Too many (but not all) anxious people call themselves with another name.
Their narration goes something like this “If only I wasn’t so sensitive, I won’t be so anxious.”
The starting point of that anxiety seems to be their sensitivity.
When I ask Dan, a 'closet' sensitive, to elaborate further, I get to hear how because of his sensitivity, he feels more intensely, notices things that others don't, thinks about life more deeply, analyzes events and experiences to find the meaning behind them.
So what’s the problem I ask?
Blanks stares in our room.
Pardon me Dan, can you tell me how what sound like the coolest qualities about you turn themselves into the most dreadful experiences for you?
Long pause. Then it finally comes.
“Because no one really understands me.”
For a second, hang in there. Don’t dump sensitivity into the stereotype image it instantly conjures up.
The way we’re talking about sensitivity here is different.
Sensitivity is a scientifically studied temperament. A trait.
Traits are intrinsic. Traits are innate. Traits are handed down to you.
Traits are also neutral. There are no right or wrong traits. Each trait is a package deal. It has strengths and it has weaknesses. But even here, the strengths and weaknesses only become so when they’re mapped against a cultural majority.
Take extroversion. An extrovert gets his energy from being around people. In America, this is the strength of his trait. In Belgium, they'll ask him to go home.
It’s not a pathology. If it were one, evolution won’t allow 15-20% of the population to come with it.
At the same time, it is all too common to hear sensitive people correlate their sensitivity with their anxiety.
Like Dan does.
There’s a neurobiological tone of sensitivity.
Should I tell you what this looks like? I’m sitting here typing this and compared to my friend sitting next to me, my heart rate is higher and breathing is faster. We just checked. My mind is racing with rapid thoughts and ideas, and my conscious brain can't keep pace with them. I have this strong impulse to act and I can’t slow it down. My body feels a little uncoordinated and my mind feels like it's lifting too much weight.
Is this anxiety? No. If anything, it’s just my excitement in sending this letter to you.
How often does the sensitive person experience this state? The answer here is “much more than the non-sensitive”.
The sensitive nervous system isn't a freak show though. It's doing exactly what should be expected of any nervous system. It's reacting to stimuli.
It so happens that people who come with the sensitive trait are taking in a lot of stimuli compared to someone without the trait. The incremental stimuli are the subtleties of what the HSP brain notices. Brain studies show this happening quite clearly.
Two people walk into the same room and are asked to scan the room in a few quick seconds. If all other things are equal between them, they should be expected to confront the same stimuli right? One table, two chairs, man in corner eating weird sandwich.
But the HSP noticed a little more. Table and chair are not aligned. Sandwich is half eaten. Man eating sandwich is unshaven and grumpy. Room is dingy. Self heart rate is suddenly high. Colleague has weird smile on face while doing experiment.
The subtleties go in. The nuances get noticed. The brain processes more stimuli. The nervous system is activated.
All this is happening as part of a trait.
The HSP doesn't intend to be more aware. He just is. He see things – changes, shifts, variations, nuances, subtleties – that 80-85%% of people miss.
All day, every day.
The story doesn't end here.
To take things further, there’s also no wall to prevent the awareness from coming through. In other words, we also process the awareness deeply. We’re not always applying labels and judgments (although many times we are); we’re just innately designed to think about the meaning behind what our awareness picks up. Deeply.
What does all this mean? It means that the HSP nervous systems are working hard. And they're working harder that the non-HSP (80% of the people around us).
How this nervous system workload feels in our body can mimic anxiety. If we don't know any better, we end up insisting it is anxiety.
We all know what happens when we decide we have “anxiety”.
We panic. We get scared. We’ll do anything to avoid anxiety. We insist triggers exist. It becomes a matter of survival.
And just like that, we start the battle to avoid that anxiety. But in reality, it's a battle to avoid our own nervous systems. In other words, our own trait, our own selves.
How do you think that's going to go?
If you’ve spent some time trying to change your sensitivity, you already know the answer to this.
You can’t "overcome" your sensitivity.
What you can do instead is take some steps to re-examine why you ever felt you need to. The sensitive trait has massive strengths. And secretly, you know that's true. You've witnessed them in your own safe, private world. And you know how beautiful and impactful your sensitivity can be.
Care to take some steps to be more comfortable with it? What's the worst that could happen when you're comfortable with your own self? Someone, somewhere will tell you to reconsider? Who cares? You're comfortable with who you are. If that bothers them, they need to do their own examination.
I have a 3-part published series that elaborates the experience of sensitivity.
Part 1: You are Highly Aware. Are you happy about that?
Part 2: The Biggest Fight for the Highly Sensitive Person
Part 3: 6 Decisions a Highly Sensitive Person must make
In them, you’ll find more scientifically-backed facts about the trait (especially about awareness and over-stimulation), the trait's myths and confusions cleared up, and a 6-step plan to move your life’s direction towards the trait.
Finally, if you share my goal, you may find yourself de-sensitized to the advice “Don’t be so sensitive”.
Aah, the irony. I'm a big fan.