Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part II
When I was growing up my mother called me names–well, at least one name. The 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.
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.