Personal development Psychology

Doing justice to high sensitivity

It doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think many people among us strive to just be normal. Overly conscious about the things that make us unusual, we may try to minimise the impact of our quirks on daily life and relationships with other people, in the hope that we can pass as normal – basically passing as “good enough”. That we can do all the things that other people do – going to parties, having a fulltime job, watching scary films, doing hardcore intellectual work – without feeling completely exhausted for a week afterwards.

I too have had the illusion that I can do what everyone else does. No wait, skip that, I had the illusion that I could do what everyone else does and do it better. At some points in my life I really felt invincible, like I could have it all: that I could have a fulfilling relationship, see my friends often and join them to parties and festivals, have a healthy body that subsisted on daily yoga practices and homemade vegan food, be a good student and challenge myself to be even better, keep up with the latest news and read a wide array of novels and poetry, spend time geeking out on the internet, and still have enough time for contemplation and self-improvement.

But even when it seemed like I was succeeding in all of the above, it always backfired at a later point. When a storm hit, I wouldn’t just topple over. I would be thrust into the depths of the ocean, floating amid whatever it is you find in the places where the sunlight cannot reach anymore. And then, weeks or months later, I would suddenly emerge to the surface again, unable to recollect where I’d been and how I got there. Tiring as it was, that was my cycle: overloading myself until I’d fully run out of energy and had to start from scratch again.

I had to find out the hard way that this was unsustainable. And though I’ll admit that the learning is never over, I have, in many ways, learned my lesson – otherwise I would not have made the “bold” choice to quit my PhD.

But it’s only half the battle to learn how to weather the storms. The hard part is dealing with the seasickness that comes with spending time on the waves. That’s what being highly sensitive like, to me. Some people have iron stomachs and can brave the seas without any given effort. Others feel the effect of every tiny wave crashing against the sides of the boat.

The highly sensitive person

If you’re a highly sensitive person, then you’re not just someone who “just has a lot of feelings“. Your brain actually processes things differently. Despite the many advantages of being highly sensitive, you may struggle to deal with sensory input such as bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells, or having trouble dealing with social and environmental stimuli such as violence, cruelty, injustice, and the moods and emotions of other people. Highly sensitive people are often described as people who need more time to process all of these things, and especially if they are introverted (which is roughly 70% of the highly sensitive people), they need a lot of time to recover and recharge after being overstimulated – more so than a “regular” introvert would.

For me, all these things manifested themselves already very early in my childhood. I was an extremely sensitive child who cried easily, didn’t like carnaval or fun fairs, and needed a lot of time and space to process stimulating events – both before and after the fact. To name you an example, my parents had to be very careful in how and when they communicated fun surprises like making a trip to Disneyland. If they told me too early in advance, I would be unable to sleep for days due to the excitement. And even weeks after we came back from the trip, I was still constantly talking about it as a way of processing what had happened.

I was a teenager when I learned about Elaine Aron’s research on highly sensitive people and realised that all these things that made me so different from other kids, were just telltale signs that I am a highly sensitive person. And that there was nothing really wrong with me. But having that knowledge somewhere in the back of your head when you’re barely 16 doesn’t magically prevent you from exhausting yourself over the course of the following ten years. Which is what happened.

Being highly sensitive in an overwhelming world

Now, at 26, after experiencing how my work as a researcher completely overwhelmed me – what with the constant processing of information and all – I am much more conscious of how being highly sensitive affects my life. And since then, I am also consciously trying to hold space for it.

The other day I was walking around the train station in Utrecht and there was a lot going on. The situation, first of all, was that I was a little late for an appointment with friends and was trying to coordinate with a friend who was going to meet me somewhere on the way. That in itself already heightened my stress levels somewhat. In addition, the environment was highly overwhelming. Utrecht’s train station has been under construction for years and quite recently the new “station square” was opened to the public. The route was completely new to me, there were many people, and there were lots of new stores and advertisements around, screaming for my attention. And as I was walking there, consumed by everything that I was processing in my head and the things that were going on around me, I had this realisation: that right there in that moment, I had already reached my limits for the day.

Realising this may be a bitter pill to swallow, which is maybe why I’ve ignored feeling these things so consciously for most of my adult life. But in the past year I’ve come to realise again just how sensitive I am to things like loud noises, but also pain, hunger, and caffein, and how much longer it takes for me to recover after “stimulating events” – which can be anything from meeting new people (especially if I like them!), to watching the Twin Peaks finale, or having lots of stuff on my to do list. And if I want to stay mindful of that and really want to do justice to my trait, I actively have to make space for myself and live life on my own pace.

Taking a time-out

To everyone who ever dealt with me in a social way, there’s a reason why I cancel things last-minute or don’t participate in exciting events in the first place. No, it isn’t because I’m lame as fuck, although I’ll agree with you on that within a heartbeat. If I ditch you, or don’t answer your texts, if I don’t want to go see that scary film everyone’s talking about, if I don’t seem excited by the prospect of having a busy week full of appointments, it is because I need a time-out.

Please also trust that if I ever cancel on you (and believe me, I will), that I’ve done so after much thought and careful consideration. I don’t take these things lightly, and feeling like I’m letting other people down weighs heavily on me. But also know that the burden of doing things against my own needs and trying to please others is an even heavier burden, one that results in deteriorating mental health on my end.

I am on a path towards a calm and quiet life. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still drive myself crazy sometimes, or that I don’t embark on adventures every now and then. It just means that I’m done with all the running around and trying to do everything at once. And I will be pulling the “I have the soul of a grandma”-card every now and then.

And you know what? I’m starting to be okay with that.

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