I found out that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. This is an actual category of being, like being left-handed. HSP’s brains work differently and therefore we experience the world differently.
HSP senses are more sensitive. To us, the world is intense and more nuanced. I smell everything, I hear everything. Fluorescent lights feel like an assault. I’m constantly aware of moods, relationships, conversations, and the energy in a room. I currently work in a chaotic place in an open-floor environment, so you can imagine how much fun that is for me, right now.
I started reading the book The Highly Sensitive Person, and the author theorizes that there’s an evolutionary advantage to HSP’s. We’re about 20% of the population. In a hunter-gatherer tribal situation, it would be a huge survival advantage to have members who can detect subtle changes in the environment.
Finding out about this has resulted in some positive and some negative emotions. Shortly after this discovery, I happened to be browsing youtube and I saw a video entitled something like, “I just found out that I’ve had Lyme Disease for 17 years.” That’s how I felt—like I just found out that I’ve been sick all along and no one told me.
To be clear, though, being HSP is not a disease or a disorder. It just feels like one. The world is not set up for HSPs. For most of my life, I’ve been acutely aware of the disadvantages of being me.
HSP is an inherited trait that can be detected in infants, so I’ve had plenty of practice coping with it. Unfortunately, it also means that I’ve had a lot of shame around my coping strategies. For example, sometimes I go the bathroom just to get away from the stimulation in my environment. When I get overwhelmed at work, I go sit in an empty conference room and breathe.
Last week (before I knew anything about HSPs), I sat in an empty room drinking a cup of chamomile tea. I slowly climbed down off the high shelf of anxiety and simultaneously chastised myself for being so sensitive. I’ve had to do a lot of inner work just to allow just myself these breaks.
I also sat alone in that room thinking that I would someday find a way to make it stop. I had long believed that I would “fix” myself and then everything would be fine. Now I know that that’s probably never going to happen. It’s disheartening. I will never be “normal.”
However, that means I can take the next step in self-acceptance, which is a relief. This self-acceptance means that my coping strategies do not make me a freak. Now, I’m no different from a left-handed person buying herself some left-handed scissors and notebooks.
Since finding out, I don’t feel the same compulsion to block my reactions the environment or pretend (especially to myself) that I’m not affected by it. Because I’m not in a constant state of resistance to my environment, I’ve been less stressed about it.
I’m still identifying the advantages. I’ve long focused on the disadvantages because I’d assumed that everyone experienced the world like me and that they were just better at dealing with it.
While riding my bike to work this morning, I thought about what it meant to navigate the world in an HSP way. It occurred to me that I have avoided many dangerous—possibly lethal—situations because my intuition has nudged me the other way.
I’ve long recognized my ability to keep myself safe, even if I never knew how I did it. It gave me more confidence going into unfamiliar environments because I knew that I was really good at protecting myself.
Finding out that I’m HSP has meant that that there’s potential for being less intolerant of other people. I’ve spent a lot of time really irritated with people because I believed that they were willfully ignoring something. Now I recognize that it’s much more likely that they just don’t notice it.