Thank you for sharing this experience! I have felt very similarly when moving to a new place. The first months are always the worst. I also don’t think I am just socially anxious in some hard-wired way… sure I am slow to warm up to people, but I don’t think this necessarily has to cause anxiety.

        One thing I noticed is that my anxiety has varied a lot over my life. Sometimes it seemed almost gone. But after moving to a foreign country and completely new work environmenet twice in the last 5 years it really went through the roof for a while… I talked to a psychiatrist and he nearly fell of the chair when I described my life, saying that normally socially anxious people try to stay in the same city for the rest of their lives, which is not exactly what I am doing. :)

        Thankfully it is already getting better. I think you are 100% right about this: social anxiety is something that happens in our heads, nowhere else. And I think really trying to be objective, and observe carefully, instead of jumping to conclusions is really one of the best ways out of it. Another thing that has helped me is to really concentrate on the other person, instead of myself and how I might seem to them. I just wonder sometimes why I continue to make life decisions that put me in the middle of what I am so afraid of…. maybe I also have a gram of HSS inside of me. :)

      • Oh, well in that case your social anxiety clearly isn’t controlling your life! That’s a really good thing. I know some people who practically miss out on their lives because of social anxiety. And then, I don’t think anyone is completely free of it, either. Of course it’s one thing to be slightly nervous when meeting new people, and quite another to be cripplingly anxious about all social situations, but still. If a person is never the least bit nervous about meeting someone, giving a talk or going to a job interview, then there’s definitely something wrong with that person!

  5. Fabio Noviello says:

    Hi again
    I wasn’t aware of HSP at all, so today I’ve learned something new (thanks!).
    I also understand better your comment to my comment to your previous post. To reiterate: I was talking about “intimate” evenings with a few people , not mobs.

    And, also, your point n. 4 in this post is well taken. I fully understand :-) Apart from HSP (or not) I feel that the art of civilised, complex (“deep” ?) conversation is being lost. It seems to be more alive in 19th century novels.

    • zinemin says:

      Intimate evenings with a few people can sometimes be nice, I agree. If they are hand-selected. :) Don’t get me started on 19th century novels. I think they are the place where HSPs should live. Everything is always happening very slowly, there are omens and forebodings, and it is considered totally normal that people have very bad nerves. :)

  6. Pingback: “You, Non-scientist!” or What Not to Say to a Young Science Professional | sciencementor

  7. Lily says:

    I am very similar to you and I find that living day to day is very hard. The characteristic that I don’t have is I am not very creative. I mean I like crafts but I can only copy other people’s stuff and not create my own. That’s why probably I feel very stressed all the time.
    How do you feel about people who are rude to you? Especially people who don’t know you like at the supermarket, people with no manners? In my case I take it personally(which I don’t want to but can’t help it). Even when I get home I still think about it like why was that person rude and wish that I could be rude back-because I have slow reaction and just walked away.

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