According to psychologist Elaine Aaron, an estimated twenty percent of the population is highly sensitive. An actual biological trait (as opposed to a psychological disorder), highly sensitive people are generally more in tune with their environments, process information more deeply, and are more easily overstimulated by loud or busy environments than their non-sensitive counterparts.
Highly Sensititive people can be both introverts (individuals who are more internally focused) and extroverts (individuals who are more externally focused). While 70% of HSP’s are introverts, 30% are extroverted.
Western society is notoriously extroverted, on-the-go, and extremely out-of-sync with the strengths that sensitivity can and do bring to the table (empathy and intution, for example). Sensitivity is more often than not seen as a weakness because it has become so closely associated with vulnerability. So many people are afraid to show their vulnerable side (which, everyone has by the way) out of fear that other people will see them as weak.
As a highly sensitive individual, I am going to call bullshit on that.
Most highly sensitive individuals have gotten a lot of flack in life. Highly sensitive people tend to be more naturally empathetic and compassionate (I once had a coworker ask me in frustration, gosh Britta, why are you so nice?). Highly sensitive people tend to be more aware of and distressed by large groups and loud noises (When I was really young, I used to start crying when a large number of family members surrounded me to sing happy birthday). Highly sensitive people tend to absorb emotions (when you’re sad, I feel your sadness; when you’re angry, I feel your anger–and that unconsciously affects my emotions). Highly sensitive people tend to have extreme reactions to hunger and pain (in college, it was a running joke amongst my close friends and me that I would always be the first person to say, “I’m hungry”). Highly sensitive people tend to avoid conflict and strongly favor empathetic, constructive criticism rather than harsh words (ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s positive delivery that matters). Highly sensitive people’s tendency towards over stimulation can lead to perceptions of laziness or a lack of drive (I find I am very easily emotionally overstimulated, but really busy environments or days where I can’t seem to catch a break often leave me feeling exhausted and drained, too–and I often wondered in my teenage and college years if I am lazy).
In our society, all of those traits I just described are seen as unfavorable and weak traits in our busy, emotionally apathetic society.
Particularly, I’m noticing this in the reaction to the current events happening in America today.
I am a highly sensitive introvert who lives in a country that is terribly divided. I am a highly sensitive introvert who lives in a country that has elected a president who had a historically low 40% nation-wide approval rating at his inuguraton. I am a highly sensitive introvert who lives in a country where, “alternative facts” have suddenly become okay and where 1984, a novel about a dystopian society built on alternative facts, has skyrocked in sales. I also happen to be living in the nation’s capitol–a city I love with all my heart, and a city where people are flocking to to protest in droves, to express their negative emotions, their distrust and fear, freely.
I am a highly sensitive introvert living in a nation that is existing in fear, in anger, in so much anxiety. I’m feel all of those feelings, too. I read the news and feel all of those feelings–I go on social media and feel all those feelings. I walk along the streets of Washington and feel all those feelings. And for me, it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming because rather than simply feeling those emotions, I also absorb them—and they affect my emotional state. I feel so much, but am not sure what to do–protesting seems like a natural reaction for so many, but my highly sensitive, introverted nature makes a protest environment nearly impossible for me to go near without being overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming because I worry people judged me for not going to the Women’s March on Washington when I live in Washington–I worry people won’t understand that, as a highly sensitive introvert, that’s not a type of environment I am comfortable in; it’s not a type of environment I want to become comfortable in. As someone who is so in tune to emotions, a place like a protest can quickly become overstimulating for me.
For me, working at my coffee shop on the day of the Women’s March and serving coffee and other warm beverages to protesters coming in was my way of saying, “I support you.” I didn’t ask to be scheduled to work that day, but I’m glad I was—it meant I didn’t have to scrounge for untrue excuses when people asked me to march with them, and it also made me feel part of the events of the day, while still maintaining a comfortable distance from the overwhelming crowds (and as a HSP, the Women’s March was overwhelming in both size and emotion). When I was done with work, I braced myself as I exited my downtown coffee shop, I prepared myself to walk amongst those protesters marching through the streets of Washington, and headed home–to do yoga and calm my overstimulated nervous system.
I think today, it is more important than ever to realize that people handle negative situations differently. Among many liberal minded people, it seems to me that there is this attitude that, “if you’re not angry and you’re not vocalizing that anger, you’re contributing to the problem.”
The thing is, that outlook is extremely insensitive to highly sensitive individuals, individuals who suffer from acute social anxiety or any other psychological disorders, and individuals who simply believe that anger, while a valid feeling to have and let out, isn’t effective for problem solving (a very common belief among HSPs).
I have felt a lot of anger lately–at myself…because I feel like I’m not doing enough. Because I’m not vocalizing my thoughts, because I’m not going out protesting, because I’m not expressing my opinions online, because I’m “remaining silent.”
I’ve had to remind myself a lot lately that if I don’t accept myself for who I am, I’m not going to get anywhere productive.
When it all comes down to it, I am not a naturally angry or confrontational person. I am much more inclined to feel anger at myself (because I am particularly hard on myself) than at anyone else–and usually, if I do feel anger at others, I can effectively tie it back to my own insecurities. By contrast, my first response whenever I read another news article about what this administration is shaping up to be, is a combination of fear and profound sadness.
So, to all of you protesters of the world, here is my message to you–I support you and I support your cause. If protesting is what you feel you need to do right now, go for it. That said, please do not fault me for my decision to not join you. As a highly sensitive person, I voted against this administration, and I did so on extreme moral grounds–and I would suppose that many highly sensitive individuals did the same. Like many others out there, this administration is a huge blow to what I thought America was and what I thought America stood for. As a highly sensitive person, I’m overwhelmed, I’m processing a lot, and I’m trying to maintain a sense of internal peace among the emotional turmoil felt by so many today.
Every time I go on social media, I come across a post that makes me feel shamed for not “doing the right thing.” If going out and protesting, and expressing your anger, sadness and disgust on social media platforms is what is right for you–I’m glad. We all cope differently and we all handle negative situations and negative emotional stimuli differently–and if you can’t understand that, I am inclined to suggest that you, too, are contributing to the divided, toxic country that this nation has become.