Being Sensitive — in an Insensitive World
by Thomas Eldridge
All your life you thought something was wrong with you. You were uncomfortable around noise. No one understood your need to be alone. You seem to know things without being told. The good news is that you are not dysfunctional. You are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). You are not the only one; you share this trait with a small minority of the population who are referred to as shy or timid.
HSPs respond strongly to external stimuli, and become exhausted from taking in and processing these stimuli. They are born with a nervous system that may see, hear, smell or feel more than others. As adults, they may also think, reflect or notice more than others. The processing is largely unconscious or body-conscious. HSPs grow up feeling flawed, especially when loud music, crowds of people, or simply a busy day stresses them. At such times, they need quiet time alone to recover.
Problems can begin in childhood if their sensitivities are not recognized. They can experience deep trauma, even in the womb if they were not wanted. Highly sensitive babies are more peaceful when alone. Certain people terrify them; toy mobiles upset them, rocking irritates them, and changes in weather make them restless. They may be colicky, and their digestive systems may not tolerate food that is too hot or too cold. If the needs of the baby are ignored the child becomes insecure.
Sensitive babies are also very creative and aware. They may walk early or smile a lot. As infants and toddlers they may experience sensory overload from the newness of things. When old enough, they spend time alone to regain their balance and energy.
What Works and What Doesn’t
This hyper-awareness to their environment makes HSPs cautious. Any kind of change can be difficult. They are not known for their rash actions. They foresee the consequences of words and actions. HSPs can feel happy in their hearts on a joyous occasion but are unable to express it. They are seen as inhibited or unsociable. They do not like social situations and prefer having deep intimate conversations with someone one on one.
Rather than forcing themselves to fit in and be more outgoing, HSPs need to learn to appreciate their sensitivity in less stimulating ways. Developing boundaries for safety and comfort becomes important. If they are sensitive to bright fluorescent lights, chemical odors or certain kinds of people, HSPs need to use their creativity to find ways to avoid such stimuli.
HSPs often try to hide themselves. They rarely appreciate that many other people also have these same traits. Sharing quiet meals and talking about spiritual matters can become intimacy heaven. Accepting that they really do enjoy long walks in nature, rather than tennis matches, alleviates stress.
Their tendency towards withdrawal presents unique difficulties in relationships. HSPs turn inwards for protection against what they are experiencing. Relationships of mutual respect provide a safe, consistent haven of acceptance. HSPs must be wary of being people-pleasers. A lack of self-esteem can turn into a habit of satisfying the needs of the other person. They can end up feeling overwhelmed and alone in a relationship they cannot let go of.
A sensitive person’s ability to pick up subtle cues and ambivalence in the unconscious processes of the other can affect communication in relationships. Even though they can tune into what is going on, they either can’t say it, or they blurt out a negative judgment. At these times, they are acting out their own past experiences of being humiliated for their sensitivities. The way out of this dilemma is to become more conscious of their habitual reactions and to take more time out to be alone. They need partners to accept this strategy. They may require an entire night’s sleep to be clear enough to express how they feel about an issue.
HSPs appreciate intimacy. They actually prefer talking about their feelings and spirituality but often believe no one else is interested. An open and sharing relationship – preferably with another HSP – can be of great benefit in providing awareness of what does and doesn’t work. This applies to both the spiritual-social areas and the physical body.
Entertainment and excitement is not what holds a sensitive relationship together. HSPs are more interested in deepening their self-awareness and never become bored of listening to their partner’s dreams. A sensitive partner will notice subtle changes in the other’s mood or behavior.
Food and Diet
HSPs are very sensitive to food and physical environments. Food needs to be looked at from a different viewpoint than what is promoted by national food guides. Not all foods are going to be equally tolerated by their body. Stimulating substances such as alcohol, coffee, sugar and junk food can be highly toxic to an HSP. Diets need to be tailor-made and regularly modified. There are no right diets that sensitive people can follow permanently. Their level of sensitivity is anything but static and rigid. It requires a change in attitude to accept the fascinating refinement process continually being experienced by their body/mind/spirit. Generally, simple, frequent meals work best.
Once HSPs stop trying to become strong and tough extroverts, they often develop a keen interest in and gratitude for their consciousness, which benevolently takes them into unexplored realms. These complex inner realms, largely avoided by others, become their individuated paths to wholeness and happiness.