". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Making Sense of High Sensitivity

I concluded my previous post about my son by stating that I have come to the conclusion that I, like him, am highly sensitive. I am surprised for several reasons to find myself typing these words. First, I am a cynic when it comes to these kinds of things. I don't know why, but I have always resisted arguments from cause. I think causality is way more complicated and harder to prove than most people imagine it to be. So when people attribute behavior to biology my skeptical side kicks into gear. I don't like anything that provides a potential excuse for things I think people should be able to control. I think we have come to a place sociologically that we want to have a name for everything and a box to put it in and a place on the shelf to put it, and I don't think things are that simple. And even though I have a child with Asperger Syndrome, my attitude towards that "condition" is that it is something that is completely normal for him and a lot of other people. It is just the way he is, in the same way that some of us are more introverted and others are more extroverted. I don't care whether there is a name for it except insofar as its having a name allowed us to more easily access information that assisted us in understanding and teaching our son.

So there is a big part of me that is highly (haha) annoyed to discover this thing called "high sensitivity" and further to discover that it might apply to one of my children and to me. But I can't ignore what I have read and learned in the past few weeks. The passage in the Highly Sensitive Child book (Elaine Aron, author) that started bells ringing in my head was this one:

"Parenting certain HSCs is also more difficult than parenting others. Some are real 'drama queens' and demanding 'little princes.' This partly depends on other aspects of their temperament . . . plus the child's role models and general environment. . . . I also find that parents who are more accepting of the trait and generally available and responsive to their child are the ones, ironically, whose HSCs are more 'trouble' when small. This is because their child feels free to express his feelings . . . . Parents who are less available and responsive--perhaps they are overwhelmed themselves, or nor comfortable with intense emotions--may cause an HSC to hide her feelings in order to be accepted and not cause any trouble. But the child never learns to cope with these bottled-up feelings, and they usually resurface in other ways in adulthood, when it is much harder to fix. So I always worry a bit when parents tell me that their HSC 'never caused us any trouble at all.'" - Chapter 2, p. 47

The more I study high sensitivity, the more I think I am a highly sensitive person who was a "good" highly sensitive child. I am the youngest of a blended family and when I was growing up there was extreme conflict in the home compounded by mental illness and alcoholism. It would be an overwhelming environment for anyone--how much more so for the highly sensitive person. I have been told by older siblings that when I was a baby/toddler I cried all the time. When I got older, I went from "crying all the time" to "reading all the time." I learned to disappear. It was the best way to survive: get a book, go find a corner, and try not to be noticed. And the trying not to be noticed is pretty much how I have spent my life, which is why I never would have thought of myself as being highly sensitive. Aren't highly sensitive people extremely emotional and obvious about it, calling attention to themselves as they express their inner turmoil in dramatic and noticeable ways?

Well, no. Not necessarily. Here is a list of traits associated with high sensitivity:

Aware of subtleties in one's physical environment and in the moods of others
Very sensitive to physical pain
Need to withdraw to get relief from the stress of being overstimulated
Particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine
Easily overwhelmed by sensory input (bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, etc.)
Prone to startle easily
Conscientious--tries very hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things
Stressed out by too many demands or people coming on all at once (everyone is like this, but highly sensitive people have a lower-than-average threshold)
Intuitive--good at picking up on what's happening non-verbally
When people are uncomfortable, the HSP tends to know what to do to increase their comfort.
Deeply moved by music and the arts
Possessed of a complex and rich inner life--a deep thinker
Avoids extremely graphic or violent movies and television shows
Need for high degree of control/ability to arrange things to avoid upsetting/overwhelming situations
Low tolerance for hunger or thirst, cold or heat
Difficulty performing while being observed
Low tolerance for change
"Shy" (Aron doesn't like this word and prefers the term "social discomfort" for shyness)

The only items on this list that don't resonate with me are the low pain threshold (I think I have a high one) and high sensitivity to caffeine (I am very caffeine tolerant). Everything else fits pretty much perfectly. I am reminded of my husband's good-natured kidding of me over the years about my frequent need to get my "tuffet" in order before I can relax--to adjust things such as the thermostat or the speed of the fan or the volume of the radio to a precise level that I can tolerate. If he drives my car and changes the seat adjustment, it takes me forever to get it back to where it feels right again. I obsess about the slightest differences in facial expression or tone of voice in my friends or family members. If I'm in a group of people I worry greatly about whether someone is feeling left out or someone's words are being misunderstood. I want everyone to get along; conflict greatly upsets me. I have no poker face and am not good at either pretending or teasing; neither do I take teasing well. I also obsess about my own appearance and the judgments I imagine people are making about me. Perhaps not all of this is related to high sensitivity, but I think much of it probably is. Here is another passage, this one in The Highly Sensitive Person, that rang very true:

"We are often told, 'Don't worry; no one is judging you.' But being sensitive, you may be noticing that people really are watching and judging; people usually do. The nonsensitive are often happily oblivious of it. So your task in life is much harder: to know about those glances, those silent judgments, and still not let them affect you too much. It's not easy." (Chapter 15, p. 90)

Speaking of feeling judged, the Preface to the book begins this way:

"'Cry baby!'
'Don't be a spoilsport!'
Echoes from the past?"

Um, yeah. Most definitely. Add in "wet blanket." I have always been, and will always be, the one who worries incessantly about the danger, the risk, and the consequences of whatever is going on at the moment--the little mommy that spoils everyone's fun, that doesn't want to go on the big adventure or ride the roller coaster or get her shoes dirty or her clothes wet. And yeah, I have felt judged and marginalized as a result.

If you are still with me, I will share just one more thought. There is a chapter in The Highly Sensitive Child about trying to parent an HSC when you, too, are an HSC. Here, too, I see myself in neon lights. Highly sensitive parents are more likely to overprotect their children, to avoid exposing them to new experiences, to empathize with them to a fault, feeling their pain (both physical and emotional) more than a nonsensitive person would, to have trouble asserting themselves on their children's behalf, and to have trouble asserting their own needs within the family (so they care for the needs of others to a fault, resulting in others not learning how to care for themselves as they should). This is my life. I could go through each item in this list giving example after example, but I think I will just let you take my word for it.

And then there is the situation of one highly sensitive parent and one not highly sensitive parent trying to co-parent the highly sensitive child. You can imagine the issues that arise when the parents are coming from two such different places. That is another whole blog post, which I may get to eventually. Let me just say that my husband and I are starting to better understand ourselves as parents and realizing that we could both adjust our approaches in certain areas.

I am interested to hear from any of my readers who think they, too, are highly sensitive. According to Aron, about 20% of people are highly sensitive, and 30% are at least moderately so. This is not to say that the rest of the world is made up of unfeeling clods with no sensitivity at all--humans are by definition sensitive!--only that 20-30% of people are more sensitive than average. I think my high sensitivity may be one of the reasons I have trouble sleeping and feel most of the time as if I am physiologically on high alert, with butterflies in my stomach and heart pounding and cortisol levels heightened for no apparent reason. Things that most people deal with as a matter of course send my body into overdrive. If you think you are highly sensitive, take heart. One of Aron's themes in both of the books I have read is that high sensitivity is not a handicap, but a gift. Certainly it can create challenges for people trying to make their way in a world that is not built with them in mind. But there are many benefits to being highly sensitive. Feeling is good. Feelings are good. It's what we do with them that counts.


mz said...

Hi. That would be me in that list. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing all of this, Cheryl. I find it fascinating! I'm not sure if I could be labeled "highly sensitive" but much of it strikes a chord with me to some level. I'll have to get my hands on the books and read them. I once had a friend say to me "I just don't know what to say to you because you're so sensitive!" Ouch. Coping mechanisms would be helpful :)


Susan K said...

I am most certainly highly sensitive, and so is my daughter. Not, I think, to the same degree as you and Evan, but definitely more than average. I've always been told I'm sensitive, so that label actually helped as I grew and learned what that really meant. I always cried easily in school and obsess over little things, and I get very overwhelmed in an overstimulating environment. I think I've developed a pretty reliable filter, strengthened very much by my averagely-sensitive husband, that alerts me when I'm obsessing overly much about other people and what they're thinking and feeling. (And all that eighth commandment, "best construction" talk definitely helps me focus on the positive. Realizing when just thinking or supposing is turning into obsessing is very valuable.)

Susan K said...

After my comment, I kept thinking about this: "I think my high sensitivity may be one of the reasons I have trouble sleeping and feel most of the time as if I am physiologically on high alert, with butterflies in my stomach and heart pounding and cortisol levels heightened for no apparent reason."

That sounds way beyond just high sensitivity. It sounds like anxiety, possibly quite serious if you really feel like that all the time. Please at least think about looking into it!