Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Don't Be So Sensitive!

I am an empath or HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). Some of you may have suspected, based on personal interaction with me or previous blog posts. Some of you may be perplexed as to what an empath or HSP is. That is understandable. Let's begin with some definitions. As described on Dr. Elaine Aron's website, someone who is an HSP experiences most or all of these traits:
  • Easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens
  • Rattled when you have to do a lot in a short amount of time
  • Makes a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows
  • Needs to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room (or some other refuge where you can have privacy and relief from the situation)
  • Make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations
  • Notices or enjoys delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art
  • Has a rich and complex inner life
  • When you were a child, your parents or teachers saw you as sensitive or shy

Dr. Aron's website goes on to espouse that not only is being an HSP normal (15-20% of the population are reported to be highly sensitive), but also innate.
"In fact, biologists have found it in over 100 species (and probably there are many more) from fruit flies, birds, and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) actually work a little differently than others’."

I adamantly agree and relate to every single bullet point listed on Dr. Aron's webiste, as well as previously written blogs or articles on HSPs. The two pieces I linked include some super relatable quips such as:
  • "That annoying sound is probably significantly more annoying to a highly sensitive person."
  • "The effects of criticism are especially amplified in highly sensitive people."
  • "They're probably used to hearing, 'Don't take things so personally' and 'Why are you so sensitive?'"
  • "We notice that subtle change in your tone."
  • "We're always willing to hear you vent."
  • "They're more prone to anxiety or depression (but only if they've had a lot of past negative experiences)." 
Sounds pretty exhausting, doesn't it? It IS. Being highly sensitive, coupled with my OCD, is quite literally the definition of mental exhaustion. My mind is constantly thinking, rethinking, thinking again, and thinking from the other person's perspective. Then, my brain does the ever-so-awesome analyzing of facial expressions, sighs, tone of voice, and body language. In addition to all that activity I am juggling just having a typical conversation, I'm also on sensory overload. Fluorescent lighting, dings from my phone and yours, TV blaring, the tag in my shirt, and food smells. And probably the most prevalent sensory disturbance (for me) is loud talking. Which, admittedly, is ironic considering I am also a loud talker. However, when I am already in sensory overload and my systems are ready to abort, loud talking is the living worst.

Keeping in mind this is an example of a typical conversation, void of conflict or subtext, it is easy to see how I would often have a hard time asserting myself, setting boundaries, and saying "No." Unfortunately, this had made me extremely vulnerable to abusive and toxic relationships, as well as bottling up my feelings which leads to resentment which leads two things: uncorking every negative thought or feeling in a frightening and unexpected manner or subconsciously creating a conflict that validates my reason for cutting the person out of my life. I have more often than not done the latter.

Knowing I am an HSP has helped me feel FAR less crazy. It has also helped me recognize and accept my limits. Unfortunately, I am still not fully comfortable asserting my boundaries and limits with others and have a very small group of people I explicitly trust, who understand and respect me. But, no one is perfect and even my most trusted confidantes may struggle to understand me all day, everyday. And I don't expect them to. I've accepted that there will be moments of emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue where I have nothing left to give or receive, needing only the sanctuary of a dark room and a movie I have seen 18 times.

Even as I finish this blog, sights and sounds that didn't register hours ago (it's 7:00pm) are beginning to grate on me. The sound of the keys as I type, cars speeding past the house, the way my bed sheet is bunching in the middle of my futon in couch-position, my bedroom light glaring onto my glasses. Harmless annoyances, yet all signs I am hitting my limit. I hope to follow up, someday, with a post about how I manage my HSP-ness in a relationship, as that opportunity has not yet presented. Soon enough, I suspect. 



  1. I want to commend you for being so honest, open and truthful about being a HSP. It must be exhausting to be sensitive and on top of that have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. How do you take care of YOU? "Do you BooBoo" I enjoy reading your blogs and appreciate your honesty. It isn't everyday you learn something new about your bff!

    1. Thank you so much, Liz! :) I'm trying to figure out the best ways to take care of me. It's a work in progress.

  2. I am literally weeping because someone has finally put a name on what I suffer from. I will spend days wondering why that person frowned at me. Why did I just get that "sarcastic" answer. Why do I suffer from such crippling guilt. Why do I do most things out of guilt or wanting to be a "people pleaser." Just yesterday I asserted myself, crying hysterically, to my father's dr. as to why I can't take care of him any longer & he can't come home. It has been so bad that I have gone by my cabinet with my medicine in it & just stood there staring at them and wanting to take them all. My daughter, the one person in the world who I trusted with every being of myself, is critical, demanding, insensitive, judgemental and cold with me at times. (I'm obsessing because I think
    that I spelled judgemental wrong & I can't figure it out), and it is so hurtful. I did tell her last night that her expectations of how much babysitting I can do is too high. She was very annoyed at first but later on apologized. All of these things just eat at me. I am now so overwhelmed by sharing this much I have to take a break. I love you Melissa, you have no idea how much you help me & make me laugh.

    1. Gail, you are one of the strongest people I know. I am so grateful that you can relate to my experiences and you find help and joy in my writing. I pray that things get better for you, that you can find your way out (it sounds like asserting yourself with your loved ones is a fantastic beginning!) so things checking out or taking pills aren't even a thought to you. I am always here if you need to talk. And there are sooo many online support groups for caregivers. In fact, Caring.com has some wonderful information. Love you too!! <3