If You've Ever Been Told You're Too Sensitive...

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I remember as a kid, somebody asking me what I would change about myself if I could change anything. My answer came quickly. I’d be steady, stable – not a roller coaster of emotions…in short, I’d be like everybody else.

My nickname growing up was Wendy the Worrywart. I worried about everything. As a toddler, my mom still recalls that I was so cautious that I almost never fell down, even when I was learning to walk. My first role in community theater was playing the role of Tessie in Annie. Remember her? She’s the little orphan running around fretting “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” Total typecasting.

I’ve always been told that I worry too much, that I’m too dramatic, too sensitive, too, too, too…. All I wanted to be was less. I wanted to go on trips without worrying endlessly about bridges collapsing or vehicles colliding. I wanted to be able to speak in a group without my neck and chest turning a deep crimson shade. I wanted to be able to to be with people I loved without getting upset or feeling dissed over something nobody else even noticed. I wanted to be able to listen to a friend’s problems without feeling her frustration so acutely that it would consume my mind for days. I wanted to take a left turn when I was supposed to take a right without feeling immediate panic.

But that’s been me, my whole life. Life is a series of sparks and I am a nuclear reactor.

I think my first clue that I wasn’t like everyone else occurred in elementary school. I felt sick and went to the nurse. I distinctly remember her saying “Okay honey, but why are you crying?” ‘Because I don’t feel good’ wasn’t a logical answer to that question. Apparently most people don’t burst into tears when they don’t feel good (who knew?). I ended up answering a battery of questions from the nurse about my home life under suspicion of dysfunction or some kind of abuse – when I was truly just crying because I didn’t feeling good.

As time has gone on, this sensitivity has invaded other areas of my life – sensitivity to bright lights, distracting sounds, an obsessive need to understand and read people’s faces and intentions…. But the most poisonous manifestation has been anxiety regarding travel. A road trip includes weeks-long obsessions about the weather, traffic, deer on the road, etc. and I’ll invariably struggle with insomnia before and throughout the trip. When I travel any distance on an interstate or highway, I truly feel like I only have about a 30% chance of survival. It’s as if fear is an knob on the audio console and it’s constantly pegging the meter.

Recently though, a soft-spoken artist friend told me about a book called the Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a person who interprets the normal sensory data that for most is simply a common thread in the fabric of life, but to a highly sensitive person, feels often overwhelming, overstimulating and consuming. In Psychology Today’s article A Guide to the Highly Sensitive Person, Andrea Bartz writes of research done on HSP’s where “Brain imaging studies show…a hyper responsive amygdala, the brain center that assesses threats and governs fear response”. Immediately, a light in this dark closet of shame where I’d lived, turned on. There were other people like me! I was made this way — it is literally part of my biology. The article went on to discuss that the traits of an HSP are even found in infants. And, as you might expect, many HSP’s are artists like myself – indicating that our intense perception of the world around us can unfold not just in negative ways, but in beautiful and meaningful ways.

Suddenly I was able to view myself in a whole new light. Not as someone with a permanent home in the scratch and dent bin, but someone who was created like this for a reason. It explains why, recently when a friend of mine announced that she was 12 weeks pregnant, I responded with “I know! In fact, I told [my husband] before I saw you that I really hoped you’d finally announce it today!” I’m realizing that that same intensity through which I view the world can also allow me to perceive things that others may miss. Oh, and that anxiety over interstate driving – although I’m working on getting that under control, we have been on many roads littered with cars in the ditch from snow storms that I insisted we wait out.

Years ago a close friend of mine noticed that she could see the blue veins on the underside of my wrists as if my skin was translucent. She said that my skin was analogous to me as a person — thin-skinned and transparent, which of course I was offended by. But nowadays, as I grow to understand myself better and accept that with every negative trait I embody, there is a compatible positive that I can choose to embrace and personify, I’m no longer offended but grateful. Now I know that I may be sensitive, but I am far from weak.