It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m at the movies. Jeff and I are watching “Mad Max: Fury Road” and I’m quietly weeping. Covering my eyes occasionally, too, but mostly just weeping. And grateful for the darkness. The images on the screen pierce me, the soundtrack’s drumbeat echoes my pounding heart, the story – lean as it is – holds me in its thrall, emotion catches in my throat. More tears.
I have to face facts: I am profoundly moved – wrung out, spent – by a popcorn action flick.
On the way out, we run into a couple of friends – big film lovers – and they agree with Jeff that it was a “fun movie.” Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve been hit by a train. I need to lie down. I can barely speak.
All my life, people have called me “sensitive”… “touchy”… “high strung”… All my life, it’s been true. And all my life, because of that truth, I’ve felt isolated, separate, freakish.
Stuff just… gets to me. And people don’t get it.
Imagine how delighted I was to learn, recently, that I am not alone. (And not even all that freakish!) According to this test, I am what’s known as a Highly Sensitive Person – it’s an actual thing – and 15-20% of other folks are, too. Apparently, I was the last to know I had an official, science-supported “identity.” The research has been out there for a while. It doesn’t really change anything, I guess, but Highly Sensitive Person sounds so much better than “weirdo.”
Are you an HSP? Take the test to find out . . . or just keep reading and see if my experience sounds familiar.
Monday evening: I’m at a meeting for parents of Beaufort High cheerleaders, of which I am now one. I have a familiar sense of displacement and un-belonging. I feel like an alien among this group of attractive, competent adults. The assorted paperwork that must be gathered from the stage, processed, filled out and returned unnerves me. The loud, efficient voice of the cheer coach – a woman younger than me who’s speaking to us like we’re children, telling us things are “mandatory” and “required” of us – intimidates me. Not her fault; mine. She’s normal and seems very nice. I’m an HSP. The public school system – with its institutional “school speak” – has been unhinging me since my daughter started kindergarten.
Airports send me into a psychic space hovering somewhere between anxiety and despair. The confident, rushing people . . . the noise (beep beep beep) . . . the blinking screens everywhere . . . the confusion . . . all the little pieces of paper that must be kept up with . . . the myriad opportunities for disaster. I quiver just thinking about it.
Shopping malls make me jittery and sad. Walmart makes me almost suicidal. I can gear myself up for these places – don my emotional armor – but I can’t stay long. They deplete me. They suck my energy.
In my professional life, I am easily flustered and overwhelmed. If I have several deadlines looming at once – which I often do – I feel scattered and weighed down and borderline panicky. I will always get the work done – I can’t bear to disappoint anybody; they wouldn’t like me – but there will be much internal turmoil along the way. Likewise, I drive my daughter crazy about her schoolwork. Her projects hang over my head as if they were my own, and I’m constantly asking for status updates. Amelia, on the other hand, is more like her dad – laid back and unflappable. “I got this, Mom,” is her typical reply, as she lounges on the sofa, face in phone. Unfortunately, I know from experience that she hasn’t always “got this,” and I often end up running out for additional supplies at the last minute – to Walmart; the horror! – then fretting excessively because she’s up too late on a school night finishing the project. (As if that will kill her. As if it might not teach her a good lesson.) “Mom, just chill. I’m fine,” she says.
Well I’m not. Argh.
I have always been bright (IQ-wise, I mean), but I never liked being “noticed” by my teachers. What if they didn’t like me? What if they found me imperfect? Better just to blend in. Make decent grades, but keep a low profile. Looking back, I especially regret that my reticence – my fear of scrutiny and criticism – kept me from forming close relationships with my college professors. Later on, it was the same way with bosses and other superiors in the work place. I loathe being evaluated because I can’t bear the possibility of negative feedback – it’s too painful – so I’ve let many an opportunity for advancement pass me by. Today, I am my own boss – a writer/editor – and that suits my HSP temperament just fine, especially because it allows me to work from home, where it’s quiet and peaceful and I can hear birds singing outside my door. But I have not achieved the kind of worldly success I might have. I guess I never will.
Competitive sports? Forget about it. I hate competition of any kind – but especially the athletic kind – and have been avoiding team sports since I was a very young child on the kickball field. The pre-game choosing of teams was enough to make me physically ill before the real competition even started. The thumping of my heart, the reddening of my face, the rising nausea . . . the deep mortification as one child after another was called out, and I wasn’t… Even now I shudder. I’m right back there on that field, dying inside.
So, no. No team sports. Having said that, I love working out, taking long walks, riding my bike. I prefer doing all these things alone. In nature. Nature is the HSP’s friend.
Most days, I cry. A few times. It might be a song on the radio – not necessarily a sad song, either – or a commercial on TV, or a sunset breaking, or a bird swooping, or a sentence unfurling perfectly across a page. The tears ambush me when I least expect it… though by now, I guess I should always expect it. I cry at the usual stuff, too: dance recitals and school plays – over other people’s kids, not just mine – and sporting events (the National Anthem gets me every time) and graduations. Weddings, baptisms and funerals, of course, go without saying. I sing in a church choir, where the music is sometimes so exquisite to my ear that I have to stop singing mid-anthem as my throat swells and tears overpower me.
My crying confounds my husband and daughter, and annoys the heck out of them. (Which really hurts my feelings. Natch.) Did I mention they are not HSPs?
There is much, much more I could tell you about this Highly Sensitive Person phenomenon – that it’s really not so bad, that I can’t imagine being any other way, that my inner life is rich and sustaining, that I count it a blessing to feel things so deeply, both the joy and the pain . . . But I fear I’ve gone on far too long already. I’ll bet you’re terribly bored by now.
If you are, please don’t tell me. I’m highly sensitive.