America in 2017: A Highly Senstive Perspective

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).

This is an accurate representation of my life most of the time. Image Source

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.

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25 Replies to “America in 2017: A Highly Senstive Perspective”

  1. Well written. I understand too well…. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and I feel that is the only tool that I have to fight with in this age, and yet my avoidance of conflict makes even that difficult… And then, as you said, it needs to be a fight to bring people together, not rip them apart.

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  2. I can relate to everything you’re saying here. I also think, though, that sometimes quiet/introverted people underestimate the impact of their presence. Not everyone needs to protest in the streets (although I do think protesting is important and helpful). There are many ways to fight for what you believe in; writing a thoughtful email (or blog post), or signing your name to a petition makes a difference, you know? But I do completely understand where you are coming from. I think we all just try to do what we can.

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    1. Thank you for your perspective, Lorilin. That said, this post was not intended to belittle the impact/presence quiet people can offer. As an introvert, I am well aware of the impact/presence I can have, and many other self-aware introverts know this, too. This is why I blog–because I feel more comfortable expressing my opinions and views in writing. The purpose of this post was specifically to share my perspective as highly sensitive perspective living in America in 2017. While my introversion does impact my perspective, being HSP and introvert do not go hand in hand. I think their are many people out there who fail to recognize the benefits of sensitive people, and I have noticed that people have been VERY quick to judge action (or perceived inaction) in our current political atmosphere. I don’t think protesting is a bad thing (though I do believe it can reach a point where people are simply shouting to a void rather than encouraging solutions), and I also don’t think activism is a bad thing. As a HSP, I find the intense negativity and judgement of some others to be both counterproductive and emotionally upsetting. With this post, I was trying to encourage your sentiment to do what we can–while also articulating that doing what we can looks different for everyone.

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      1. I think maybe the message I was attempting to get across in my comment didn’t come through? I was actually trying to affirm you and the support you are giving! You said you felt shame for sometimes feeling like you aren’t doing the “right thing,” but I was trying to say you might be doing more than you think–since, I believe, that even the presence of thoughtful, solid, dependable, sensitive people in the world has a positive impact on others. I hope that makes sense. Or maybe my words are failing me today, and I’ll just stop. 🙂

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      2. Ahh, okay. I read your first comment as a cautious critique (but I’ve also been in a bit of a slump of negativity today, so my outlook may have influenced that). Thank you. I actually really needed to hear that right now and appreciate your kindness. I understand about words not coming out right…happens to me all the time. 🙂

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  3. Britta, this is such a fantastic post. You diagnose the extreme extroversion of our society and balance it with these turbulent times so well. I always deeply appreciate your honesty in your writing and your sensitivity makes you a better writer. So thank you for all the wonderful words! The past few weeks have definitely been challenging and, while we are processing things differently, this post tells me we are thinking a lot of the same things. While I’m not exposed to current events the way you are, I also have been experiencing a lot of anger–mostly at all the crap going on under the new administration, but also at myself. I also have been asking myself what I can do–and have been fighting off shame for not doing more. I feel shame because I deeply believe in what the Women’s March stood for, but couldn’t go because I had to work. I ask myself, “Am I less of a feminist because I didn’t march? Should I have tried harder to get the day off?” And then I remind myself that I can’t let that get to me–that I need to process and react to things in a way that is healthy. I recently removed Facebook from my phone because I just couldn’t handle how hostile it’s been–both from the Right and from the Left. While I have a lot of beef with the current administration, I’ve been thinking a lot about how posting things to social media doesn’t really help–it just reinforces the opinions of friends who agree with me and isolates those who don’t–which doesn’t foster healthy dialogue. I’ve given a lot of thought about how to respond to everything going on in a way that is emotionally healthy for me and contributes positively to society–I hope to do a post on that in the next week or so. Anyways, thank you again for the wonderful post!

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    1. Thank you so much, Amelia! Glad to hear my words resonated with you. I’ve found that staying off social media is the best option for me. There is so much negativity coming from both sides, and I also agree with you–posting on social media is just fueling the flame of negativity that is already very present–it doesn’t accomplish anything. Real activism isn’t sitting behind a screen lameting about the state of the world via Twitter or Facebook–real activism is donating money, attending an event in support of a cause, and openly having discussions with people around you. As an introvert, activism for me is writing meaningful and thought-provoking blog posts that go beyond the small scope of a social media post. I also believe empathy and kindness go a long way and try to utilize that in my daily life. Life is more than politics (something that has been all too easy to forget latetly, especially since recent political decisions are impacting so many different aspects of life beyond the political sphere). I think the little things, like being friendly with a cashier or holding the door for someone can go a long way–especially with the heightened tensions today.

      It’s also a bit of a bitch being in DC right now. Aspects of this City do change with each administration and there has been pretty consistent protesting, which I usually don’t see on the week days since I work in a neighboring city–but I do see it on the weekends, since I do work at a coffee shop right near the White House. Being surrounded by all of that has been taking a toll on me. I love DC, but it’s certainly not an easy time to be here.

      Trying to remain positive and optimistic, since both are so important for my mental and emotional health!

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  4. There is definitely not only one extravert and loud way to manifest your support. Or else I would feel soooo depressed on our little island (although truth is I have been feeling pretty frustrated those days!).
    THere are many subtle other ways, appropriate to who we are, where we are, to what we can afford to give .. In the aftermath of all those beautiful Marches, I have been dedicating my yoga practices to those very inspiring women (and men! and kids!) out there. I did the same for all the people stranded in airports without knowing if when they would be allowed to step back to the US again. Intention, Attention, Attitude. They dont need to be loud as long as they come from your heart.
    There is no march here, no one really seem to care about what is happening outside the archipelagos. But we can still make a difference by buycotting, boycotting and moreover, being as you are: open to the world, eager to make a positive change and moreover, deeply kind and caring ❤ All the people walking out there will always need a coffee to give them the strength they need to carry on. Topped wth your smile, I bet it can recharge any kind of battery!

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    1. I remember feeling like I lived in an insolated bubble when I was in Thailand–I had no idea what was going on on an international scale–so I can understand what it must be like to experielice all this from the Philippines. I really value being informed and supporting positive causes, but it’s been a bit exhausting experiencng this at the forefront of it all in Washington.
      You are right, though, Estelea. Intention and attitude are everything. As an introvert and a quieter person in general, I’ve had a really hard time accepting that there are different ways to support humanisitc causes because the loud, assertive, and aggressive people have been SO loud, assertive, and aggressive–and it seems to me that some of them have implied that their way is the only way (regardless of if that’s actually what they believe).
      Thanks for your comment, Estelea. It’s nice to hear from you. 🙂

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  5. I’m pretty similar to you, from the posts I’ve read so far. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself acting more and more – putting on a front that *looks* like confidence in social situations, but actually isn’t. Of course, as you get to know people, they realise that the talkative version of you isn’t the real one at all…

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    1. I think it’s possible to be confident in social situations as a quieter person…it just takes a lot of practice and determination to break through stereotypes. Quiet should never be a synonymn for unconfident…our hyper extroverted society has a tendency to make it that way, though.

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  6. I feel your pain. I am a highly sensitive person too although the pain has eased with the practice of living over many years. I think that there are many ways to ‘effect change’. Anger fueled protest is one. Thoughtful contemplation, understanding, and discourse is another.

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    1. I’m glad to know that it eases, Lisa. I’m at a point where I’m still trying to accept it in myslf–I’ve spent many years denying how truly HSP I am to try to fit in with society. Seeing all you have done and are doing with your life sailing around the world gives me hope that I will be able to keep adventure, exploring, and travel in my life as an HSP.

      You are right, there are different ways to do things. When I wrote this piece, I was frustrated and self-conscious because I only seemed to be seeing the anger, and I had no desire to participate in that.

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    1. It was a lot rougher to be in the center of it all in the days directly following the elections. Things have died down a bit since the election, but staying up with the news these days is draining enough. I must balance my desire to stay informed with my need to nurture my HSP self.

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    1. It was super exhausting after the election and after inauguration. The intensity of it all has died down a bit, but I also spend a lot less time on social media than I used to and only read a brief news update once a day to stay informed, which helps a lot.

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