I was in the grocery store one day recently and as I stood gazing helplessly at a wall of cereal and wondering how I would find a box of something that was a) edible b) didn’t taste like cardboard and c) didn’t contain almonds (I have an almond sensitivity), my decision-making abilities were curtailed by the incessant wailing of someone’s inevitably tired, hungry, bored toddler and the raspy intercom voice overhead informing us that a cleanup was needed in ailse five. I heard a cart squeaking down the ailse toward me and I turned and looked at the woman behind it. She appeared to have an expression on her face which looked exactly the way I imagined I must look, based on the way I was feeling. It was like some kind of combination of angst, stress, frustration and delirium. I’m not even entirely sure what angst is but I’m sure I was feeling it and it looked like the expression on mine and this woman’s face, all knitted eyebrows and pursed lips and sweaty brow.
‘I can’t hear myself think in here!’ I said to her, ‘the noise is horrendous!’ assuming by her countenace that I had found a like-minded HSP. But she just frowned further and wheeled her cart carefully past me, as if I were some nut.
One of my struggles with being a highly sensitive person is saying to people, ‘I’m highly sensitive’ knowing that the response will be laughter, ridicule, scowls, fear or expression of disapproval à la the shopping episode. Have you ever tried to explain your trait to someone? Chances are, you were either too afraid to try or your attempts were met with confusion and derision. If high sensitivity is a genetic trait, as Elaine Aron’s research suggests it is, when did it become such a dirty word?
I often think of one of my favourite musicians, Michael Jackson. He was a true artist and, I believe, a highly sensitive person. No one with that amount of raw talent coupled with his amazing sensitivity to music, dance, and emotion could be anything else. But he was condemned by the media and by many others as being a freak. He was too different for most people to be able to understand and so they condemned him. In reality, however, I think it’s clear that he was a highly sensitive person due to his introversion, shyness, anxiety, empathy and incredible artistic giftedness.
But long before Michael Jackson came along, sensitive was a negative label. It was something that made people smile and nod and feel rather sorry for you. Being labeled as sensitive meant that you were inevitably unhappy, lonely, anxious, depressed, and just not ‘bucking up’ as well as you should be.
I don’t know when this idea came along, this perception that sensitive people were somehow not up to scratch, that we were weak and cowardly and insecure and that something somewhere must have gone terribly wrong or else we wouldn’t be this way.
But the fact is that we were born this way and for a reason. No matter what anyone says or thinks or implies with their looks of disdain or pity, sensitivity is a trait to be proud of. We are the artists and innovators of the world, we are the counsellors and wise women, the priestly advisors, the keepers of knowledge, the keepers of secrets. We possess an understanding and perception of the world that enables us to see beauty and love and purity all around us, every day. And that is an enviable quality. Life is not easy for the highly sensitive, and we do experience a great deal of struggle and challenge, misunderstanding and difficulty, but the rewards are worth it. We just need to be ourselves and let our talents shine. We can make our own noise, in our own quiet way, and not be afraid to say ‘I’m highly sensitive’.