Confessions of an HSP: The Importance of Knowing Yourself
On Sensitivity, Solitude, and (Self-)Centeredness
The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.
— Adam Smith
Sometimes it seems to me that we are born to spend the first twenty years being shaped and all the ones following after that (and may they be plenty!) figuring out how to deal with who we have become. Yet observing engraved thought patterns, automated reactions or deeply buried desires becomes paramount in learning how to live a life that is suited to your character, your personal set-up, your very individual needs. It is pretty much guaranteed that, only once you start standing by yourself faithfully and unapologetically — regardless of what society dictates to be the “norm” — will you start feeling truly at home with yourself.
The way that lead to the discovery that I can be categorized as an “HSP” (Highly Sensitive Person) was a lengthy one, but basically, it all began with Nutella. After a life-long struggle with abnormal eating, I finally found goodness and wholeness in the concept of intuitive eating around the beginning of 2013. Instantly, I felt much more natural and confident about food, eating, and bodies than I ever had. I suddenly ate what I truly felt like, I was suddenly aware of the self-destructive and aggressive monologues that had been overpowering my mind for all my life, and most importantly, I finally had the freedom to stop eating when I was full. The latter was perhaps the greatest of discoveries, although it took courage to leave more than half of my pizza untouched if I had had enough, to say no if I didn’t feel like alcohol at a social gathering where everybody else drank, to join others at the “all you can eat”-buffet and then have one plate because that is what my body told me felt good and that is that. This to me was a new found freedom that I had never dared to dream of.
I learnt more about me and my fears and attitudes and pressures by merely looking at my plate than I ever had looking at what I used to think of as my “eating problem.” Ultimately, I also learnt that food wasn’t the problem — everything else was! Everything I had been telling myself about food, about social expectations, about aesthetics. If it was just me rooted firmly in my body, no amount of brownies and no lasagnes and no mozzarellas would ever be enough to make me scared of “losing control” again, because I was there, with me, and I felt when it was enough, and then I would simply stop. Because, unlike I’d been told all my life, cupcakes weren’t somehow “divine” and “irresistible.” They were, sometimes, nice (surprisingly, even that suddenly depended on my body’s mood). But no food had a moral value (and thus no feelings of guilt for eating “bad” food), and factually, no food actually had a secret power over me. On the contrary, I finally saw that it was the situation surrounding it that did. Really, food didn’t control me; I controlled food. For my own purposes — to fit in, to numb, to hide.
There was only one problem: I quickly discovered that I was only able to feel my body and eat intuitively when I was as calm and as close to myself as possible. The sensation of remaining centered and grounded amidst the turbulence of days became a sort of addiction. And that’s when I learnt that, most of the time, I was a nervous bundle of anxiety. Slowly, I was forced to helplessly observe continuous waves of uncontrollable, completely counter-intuitive phases of disturbed eating swooshing over me, keeping a hold of me for weeks until I woke up out of a food trance. Easy phases of intuitive, wholesome eating and kindness towards myself on the other hand occurred as the exception. For a long time, I had absolutely no clue about the whys and hows. Then, after what seemed like an eternity of patient observation, I had a pretty solid feeling that the harmful phases always coincided with stress.
One fine day, I told a friend how I was so overwhelmed by the rush of visitors we had had lately (Berlin is a trendy town!). Her reaction was mind-blowing. She merely shrugged, saying: “Of course you are overwhelmed. You’re an introvert.” I laughed. Yes, right, me. The person who is ALWAYS surrounded by people. The person who has lots of talks over a flood of coffee with people all of the time. Introvert! “Oh no,” she corrected me. “Introversion has nothing to do with how sociable you can be. It simply means that you draw energy from solitude, while extroverts charge their batteries in the company of other people. Really, it’s a fifty/fifty chance that you’re either the one or the other, and that’s simply a natural personality trait.”
That day, my life changed fundamentally. While I was tentative to embrace the description of introversion, it sure explained a lot about what I had, up to that point, secretly declared “my pathological need to be alone.” It finally all made sense — and if it was a natural thing to be, then who could blame me for it? If I needed to be alone to get energy, then why would I trash myself for that. It was simply how I was wired! And thus, slowly, I found the courage to say no. Say no to parties, to gatherings, to too much coffee with friends scheduled for too many days in a row. I started understanding that all the communication through texting and calling and whatsapping and messaging was actually smothering me to the degree that I semi-hated my cell phone, so I slowly ventured into becoming a little less dictated by its rings and buzzes. Oh, the freedom! And with every no I felt bad and cold-hearted and rejecting, but with every no that feeling of guilt got to sting a little less.
Yet it turned out that this didn’t cover it. My stress levels decreased minimally, while the uncontrollable bouts of strange eating persisted. This is when I realized there was much more to stress than just my tendency to engage with too many people. Really, I was surprised to realize that stress was a constant companion of mine even if I took care to schedule much more me-time than people-time. I was, I finally had to admit, an anxious soul. Anxious about generally THINGS happening. Starting to track triggers, the list of them started growing against my will. Yes, it contained visitors staying over from other countries and towns — but it also featured paper deadlines. Workdays that contained special meetings. Dentists. The mere prospect of traveling — which I, due to a long-distance relationship as well as family abroad, did a lot at the time. Indeed, whenever something unusual — and by that I mean anything diverging from the norm of me being pretty much left alone in my regular environment with just the right combination of work and play — was in the pipeline, something in me clicked and I became an eater that intentionally disregarded sensations of fullness, hunger or even distinct physical cravings and it felt like I had no control over my own irrational decisions. It was as though a powerful force was violently taking over my body and stuffing or starving me according to its own principles. And it always came without warning.
At that point, I was unsure as to how to proceed. I mean, I couldn’t just stop living. I had a degree going, a job, a relationship, friends. You can’t just stop all these things. For one thing, they are, in their very own way, lovely! An unsociable, fragile hermit is not who I was and am planning on being. So what now? Re-reading one of the introversion books I had inhaled a few months prior (The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling, a cute introduction to what it means to be an introvert), I again stumbled over the term “HSP.” I initially shrugged it off because, I mean, it has got to be enough to discover you are an introvert when all your life you were always called “outgoing” and “sociable” and “easy to talk to.” And yet, after a while, I looked into the matter. More and more, I saw that this is who I am, and I can either embrace it and get comfortable, or I can ignore it and set myself up for a life-time of pain.
High sensitivity explains so much of what I am. It for instance explains why shopping on busy boulevards is my personal nightmare; all the movement, the colors, the sounds, the smells mingle to a mind-numbingly overwhelming ocean of evil. High sensitivity explains why I have to mentally prepare myself for brunches or dinners and parties that feature more than three people. Too many facial expressions that I automatically decipher and emotions that I instantly pick up on and interactions going on, all the mingling voices and the loud laughter, not to mention THE horror of introversion: smalltalk. I can totally do it — and I am mighty good at it, too! But in the end I will want to curl up on my couch and just listen to the silence. High sensitivity generally explains my friendship with the couch. It explains why a normal day at work is enough stimulation for me to make me want to spend a cozy evening with as little emotional “excitement” as possible. And it also explains why I have an intense dislike of strong smells — be they pleasant or unpleasant — and loud voices, music on high volume, noise in general. It probably explains why I am highly sensitive to temperature — to my own annoyance, I experience overwhelming heat-waves when others are perfectly comfortable, saunas to me are rooms of death (why would I EVER put myself into a room with boiling air out of free will?), and the water temperature my person showers with is virtually unbearable for me. And it most definitely explains why, in extreme phases of stress, my immune system starts failing while my body begins to give in to its chronically sore spots. Immune systems tend to do that with everybody, but it seems to need less for me to reach that point. I have proverbially thin skin, but even physically my skin is a barometer of how I am doing: I tend to succumb to rashes that, despite lengthy examinations and tests and screenings, no doctor has ever been able to decipher completely.
With one out of every five people being highly sensitive, I am no where near being alone: I have two close friends who have also started realizing that this is who they are, and I can assure you, they are still very normal people. Had we not this fancy new term to label them, you would perhaps think of them as funny individuals with their very unique ticks. Most people do not and will never know how I feel on the inside at social gatherings. Most people will never know that their loud voices and their music and their sirens REALLY hurt me on a physical level. And ironically, I actually have a strong immune system: the flu can rage around me and I can basically wade through other people’s pools of germs, but I will only catch it if I am stressed out. I am a normal person — except that life to me is really, REALLY loud. And intense.
On the plus-side, being sensitive to stimulation means that I also don’t need much to be completely happy. Indeed, one of my greatest of joys is staying at home to experiment with food in the kitchen. The smells, colors, textures, the reactions, the endless possibilities are my very own definition of what it means to have a truly awesome time. Happiness to me is reading a book every once in a while, or photographically documenting simple things in which I find beauty. It is slowness and, every few days, that coffee with a friend. It is silence, writing, thinking. It is deep, philosophical (quiet) conversations about society, expectations, health. It is walks in the park nearby to soak up the profoundly soothing vision of emerald and golden leaves or delicate naked branches. I can look out the window and I see so much that, as I wrote in my post “HSPs in a World of Beauty,” it is impossible not to be pleased by the marvels of things. I feel so easily and deeply that, yes, hurting sucks, but I also feel satisfaction often and deeply.
And because I feel so easily and deeply, I also feel stress — easily and deeply. Suddenly, with intuitive eating, I started to realize that when my mind senses intense times lying ahead, this is what happens: it shuts down my sensations. Why? Because I seem to believe that is the only way to go through with it being the person I am. Everything else would simply be overwhelming, wouldn’t it? So I duck and cover. In an instant, a deeply ingrained survival mode kicks in that simply sucks all of my consciousness out of my body and directs all of my energy into my head. This is the times when I start residing entirely within the realms of my cyclical thoughts, my problem-solving mode. It is when I start to stop eating, and then overeating even though I am very aware that I am full. This, if going on for long enough, is also the time when I start feeling aches and pains where I commonly feel them. It is when, lastly, my rashes start flashing and bringing me to a sudden halt with a coinciding cold or sickness.
The art of staying grounded consists in observing life and your reactions to it, and then learning how to stay with yourself even though it might seem unbearable to do so. Stay even though powerful forces are pulling you away from your center. It takes time and patience and dedication, but with every step you move towards more ease. It took me months to be able to consciously observe myself during stress phases, finally UNDERSTANDING that this was a stress phase and things were happening to me. Then, it took me more months to figure out that there is a moment where my survival mode kicks in. It took me additional months simply sitting there, watching it cluelessly, not having an idea of how to foresee the click or at least dampen its impact and perhaps stop it early. And finally, it took me around ten weeks and it cost a little fortune to attend a mindfulness course that helped me develop tools to stay at least partly rooted in the Now, in my body, in the goodness of what is, even in turbulent times.
Last year, I experienced considerable stress. I planned and went through with my own wedding, for once. I spent my first few months as a newly-wed. I have flown back and forth between countries because my family is scattered across the globe. I have developed my thesis, worked extra hours, visited friends and had friends visiting. Yet I have been UTI-free since around last spring, which equals a miracle. Equally, my chronically recurring backaches have disappeared into nothingness.
Today, I know that the click has in fact happened when I don’t want to do my mindfulness exercises. When I am almost incapable of even imagining sitting still for twenty, thirty minutes to just breathe. When everything inside insists that I have so much more important stuff to do and all of what is me refuses to feel what is. Yet paradoxically, this is precisely when I need it the most. When even just ten minutes — and no matter how busy the day, ten minutes are ALWAYS available somewhere — can decide over whether or not I will retreat entirely into my head, and with it into a world of feverish thinking, restless running, mindless checking off lists or “bearing things.” Ironically, it is those ten minutes that ultimately make it all okay. That gently guide my undeterminedly hovering body back on the ground, and oh how good it always feels for my feet to feel the soil. How sane, how profoundly undramatic, how much like home. Why on earth would I ever even try to resist this?
It is as I said: this is a life-long journey. And as such, I have come extremely far — but I currently often don’t yet manage to meditate in the face of that powerful force of mindlessness. The Christmas break, involving another flight and lots of people and an unusual environment that is no longer mine, ended up dragging me far away from the meditation routine that — after finishing my MBSR-course — I am merely starting to incorporate into my everyday life. Sure enough, I got violently sick between Christmas and New Year’s, with nights of pain and mysterious rashes. I came home and was, one day later, directly thrown into work, and then into more work, into the beginning stages of my thesis, into the lurking pressures of everyday life and bills and obligations. Ever since, sitting down to breathe and take those ten has become a daily struggle.
But this is a path, and I am walking it steadily. Just a year or two ago, I used to think it impossible to say no to people and feel comfortable with that. And yet here I am and it has become normal to me to the degree that I cannot even picture saying yes any longer. One day, what seems impossible now will feel natural, too. Step by step, mindful observation is helping me to shed myself of all the things I picked up in those first twenty years. Step by step, I am becoming more at ease, and I venture to say, a more truthful and pleasant me.
And you know what? The last couple of visitors have actually remarked on how “relaxing” it is to spend time with us. Now this is a word I have never heard in connection with myself!