Thursday, September 26, 2013

Looking Back: Life Always Seemed "Louder" Than Me

Do you ever stop and look backwards, trying to spot "early points" in your life at which it became obvious that you were an HSP?

Much of the early "evidence" from my own life is largely anecdotal: I was supposedly a quiet kid; I was supposedly not interested in "establishing territory" with other kids; my mother would tell other people that I was "very sensitive;" as a baby I'd evidently sit quietly in my playpen and "observe" quietly. But these are not my memories... they are "stories."

My own first memories that hint at my being a highly sensitive child arise from the sense I quickly developed that everything in the world; in my surroundings seemed "more" than me: People, activities, places... the WORLD... felt bigger, louder, rougher, more violent than I... just more "everything."

It felt so strange... and scary, at the same time.

Why did adults need to YELL so much? Maybe they weren't exactly yelling, but their voices were so often raised, even when they were communicating with someone (including me) who was right next to them. It didn't make sense.

Why were kids-- the kids in the neighborhood I was sent out to play with-- so LOUD? Sometimes it felt like they just wanted to "make noise, for noise's sake." Whether it was that obnoxious kid down the street who was forever blowing his English policeman's whistle, or "that dangerous boy" in first grade who would use almost any excuse to set off firecrackers... why all the NOISE? And some would just sit there and scream, like they just wanted to hear the sound of their own voice. It hurt my ears...

Why did the other boys always want to FIGHT? Simply "playing" seemed to be sustainable for only a few minutes before someone felt the need to "have a fight." I do remember soon getting labeled a "sissy" because I didn't want to fight with people. My lack of "fighting spirit" was immediately labeled as "being afraid." Nobody seemed able to grasp that I simply didn't want to.

I was probably somewhere in the range of six to eight years old when I first became aware that it seemed like people had a certain "energy" around them. At the time, I couldn't really associate anything "intelligent" with feeling the energies and moods of others... so I thought of them in terms of shapes and everyday objects.

Most kids... well, at least most boys... felt either like "chainsaws" or "jackhammers" to me: they were scarily LOUD, and "unpredictably dangerous and destructive." Girls were generally "softer" and not so scary (which is why I generally preferred their company)... they felt more like "bee hives;" typically a soft pleasant buzz, but they could become "screaming and deadly," sometimes at a moment's notice.

Adults were a little different. Most men were like tractors or heavy trucks: noisy, often to the point of drowning out all other sound; powerful... and occasionally stinky. Some (like my father) felt more like "thunderstorms;" much of the time they were impressive clouds drifting around... but they could "explode" into something truly scary and deafening, when I least expected it. Adult women were-- on the whole-- the least scary and overwhelming persons in my life... many seemed "soft" and fairly "quiet" so I felt less "on edge" in their company and less like I just wanted to go hide somewhere. The thing that mostly scared me a little was that there were some who seemed like... like they were trying to "pull the life out of me" so (I presume) they could make it their own. Of course, as a child had had no concept of such things as "energy vampires" or people trying to get unconditional love from others "by proxy."

As I felt all these "energies" around me... I gradually "learned" that my best strategy to avoid getting buffeted and hurt by them was to practice the fine art of Not Being Noticed. It's evidently something I became quite good at, because even as a 50-something, 6'4" adult male, I still seem able to move through space (the house, outdoors, whatever) in such a way that people don't even notice that I am there... and it actually scares the hell out them that I seem able to suddenly "appear" (or DIS-appear) next to them, without a sound.

As a kid, I learned how to intuit when something "bad" was about to happen, because the "energy" would be changing (building up), so I would either "leave the scene" or learn to change what I was doing in such a way that whatever seemed to be "boiling up" would simmer down again... and the impending "explosion of loudness" would be avoided.

When I look back on those days-- now with 45 years of hindsight-- I can see that it was here I started to lose my sense of self, because I put so much effort into "adapting myself" in whatever way I could, so as to avoid "loud explosions," that anything I personally wanted to do or say was pushed into the background.

As an adult HSP, noise sensitivity remains on of my primary sensitivities. I just don't do LOUD well. I am personally not loud, and I don't like loud things... from jet engines and chain saws to high volume stereos and night clubs. LOUD makes me feel like someone is actively beating the side of my head with a wooden board, taking particular "care" to hit my eardrums every time.

People sometimes ask me if my noise sensitivity has gotten less with age... and the answer is "no." What has gotten better is my ability to understand and manage my exposure to noise, and the overwhelming effect it has. What has also gotten better is my ability to accept "being in discomfort" for measured and finite periods of time.

Talk Back! What are some of YOUR early memories hinting at you being highly sensitive? What do YOU remember (as opposed to what you've "been told") about your early life as an HSP? It doesn't have to be "noise" of course-- I just happen to most strongly remember that the world was LOUD. Please leave a comment and share your experience!

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Friday, September 06, 2013

HSPs, Hurt Feelings and Imaginary Slights: Examining EMOTIONAL Sensitivity

Depending on who you ask, "getting your feelings hurt really easily" is-- or is not-- at the heart of what "Being A Highly Sensitive Person" is all about.

For some people, it feels like it is precisely what it means "to be an HSP."

I happen to be one of the HSPs who does not believe this is the core of our HSP-ness. Neither does Elaine Aron, and she's the one who did the original research on high sensitivity. In fact, if you take a deeper look at Elaine's writings and books you will find that she doesn't say much about this topic, at all. And if you look at Elaine's Sensitivity Self-Test there's not a single question there phrased like "I get my feelings hurt very easily Y/N."

Part of the "problem" is that "Sensitivity" is a difficult word to define. And a lot of folks latch onto some interpretation of the word that's meaningful to them, and then declare themselves a "Highly Sensitive Person" without ever looking at the science and research that gave rise to the term. Ironically, this is just a variation on the way we HSPs often feel marginalized by the way non-HSPs will "label" and judge us unfairly, based on an incorrect/incomplete interpretation of the word "sensitive."

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of people in the world who are emotionally sensitive. And a lot of these emotionally sensitive people are HSPs. But there are also a lot of HSPs who are not particularly emotionally sensitive. There's no doubt the two can be quite similar... but they are not the same thing!

The thing that sometimes baffles me is the way people can go take Elaine's sensitivity self-test, answer "yes" to almost ALL the questions... and yet the only thing they ever talk about is how they get their feelings hurt all the time.

Humor me, and take a moment to go look at the questionnaire (link above). Don't look at it from the perspective of "evaluating yourself," but from the perspective of actually reading each item in the list and then considering what it is actually asking or saying. What is the quiz designed to actually ascertain?

I'm often surprised by the sheer number of people who do this little exercise and then come back to me and say "Yeah, but that's not really HOW I see myself as being highly sensitive."


But you still answered "yes" to 25 of the 27 questions... and yet you're saying you don't actually "identify" with Elaine Aron's definition of an HSP. If you don't mind my asking, why are you embracing this "label" if it actually isn't that accurate for you?

In many ways, I'm a bit of what you might call a "cage rattler." I rattle people's "cages" because I believe-- based both on personal (and often uncomfortable) experience as well as 30-odd years rattling around the consciousness and self-development industry-- that most true healing that leads us towards living a balanced and happy life demands that we look at the "uncomfortable truths" in our lives. I definitely do not "rattle people's cages" because I like to hurt feelings... I rattle cages because sometimes we have to be "jolted" out of our natural tendencies to grow complacent about our self-growth process.

So if your "feelings are hurt" by what I have just written here, I'm sorry about that. But let's use it as an opportunity to take a deeper look at the HSP trait, as it really is.

What we HSPs have-- when we use Elaine Aron's original definition-- is "a finely tuned nervous system." And that manifests in many, many different ways.

Some of these ways are-- definitely-- "emotionally based" or "of the mind." We process deeply. We notice subtleties. We feel people's moods and energies. We experience "intensely." We're typically very empathic.

Naturally, we will also experience hurts-- like feeling slighted or insulted-- more intensely. And because of the "deep processing" we engage in, we're likely to "brood" more. When something it hurtful, it hurts us more than non-HSPs. On the other hand (and this tends to be overlooked, or forgotten!) when we experience something amazing, we also experience JOY more intensely.

In her workshops and books, one of the things Elaine Aron has repeatedly pointed out is that HSPs who grew up in "difficult" childhood situations are likely to be more "damaged" by their situation than their non-HSP peers, and more likely to experience pain from subsequent difficulties, hurts and setbacks... BUT, HSPs who grew up with a "supportive" childhood situation are actually LESS likely than their non-HSP peers to experience pain from slights and setbacks.

By extension, such a "well balanced" HSP is also less likely to dwell easily hurt feelings, because of a greater capacity to deal with such incidents. For them, "easily hurt feelings" isn't part of the HSP "equation."

In short, we HSPs tend to live towards the extreme ends of the spectrum... on both the positive and negative sides.

But let's get back to HSPs and easily hurt feelings.

Nobody-- least of all me-- is trying to take away or marginalize anyone's right to have easily hurt feelings! Truthfully, these both are, and are not, related to being an HSP.  The important thing is that we must understand what they actually "are." They may be "related," but are not part of the "definition" of the trait... they are part of how the trait leads us to process negative experiences. It's a bit like one of those "word problems" back in school:

When you're an HSP you may experience painful situations more deeply and you may experience hurt feelings more deeply, but simply getting your feelings hurt deeply and easily does not "make you an HSP."

Personally, I am "emotionally sensitive." But it was never that tendency to get my feelings hurt easily nor my tendency to perceive "general neutral statements" as "slights" directed specifically at ME that led me to "identify" with "Being a Highly Sensitive Person," back in 1997. It was relating to how all the world always felt overwhelming and overstimulating to me. Were my hurt feelings and hyper-awareness of "imaginary" slights authentic and real? Absolutely! But "real" as they were, they were not-- and ARE not-- what "makes" me an HSP.

If there's a "definition" that fits what it "means" to be an HSP, it is that we are easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by LIFE. "Hurt feelings" and "slights" are just a tiny, tiny corner of that bigger picture called "life." "Hurt feelings" are a consequence of something; a response; a reaction... but not a neurological state. Choosing to define our HSP-ness as revolving around "easily hurt feelings" is a bit like focusing on a red flower in a painting while being oblivious to the entire landscape the artist painted for us.

Now, some might say that I am "splitting hairs" over minor semantic details... but... not really. And I write quite a bit about the topic of emotional sensitivity, as well. If this is a topic of interest to you, you might wish to check out my article "HSP Living: Intense Feelings and Learning to Respond Instead of React"  which examines how we as "intense HSPs" can best handle our feelings.

In "scientific terms" what we're talking about is the difference between a "causal" and a "coincidental" relationship between "easily hurt feelings" and "being an HSP." And that's a big difference.

Talk Back: How do you "identify" your sensitivity? Have "easily hurt feelings" been central to how you perceive yourself as being "highly sensitive?" Is that still true? When you took Elaine Aron's HSP quiz, did you answer "yes" to almost all the questions? Did some of the HSP "definition" leave you with doubts, or does it fit perfectly? Please leave a comment! 

Sharing is Love! If you found this article helpful, interesting, thought provoking or useful, please share it with others! Use the buttons below to post to social media or send by email, and help be part of  the ongoing process of spreading general awareness of the HSP trait. Thank you!
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