What it Means to be HSP

This past Sunday I was sitting at dinner with my family. It’s a big round table. There were four couples and four children, one of them an infant. Sundays are already overwhelming for me. I’m part of the nursery class at church, meaning that for two full hours I’m surrounded by small children between the ages of 18 months – 3 years. And an hour before that, I sit in the congregation surrounded by 200 – 300 other people while I deal with my five-year-old and try to get her to stay quiet and happy. This is extremely stressful for me, but totally doable. However, by the time we made it to my parents’ house, I was a bit overstimulated with noise and a lot going on. During dinner, my husband (bless his heart) started talking about a television show. He was talking to my dad who was sitting across the table, so he was speaking loudly. The kids were talking and laughing. The other adults were talking and eating. Then the baby started to cry. Something inside my brain snapped and I just wanted my husband to shut up. The baby needed to shut up. The kids needed to shut up. Everyone needed to stop eating and just sit still and keep their mouths closed. Why couldn’t everyone see that the entire situation was FREAKING OUT OF CONTROL? I let out a huge sigh and scraped my fork across my plate. My husband stopped talking and looked at me as if I was crazy. He said something to me, I don’t remember what, and I told him to just STOP. And with that, I left the room and locked myself in the bathroom and cried for half an hour.

This is me.

This is what happens to me all the time, not just on Sundays, and while many, many people do not understand this behavior, it’s something I finally understand. About six month ago, I discovered something that put my entire life into perspective. This little piece of information made so many things make sense, and I suddenly understood more about myself than I have ever understood. This little piece of information is called HSP, or the Highly Sensitive Person, or in scientific terms, I have Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS).

Now, as much as I hate labels, this particular label has helped me in more ways than one. But first of all, I want to make it clear that HSP is not a disorder. Instead, it is a personality trait, and one not many people around me seem to understand at all. This makes it even harder to deal with certain situations. I am often labeled anti-social, hermit-ish, insecure, shy, introverted, depressed, and the worst one of all, stuck-up and arrogant. These labels are hardly ever verbally thrown in my face, but observing how others treat me long-term and short-term, is something I excel at, and I see it clear as day. The ironic thing is that HSPs excel at observation, making their sensitivity to how they are labeled even worse.

I deal with mild depression and I am currently in the middle of deciding if it is because of my SPS or if it’s really a chemical imbalance causing mild depression. It’s possibly a combination. And I do have issues, but I wouldn’t call them major or unfixable.

First, let me a little bit about HSPs so you understand me a little better. This information is taken from the HSP website.

  • My trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population–too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around me.
  • It is innate. In fact, biologists have found it to be in most or all animals, from fruit flies 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’.
  • I am more aware than others of subtleties. This is mainly because my brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply. So even if I wear glasses, for example, I’ll see more than others by noticing more.
  • I am also more easily overwhelmed. Because I notice more than most people do, I am naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time.
  • This trait is not a new discovery, but it has been misunderstood. Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called “shy.” But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extraverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion. It has also been called inhibitedness, fearfulness, or neuroticism. Some HSPs behave in these ways, but it is not innate to do so and not the basic trait.
  • Sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told “don’t be so sensitive” so that they feel abnormal.

As you can see, being an HSP can make for an overwhelming life. I avoid movies that are too violent or filled with horror. Going to the movies in general gives me a small panic attack (noise, lots of people, etc.), but as an adult, I’ve learned how to quietly and efficiently deal with this inside my head. I deal with it and go and enjoy myself. I’ve done this with a lot of things in my life, but situations and changes can still send me way over the edge.

What’s one of the most overwhelming things in my life?

Getting married (but that wasn’t too bad because my hubby is the most mellow person on the planet – one of the reasons we get along). Having a baby. Publishing a book.

Having a baby quite literally made me suicidal – probably due to my SPS and my depression all piled on top of some serious postpartum depression. I was diagnosed as suicidal when my baby was three months old. This is one of the reasons I have not had any other children. That aside and now taken care of, publishing a book has turned my life upside down with the changes that have come with it. Without getting into the reasons why it has turned my life upside down, let’s just say it’s because that for me, everything is intensified. Everything is MORE. More stressful, more demanding, more amazing, more crazy, more, more, more, more, more.

Until I quite literally fall apart.

And, to explain it simply, things like reviews and social networks are the last straw for me when I get overwhelmed. Blogs become just noise, which is why I have stopped following and reading most of them for now. Sorry. Twitter never freaking stops. It’s constant, crazy, never-ending noise for me (although I’m trying really hard to get into it and enjoy it lately). Facebook was just too much pressure to engage, so I deleted my profile and just kept up my author profile.

What I’m doing by “cutting strings” is removing myself from a situation in order to let that over-sensitized part of my brain get back to its normal state. This part of my brain reacts differently than other people’s brains who do not have SPS. Easily said, it’s just more sensitive, so I quite often have to remove myself from overwhelming situations. I’m not being a jerk. I’m not angry with anyone. I just need to step away.

I actually really love social situations. I don’t mind speaking in public. I don’t mind hosting a book signing or a party or whatever. I just have to be the one in control or I kind of freak out. If I’m not the “center of attention”, I feel overwhelmed and out of control. It’s not because I am self-absorbed and want attention. So when I’m in social situations where I am not in control of the entire group, or at least a small portion of that group, I get overwhelmed very easily and take breaks often in a quiet place where there are no people.

Like going to the movies, which I mentioned above, I will learn how to deal with all of these new publishing situations quietly and efficiently in my head. I will deal with them and go and enjoy myself. But it’s nice to understand why I am the way I am. It’s nice to be able to share this part of myself with you so that you understand me a little bit better. And maybe sharing this information will help others who are part of that 15 – 20% of the population sharing this wonderful, but overwhelming, personality trait.

If you would like more information about HSP/SPS, visit the website here. You can even take a test to see where you land. I took it, and I am 100% HSP.

Thanks for listening, everyone. It means more than you know. 

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

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