I woke up abruptly, dazed and disoriented. It took me a few moments to get my bearings. It was light, definitely morning. I came to, slowly recognising that I wasn’t alone. As I turned my head, there was my daughter’s face less than a hands-distance away. She came in for a fierce morning cuddle, wringing me out like a bear.
I looked up to see my partner walking into the room, a slight look of concern on her face. As I saddled up in my bed, grunting with the effort of dragging my still-attached child with me, I asked my partner “What’s up?”.
“We were just having a chat about something that happened at school yesterday.” She replied.
My partner proceeded to relay the story that my daughter was being bullied at school for being a ‘cry-head’. Naturally sensitive, she struggles with loud noise and the past few days at school had apparently been pretty raucous. We were coming into the intensity of our sub-tropical summer. Cue overheated, overtired and overstimulated children.
My daughter had fled from all the excitement during a lesson break. Overwhelmed, she had needed an emotional release and had gone to sit under a tree for a little cry. It was at this point that she’d been approached by a group of girls who had started calling her names and asking why she cried all the time. She lost it, sobbing uncontrollably until a teacher found her and comforted her.
“Stop Being So Sensitive!”
My own journey with sensitivity was one of both control and denial. I grew up in the 1980’s UK, still an era where one ‘just got on with things’, and ‘didn’t make a fuss’. I subtly learnt that ‘being sensitive’ was not a good thing. Crying, especially in public, was generally frowned upon. Bottling feelings silently encouraged. Any signs of ‘being emotional’ quickly judged as a form of weakness.
In my late twenties, I met my free-spirited partner. We got along great, bonding through yoga, healthy eating, and dubious 80’s music. What was not initially apparent, however, was the vast difference in our emotional landscapes. Although confident and outgoing on the surface, she was unknowingly a Highly Sensitive Person. I was still playing the role of a stoic British male. When arguments started, they would quickly spiral out of control. My logical and reserved sensibilities would butt against her emotional and acutely sensitive nature. Frustratedly telling my partner to “stop being so emotional”, and questioning “why are you crying?” was my norm. In hindsight, this was the worst reaction I could have had.
Over the years, I became more familiar and comfortable with my partner’s reactions, and with a few hiccups here and there, I became more competent at holding her through these times. We started a family, and over the ensuing years, I began to notice similar traits in our young daughter. After the playground incident, I decided it was time to get some answers.
The Sensitivity in Us All
The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by research psychologist Elaine Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person. Based on years of clinical research, and with a strong desire to understand her own psyche, Dr. Aron theorised that approximately 15-20% of the population fall into the HSP category. Often genetically inherited, HSP is not a condition as such, but a set of traits. The degree to which a person will identify with the characteristics of being an HSP can lessen or increase over time. For example, our level of sensitivity can be strongly influenced by external factors, such as our upbringing, our living environment and our relationships with those around us.
Dr. Aron points out that everyone is sensitive to some degree. A moderate level of stress-response remains essential to our survival and part of our in-built fight-or-flight response. Many people who believe they are not sensitive are merely lacking awareness of this innate sensitivity, and often, as in my own case, it’s a result of a lifetime of cultural conditioning.
Rather than seeing high levels of sensitivity as a weakness, Dr. Aron takes a more nuanced view. While acknowledging the challenges this brings, she also has identified how these traits played an important role in society. Extremely receptive to their environment and highly intuitive, HSP’s are very tuned to subtle signs, such as being able to sense danger, as well as the needs of the young, old and sick. Formerly HSP’s were our eyes and ears, our watchers on the lookout guarding our communities.
Being Highly Sensitive
Due to a high level of attunement, situations that seem reasonable to some can be easily overwhelming for those with a highly sensitive nature. Loud noises, bright lights, being suddenly put under pressure and being exposed to strong emotions from others are all examples of areas where a highly sensitive person can struggle. They can also react very strongly to simulants, becoming hyper-excited, and then quickly slump after consuming alcohol or caffeine, for example.
On the flip side, the refined sensitivity allows for a more keen awareness of subtle details, such as being able to spot mistakes. Before I knew this, I often admonished partner and daughter for being overly pedantic. It also allows for a more insightful perception of their own emotional landscape, and that of others. They are often highly empathetic and attuned to the needs of others. The desire to more easily deal with stress and live in harmony with their surroundings means they are often attracted to calming meditative and healing practices.
Letting Go of My ‘Highly Sensitive’ Judgement
In western culture, traits like being tough, stoic & outgoing are often seen as ideal. Our stories are full of victims who are portrayed as weak, over-sensitive, introverted and vulnerable. As I can attest from my own struggle with stunted sensitivity, I have readily judged the higher level of sensitivity in others and labelled it as a weakness. I grew up with movies like Star Wars & Lord of the Rings that portray a more traditional ‘hero’s journey’ narrative. Traits like sensitivity and vulnerability must be overcome as part of the character’s journey of transformation.
My own path of self-discovery has been to recognise it’s ok to be sensitive, authentically vulnerable and to shed the cultural imprints that have restricted my emotional growth. I am starting to trust the deep wisdom that can come from listening to my intuition, that innate knowing that is natural for highly sensitive people. It has not been effortless for me but I am slowly reprogramming my software with this new, more compassionate and empathetic coding.
This journey of opening has brought a more profound love and understanding of the magical gifts of my highly sensitive partner and daughter. Seeing my daughter being belittled for her tenderness has brought forward a strong desire to be part of rewriting this outdated narrative. I want to educate and tell new stories where our sensitivity and vulnerability are cherished and valued rather than judged and diminished. I have taken to telling my daughter that her sensitivity is one of her superpowers and greatest gifts to the world. Something she can embrace and show to the world, rather than hide it in a dark corner.
It has been difficult to let go of learned prejudices. It has taken strides in my understanding of acceptance and unravelling years of conditioning to appreciate that everyone, in varying degrees, can be open, sensitive and vulnerable. We all have our little quirks, be that highly sensitive or any other ‘labels’. It helps me to remember we are all human first and foremost and underneath it all, perfect just as we are.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
Do you identify as being a highly sensitive person? Or do you have a highly sensitive person in your life? We would love to hear about your experience, the challenges and the beauty. How have you accepted the sensitivity in yourself and in others?