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Several Julys ago, I journeyed from my hot, humid Florida home back to my roots in hot, humid New Jersey for a week-long visit with family. As happens more often than not, the conversation around the dinner table grew heated—the already high temperature of the discussion likely exacerbated by the stifling summer heat—and I began to withdraw from the debate.
A family member’s response to my retreat: “Liz, what happened to your thick skin? You weren’t always this sensitive.”
Ah, yes. My thick skin.
My thick skin that developed early in life when I first experienced pain and sadness. My thick skin that protected me from the impact of our family’s mental illness. My thick skin that kept me guarded, defensive, and incapable of experiencing the heights of joy and pleasure.
What happened to my thick skin?
I finally, and very happily, shed it.
I embraced a softer version of myself.
I found freedom in the sweet release of a good cry.
I realized sensitivity is one of my superpowers.
The first time someone suggested I might be a “Highly Sensitive Person,” or an “HSP,” I didn’t believe such a thing existed. It sounded a bit too woo-woo for me. Of the many mental health diagnoses I’d received throughout my life, being an HSP was not one of them, nor was it accepted by the mainstream medical and psychiatric communities.
But the more I read and learned, the more I began to embrace my sensitive nature (and the woo).
So who is a Highly Sensitive Person?
A term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron, an HSP is a person who is high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity or SPS. Those with high levels of SPS display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli—pain, hunger, light, and noise—and a complex inner life. (Source: Psychology Today)
For me, being highly sensitive manifests as:
>> A hyper-awareness of subtleties and sensations: environmental changes or someone’s mood can impact my own more than I’d like.
>> Becoming overwhelmed by strong smells, bright lights, large crowds, or loud noises: to put it simply, a place like Times Square causes me to retreat for days on end.
>> Complex emotions and a rich inner experience: I spend long periods of time in deep thought and self-reflection.
>> Avoiding upsetting or overwhelming situations: I don’t like engaging in conflict, even healthy conflict. But I’m slowly getting better at it.
While I’ve grown to love my sensitivity, I’ve also realized I can cultivate it in a way that’s beneficial to my own health and well-being and the health and well-being of those around me.
1. Responding to stimuli thoughtfully rather than reacting based on a previous experience.
2. Taking a breath (or two or three) before speaking when conversations become heated.
3. Setting aside time and creating space to rest and digest.
4. Trying not to overfill my proverbial plate (this is still one of the hardest for me).
5. Becoming aware of my surroundings and position in them (proprioception).
6. Setting firm boundaries, and then setting a few more.
7. Practicing mindfulness techniques to help alleviate feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.
I’m grateful for various teachers and mentors who have guided me to this place of understanding. Though there are too many to spotlight in this 750-word article, one program, in particular, is worth investigating if you identify with HSP tendencies.
Some months back, the folks at Dharma Life Sciences connected with me via the wild world of social media. While I usually avoid cold calls and proposals for collaboration (the overstimulation and overwhelm thing), this time, I’m grateful I did. Through a combination of personality development and neuroscience, Dharma Life’s mentors helped me improve my emotional health via coaching, app-based activities, and mental wellness support.
My eight weeks with Dharma Life taught me this: my sensitivity helps me relate to and empathize with others’ emotions and experiences. (Wouldn’t we all benefit from a little more empathy in our world?) But there’s a way to connect in community and live in the world without lasting impacts on our emotional and mental well-being. Achieving more balance in the way sensitivity manifests is both possible and worthwhile.