I’ve spent some time over the past few weeks researching sensitivity. As it relates to perception, creativity, and emotional regulation, including experiences of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. I was also, if I am to be honest, looking for some reading on the real advantages of being a sensitive person. I mean, being sensitive might help you become a better painter or poet, but how useful a trait is it really—especially in a society that views many attributes of high sensitivity as flaws, faults, obstacles to be overcome?
I was pleased to find a wealth of valuable information—and answers to my questions—on the website of Dr. Elaine Aron, the psychologist who coined the term highly sensitive person (HSP) to refer to individuals who exhibit a dispositional or personality trait known as sensory processing sensitivity. Which involves a sensitivity of the central nervous system to and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli. HSPs tend to take longer to process information, and that lengthy processing time can yield more novel and profound interpretations. They are also highly reactive to (or are readily startled by) stimuli that most others can encounter comfortably. Can become easily overwhelmed in intensely stimulating (e.g., loud, bright, pressure-filled) environments. And are often aesthetically sensitive, requiring downtime, or “quiet time,” in aesthetically-pleasing, yet decidedly low-key spaces. They are also incredibly tuned into and have uncommonly lush and vibrant inner worlds. Creative people tend to be highly sensitive. Now, raise your hand if you creatives see yourselves in this description. (There is a self-test on Dr. Aron’s site if you’re curious.)
While I considered writing a descriptive post on high sensitivity, it occurred to me that it might be far more interesting and beneficial to talk about what it means to manage one’s sensitivity. The complexities of first acknowledging and then learning to honor and respect one’s own nature, especially in environments that are dulling, abrasive, even downright offensive to those of us who are less able to filter our experiences. Here are some thoughts:
Overwhelm is a fact of life.
I was relieved to learn that overwhelm in high-intensity environments is quite normal for some people. I had long considered this an obstacle I had to overcome…to no avail, of course. That awful feeling of sensory assault in a place that’s too loud, too bright, too busy, that involves an uncomfortable array of multi-tasking, etc. I get terribly anxious in such environments. I am not, nor have I ever been, the kind of girl to be found in a club. The pounding of the music. The lights. The crowds. All make me want to stow myself away in the recesses of a dark corner.
The same goes for certain pressure-filled situations, those involving unpleasant multi-tasking, having to perform on cue and in front of others, as in high visibility work situations. While I sometimes feel energized by the challenge of balancing a series of complex tasks, and very much enjoy being with and in front of other people (I’ve worked in sales and service positions for many years.), there are other times in which the pressure to perform makes me want to run and hide. Or simply give up and succumb to that awful feeling that I’m about to be swallowed alive.
But, over time, I have learned not only to coach myself through those moments, but also—and more importantly— to reward and care for myself afterward. A little deep breathing goes a long way. So does stealing away for a few moments to simply shut your eyes and be still. And that calming inner voice that says, It’s not that bad. You’ll get through it. That’s essential. And after an experience that’s left me feeling especially scattered, disconnected, or otherwise out-of-sorts—because to me, disorientation, or feeling “not with it,” is always the aftermath of an overwhelming situation—a long swim, yoga, or some time in nature are the best remedies.
Find your dark place.
I have, for as long as I can remember, been accused of doing things “in the dark.” Whether it’s cooking, reading, cleaning, or watching television. Why are you in here in the dark? is a question the people in my life have been asking me since I was a child. Of course, I always think the lighting is just perfect. Aesthetically pleasing. Comfortable. Harmonious. Indeed, the aesthetics of my environment are of the utmost importance to me. At all times (and especially if I’m entertaining). I feel noticeably stressed in harsh, abrasive, or disjointed environments. Likewise, beautiful, warmly (and often dimly) lit spaces make me feel all sorts of blissed out. A kind of mini-ecstasy, if you will. The highs of aesthetic delight are equally as powerful as the aforementioned lows. And I find that always having a “dark place” to retreat to is vital to my well-being.
In addition, it’s worth noting that I feel overly bright (or otherwise overbearing) environments detract from the quality of my inner experiences. That is, I find it much easier to lose myself in the vibrant and magical landscapes of my imagination if my environment is calm. A little bit dark. And decorated in varying shades of beige or pastel. I sometimes think I could sit alone in a room with four bare walls and paint it endlessly with the color palette of my imagination. And any external environment that interferes with the degree to which I can experience my inner world is generally unwelcome.
Slow and steady…
I am neither a speedy thinker nor a fast reader. And if something bad happens, like a misunderstanding or fight with a friend, family member, or partner, I will feel terribly about it for days. That is, I’ll let it fester. This isn’t actually something I like admitting about myself, but I do have a propensity to sit with emotions, both good and bad, for, arguably, longer than I should. I realized some years ago, however, that this is a trait I can’t seem to change. I’ve just got to make sure that hanging onto the negative doesn’t get the better of me. And the truth is, it generally doesn’t. As long as I’m not working against myself, treating this lengthier processing time like a problem that needs to be “fixed.” (A “suck it up” attitude is terribly self-defeating here.) That is, I’ve found it’s far better to acknowledge that this is, in fact, how I naturally think and feel. To treat my inner experiences with respect and allow them to just be, while making sure to be gentle with myself in the process. Then, the unpleasant tends to resolve itself, usually improving markedly within a few days or so.