Portrait of an HSP

I don’t have more mirror neurons than most of you. Mine are just more active. As screen monitors race for higher and higher definitions of the perfect picture, my brain already has them beat with an amplified, laser-sharp user experience. I perceive and feel subtleties, shifts, and nuances in the environment and in people within seconds of entering a room. Lights. Sounds. Smells. Tastes. Touch. Life is very, very vivid to me. I’m not an empath. That’s different. That’s a pseudo-scientific phrase. Rather, I am part of the 15-20% of the population that is a Highly Sensitive Person— something that can be scientifically measured in brain imaging. And I didn’t know this about myself for a long time. I simply felt like an alien in this life. 

Here’s the thing: I live in a world that is designed for the 80-85% of Others who have typical sensory processing. Additionally, there is a neurological difference in how my brain responds to dopamine (I’m not a fan of being recreationally terrified (e.g. carnival haunted houses), poked, tickled or publicly praised) and how my sensory processing has been impacted by recent, traumatic life events. The acuteness of my HSP trait has increased in recent years…

My gift is that this makes me a kick-a** therapist who is able to identify and name someone’s psychological and emotional difficulties that may not be overtly expressed. I feel their pain with them and for them. I am able to give them a way to articulate their own experiences and assist them in integrating this as part of who they are in a coherent way. The HSP gift also gives me an extremely valuable, social multi-tool to keep in my back pocket when I need to assess a party scene, practice attunement, and be aware of motives and movements that may be imperceptible to others. Some people believe that HSPs are also able to tap into creativity more powerfully than others, which makes sense if we are constantly “above and beyond” (for better or worse) in experiential depth of processing.  

This gift has a shadow side… the side that the world focuses on as a deficiency. The world can be very overwhelming for me. Mothering, in particular, is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do just because of the constant sensory stimuli. My startle response looks like a cartoon cat jumping in the air—I’m not being facetious. It’s extreme. A child can knock a stainless steel bowl onto the floor and if it’s been a long day… the sound will send my heart rate through the roof and I will end in tears. Someone shuts the door with normal exertion, and I might wince. The sound of a chip bag being rustled with too long will feel like nails on a chalkboard. A child wants to sit on my lap and stroke my cheek and it might take all my willpower to not overtly cringe at the frustration of being touched at that moment. I’m constantly asking for voices to be lowered, constantly trying to regulate my autonomic nervous system, and constantly retreating to my interior world because it’s so very loud out there. My hearing is fine; but sometimes in loud or busy places, I don’t register what people are saying to me because I’ve ran so far off-grid into my own mental wilderness. This is not generalized anxiety. This is sensory overload. 

Some days are harder than others. And there are things I can do to improve my own situation, such as exercise (which makes a noticeable difference in my energy and coping skills), keeping my nutrient levels stable, and making sure I have designated moments of solitude/silence to recharge. But ultimately the task is mine to accept that trying to understand the differences in people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity is not going to be easy for those who don’t have it.  And the task is also mine to remember that just because the inevitable logistics of mothering are inordinately taxing on me, does not mean I don’t love my children fiercely. 

If any of this is useful–if maybe this is something new that helps you name why you are… particularly you— I’m glad. But ultimately, I’m writing this out for me: to validate my own experience. No one else can do that for me. I can’t find a comfortable home in this world, because well… it’s loud. Busy. And probably smells obnoxious. I’m writing this out to come home to myself. To unpack the boxes of my own memories and knowledge of who I am and how far I’ve traveled to get here. To string up lights with a truth that isn’t relative, but that is refracted on a plane that is uniquely mine. And to paint the walls of my soul with the kind of peace that nothing in this world can take away from me.


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