The Highly What Person?

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part II

When I was growing up my mother called me names–well, at least one nameThe princess and the pea. It was quite a mouthful.  I hope it gave her a lot of pleasure because it certainly made me feel lousy.

She was referring to a story in my fairy tale book by Hans Christian Andersen where the prince’s mother tests the new girl by hiding a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds.  The girls wakes up black and blue.  That little pea underneath all that bedding was too much for her.  So the name “the princess and the pea” is meant to be a metaphor for ridiculous sensitivity.

It wasn’t just that I cried when people made fun of me, though I was talented at those tears.

“Look at the baby! She can’t do cartwheels.”

“Those are the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen.  Don’t your parents love you?”

Boo hoo hoo.  I didn’t usually cry in front of people, but at home, in the privacy of my bedroom.  Until I could make my getaway, I would get very quiet, melt, and spread out thinly over the nearest wall.

Mom would call me “princess and the pea” for other reasons.  If I felt sorry for a shivering kid and gave her my sweater, if Mom found out, she would be mystified when she heard my reasoning. If my father snapped at someone else, and I thought it was unfair and told my mother I found it upsetting, she would look at me in wonderment–as if she were wondering where I had come from and who I was.

“You’re so sensitive.”

“Nobody else would be bothered by that.”

“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

After a time, I learned to tame the tears, and how to harden my heart when it was absolutely necessary.  And I began to think I was no longer a hypersensitive person, as long as I guarded myself.

But there were other mysteries about me.

Then two months ago I found a book and my entire vision of myself changed.  This book is the first to theorize this specific personality type.  Once I read one page of the book, I knew I was reading about myself.  I didn’t need the initial quiz, although when I took it I wasn’t surprised to tally a dramatically high score.

The book is called–drum roll, please–The Highly Sensitive Person, written by Elaine N. Aron. Please don’t laugh.  I can hear you laughing.

No?  Well, if you’re not laughing, maybe it’s because you, too, are an HSP, a highly sensitive person.  Dr. Aron suggests that this inherited traits occurs in 15-20% of the population, to varying degrees.

Instead of viewing our sensitivity as a flaw, something to be overcome, or as a reason for failure, she argues that once we understand the personality type we were born with (and in some cases which has been enhanced by our environment, such as our families), we can reframe our past in light of this characteristic.  We can heal and we can learn how to live a life that is right for us, rather than one that is right for non-HSPs.

Another mystery about myself is why I get so over-stimulated when I am around other people and in new situations.  Why do I find it so difficult to drive a car and talk to a friend sitting next to me at the same time?  Why can I read a map so well and yet get lost every new place I go?  Why do I love people and want to be part of their lives and yet avoid social situations?  I thought I had social anxiety, but that didn’t seem to fit.

It all has to do with being an HSP.  Dr. Aron presents us with two facts:

1. Everyone, HSP or not, feels best when neither too bored nor too aroused.

2. People differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation, under the same stimulation.

HSPs cannot handle as much stimulation as non-HSPs.  So when I drive the car to the grocery store, I am handling a lot of stimuli: the turns and dips in the road, the trees and other vegetation, cars, people in the cars, the dog walking on the side of the road.  All these things crowd and confuse my mind and body.  Now if you add in my good friend sitting next to me–someone I trust and love and enjoy talking with–she is also a huge stimulus.  The conversation we are having is exciting, but also I have to weave together listening and speaking with when to stop at the light, turn at the sign, watch for that dog by the side of the road.  It all puts me on overload, and I need three days locked in the house, working quietly, to recover.

You might be thinking that this sounds like a completely crummy personality type to be stuck with.  But hold on.  There is a positive side to it.  There is a pearl in the slimy oyster, so to speak.

Aron says:

What this difference in arousability means is that you notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others.  This is true whether we are talking about subtle sounds, sights, or physical sensations like pain . . . .  The difference seems to lie somewhere on the way to the brain or in the brain, in a more careful processing of information.  We reflect more on everything.  And we sort things into finer distinctions.  Like those machines that grade fruit by size–we sort into ten sizes while others sort into two or three.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  This is an ideal trait for a writer.

Also, Aron goes on to explain in her book, this is a good trait for some people in society to have.  HSPs use their traits to benefit society in all walks of life, but they also tend to be heavily found among “scholars, theologians, psychotherapists, consultants, or judges.”  We are not the “warrior class,” but the “priest class.”

I believe that HSPs use their sensitivity to see the world more finely, more precisely, and can benefit society by reflecting back that detailed image to others.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Research and prep for writing

49 responses to “The Highly What Person?

  1. anjum wasim dar

    We are not the “warrior class,” but the “priest class.” and so Wordsworth said ‘to be a poet priest’ ..Great article thoroughly informative helpful and entertaining as well.

  2. I read this book many years ago. I think I may have started as an HSP and due to environment, taught myself to be pretty hard. My talk is different than my walk. It’s unfortunate, because the same behaviors that are used to protect one’s self can also be so isolating. Writing really helps me get to the “sweet spot” of being vulnerable and open.
    As for overstimulation – smell and sound really do me in. Working from home has been a blessing in that regard.

    • lucewriter

      I was wondering if a lot of bloggers might be HSPs because of the nature of blogging. And I think it might be true of a lot of people who work from home, too. I am so much happier working from home than when I had to drive a long way and work on campus.

  3. This post is so intriguing. A lot of the traits you discussed for ‘HSP’ perfectly describe me. I sometimes wonder if I have social anxiety because I can get overwhelmed easily in new situations, around new people. I am definitely going to check this book out, especially after reading your thoughts on it. Such a great share!

    • lucewriter

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Yes, overwhelmed is exactly how I so often feel. It’s not a fear, but a sensory overload. I suppose it could lead to fear of the sensory overload, but for me it’s just too much for my nervous system.

  4. Yes. Yes. Yes. But I’m very careful of labeling. When I read the book I felt a sense of relief (I’m not alone!) but I didn’t learn anything new. I think the whole point is self acceptance. And learning self care. It isn’t always helpful to put a name tag on personality parts. To classify and limit ourselves and each other. Knowing/understanding/loving yourself (your whole self) is all that matters. Like the Meyers Briggs test. I got INFP. But it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about myself, and knowing other people’s test initials doesn’t mean I know anything about them, or that I can speculate what “class of people” they belong to. Interesting post, thank you for sharing!

    • lucewriter

      I can’t believe you just wrote that because I am already working on a post about Myers Briggs! For me the book led to an amazing epiphany because I could contextualize things about myself that were just weird before. Now I have an understanding of why, so I can more clearly think through decisions, such as whether to go to a particular party or not. I’m not just running on instinct and feelings, but on knowledge. Good point about labeling though. I sure don’t want other people labeling me haha!

  5. I had this book once but threw it away as I did not want to admit just how sensitive I am — I have regretted throwing it away many times, and now understand that it does not have to be a bad trait–but one you have to work with–and that there are advantages to being “sensitive”

  6. Luanne, you cannot believe how appropriate this post is for me right now as i excavate my past and try to figure out why i am so damn sensitive tonthings around me, especially when it comes to making sense of them and my place inrelationship to people and events. Would love to reblog this!

    • lucewriter

      I am so honored, Renee! I would love for you to reblog this post. I can’t wait to catch up and find out what’s been going on with you and your writing world!!!

  7. Luanne, i love the new look of your blog!

  8. This is all so interesting. I have always thought of myself as quite vigilant. Watching for an explosion, I guess. It can be exhausting to always be watching.

    • lucewriter

      Wilma, so do you think that is part of being an HSP? Because I have that, too, but I didn’t really see it as part of that, but more learned behavior.

  9. Nice post.. i too am a HSP and while I have learned to control those emotions ( no more crying at the drop of a hat), I will remain very intuned to the world around me. I think it’s a good trait to have 🙂

    • lucewriter

      Lynne, that’s me too. I’d say as a kid I was too hypersensitive, but it’s led to better qualities as an adult. Thank goodness!

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  11. Love your take.I’m adding this to my collection. You would love Sarah Draws hilarious sensitive take on this, and the recent article she quotes on BlackBoxWarnings:
    It was an easy article to share with my family. : ) Hope you like it as much as I did.

    • lucewriter

      Waywardspirit, thanks so much for both reading so many of my posts :), and for directing me to the article on HSP. I loved it! Interesting that you found it wasy to share with your family. It’s easier for me to share this stuff with my current family (husband and kids) than family of origin.

      • Oh, it was not easy!
        It’s cool you have a hubby and kids you can talk real to.
        Family of origin are challenging!
        I’m still sharing. It was easy to click the share button. : )
        Knowing myself was the big one. Your post helps with this. Your Princess and Pea story.
        All the comments are great too.
        You really crate a great space to get to know ourselves by knowing each other. : )
        It was easy to share the article.
        Reading it myself made it easy to talk about. It gave me words. Like your post and the comments did.
        What other people feel much better at home too? Others don’t do the whole work place thing?
        We are a mob of princesses!
        Hail all or your Royal Highnesses!
        I mean this for real!
        We are awesome!
        Sensitivity is a superpower. : )
        Just keep the Kryptonite away and we are fine.

  12. This is great, thanks for sharing! Discovering that I am a HSP has changed my whole perspective on life. I can’t wait to read this book!

  13. I just started my own blog in order to sort through my own HSPness. I found out there was a name for it a year ago and it was a relief to know there was a reason for why I was the way I was. I really resonated with this.

    • It really is such a relief to find out about HSP. I’ve told the people closest to me, but they don’t seem to understand. I am still trying to get my husband to read the book. Good luck with your blog!

  14. Love this post. I definitely relate to the symptoms you mention. So glad you identified this from my last blog post and alerted me to it!

    The “Princess and the Pea” story is hilarious. For me, I was always teased for not being able to “walk and chew gum” at the same time! Made me felt like a klutz. Also explains another weird trait people used to (still do!) comment on–my slowness–talk slow, move slow, process things slowly. Guess I need to because so much going on that I’m taking in I have to slow down to make it easier to cope. And the tears! Any little thing can bring it on. I always imagined it as a “vale of tears” inside me, just sloshing around, leaking out, endless, a bottomless pit. Whew! I’m a normal HSP! What a relief.

    But I do agree that there’s a pretty significant upside to being one. I love who I am now, even before learning about HSP. I wouldn’t want to change. But it sure is nice to know there are others like me, and to understand better why I am the way I am. Thank you!

    • lucewriter

      Deborah, the things you mention here are so HSP. The walk and chew gum thing is so like me in an overly stimulating situation. Yet, weirdly, I can read a magazine and watch TV at the same and when I was a kid I could do that and knit, too. Those things didn’t over-stimulate me.
      But put me outside or having to walk or drive or be around other people and I start spinning too fast. That’s when those walk and chew gum comments start coming in. I canNOT believe you mentioned the slowness! My husband says I talk too slow or I take too long to process what he’s asking me to do. He can watch the gears catching while he waits (however, in tests or when I write or when I am focusing by myself I’m probably a fast and intuitive thinker, and so seeing me “in action” just confuses him more). But it’s because it’s so much coming at me at once. I agree, though–I wouldn’t change anything because it’s where my best creativity and thinking skills come from. It does feel so good to know that it’s normal and that there are others!!!

  15. Ps–I couldn’t do cartwheels either! I wonder if it’s related to HSP? The tendency to overthink things? The klutz thing? Hmmm . . . maybe I’m overthinking this???

    • lucewriter

      I think it’s possible. The over-thinking comes from having so much sensory information to process and deal with. Then I suspect that anxiety can come from the over-thinking. It’s the opposite of people who just leap, most likely.

  16. I once had a conversation with a friend who happens to be a child psychologist and she said I should read up on HSP’s and I remember wondering afterwards why she had said that, we hadn’t been discussing anything like that, but I went away to find out what it was and realised she’d recognised something in me, in the way I’d shared what we had been discussing.

    I can still hear my family telling me not to be so sensitive, like a mantra, as if there was something wrong in it. Now I understand that it is an important human trait in our survival as a species and I have had numerous experiences where my body has sensed danger and my mind hasn’t yet figured out what it was. I can well imagine how important those senses must have been in our cave dwelling times and they are very useful to have in this day and age as well.

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  21. I’m so glad you linked to this post! I’m going to order the book. I know from Susan Cain’s book “Quiet,” that I’m likely a shy, sensitive introvert. Given some uncomfortable social situations lately, I might as well as be a highly sensitive person. As a child, I definitely could cry at the drop of a hat and I was often ridiculed for it. As an adult, I fight crying but usually lose. My husband has had to learn not to be alarmed when the tears start flowing over a minor slight. But it’s frustrating to be so sensitive. And I have the same issues with driving. I love my husband dearly but I even get overstimulated and anxious when he’s driving and talking and I, as the passenger, feel I have to be the one to pay attention 😉 Thanks for posting this, Luanne, and for sharing so much of yourself. It’s wonderful to not feel alone.

    • I am so surprised to hear from so many who can’t handle any extra noise, etc. Maybe we are truly NOT alone! There might be many of us! I have learned not to cry very often, but that came with a lot of training and patience. But I still feel the same way inside–and so many people can’t seem to understand. That is why it is so thrilling to read of who many who do “get” it. What you say about feeling you have to pay attention: whoa, I SO have been there–almost every day haha.

      • Funny, I had to drive us home the other day because my husband forgot his wallet. At one point, he realized that I was too distracted to engage in conversation and said, “maybe we should just drive” 🙂 Later I told him about your post and explained that it’s “nothing personal” but I am finding it more difficult to deal with multiple distractions. I think some of it is our growing dependence on technology as well as the reach of that technology. I feel bombarded by messages and ads and sounds, yadda yadda, every time I surf the web or try to catch up with friends on social media. It’s too much stimulation, all those pop-up ads and interruptions. I’m trying to be more mindful of technology’s effect on me and exert as much control as I can to minimizing it. I feel like I lose some battles, but I might still win the war 😉

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  23. Val

    Same here. And I also had the nickname of ‘Princess and the Pea’ but from my dad, not my mum. He was quite well aware of how sensitive I was to everything, though he didn’t always have the patience for it. My mother was usually the one who criticised me for my hypersensitivity (which, by the way, is the word I always used then and still sometimes use now, rather than HSP or similar).

    When I was younger it was incredibly difficult for me to do anything because I was always getting overstimulated. These days it’s not as bad as then because of various health problems which have kind of dulled a lot of it and, actually, that’s the only positive element of those problems.

    I tried reading Elaine Aron’s book and am afraid that, unlike you, I hated it and found it patronizing. I particularly didn’t like way the print had been laid out – in the copy I had, at any rate, it was printed in double-spacing and I found it challenging to read, also the cover with its over-bright colours that conflicted with each other had a bad effect. That in itself told me I, as a hypersensitive person, was not her actual target readership. But yes – we exist, and I’ve always known about my own hypersensitivities.

    I think you’re right that it helps us focus our minds on the small details and that we can help others in this way. You did that for me a few months ago (and I need to thank you for that in case you didn’t realise it at the time), by telling me that maybe I was the best person (or words to that effect) to help you with identifying the difference between a couple of photos *because* of my difficulty with recognising faces, etc. I’ve realised you’re quite right: because of my partial prosopagnosia, I have to work really hard at recognition, so I pretty much home in on small differences.

    I have similar challenges in daily living, to yourself. For instance, I don’t drive so don’t have that problem with someone else in the car, but I find eating with other people really difficult. Either I get really distracted by what they are saying that I don’t eat, or I am so focussed on what I’m eating that I can’t concentrate on what they are saying! I’m also very distracted by the birds in our garden that I see through the dining room French Doors, and if we have guests at the same time – it’s the birds that get my attention! (I think people have realised this by now…)

    Despite being married I have to have a huge amount of time on my own and when we’ve had visitors it takes me ages to recover.

  24. I am definitely a HSP, like you. I just came home from book club (9/18/18) and was so wired by the stimulating discussion w my friends that I can’t sleep. Am working my way through your post today.

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  26. I went to a more current post of yours first and opened it but in looking around was drawn like a fly to read it. I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. Bought the book for my daughter who is very much like me. Both HSP’s. I’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety for all the reasons you named. It makes part of life harder but we see so much more than most and feel so much more. I’m mostly silent when driving as well for the same reasons you give here. We appear to be thicker skinned through practice but it’s not a fact. I’m glad to find another HSP and I think you might have something with writers being HSPs. I can handle people in small doses and then need rest. Thanks for posting this for me to find. I’ll be browsing more now that things are a bit quieter.

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