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Have you ever found yourself figuratively or literally swooning as you walked past a honeysuckle bush and thought that if there is a nirvana this is probably what it smells like, and felt immensely appreciative to have the sense of scent and the blue sky above you and the pop of the yellow flowers against it, and wondered how it is that random amazing smelling plants and flowers grow in abundance upon the earth?
Have you ever driven past a long dead racoon on some lonely road and been moderately overwhelmed by a feeling for all the innocent dead animals on the sides of all the roads in all the history of the automobile-littered world and had an accompanying sense of despair at the endless and often pointless sadness of life?
Have you ever made yourself a simple grilled cheese sandwich and been incredibly happy to have hot, melty, crispy, buttery food to eat in the safety and comfort of your own home, on a perfectly rainy grilled cheese sort of day, and been overcome with a sense of perfection and gratefulness?
Then you, my friend, may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). If you are one, you may have already stumbled upon this term, trying to figure out what’s wrong with you in a slightly desperate Google search.
Essentially, HSPs are thought to be people with a strong central nervous system sensitivity to social, emotional, or physical stimuli. Some traits of HSPs are being affected by depictions of violence, being moved by beauty, needing a lot of downtime and alone time, having a varied and meaningful inner life of thoughts, feelings, and imagination, and being strongly affected by sensory stimuli like crowds and noise.
Some of the positives of being an HSP are that you may be deeply moved by beauty and art and nature, you are able to feel emotions in an intense way (a two-edged sword for sure), you tend to form deep bonds with those you care about, and you may experience a lot of natural mindfulness and gratefulness.
Some challenges will be the aforementioned intensity of your emotions, that you may often feel overwhelmed by people’s behavior, you may be conflict-averse and intensely impacted by the anger or shadow sides of others, you may be self-critical and overly analytical at any mistakes you perceive you have made, and it may be hard for you to feel you are disappointing others, or to say no.
For the approximately 20 percent of us, being an HSP is a blessing and a curse—but if you want to experience life fully and deeply and passionately, it is primarily a blessing, a huge blessing.
Sure, many people I know may not spend minutes or hours periodically ruminating on the thoughtlessly rude thing they said to their aunt about her orthopedic shoes 27 years ago, but they also would probably never spend many minutes appreciating the beautiful patina and striation of their shabby wooden dining room table, especially when the sun hits it just so, and being grateful to the tree for its miraculous wood and all its unique knots and whorls of amber color.
Sure, they might not have to go up to their bedroom after work approximately once a month and put a pillow over their head for an hour or so just to shut out the world and all its impact, its needs, its opinions, and just slowly breathe and regulate and positive self-talk so they can get the energy up to make dinner. But they also may never gaze at the ferns and moss growing upon the ancient Pennsylvania rocks in the woods and notice how the light turns the greens of the moss and ferns into glowing and sparkling testaments to the innate goodness of the world, or how the flat fungi upon the rock are the prettiest pale gray green that curl up like parchment paper, and how these sights remind them of a time decades ago when they were 17 and in love for the first time, and held hands while walking through ferns with their girlfriend on a hot and forever unreachable August day.
The musician Morrissey, known for his perpetually maudlin lyrics (and now questionable politics), was asked by Larry King once if he was depressed. He said he was not really depressed, he was sensitive, and if you are sensitive, you are bound to be depressed at times in this world. I love this idea. The re-picturing of depression as a response to deep awareness, the idea of depression as simply a by-product of noticing and caring and feeling a lot. The normalizing of it. HSPs may not necessarily be depressives, but they are certainly feeling and caring a lot to sometimes excruciating levels.
If one realizes they are an HSP, it feels like a real relief—ahhhh, this is why I’m so freaking emotionally permeable and invested in everything! It’s damn exhausting! And also exhilarating. You are on an often nonstop bumper car ride of interior experiences and reactions.
Often it can feel like you are a rabbit in a world full of predators, your ears pricked up and nose quivering for any threat of wolves, or circling hawks overhead. It is a really tough place to be, this planet, and having 24/7 access to the news of the world, with bombed Ukrainian maternity hospitals, and half your country furiously believing the last election was bogus and that COVID-19 is a government ploy to implant computer chips in our shoulders can make it all the worse.
Sure, the Middle Ages were full of torture and plagues and really bad oral hygiene, but you only had to worry about your village, not the entire nearly eight billion people of the world.
Being an HSP could potentially turn into an excuse for not showing up to all of life:
Oh, I can’t go to that concert with you that you’re excited about, my teenage daughter. I don’t like crowds or noise.
Wife, I can’t have that intense and complicated conversation with you about your mother moving in with us for six months while she recovers from hip surgery and needs to be waited on hand and foot. I am afraid of conflict.
I cannot tell my manager at my job as a mental health case worker that I don’t want to visit the client prone to angry and insulting outbursts, because, you see, I am an HSP. I will email you some info about it!
We HSPs still have to show up for the tough, loud, stressful, and messy stuff. We just have to also be aware that it is going to be hard—probably harder than it might be for the other 80-ish percent of our fellow humans—and prepare accordingly.
Take good care of yourself; keep your body, mind, heart and spirit supple and well-hydrated with alone time, beauty, music, art, humor, clever and thoughtful TV shows and movies, good food, and plenty of hugs and meaningful, supportive conversations with those you love and trust. Use prayer, meditation, phone calls with friends, and connection with your Higher Self to prepare for difficult situations.
Also, know your boundaries. I know to limit the amount per year of how often I see my well-meaning but exhausting and fundamentalist family members who seem distressed by the Buddha statue in my garden. I know that I am not cut out to be a manager of anyone, in any capacity, and to guide my career path accordingly, without a sense of failure or guilt, because I recognize that if I were a manager, I would never be able to relax completely.
Like most of us HSPs, I really love music. Poetry set to incredible rhythms, guitar riffs and solos, beautiful singing done by people with often cool style, and augmented live by stacks of Marshall amps and trippy light shows: yes, please. Lying in the dark listening to your favorite band with headphones, maybe with some incense lit and some intense emotions percolating that you need to sort through—that is how you self-soothe, my friends.
I love all sorts of music, from Joni to A Tribe Called Quest to Radiohead, but I also have a part of me that needs the intensity and direct anger of heavy metal. Some weeks ago, at a local Philadelphia death metal show in a small, sweaty club, just a few feet from the stage, I witnessed the female singer wailing her heart out, the guitarists bringing down storm clouds of prophetic rage, the female bassist smiling, bouncing and swaying as if she were playing in a different band, perhaps a ska band, and the drummer, long hair whipping, with his machine gun blasts of beats and fills.
I felt the super loud, hyper-emotional, righteously angry music pouring over me in slightly frightening, salty waves, and I felt incredibly present and alive. I was being here now. I felt so alive that I, a middle-aged man at a death metal show, began to cry.
I cried for the beauty of such emotional and vulnerable and powerful music being made just feet from me. I cried with gratefulness to live in an era with such incredibly dynamic music, when just 100 years before, and for all of history, the most intense music was acoustic and never made you want to bang your head. I cried because, due to a pandemic that has killed millions, I—we—had not seen live music for almost two years.
I cried because I am a Highly Sensitive Person, and life is strange and terrible and incredibly lovely and mysterious and profound—and I want to savor every last glorious bit of it.