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For as long as I can remember, I've been labeled "sensitive." I had a colic as a baby (my parents love to tell the story of how I used to cry nonstop from 2 pm to 2 am for my first three months). I was a picky eater, prone to stomachaches. And I was a worrier, feeling deep concern about everyone and everything around me from an early age. I was deeply empathetic, to the point where other people's problems felt like my own (believe me: This is not always a good thing).
I had a love/hate relationship with people and with socializing. I loved people, but they totally exhausted me. As a teen and young adult, I was kind of an outcast. I had a few close friends, but I would almost always rather be journaling or lost in a book than socializing.
At fourteen, I wanted to go everywhere my much-more-social boyfriend went. I would accompany him to his play rehearsals, parties, concerts and other teen events—and end up feeling utterly destroyed afterwards. Drinking made me ill (my system was too sensitive), and so I'd spend the whole time people-watching—absorbing everyone's energy, and feeling totally depleted (a people hangover).
That boyfriend and I stayed together through college, where I eventually learned to just let him go out to parties, staying behind in his dorm room. It was a point of contention sometimes. Why couldn't I just go do these things? Everyone else did. I wasn't super shy; I wasn't even a total introvert. If I wanted to open up to you, I'd tell you everything. Maybe I was just a kind of a bitch.
My boyfriend stuck with me through all of that awkward weirdness, and he liked me well enough to marry me. In our late 20s we had a baby, and let's just say I was extremely grateful that motherhood put a halt to the socializing aspect of my life. I was a stay-at-home mom during my son's early years, and I was happy that most of my mingling consisted of one-on-one play dates with other mothers, or the rare date night with my husband.
From the beginning, I knew that my son was as intense a person as I was. He studied everything he saw with a hungry voraciousness. Of course, he had colic (payback, I suppose), and although I didn't know it was possible, he was an even pickier eater than I was. He was also sensitive to scratchy clothing, startled easily, and prone to epic tantrums as a toddler (the kind that could not be fixed by normal discipline methods like "redirection" or time-outs).
In my journey through the vast internet of parenting advice, I came across the work of Elaine Aron, the psychologist who coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). As I read through her website, a lightbulb blasted open in my brain (nothing happens subtly for me). For the first time someone was describing me and my son perfectly, down to the very last detail.
Aron describes a Highly Sensitive Person as someone who is easily overwhelmed by sensory input, who gets easily overwhelmed by a busy schedule, and who finds the need to cut social interactions short. Could this be a real thing, I wondered, or just a fancy euphemism for introverted, sensitive person who'd rather Netflix-and-couch than party?
"Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?" Aron asks in the HSP self-assessment test on her website. "Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art? Do you have a rich and complex inner life? When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?" I imagine that she is speaking directly to me, as if she's known me my whole life.
Regardless of how scientific this term is, I appreciated that for perhaps the first time, I didn't have to view my sensitivity as a negative. Aron describes HSP as a personality trait, something you're born with, which means that it is not something you have manufactured yourself, or that you should be blamed for having.
"Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20 percent of the population," Aron writes on her site. "In fact, biologists have found it in over 100 species (and probably there are many more) from fruit flies, birds, and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) actually work a little differently than others."
All of this was an amazing revelation for me as person, and as a mom. Maybe my son and I are meant to be this way and there's no use fighting it. Maybe we are actually just beautiful, sensitive beings destined to come here to change the world. And maybe we just need some extra gentleness and understanding, and a whole lot of grace.
On the other hand, what if all of this is total bullshit?
After all, Aron lists all her books for sale on her site. Is the whole thing just a gimmick created for vulnerable people like me to go out and buy her stuff just so we can feel a little better about our emo (and gullible) little souls?
I contacted a few psychologists who are unrelated to the HSP cause to get to the bottom of this. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of psychology and human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, seemed to jibe pretty hard with the idea of HSP as a personality trait. "Since Aron's first research study in 1997 examining highly sensitive people, researchers heavily have studied the boundaries, limitations, and characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Person," Marsden tells me.
Marsden then went on to cite three published studies that validate HSP as a distinct personality trait, including a 2007 study which found that although the HSP theory is related to social anxiety, it is a distinct characteristic in and of itself. Marsden also theorizes that HSPs might share symptoms with those on the autism spectrum, and that HSP might eventually be found to be an autistic trait.
However, Marsden does contend that more research needs to be done about HSPs to fully understand the trait. "Because the research on this trait is still in its early stages, there is a lot we do not fully understand about it." Marsden adds, "Is it really its own personality trait or is it part of the autism spectrum? What other traits or disorders occur with HSP? Although there are still many unanswered questions, we know that the following characteristics make up the HSP trait: hypersensitivity to external stimuli, deeper cognitive processing, and high emotional reactivity. Because these individuals are processing information more deeply, they become more sensitive to their environment."
Another psychologist I spoke to, Rachel Annunziato, an associate professor of psychology at Fordham University, seems less convinced. While she agrees with Marsden that there is a growing body of peer-reviewed published research out there to support the theory, she warns that that HSP is not a diagnosis that psychologists can give their patients. "In general, it seems like such theories capture our attention when they seem to explain our personalities," Annunziato tells me. "It's a bit like when I read descriptions of a Gemini and think 'wow, yes, that's right on!'"
Of course, knowing that I am a Sensitive Sally myself, Annunziato doesn't want to totally burst my bubble, and agrees that having a label for what has felt like a lifelong burden can be totally therapeutic. "There is evidence to suggest that for some people, the characteristics of HSP are robust and can impact functioning, which is a key consideration for practitioner," she says. "Plus, it seems like in this case, since it isn't a 'diagnosis,' it might be a relief to have this label for understanding one's presentation."
The truth is, for me, I don't need anything official like a diagnosis. As I get older, I give fewer fucks about what I have to do (or not do) in life to stay sane and happy. But just knowing that there are probably millions of people like me walking around the earth is awesome, and definitely helps makes me feel like less of a weirdo, or a deficient mess.
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