Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Highly Sensitive Person: an HSP's review and reflection


About a year and a half ago I started to experience the world in a different way.  I think it started with losing my Papa; that was such a huge change for my family.  Everyone handles grief in different ways, and for me that path seemed (at least at first) to be anxiety.  I have a hard time driving because I'm worried that another driver won't be paying attention and will plow right into me.  I regulate my social activities now because I feel overwhelmed easily.  I budget and prioritize my "alone time" for quiet reading, writing, sewing, or even watching TV.  For me, time spent alone is just that: I am by myself.

Though I've never been incredibly social or extroverted, this new-found fear of the world was - and still is - very confusing to me.  I felt the exact moment my insides "turned over" and found this new, more anxiety-ridden way of existing.  All of this led me to a search to find some kind of explanation on how something like that can happen to a person.

The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron, Ph. D

"How to thrive when the world overwhelms you"
I found this book on a random trip to Books-A-Million.  As soon as I saw the cover I knew it was for me.
Even the cover of this edition suits a sensitive person.  It features mild contrasts and just enough darkness to make sure you can read what's on the cover. Lovely

There's all kinds of info in this book, from a self test, to discussion on therapy options, to discussion on how to be proud of this trait, not ashamed by it.  Elaine notes that the world, as it is today, more readily rewards those that are loud, extroverted, and tend to act before thinking.  I agree with her notion.  In fact, around 25 pages in I exclaimed to my husband, "It's like she knows me!!!!"  

I've always worked better alone, even when I was a kid.  I'd rather work a long time on a project and then show it to you when it's complete, not show you my process.  Luckily, my pragmatic nature taught me that isn't always the quickest way to learn.  What's weird, though, is that sometimes I interpret this more private way of being as wrong or strange.  I convince myself that other people think I'm weird, or that a small criticism from them means they think I'm an incapable idiot.  This, evidently, is typical of HSPs - they take criticism to heart and become embarrassed by mistakes more easily than others.  We aren't weak, we're just sensitive, so it takes less "upset" to get a point across to us.  For example: my parents knew they just had to talk to me to discipline me, but my siblings required a bit more than that.  I'd feel so bad for whatever I did that a simple discussion was all it took. Usually...  haha!

Favorite moments from The HSP

Note: Elaine uses the word "arousal" to speak about the heightened state of the nervous system.
It is important not to confuse arousal with fear.  Fear creates arousal, but so do many other emotions, including joy, curiously, or anger.  (p.9)

On being an HSP but functioning in a world that isn't necessarily "HSP friendly:"
Some HSPs, perhaps all of us at times, get sidelined because of thinking that there is no way an HSP can be out in the world and survive.  One feels too different, too vulnerable, perhaps too flawed...  (p. 49)
Our culture has an idea of competition in the pursuit of excellence that can make anyone not striving for the top feel like a worthless, nonproductive bystander.  This applies not only to one's career but even to one's leisure.  Are you fit enough, are you progressing in your hobby, are you competent as a cook or gardener?... There is one other reason HSPs drive their bodies too hard, and that is their intuition, which gives some of then a steady stream of creative ideas.  They want to express them all.  (p. 52-53)
An expanded, loving mind, one that is open to the whole universe, is the opposite of a tightly constricted, overaroused mind.   (p. 58)

According to Elaine's research, HSPs tend to strive for deep, meaningful relationships.  "Small talk" does not interest an HSP, and I'd assume that "shop talk" doesn't either, based on my experience.  HSPs want to talk about the inner life full of meaning and depth.  I identify with this so much I almost can't see straight.
Introversion arises from a need and preference to protect the inner, "subjective" aspect of life, to value it more, and in particular not to allow it to be overwhelmed by the "objective" world.  (p. 99)
She goes on to quote Carl Jung:
They [introverts] are living evidence that this rich and varied world with its overflowing and intoxicating life is not purely external, but also exists within...Their life teaches more than their words...Their lives teach the other possibility, the interior life which is so painfully wanting in our civilization.

Social discomfort

Elaine talks about the awkward juxtaposition of an HSPs desire for deep connection with the overarousal a new social situation can create.  Often, an HSP will retreat to a corner or sit quietly alone.  The book talks about ways to combat this part of being an HSP, as functioning socially is certainly an important part of leading a fulfilled life.  My experience of social discomfort comes in waves: sometimes I can meet new people and love it, but other times I shut down and cling to my husband like there's no tomorrow. can feel wonderful to stay home once you accept that home is truly where you sometimes belong  (p. 154)
You can tolerate high levels of stimulation, especially when you are with someone who relaxes you and makes you feel safe.  (p. 155)

On figuring ourselves out and perhaps going through therapy:
Because HSPs have such close contact with the unconscious, such vivid dreams, and such an intense pull toward the imaginal and spiritual, we cannot flourish until we are experts on this facet of ourselves.  (p. 184)
The book goes on to provide tips on how others can deal with working with, raising, or dating an HSP.  Elaine estimates that only about 15-20% of the population could be characterized as being highly sensitive.  She says that's not enough to be widely understood but too many to be called a disorder. (Thanks, Elaine.)

Are you highly sensitive?

You can take the self test for high sensitivity on Elaine's website.

I'm really looking forward to re-reading this book.  I've already told several friends about it and suggested it to them.  Perhaps it's because I'm in the arts, but I think I have a whole bunch of highly sensitive friends!  I appreciate that our friendships exist naturally on a deep, subjective level.  We don't have to try to talk about important things - it just always ends up that way!