Saturday, January 07, 2012

How do YOU "Identify" with the HSP Trait?

In a couple of past articles, I have alluded briefly to the somewhat unhealthy practice of "hiding behind the HSP label," as a means to avoid actively engaging in life. These people carefully and actively "cultivate" an image and aura of being "fragile flowers," sometimes making life insufferably difficult for those around them... who end up feeling like they are walking on eggshells.

This represents one end of a continuum of attitudes towards being a Highly Sensitive Person.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are folks I would describe as "HSPs in denial." These are people who are clearly HSPs but actively deny it; either by ignoring their sensitivities or by declaring the whole idea to be "nonsense." Along with them, another group "sees and rejects" their sensitivity: "Yeah, I'm an HSP... but SO WHAT???"

Extremes are seldom healthy expressions of life... and rarely balanced.

I am unapologetically open about being an HSP. I don't care who knows and who doesn't, and I really don't care what they think about it.

I embrace my sensitivity as a NEUTRAL trait, as Dr. Elaine Aron originally characterized it. Being "sensitive" doesn't "make me" anything. It doesn't make me "special," or "better," or "weak," or "gifted," or anything else... aside from "highly sensitive." It is part of a description of me-- like "blond hair" or "tall."

Just like I don't require anyone to give me "special treatment" because I am tall, I don't require anyone to give me special treatment because I am Highly Sensitive. That said, I also appreciate it when the counter clerk at the airport says "Let me see if I have any seats with extra legroom, since you're tall," and I appreciate it when someone recognizes and does something out-of-the-ordinary for me, because I am highly sensitive.

Just like I understand and embrace that "being tall" comes with certain benefits and drawbacks other people might not fully grasp, so I embrace and understand that "being highly sensitive" comes with certain benefits and drawbacks other people might not fully grasp.

This is my LIFE. I have two options: I can either "fight" it, and complain about it and impose my difficulties on others like a wet blanket... or I can honor it and make the most of precisely the characteristics I happen to have.

Acceptance also means we must be open to accepting certain limitations.

Because I am tall, flying is difficult and very uncomfortable for me... try sitting for eight hours straight, folded up like an accordion. Consider what it's like to shop for cars, knowing that those (about 10%) you can actually "fit in" might NEVER be the ones you "like best." Consider the number of times you might hit your head on something overhead-- from a doorway, to a branch, to a sign in a store, to a low stairwell-- knocking yourself to the ground... and people stare at you like you're stupid.

The above doesn't mean that I don't fly; nor that I don't own a car; nor that I avoid moving around. It just means that my "process" is a little different from most other people's.

As a highly sensitive person, I have certain limitations about me that I simply accept. I doesn't serve me or make my life better to either (A) endlessly complain about them or (B-- which I see a sadly large number of HSPs do) more or less "give up on life" because of these limitations.

As an HSP/empath, I will never be comfortable in large crowds-- the many energies bouncing around, the noise, the pushing and the shoving make me uncomfortable... and exhaust me. Whereas I genuinely like (quiet) people, company wears me out, rather quickly. I cannot do anything well (i.e. "perform") with someone looking over my shoulder. It has nothing to do with being shy, or socially anxious, or fearing failure... and everything to do with the proximity of that person's energy destroying my ability to focus. Loud sounds-- sudden, or persistent-- overwhelm me. They even hurt. Doesn't matter whether it's a jet engine, chain saw, an angry person screaming, a large dog barking or a rock concert.

The above doesn't mean that I don't go to crowded places, that I don't socialize, that I can't work when other people are around or that I don't go to concerts. It simply means that my "process" is a little different from most other people's.

This article was never meant to be about "practical advice" for dealing with specific HSP traits that make life more challenging. It was meant to gently challenge the paradigms of both the "very fragile embracing" HSPs and the "rejectionist" HSPs... and suggest that we need to find a balance; a balance that allows us to be IN the world, but on our terms. "Hiding" behind-- or rejecting-- what makes us HSPs robs us not only of the chance to live full lives, but also of sharing the positive aspects of being highly sensitive with the world.

Talk back! How do you feel about being an HSP? How do you identify with the trait? When you first learned about high sensitivity, did you reject the idea, regard it with skepticism, or wrap yourself in it like a warm blanket? OR something else? Has your attitude towards being an HSP changed, since you first learned about the trait? WHAT has changed? Be part of the dialogue! Leave a comment, and share your experiences.


  1. Hi Peter, I really like how you describe the "neutral" approach as being essentially "physical". I compared being HSP to being left-handed in one of my posts (I am both HSP and left-handed haha!) I too have seen way too many "Handicapped Sensitive People" as well as the uberhealer "I am highly sensitive and I got over it (and so should you)" type Indeed, they "see and reject" it, that is such a helpful way to put it!

  2. Hi Peter,

    I think your points are well taken about how to work with our sensitivity. I consider it a gift in that I use the additional inputs to help myself be in as constructive a place as possible in my work and relationships. So it has become a learning tool for me. I appreciate that is difficult being highly sensitive in our culture and can understand where some might adopt ways of being that may not be helpful, perhaps out of frustration or fear. I have certainly experienced those feelings myself many times.

    All the best,

  3. Hi Peter,

    I really like what you have written here and I really like the analogy between 'tall' and 'HSP' it helps me to put some things in perspective about being HSP. I first learned I was HSP from a therapist who just happened to be HSP. I needed help coming to terms with depression that I had been trying to shake off for 5 years without realizing I was depressed. I was overwhelmed with being a mother to 3 and trying to keep up with everything involved in being a wife and mother. Discovering I was HSP was a huge wonderful validation (big warm blanket revelation) that I wasn't totally crazy that my worries, emotions and avoidance behaviour evolved around lots and lots of little things and tiny details that were important to me. I think I'm going through various stages of trying to balance my life and realistically coming to terms with what I can deal with in my life. There are days I do feel very delicate and shouldn't be out in the world so I keep to myself and there are other days I feel like a normal person and can go places that are noisy and busy, I just have to have quiet time afterwards. I have my ups and downs but I have a much better understanding of why my body isn't coping with everything I'm trying to do. So it's a matter of trying to slow down so my body can cope in a relaxed environment instead of overdoing things and getting stressed, run down and being hard on myself, which is no easy task.

    I understand now why I avoid so many things that my husband enjoys, just to name a few; going to the city, rock concerts, wanting to live closer to the city etc. I can see where being HSP can rob me of some experiences in my life right now, but sometimes I put that down to just being a parent.

    My only afterthought is that 6 years ago I wish I had known I was HSP, I might have been a little kinder on myself and be a little more balanced.

    PS. Sorry for such a long comment :+)


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