On Thursday this past week, my supervisor called and gave me some unwelcome news. A decision was made, he told me, to remove me from leading the psychotherapy group that I’ve been leading 3 times per week for the past five years. It’s called an Intensive Outpatient Group (IOP), and it’s specifically designed to support people going through an acute phase of a psychiatric illness, with the goal of keeping them out of the hospital. My job is to create a safe place for talking about suicidality, depression, anxiety, and sometimes psychosis.
Many would run screaming from work like this, but it’s often the brightest part of my day. Somehow, running that group brings out the best that I have to offer, and I become a psychotherapist full of empathy and compassion for these people who are often going through the darkest hours of their lives.
I wasn’t removed because I’d done anything wrong, my boss was saying. It was because of a business decision having to do with metrics and numbers that I don’t care about at all. As he spoke, the breath caught in my throat, my eyes burned, and I tuned his voice out from my consciousness, not wanting to hear anymore cold, business justifications for why he was taking away my baby.
I tried to ask a couple of questions, but my voice came out much too shaky to avoid detection, and I abandoned any hope of conversation until my nervous system processed the news enough for me to come from a place of rational thought instead of pure emotion. Cursing my sensitive nature, I wondered how people go through disappointments like this without crying. I know that they do, but no matter how much deep breathing I practice, I end up in a puddle of humiliating sobs–and then the humiliation just makes me cry harder.
For most of my life, this tendency towards overwhelm led me to believe that there was something quite wrong with me, and other people tended to reinforce this belief. My ex-husband told me to stop being so sensitive on a daily basis (hence the Ex status). When I got into some trouble at a previous job, and could do nothing to repair my reputation, my tears only convinced my boss that I was weak.
I’m not weak. In fact, I’ve survived horrific traumas relatively unscathed through my ability to persevere long and difficult journeys toward a desired goal, and I have a strong ability to sublimate my own terrible experiences into increased compassion that I use to help others walk through their own traumas.
There is nothing wrong with me, and telling me to stop being so sensitive is like telling me to stop being a human.
What I am, is one of the twenty percent of the population whose nervous systems are wired to be more sensitive than the other 80%. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). HSPs are split evenly by gender–50% male and 50% female–and their existence is supported by science. While the majority are introverted because it takes less to stimulate their nervous systems, 30% of HSPs are extroverts. This is not a psychological diagnosis, because it’s not a disorder. Being an HSP is a genetic trait, like having brown hair, or blue eyes. HSPs are present in most mammalian species, and they are in the world for a purpose, which I’ll discuss more below.
It was about 3 years ago that a patient told me she was reading Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and the name of the book shook me inside. I had to read it, and when I did, I devoured every word, feeling understood for possibly the first time in my life. I thought, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this? It would have made all the difference in the world to know that I’m just wired this way. I could have stopped trying to be something I wasn’t years ago.”
Since then, I’ve made it my business to educate people about HSPs whenever I get the chance. Elaine Aron offers the DOES acronym to describe the traits of HSPs:
D – Depth of Processing
O – Overstimulation
E – Emotional Reactivity and Empathy
S – Sensing of the Subtle
It was only quite recently that I realized my depth of processing is above average, and my mind is much busier than most people’s. After interactions where I feel I did poorly with others, I’ll often go home and pick the conversation apart, trying to figure out where I went wrong. When I have a problem to solve, my brain will dissect for days, and sometimes nights, until I find the answer. One of my favorites in life is learning something new, and I’m great at putting in the time and thought. Recently, I’ve been learning piano, Spanish, and how to blog and podcast. These are great hobbies for me because they’re done quietly, in private, and call for deep thinking.
Crowds can be a real problem for me because of the HSP tendency towards overwhelm. I love concerts, but I need quiet time before and after, and I can’t stand general admission concerts. My own assigned chair and space keeps me from panicking and leaving. My work-load has to be kept at a manageable level, and I have to take excellent care of my body, mind and spirit in order to keep myself from burning out. Events where I meet large groups of people I don’t know for the first time can have me hiding in a corner, overwhelmed by the number of people, the noise, and my own internal sense of not fitting in as easily as others seem to do.
I feel sadness, joy, hope and fear at a more visceral level than non-HSPs, and I love with a depth that is often frightening to my beloved. Disappointment, frustration, anger, and joy all make me cry. The emotional reactivity of my HSP nature is both a curse and a blessing. Feeling the difficult emotions deeply is the downside, but the intense love and joy I get to experience make it all worth it, and empathy is my superpower. I had to learn how to shield the integrity of my own heart, but now that I know how, I can feel the emotions of those around me with incredible accuracy. Definitely a useful trait for a therapist.
Panel interviews are a nightmare for me due to the HSP trait of sensing the subtle. I’ll get completely overwhelmed reading the subtle body postures and facial expressions of the multiple people who are judging me, and my anxiety soars, leaving me tongue tied. I’m not good at getting people to believe I’m good at what I do, but if they give me a chance, I hit home runs over and over. On the upside of the sensing subtleties trait, I notice details that others often overlook, and I’m great at solving puzzles and finding creative solutions.
Now that I know these things about myself, I can build in protections like giving myself time alone to recuperate after being around a lot of people, making sure I get a lot of rest, and enough to eat. I give myself grace when I’m not able to handle disappointment and hurt as coolly as other people. It’s OK, I tell myself. The world isn’t in technicolor for them, like it is for me. The biggest blessing is that I allow myself to be authentic in a way that I never have before, and that’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities, such as writing this blog for you about my true experience of the world.
Dr. Aron explains that the world has gotten more difficult for HSPs as history has moved forward. There used to be two classes of people, the warrior kings and the priestly advisors. Both were equally respected. While the warrior kings actively ruled and waged wars, the priestly advisors researched, wrote, gave valuable advice to the warrior kings, and created works of art. Over time, though, the warrior kings stopped listening, and made policies that hadn’t gone through the deeply processing, subtle minds of HSPs, and I believe the world is poorer for it.
Now HSPs are told to stop being so sensitive and to stop thinking so much. They are pressured to be like the warrior kings, who think that something is wrong with the quiet thoughtfulness of HSPs. I am here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with us. The world would be a poorer place without the greatness of HSPs such as Leonardo da Vinci, St. Thomas Aquinas, Mother Theresa, and Ghandi. When given the space and time, we HSPs can create peace, healing and great art.
If you are relating to the HSP traits as much as I do, please stop trying to force yourself to be a warrior king. It won’t work, and you’ll end up hating yourself. Settle in to being an HSP, and it will open a whole new world for you of beauty, deep thought and strong emotion. Allow your creativity to spill out into the world, and forgive yourself for the times when your emotions overwhelm you.
IF you love an HSP, don’t shame them for traits they can’t help. Love them for the full depth of their priestly advisor selves, and they will blossom like well cared for roses in the garden.