Prescriptions for Life

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Was Michael Jackson a Highly Sensitive Person(HSP)? Are You?

When life overwhelms: Was Michael Jackson a "Highly Sensitive Person"?

Michael Jackson

Watching the events over the last week, and observing so many details of Michael Jackson's life has made me reflect a lot about myself and my own life. I imagine the coverage may have had the same effect on you.

I'm struck over and over by the primary message of self-actualization - the importance of expressing your God-given gifts to the fullest in your lifetime - and the impact that each of us might have on the world if we actually did that.

That's fodder for another post, but at this moment I'd also like to reflect on the frequently discussed contrast between Jackson's shy, reclusive personality (documented since he was a young child), and his outrageously impressive and even flamboyant ability to perform on and dominate the world stage.

I can relate, though on a smaller scale. I too am a professional performer - I'm a flamenco dancer, speak for large audiences, and work with the media as a wellness expert. I've loved being on stage, in the spotlight, since I can remember. Most people are terrified of speaking or performing in front of people, while I have the opposite problem: it can be hard to get me to get off the stage, or to make me share it with others! The similarity to Jackson is that while I may appear very extroverted on stage or on camera, I'm actually an extremely private person who needs a huge amount of alone time.

By definition, an extrovert is a person who gets energized by being around others.  That certainly applies to me (and seems to apply to Jackson): I love being on stage in front of a crowd, or at a great event, or laughing and talking with really interesting, high energy people.  But I still need to spend more time alone than I do with other people, in order to feel balanced and comfortable in my own skin.

People often won't understand this. I seem so outgoing, with a "big" personality in stage, but in my personal life I often get accused of being anti-social.  I prefer to spend large amounts of time alone, and like to spend the balance of my time with a small group of very close friends and family. I also have a number of other unusual traits (such as being extremely susceptible to noise, and almost obsessed with the luxury of total silence in my living and working space), which made me wonder for years if I was just some kind of weirdo.

One night, when I was feeling particularly frustrated by my "sensitivity", I actually did an Internet search to try to find some explanation for my personality. I can't recall which search terms I used, but I found a website about "The Highly Sensitive Person." It changed my life and the way I saw and understood myself, forever.

The website (http://www.hsperson.com ) is based on the work of psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, who has written several books on this subject. Apparently "HSPs" make up 15-20% of the population, "too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you". I'll say!

According to Aron's website, if you're a Highly Sensitive Person:

- You're more aware than others of subtleties. Our brains processes information and reflects on it more deeply. You notice more things than others do.
- You're more easily overwhelmed, and get naturally overstimulated when things are too intense, chaotic or new.
- You're easily affected by other people's moods
- During busy days, you may need to withdraw into a darkened room or quiet place to get some privacy and relief from over-stimulation
- You get overwhelmed by bright lights, strong odors , loud noises, crowds and any other strong sensory input
- You're deeply creative and moved by arts and music

A more detailed Self Test can be found on Aron's website here .

Reading the complete list of HSP traits was a huge relief to me - it meant I was essentially normal, part of a large group of people who largely go unrecognized by science or society. Now I could explain to my husband why I am the way I am. I can't comfortably live in a housing situation where there are shared walls (e.g. a condo or duplex), as I find uncontrollable noise from other people to be very disruptive and stressful. When I travel it's best that I not share a room with others (other than my husband, who's used to me), as I find I get stressed and overwhelmed if I don't have a private space to decompress on my own between activities.

Now that I understand why I am the way I am, and that it's a real neurophysiological condition, I can look after myself properly and explain myself to others without being embarrassed or seeming "strange".

It's hard to know if MJ had the same combination of traits, though there's no doubt that from a young age he was labeled as "shy", as many HSPs are, and was extraordinarily gifted and extroverted within the arts. Thirty percent of HSPs are extroverts, which is an interesting and logical explanation for my personality (as described above).  I'm naturally outgoing when I want to be, but need lots of down-time alone to balance busy times that involve lots of socializing or stimulation.

What I do know is if that you're an HSP like me, this knowledge might help you finally be able to understand, celebrate and honor your unique package, instead of feeling ashamed or frustrated by who you are. Now go make yourself a soothing cup of tea, find a cozy quiet place to relax, and enjoy!

 

Susan Biali, M.D., researches health and happiness. She is also a professional flamenco dancer and author.

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