Saturday, June 23, 2012

Being an HSP... and the Intrusion of Noise

We are out "camping" this week. I put that in quotes because we have a cabin, so it's not exactly primitive camping, but it's still a way to get closer to nature, which has always felt very healing, to me.

Being out here where there is no man-made noise reminds me of just how "loud" our everyday lives have gotten. I am not talking about the obvious like the sound of trucks passing in the street, air conditioners humming and someone using a power lawn mower-- I am talking about "the little things."

The sound of velcro, being opened. The sound of "hard" cellophane packaging around the sugar box. The sound of a sliding door that is old and worn where it glides. The sound of a spoon, stirring coffee in a cup. Absent the backdrop of white noise, these sounds are suddenly very loud.

It would be an exaggeration to say that noise has always been my "enemy," but-- that said-- I can honestly say that I have sought "quiet spaces" since I was a small boy. Looking back on my early life, I can see how I responded to "noisy" activities and environments and conclude "Yes, I can now see how I was an HSP," during those early years. Back then, there was no such thing as "being highly sensitive," so I was generally regarded as "timid" and "fearful."

We lived near a busy train line, when I was little. My grandfather would walk me down to the end of the nearby field so I could see the trains go by... and he could never understand why I didn't want to, given that I professed a love of trains. In truth, I thought the trains were cool, but the sound of the engines and rail cars rolling by-- from 20 feet away-- was profoundly overwhelming. Everybody thought I was scared of the trains, but I really wasn't-- I was just completely "sensory overloaded" by the noise they made. The sound felt like... someone was stabbing me in the head/ears with sharp needles, straight into the part of my brain that processes sound.

My experience of "noise" remains the same, today. Noisiness-- of pretty much any form-- has a strong component of overwhelm for me... from raised voices, to loud music, to lawn mowers even down to the sound of cellophane packaging being opened on a quiet morning, or a door that can't be opened silently. When I cook or do home maintenance projects I generally avoid "power tools" (mixers, blenders, table saws) in favor of doing things "by hand..." NOT for "philosophical reasons" but because I loathe the noise of machinery.

Whether I call it an "ideosyncracy" or an "issue," my sensitive ears have occasionally led to feelings of alienation because I was never able to equate "loud" with "fun," as the majority of the world's people seem to. Of course, as I write these words, I realize that there are also those who are HSPs who don't mind noise. Or who can listen to music so loud their bones are rattling, but who are driven crazy by the faintest sound of fluorescent light fixtures buzzing. Ultimately, it may not be the sounds, themselves, that identify us as HSPs... but the fact that we are highly aware of noise. 

Talk Back: How do YOU experience noise/sound? Do you find that you often notice sounds other people are not even aware of? Does ALL loud noise bother you, or is loudness not really an issue for you? Do certain sounds drive you crazy? Do you consider yourself a "silence seeker?" Do you feel that you have a "relationship" with noise that is shaped by the fact that you're an HSP? Please leave a comment and share your experiences with other HSPs.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

HSP Issues: How do YOU get overwhelmed?

It's no secret that one of the less pleasant aspects of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the periodic feeling of overwhelm (or "overstimulation," as Elaine Aron calls it) most of us endure. There isn't much we can do about it-- it's just part and parcel of being an HSP. As one HS friend once told me "When your flame burns really bright, it also tends to burn out faster."

As far as I can tell, there's not one single thing that causes an HSP to get overstimulated, although one thing I often hear is "I just had too much stuff on my plate."

Since we can't get rid of our propensity to become overstimulated, the next best thing is learning to "manage" it. This generally involves a combination of self-awareness and good time management with strong boundaries.

Self-awareness teaches us to stay "tuned in" to ourselves to such a degree that we can opt out of something we're doing, before we reach the point of getting totally frazzled. Self-awareness also allows us to stay on top of the specific things (or "triggers") that cause us to get overwound-- but since they tend to vary from person to person, I can't really offer a checklist you can start using.

From my own life, I know that crowded noisy events-- especially when combined with a longish journey to get to them-- tend to wear me out very quickly. The onslaught of noise, bright light, voices, people pushing and shoving and the energy of a crowd... at the end of a two-hour drive-- makes my head feel like it is going to explode. I also know that I can prepare myself for such events and do OK... BUT, if I have to participate at a time when I am already "really busy," then I know I am headed to a bad place

So, my "coping mechanism" (this is the time management part) isn't necessarily to opt out of the event, but to drive to the location the evening before, spend the night at a nearby motel, and then arrive at the event somewhat refreshed, at the end of a five minute drive. Does it cost more? Yes! But I'd rather enjoy one event at a leisurely pace than be frazzled by two.

On the surface, many may think "but I didn't have a CHOICE!" Indeed, sometimes we don't have a choice, but most of the time we can "create" choices by planning ahead, rather than just "letting life happen TO us." Unfortunately, many HSPs struggle with planning, as it tends to be a rather "left brain" (analytical) type of thinking process, where most HSPs prefer "right brain" (intuitive/subjective) thinking. However, in the interest of self-preservation, planning is one of those areas where we are well served by stepping outside our comfort zones.

Sometimes self-awareness, planning and time management for HSPs means that we may have to make choices we don't like. Sometimes we may choose to be part of something we know will cause overstimulation-- however, simply "being aware" (rather than "being taken by surprise") may help us deal with the situation. Sometimes we may want to be part of two things we like, but the intensity of doing both things will cause overwhelm... and we have to be willing to say "no" to one of them, in spite of perhaps feeling some peer pressure in the form of negative self-talk along the lines of "I should be able to do this-- any NORMAL person can." We must honor that we are HSPs... and we get to set our own defintion of "normal."

Talk Back! How do you experience feeling overstimulated? Are you aware of specific situations that lead to overwhelm, or are you not aware till you're "in the middle of it?" Do you have coping tools for these situations? Do you plan ahead and manage your time and energy output, ahead of potentially challenging situations or events? Are there specific types of events you have learned to say no to? Have you found a balance between "avoiding" and "managed participation" in life's events? Please leave a comment!

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Of HSPs and "Sensitives"

How do we define ourselves?

Since I first learned there was such a thing as "being an HSP," I have been part of a lot of different groups, web forums, workshops, retreats and other venues specifically involving highly sensitive people. Once upon a time, I believed HSPs were a lot more "alike" than I do today. I now know that whereas we do share this trait, we are all very different and distinct individuals.

Dr. Elaine Aron's description of the trait has been around since the her book "The Highly Sensitive Person" was published in 1996, but it seems like the actual "meaning" of being a Highly Sensitive Person is often a rather fluid and changeable one. Granted, 95% of the world's HSPs are "self-defined," with only about 5% perhaps "identified" by a therapist or life coach. Besides, since being highly sensitive is NOT a "condition," there is also no "diagnosis," so I guess it would follow that our individual interpretations of "sensitive" is filtered through our personal lenses of perception.

As a demographic group, we HSPs have come a long way, since 1996. General awareness of the trait reaches new highs every year, as more and more articles about high sensitivity are included in mainstream media. Whether we agree with their approaches and "tone"-- or not-- it's hard to dispute that a lot more people know that there's such a thing as "being an HSP," thanks to these publications.

That said, there are also a fair number of misinterpretations and misidentifications out there.

One term I frequently run into is "Sensitives."

Sensitives, in this case, refers to people who are psychic or possess some form of ESP or Psi-abilities. It's a term that has been around much longer than "HSP" and it is NOT the same thing as being a Highly Sensitive Person. In fact, if you examine Elaine Aron's self-test for sensitivity, you'll find that maybe 3-4 of the 27 item questionnaire address anything remotely pertaining to Psi powers.

Being an HSP does not automatically mean you're a "Sensitive."
Being a "Sensitive" does not automatically make you an HSP.
Some HSPs are "Sensitives," and some "Sensitives" are HSPs.

You might be wondering why I even care about this.

One of the primary benefits of learning about the HSP trait-- including what is, and is NOT part of it-- is ultimately to enjoy a better quality of life in which we incorporate our sensitivities into our daily routines, rather than experience them as a hindrance. We are responsible-- to ourselves, and to others-- to know at least the basics of what we're talking about, and that includes the definitions of both high sensitivity and some it its "lookalikes." The more we know and understand, the more we can identify what "is-me" and what "is-not-me." If we mislabel ourselves-- or allow others to mislabel themselves, or us-- we're not being effective "ambassadors" in helping establish an accurate public awareness of High Sensitivity.

And that would just be a shame, given how many of us have spent lives feeling marginalized through misunderstanding.

Talk Back! Do you feel like you have a strong sense of what it "means" to be an HSP? Have you understood "Sensitives" and "HSP" to be the same thing? Or has it never been an issue? Have you actually taken Elaine Aron's sensitivity quiz (link above)? Did the questions different from what you "thought" it would mean to be sensitive? Please leave a comment!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

HSP Resources: Boston & New England Area Groups

From time to time, I like to take a few moments to encourage HSPs to "connect locally."

Why should HSPs connect with their peers? Most HSPs find it very healing to spend time with others, even if they are somewhat reclusive and solitary in nature... after all, nobody "gets" what it's like to be a highly sensitive person more than a fellow HSP.

How and where do you connect? There are online groups and local regional meetup groups and support groups. Today's focus is on the Boston area and the surrounding New England states, in general.

This post is by no means exhaustive, but at least it offers a starting point for HSPs in the region.

The HSP Boston & New England group is an online discussion group on YahooGroups. It has been around since 2003 and has about 80 members. It's a "moderated" group, meaning that memberships are approved by a real live person in order to maintain an "HSP friendly" environment.

Highly Sensitive Persons-- Boston/Cambridge is part of the meetup organization. Active since December 2010, this is a group with an online web page, but the group schedules regular "flesh space" get togethers.

A "good bet" for HSPs in the Boston area is the "Nerd Fun" meetup group, although it is not specifically an HSP group. Originally started by an HSP, this activity group has grown to almost 5000 members and organizes many smaller individual events, quite a few of which would appeal to HSPs-- museum trips, exhibits, outings and so forth.

Naturally, more groups may exist around the New England states. Good places to check for announcements might be the bulletin board at your local food coop, or bulletin boards at holistic healing centers. In some cases, you might be able to find lectures about the HSP trait offered through your local learning annex, and these may also be a good way to make contact. Keep in mind, however, that these free lectures are sometimes used by counselors and therapists as a tool to drum up new business.

If you are interested in some more "serious" HSP learning, Dr. Elaine Aron occasionally teaches 3-day workshops at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires. Check the center's workshop schedule for information-- and keep in mind that Elaine Aron's workshops are only offered maybe once every year or two.

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