Daring Life as a Skinless Chameleon
“OF COURSE she is also one of those HSPs.“
Some time ago, I overheard a conversation in a cafe. From what I could gather, it was two teachers discussing a third person – and with some palpable irritation, they used air quotes to accompany the term ‘HSP’ (Highly Sensitive Person) whenever it appeared in their conversation.
Having just discovered that I, too, belonged into the dubious category of air quote HSPs air quote just weeks prior to witnessing their casual chat, I grew embarrassed and self-conscious about me believing to be one of them. It was the first time I had heard someone in real life – not in the books I had read – mentioning HSPs. And apparently, judging from their tone my “high sensory processing sensitivity” was merely another recently hyped personality trait that demanded extra-attention in the class room – yet another educational label, another group that requested more understanding, more patience, more everything. Why couldn’t we just all go back to ritalin-kids being fidgeters and HSPs being crybabies? It would make things so much easier. I continued to sip on my little cappuccino in consternated silence.
Are You an HSP? Fancypants.
Yes, being an HSP sounds fancy. But the teachers I overheard are right in one aspect: it actually isn’t. I am planning on – with time – providing more basic information with regards to the trait, but for now let me just say that a) I am not a scientist but b) actual scientists have thus far determined that supposedly 15-20% of any given population qualify as highly sensitive. The same ratio seems to go for more than one-hundred animal species that have thus far been tested. This means that about every 5th person you meet is likely to be a high sensory processor – so basically, there will be one or two even among your more or less close friends alone. This makes us special, but not all that special.
Okay, So Perhaps You’re a Little Special
Simply put, the way I understand it, being highly sensitive means exactly that: being highly sensitive. It is not a deficiency, not a handicap, and not a symptom. High sensory processing sensitivity is, as research suggests, actually an inborn personality trait and has its rightful and purposeful place in the workings of our species.
Scientists assume (and I’ll stop with the science in just a minute) that a 15-20% ratio of extremely sensitive members is probably about what any species might need to to function smoothly. In other words: you need the chunk that hears, sees, smells, feels, tastes more intensely – potential danger is thus detected earlier while the rest of the population can go on about their daily business being predominantly non-sensitive. As a matter of fact, studies suggest that the remaining part of humans consider themselves as either moderately sensitive – 27% – and lastly, not at all sensitive – basically the remaining percentage, so more than 40% of people. Either way, all three types are needed for the community to work at its optimum.
All in All, You’re Basically a Skinless Chameleon
However. HOWEVER. In our loud, fast, intense lives (dominated by 40 to 60% of non-sensitive to meh…-sensitive people) far off from the natural world we used to inhabit, our trait is not just an advantage. Because we are made to process sensory input especially deeply, overload is reached easily. It can happen within seconds – screaming sirens, a pungent smell, crammed subways, hot rooms, or loud chatter over a brunch with a group of friends.
I feel like I have no skin to protect me from outside influences; everything I see and feel has the potential to be beautiful or shocking or delightful or heart-breaking. Everything will move me deeply. For instance. The majority of us will tend to have a huge capacity for empathy – which is perhaps why some of us will try to actively avoid violent movies and negative headlines in the newspapers. Personally, I can barely watch a drama film; not to mention that the ONE ‘horror’ flick I have EVER watched – Se7en – is, to my knowledge, not even categorized as horror and yet it managed to traumatize me for LIFE. That was more than a decade ago. On the other hand, when I see something alluring, I will gain from it deeply. It can be a perfectly crafted line in a poem or the odd geometry of a fig cut in a half. As a matter of fact, I made a good friend over simply observing a little ginger-colored squirrel going about its way, being all fluffy and drizzled with spring sunshine, which I thought was SO adorable that my eyes quietly filled with tears. She says that she in turn observed ME and that that’s when she knew she liked me. You might have guessed that she is also an HSP.
Personally, I feel like a chameleon – if the world is green, I’ll be green. If it is gold, I’ll turn gold. When my husband is silent or grumpy, the mood will feel so heavy to me that it will make me sad and I will be completely preoccupied with how to improve the situation. If it is cloudy outside and I have not made sure that I’ve stared into my Philips bright light energy lamp for long enough (yes, it was worth the investment!!), my soul will be overcast. But if the skies are blue and endless, contrasting against lush green plains or orange rooftops, I am likely very, very happy. And do not get me started on music! It is literally the soundtrack to my life. If I walk around listening to a movie soundtrack featuring a melancholic cello, it will touch the core of my bones and I will start pondering over my life and the choices I have made in an utterly… melancholic way. If it is monotonous but upbeat electro, I will feel energized and enduring (thus, my perfect jogging choice). It is for this reason that, long before I knew I am a highly sensitive processor, I started banning music from my life that made me sad, aggressive, indifferent, or regretful. It is simply too exhausting to change color every time a song changes its tonality.
And That’s Just the Little Things.
A normal workday without any tragedies or any particular high-pressure situations is completely enough; after that, you just want to go home and – preferably – sit in a quiet room alone for a bit. In my case, it is for this reason that dinner appointments after an intense workday are often dreaded. I can do them, I can even seem sociable, too – but I don’t fully enjoy it. Do that three nights in a row and I will be exhausted (granted, this might be intensified by the fact that I am also an introvert and need alone-time to enjoy life properly, like fish need water). Do that sort of thing a few weeks in a row and my body will act out the overload: I’ll have rashes, backaches, and whatever likes to come back again and again (UTIs, mostly). In the end, I will quite predictably have a sort of kneejerk reaction in which I will mercilessly cancel all unnecessary upcoming appointments and try to not see anybody outside of work for at least seven years.
In any case, that’s when I spend oodles of time alone – ALL alone. Whenever I have a choice, I stay within the tranquil cocoon of our comparably silent city apartment. I go for walks in parks. I cook and bake tons of things I’ve never cooked or baked before. I sit at the little round wooden table by our French balcony and watch the silver shine on the shivering birch tree leaves by our window. Sometimes I even go for a run. No music. No voices. No facial expressions to read or movements to ignore. After an overload, these moments of peace feel like the instant a painkiller kicks in that suddenly shuts off a background headache I’ve had all along whilst not taking notice of it properly. The relief makes me think: “Thank you thank you thank you. THANK YOU.”
Introvert. HSP. ANYTHING ELSE?!!
I have only learnt that I am an HSP about a year ago. To be quite honest, the discovery had been a half-hearted affair. My initial indifference with regards to this particular self-revelation was due to the fact that I had JUST had ANOTHER equally ground-breaking self-revelation weeks before: namely that I belonged into the category of “introverts.” Here I had gone about my days for 24 or so years being called outgoing, sociable, and even loud. I had been actively engaged in numerous wonderful friendships and going to parties and clubs and hitting the dance floor. I often didn’t want to – but hearing someone say “ah, come on, don’t be a bore!” was usually enough to pressure me into going with the flow.
The introversion-discovery had been positive news in that it explained a LOT of things I had hitherto pathologized about myself (like the enormous need to be alone, my actual secret dislike of raging night-long parties or my preference for deep, philosophical conversations and total horror of smalltalk). But it had put me in a whole new light that I still had to get used to. It had shattered an opaque window, and the new view took some time to process and adapt. Suddenly I noticed all these introvert-things about me and didn’t quite know what to do with them for a minute. How to say no to people? How to justify all of the me-days I need in a row? (As a side note: no worries, I have largely figured it out by now. I just say no. I have plans. And in my thoughts I add: “To be with me.” It is an activity. And it makes me smile.)
All in all, back then I simply wasn’t ready to add the high sensory processing trait to the growing pile. I needed some time to admit that the 268 points out of 300 – with 163 and upwards indicating a high probability of the trait’s existence – might not be entirely the fault of what I first deemed a ‘weird test.’ (I first took the test provided in Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person, meanwhile also available on her website http://www.hsperson.com, but the points were scored in a more extensive one provided by the German website http://www.zartbesaitet.net).
You Can’t Unshatter Glass
A year has passed and I can no longer deny the hard facts staring in my face. Yet another opaque window has shattered, and now I can SEE. Oh boy do I see. (Familiar, anybody?) For the past few months, having become more accepting of the idea that I am most likely a highly sensitive processor, things have got intense. On my inside. I’m not sure people know.
Suddenly, I see EVERYTHING. I finally have to admit that things DO overwhelm me, whereas during the previous 25 years I have been perfectly capable of ignoring and suppressing the constant overload (unlike my body, which I now see clearly communicated the overload in its very own language). All my life, I have apparently trained myself to blend in and go along with everyone else. Also, up to one year ago I have only had a slight suspicion that to me things feel slightly different, but couldn’t put my finger to it. How to prove something like that? You can’t go into other people and then compare their experience to yours. Or so I thought; but Elaine Aron eventually did it. And ever since, scientists are following in her footsteps.
Aron prepares her readers for the fact that a phase of intensification might happen after the initial discovery, so I don’t feel wholly unprepared. I also don’t feel bummed (most of the time). It shattered something, but it revealed the truth.
A Chameleon Dancing in the Sunny Rain
So, this is who I am. Who you are, maybe. This is how WE are wired. It is not a flaw. It can actually be an amazing advantage; think of all the brilliant things HSPs would have to offer if their environment were one that perfectly complimented their set-up (which goes for any person of any type, really)!
“HSPs tend to fill that advisor role. We are the writers, historians, philosophers, judges, artists, researchers, theologians, therapists, teachers, parents, and plain conscientious citizens. [T]o perform our role well, we have to feel very good about ourselves.”
–Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person
Only when we make sure that our lives are structured in ways that don’t underwhelm or overload us will we be happy enough to perform at our best and feel fulfilled.
That is why we need to lead daring lives.
Obviously, every HSP is different, as is every person on earth in general; but one thing we probably have in common is that it is highly likely the group of HSPs will define a ‘daring life’ not as one filled with bungee jumps, goa parties or screaming stock market brokers. I recently watched a neat documentary about Burning Man and realized that part of me wanted to SEE it live – but the honest voice in my head knew very well that, at the end of a handful of days out there (imagine, ALL the people, all the crazy projects and colors and movements, all the socializing, partying, the smells and noises), I would probably need a three-week all-inclusive retreat in a Buddhist monastery. Had I the option to watch Burning Man whilst sort of hovering above everything invisibly, I would love it. Seeing that we currently haven’t reached that level of technology, I will stick to watching the documentary, thank you.
A daring life according to my definition is many things, but the beginnings of it are simply starting to say no when you feel it’s a No – in a family, a culture, a circle of friends, or a workplace that commonly says Yes.
In the past few years, I got to learn that NO ONE WILL DEFEND MY BORDERS IF I DON’T. No one. And there also won’t be a knight (or knightess) in shining armor suddenly appearing one fine day, setting everyone straight who ever stepped across my lines. I have found my knight in shining armor but he defends his lines, not mine. That’s all he will ever be able to do, and that is the best he will ever be able to do.
It sounds so simple that a lot of people – including what I still think of as grown-ups even though I myself am probably starting to count as one, being married and all – might brush this off as a logical truth everyone adheres to. But what I see in my life is that a gazillion very grown-up people, including family members of mine, constantly let people overstep their lines in all areas of their existence. It exhausts them, it hurts them, and it also angers them – yet the intruders often don’t even know of their offense. And sometimes they plain don’t give a damn.
That’s life. You are responsible for yours. Make it a Chameleonland. Your Chameleonland. Set up your own rules.
One of the things I used to dread the most was when my mother, upon watching me having another mysterious rash-attack of which none of the doctors could determine the biological cause, used to sigh: “Darling, it just seems to me that your tolerance for stress is lower than normal.” For years, I tried to disprove the statement – to her, to myself, to everyone. But it hasn’t gotten me all that far; above all, my ‘tolerance for stress’ is pretty much exactly the same. It is where or what it is, and I am beginning to see it isn’t trainable.
After some lamenting, I realized that if people (including myself) want me to work well, they will simply have to learn that my stress limit is where it is. Moreover, I myself will have to learn not to be ashamed of it. That it is right where it’s supposed to be. That I, in turn, have perks to offer that others don’t.
Perhaps you recognize yourself in some of these. I spot mistakes where others don’t; this is one of the qualities my superior appreciates most about me. I can take hours to perfect a sentence, which is exactly what I am hired for. I can come up with heart-breaking songs on the piano, which is what I used to do every day before I realized it doesn’t just sound sad, it also makes me sad (solution: I wished for a ukulele for my birthday and now I am learning the happy tunes). Friends have told me over and over that an hour with me is like a soothing appointment at the therapist (I sometimes hesitate to see it as a compliment). I have empathy. I have observations. I have suggestions. And on a whole different note, I am delighted just watching fallen leaves swirl on the pavement when others have to go see a Walker Evans exhibition to get a similar feeling. This makes me, in a very weird way, super low maintenance!
What on Earth is Normal Stress Tolerance Anyways?
By whose standards? Are we really to measure ourselves by the stick of a society that has long begun to replace human workers with robotic devices?
A daring life is starting to do what feels good. Truly, deep-down good in a caring and nourishing way. And if that means declining invitations for a bit until you feel you want to see people again, then that’s that. It means starting to point out your boundaries if you haven’t done that so far; that alone can be unnerving in the beginning. Sometimes, it actually means declining a job that sounds nice on your CV but not so nice in your inner ear. It means getting used to disappointing people who have conventional expectations of how something is done, of what is fun or what is tolerable, of what is a ‘successful life.’ Parents, especially to teens and people in their twenties, might be particularly powerful factors in this point.
I have found that it is comparably easy to jump from bridges and plunge into the depths of a valley (at least when you know your feet are tied to a rubber rope). I am speaking from experience, because as a matter of fact, in my HSP-denial phases I have done that several times. It is a very finite experience and thus summoning the courage to jump is a finite experience, too.
Making your entire life yours (whatever that means to YOU) and keeping it that way, that takes courage.
But no one will make it yours for you.
Ultimately, call me an HSP or a crybaby. Whichever you prefer. Labels only help in so far as our attention gets drawn to a singular facet of our identity. In categorizing ourselves as HSPs we are simply offered ONE practical lens through which to view our beings in order to find out how life works best for each of us the way we are built from the very beginning.
So, to close the circle:
“OF COURSE she is also one of those HSPs.“
Yep. You bet. But don’t worry – we won’t bite you. We’re still the same species. You probably won’t even notice us all that much.
We tend like things quiet.
Source: Aron, Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person. How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Revised Edition. Citadel Press, 2014.