I was recently describing the personality of Lizzie, one of our Shelties, to a friend.
“When it comes to herding her flock (us humans) or anything she wants to do, she’s fearless. If we threw her in the deep end, she’d undoubtedly swim. Chipmunks on the deck flee, and birds at the feeder take flight before she’s out the back door, leaping down the steps at the expense of her tendency for tendinitis.
For Lizzie, everything running amok is a problem to be solved. She’s also the one to react to every vaccine or drug we give her. Her sister Boudica wants to play, but Lizzie wants to win because she’s tenacious to a fault. If anyone ends up at the veterinary emergency room as a result, it will be Lizzie. She weighs 20 pounds less than Bou, but she’ll drag Bou backwards by the tail. Yet, if any of us are hurt or upset, including Bou, Lizzie is extremely concerned, her snout in their face, trying to figure out what’s wrong and make everything ok.
In short, she thinks she’s ‘rough-and-tumble,’ ready to take on the world, but she’s more fragile than she’ll admit and way high on the scale of environmentally sensitive.”
And then I realized…
“Oh, damn! She’s me!
Ok, perhaps not literally—obviously—but her sense of self and what she can or should handle…versus the reality of her high sensitivity is most definitely a family trait around here.
I first read Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person in the late 90s, and it literally changed my life.
Gone was the self doubt about all of the people who had, throughout my existence, called me too sensitive. In its place was the widely respected, scientific research that being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is a biological trait for survival—not some pop psychology disorder. In fact, HSPs make up 20% of the human population (with an equal representation of genders).
After signing up for one of my friend Eleanor Chaney’s online sessions on navigating life as a creative and an HSP, I downloaded Dr. Aron’s newest audio book, The Highly Sensitive Persons’ Complete Learning Program, to learn about the newest research and find more ways I can engage in self care.
Unsurprisingly, research in the field of biology now shows that 100 species (and counting) demonstrate Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the scientific term for high sensitivity.*
Creatures from fruit flies to—you guessed it—dogs can possess the trait. While biologists can’t ascertain whether fruit flies have a rich inner life, or get frazzled when they have too much to do in a short period of time the way humans do, they can observe the key SPS trait: thinking and strategizing before they act. If you’ve ever spent time around horses or Border Collies, you know what this means.
Interestingly, all species that possess this trait are capable of acting rapidly…as long as we know what to do based on prior experience. That explains why Lizzie can fly off the deck in pursuit without thinking, but was once the tiny puppy who walked into our dining room for the first time and wouldn’t stop staring at the ceiling as if she was utterly unconvinced that it would remain where it belonged and not cave in on her. Similarly, it’s why I used to devote chunks of brain space for holding mental maps of oh-so-many airports in my head as a travel survival strategy. Knowing the lay of the land, so to speak, is critical to rapid decision making, knowing where the best food options are…and not missing your connecting flight.
This trait isn’t just for introverts!
It turns out that, like Lizzie and me, many HSPs are extroverts. It also turns out that many creatives are HSPs. Dominant Western cultures aren’t wildly supportive of those with high sensitivity, particularly if they are men—though other cultures do support people with a high level of environmental sensitivity, regardless of gender.
If you are deeply moved by the arts, easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input, affected by other people’s moods, tend to process thoughts very deeply…or if jerks have ever called you “too sensitive,” it might be worth your time to answer this quick questionnaire to help you—or people you love—understand that you’re not alone, and definitely not neurotic.
I also learned there is such a thing as being a high sensation seeker. It too is well researched, and yes, you can be both an HSH and and HSP. High sensation seekers hate boredom and dislike routine. They may or may not go for thrill sports, but tend to prefer new adventures to familiar places and rarely watch the same movies more than once (I’m thinking yearly Peanuts holiday specials don’t count here).
It turns out my husband and I are both…both. (In my youth, I jumped out of an airplane on purpose, for fun at 13,500 ft. What was I thinking?!?) It turns out that my extreme dislike of production jewelry work is a biological trait!
And Lizzie, who is at this moment loudly herding both Bou and my son Skyler with all of her might, is most definitely all of the above!
Dr. Aron is quick to point out that HSPs are not superior, but is equally quick to describe that for many of us, that’s where our creativity comes from.
Certainly a lifetime of being highly susceptible to rare medication side effects and searching for the sweet spot between overwhelm and boredom have required wildly creative navigation!
Whether you have a trait for high sensitivity, or a need for high sensation, or the challenges of both, if the franticness of the holidays coupled with the need to reflect on the transition of the New Year makes you want to curl up in a ball, squeeze in some you-time that is filled with fun and self care.