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From Drama Queens to Orchid Children: The gift and curse of being a Highly Sensitive Person

Posted Nov 14 2011 12:59am

 Um… what is a yob? No seriously, I have no idea.

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“Nooooo!” Jelly Bean shrieked, ripping her sock off for the twentieth time that morning. As I watched her carefully select another sock and pull it on – only to be frustrated yet again when the seam in the toe didn’t line up exactly how she likes it to – it brought up some powerful emotions in me. Where others may see a typical 2-year-old tantrum (and perhaps it is?), I saw myself reflected in her intense expression, tongue peeking out as she tried, again, to bend the sock to her will. A small thing becomes an enormous thing: The story of my life.

Have you ever paid attention to the toe seam in your sock? Some are flat, some are ridged, some make little puckers at the corners of the toe, some aren’t even a seam at all but just a color and a change in the direction of the weave. Confession: I very often change my clothes half a dozen times or more on any given day. I wish I were being hyperbolic. I am very particular. For instance, I own seven different white t-shirts – crew neck, scoop neck, cap sleeve, hip length, tight-fighting, loose… – because I can’t wear layers unless everything is perfectly lined up and flat. Part of this is vestigial eating disorder behavior (it’s very common for ED’d people to keep trying on outfits looking for the one that doesn’t make them “look fat”) but a lot of it is that if I have on a crew neck tee under a scoop neck sweater it will bother me all stinking day. (And yes, I realize I have just invited all my friends to ask my how many times I’ve changed my outfit that day every time they see me. I’ll save you the time: At least 3.)

I can’t remember the first time I realized that I feel things more strongly than most people. For as long as I can remember I have felt different – I have described it for years as “walking around with my skin on inside-out.” In 5th grade I was in the bathroom when a group of boys turned off the lights as a prank. While all the other girls giggled, I panicked. It’s not that I was afraid of the dark or even of the boys but rather that I deeply, intensely dislike surprises. By the time I made my way out of the bathroom I was shaking so hard I had to go to the nurse’s office – I felt like my teeth would rattle out of my head. It was a feeling I would grow to know very well.

In my teens I was known for being an angsty drama queen – not unusual for a teenage girl but I managed to take it to a high art. I can’t count how many times I heard, “Why are you making this such a big deal?!” By college I’d figured out that other people weren’t bothered as easily as I was and that I needed to tone it way down. So I learned how to channel my intense emotions into less annoying behaviors but there was a cost to keeping them inside, a cost to being socially acceptable. My feelings turned inward, I went through a horrible period of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), eating disorders, anxiety, depression and really bad relationships.

As an adult I’ve come to a happier medium, finding friends that I can emote to (Gym Buddy Allison, my sister and my husband put up with a lot) and activities (like exercise!) that take off some of the psychic pressure. (Yes, what you see now is me at like 50% volume.) And yet. I still can’t be in a restaurant with background music without wanting to crawl out of my skin. I can’t focus on what people are saying to me if there are lyrics in the background. I hear every word. I see every picture on the wall. I notice the pattern in the carpet. People think I’m being spacey because I can’t remember what they told me 30 seconds ago but it’s because I simply cannot tune any of the noise out.

It’s not just restaurants either. I hate fans because I can’t stand the feel of the wind on my skin – it makes me prickle and feel nauseous. I can’t be in a room with a flickering light. I can’t sleep if the DVD player is turned on even if the TV is off because I can hear the whirring. I keep the radio on nearly 24/7 because the noise blocks all the other noises I can’t tune out on my own. And people think I’m just being precious when I say that I can’t handle horror movies but the truth is that I have a deeply visceral reaction to violence and I won’t be able to shake it for days, years even. The hardest part for me has been realizing that often I love people way more than they can love me back.

I can’t not feel any of it. It’s overwhelming. And it’s exhausting.

All of which makes me sound like an incredible pill to be around. I don’t think that’s true (although real-life friends, feel free to disillusion me) because I’ve learned ways to mitigate it. I’m good at keeping most of my thoughts inside and often I’ll take my social cues from others around me. If I feel upset and they’re not then I try and talk myself down. I know how to escape (hint: crossword puzzles in my dimly lit bedroom, I’m such a nerd) and how to use yogic breathing when I can’t escape. This doesn’t always work and I’m betting most of my friends and family would run out of fingers to count on before they ran out of experiences to which I have overreacted but here’s the thing: it’s not all bad.

It turns out that there is a whole segment of the population – 15-20% according to one researcher – who have their skin inside out like I do. (And it’s thought to be hereditary which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever met my dad. I love you Dad!) As kids we’re called “spirited” or “orchid children” (a reference to how persnickety orchids are about their conditions but once you get it right no flower is more beautiful). As adults we’re called, simply, “highly sensitive people. ” This sensitivity that can be such a curse (see: first 18 years of my life) can also be an incredible gift.

HSPs have “wonderful imaginations, are often very intelligent, creative, curious, and are known for being very hard workers, great organizers and problem solvers. They are known for being extremely conscientious and meticulous. HSP are blessed with being exceptionally intuitive, caring, compassionate and spiritual. They are also blessed with an incredible aesthetic awareness and appreciation for nature, music and the arts. There is also a strong correlation between the trait of high sensitivity and being “Gifted.” (They are also apparently blessed with a love of the superlative!)

I have to say it was a huge relief to learn that I wasn’t the only person who feels like this. My sister – who has a daughter that is a HSP – told me to go look up the information about it and as I read through the list of characteristics it was like someone had peered into my brain.  (I love that they point out that being highly sensitive is not a disorder or an illness – it’s just a character trait that can be good and bad.) You can read the full list here but some of my personal faves:

“You feel compelled to file and organize things and thoughts, also enjoy simplicity and may become overwhelmed or even immobilized by chaos, clutter, or stress. ”

“You are very conscientious, hard working, and meticulous, but may become uncomfortable and less efficient or productive when being watched or scrutinized.”

“You are very uncomfortable when feeling things are getting out of your control.” (Control freak? Me?)

“ You may experience mood swings, sometimes occurring almost instantly and can also be affected by other people’s moods, emotions and problems. ” (Dear friends, I’m sorry.)

“You get a sense of comfort and well being when around a lake, river, stream, the ocean, or even a fountain. ” (But only if my kids aren’t around because then I’m too busy freaking out about them drowning.)

“You have a deep, rich, inner life, are very spiritual, and may also have vivid dreams.” (I’ve always had very vivid dreams.)

Other things include being very sensitive to pain (holla!), startles easily (I will pee), avoids violent tv and movies (like the plague!), and has a deep appreciation of nature, the arts and music (well, thank you).

Honestly I’m not sure what to make of all this. Am I anxious because I am an HSP? Or am I an HSP because I’m anxious? (Or is this just me being a hypochondriac?) And what am I to do next? Or is it enough to just know this about myself? I’ve already requested Dr. Elaine Aron’s  The Highly Sensitive Person  (aff) from the library.

Are any of you highly sensitive people too? Do you know anyone like this? Have any advice for me? Or does this finally convince you that I am completely nuts? And can someone please tell me what a yob is so I know if I can use it in polite conversation?

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