I drafted an email yesterday and, before clicking the ‘send’ button, I read, re-read and re-re-read what I had written, scouring the letters for errors that would somehow impart to the destined reader the impression that perhaps I don’t have a basic grasp of grammar. I have a Chrome extension that tells me when I’m using “weak” words and phrases, like I think or I’m sorry or just, words that, according to the app’s creator, “diminish our voice.”
I’m like this — highly self-conscious and sensitive to details — when it comes to basically everything in my life. When I enter a conversation, I immediately pick up on subtle, almost imperceptible behavioral cues. I overthink everything, absolutely everything, often to my very serious detriment. Until pretty recently, I thought that I was just neurotic.
Then a friend who is very similar recommended a book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Dr. Elaine Aron. A self test in the book’s introduction prompts: I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation. True.
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens close by. Last Halloween, dressed as Axl Rose, I shared a cab with my husband, my friend and her friend, let’s call her Laura. Within minutes of being within two feet of Laura, bless her heart, I got the headache of my life. “Take your wig off!” my husband prompted. “Do you think you’re having a preemptive hangover?” my friend asked. No, it was Laura’s perfume. It entered my nose like vile poison and rested somewhere in between my eyes until, mercifully, we were dropped off somewhere in Brooklyn. I avoided her for the rest of the night.
I startle easily. Yes. I have a rich, complex inner life. Why, yes. I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things. True. Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration and mood. Yes: hangry, anyone? I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. I have a dentist’s appointment on Friday that’s been consuming my every waking thought for the past three weeks.
But okay, I know a lot of people who would answer these questions positively. Does that make us all Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)? According to Dr. Aron, there’s an optimal level of arousal that allows us to function ideally; the HSP’s nervous system gets much more aroused in the same situation, from the same stimulus, than most other people’s. That means we’re perpetually on alert.
Bad news first: Constantly reviewing your own or other people’s thoughts and actions is time-consuming and exhausting. You may come off as introverted or antisocial when you slink away to be with your own thoughts. You might also have issues with performance: you’re amazing at something, but put on the spot, you tend to get flustered. It will take you longer than other people to recover from a negative stimulus, or from stimuli that deviate from the “rational” or expected.
The good news is more than redeeming. According to Dr. Aron, HSPs are more detail-oriented and tend to be much more sensitive to other people’s feelings. We are able to concentrate deeply, and we’re, “especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed and the detection of minor differences.” While we’re good at noticing outward cues, we also spend a considerable amount of time looking inward, “thinking about our own thinking.” We’re in our own heads a lot which, depending on the day you’re having, can be a fascinating place to live.
Certain experiences, obviously mostly negative ones, often push me to agree with the old adage ignorance is bliss. Yeah, it would be nice to walk into a room and not immediately Jason Bourne it. It would bring me such relief to be able to read an email and be absolutely certain of what the person meant when they signed off with best (“Is she annoyed? Because last time I’m pretty sure it was all my best”). Or to just not care. Dr. Aron warns against seeing this personality trait as a handicap. Being an HSP doesn’t make you inhibited, introverted or shy. And if you are any of these things, you’re not necessarily an HSP.
She explains the HSP personality in a nutshell: We are the trusted advisors to history’s warrior kings. Thoughtful, prescient and discreet, we are the creative designers of the future. Not bad for someone who’s stumped by a casual email signoff. So, how do you score on the HSP test? Take it here and let me know in the comments!
Photo by Emily Zirimis.