Highly Sensitive People are, as the moniker suggests, acutely aware of stimuli. Which is one reason I prefer the designation of Highly Aware Person. HAP. I’m a Hap. A Happy. Sounds much better to me than being called “Highly Sensitive” which carries with it a rather pejorative tint. But HSP is the most commonly used acronym in reference to us, and so I feel a bit obligated to use it.
HSPs are often aware of sensory input that others miss. We are about 20% of the population, and this Sensory Processing Sensitivity is found in around 100 other species, as well. While they often have a difficult time coping with this sensile predisposition, exacerbated by our modern over-stimulating society, and while this vulnerability can lead to other serious mental and emotional health issues, HSPs are also often the innovators, the people who give us breathtaking art, poignant music, and emotive writing. We are the peacemakers, the compassionate healers, the problem-solvers. The list of well-known and even suspected HSPs is surprising to most people. And yet, HSPs are perhaps one of the least understood, acknowledged or appreciated members of the modern societal milieu. In many cases of what one might call psychological reverse-engineering, we can see that before this trait was recognized, studied, reported specifically, and brought toward the mainstream consciousness by research psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, many of our most prolific sensitive and creative people were misunderstood and marginalized, and also, apparently, HSPs. Indeed, we are all aware of the memes associated with “artistic temperament.” They have been referred to as eccentric, odd, fragile, brilliant, introverted.
Pearl S. Buck, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature,
is believed to have been an HSP, and a particular quote from her is largely the defining clue, even though she was speaking of creative people, for lack of a more specific personality category at the time. Buck said:
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:
a touch is a blow,
a sound is a noise,
a misfortune is a tragedy,
a joy is an ecstasy,
a friend is a lover,
a lover is a god,
and failure is death.
Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”
Although the emotional reactions HSPs have to stimuli might seem extreme to non-HSPs, our pain or agitation is commensurate with the degree to which we feel this stimuli. Imagine, as I have said before in previous essays, that you are walking around with a sunburn all the time. Or even imagine that you have no skin at all. Apply this not only to the physical aspects, but to mental and emotional ones as well, and you have a clearer picture of what it’s like to be a Highly Sensitive Person.
Many of us are more sensitive in some areas than others. For instance, using myself as an example, I am most bothered by noise and certain sounds. A barking dog, a crying baby, loud music, slamming doors, sirens, alarms, repetitive sounds of all kinds, the cacophony of a room full of people talking; during dinner, the scrape of teeth against a fork, or the scrape of a fork against a plate, and certainly, the almost-universal and infamous sound of fingernails against a chalkboard are all causes of great discomfort. One childhood memory I have is of a playmate randomly seeking ways to irritate me, as some children will do, and he chewed a piece of aluminum foil. I exaggerate only a little, when I say that this antagonism and the sound it created, caused me a near psychotic break. I had to run away. And I never played with that child again, and would hide when he came around to visit.
While sound seems to be my primary source of discomfort, I also struggle with other sensory things. I have a strong aversion to talking on the phone, as it makes me feel trapped, and I can’t communicate well without seeing the person I’m talking to. I solved a portion of this problem by using a Bluetooth earbud, so that I could move around and do other things while I talk, and if I am on the phone very long, it’s usually with someone I know well, and the modern customer service rituals of recordings, and pressing numbers and waiting is enough to make me scream and throw the phone across the room. I have to do my banking online, and most of my bills are automatically debited from my account, because of this aversion to phone calls and dealing with customer service people. In this way, I manage to avoid the discomfort that the phone often represents.
Another example is that I cannot stand to have my bare feet touch the floor, especially if the floor is dirty, so I wear socks and/or shoes all the time, and avoid this situation as much as possible. It bothers me to even see anyone else walk around barefoot.
I also will not wear clothes that are scratchy or too confining. I prefer cotton, or blends that are soft, don’t like turtlenecks, because they make me feel I am choking, and my shoes are always extremely comfortable and cushy, often with added gel insoles.
I love the smell of baking bread or cookies, popcorn, coffee, and the pages of a new book….I adore scented candles and frequently use air fresheners, most commonly in some sort of vanilla or berry scent to spray around the entire house at intervals. I cannot tolerate strong, flowery scents, or some other pungent smells, as they give me a raging headache and generally make me feel unhappy. (Same is true for laundry soaps and softeners. And for perfumes. I can’t be around anyone who wears certain scents for the same reason. The only perfume I use myself is one I make from vanilla vodka, organic pure vanilla extract and distilled water. If they made a perfume that smelled like cookies or Juicy Fruit gum, I’d wear those).
I can’t stand too much chaos, or disarray. My Pinterest boards are filled with domestic tips and suggestions, and I can waste an entire day collecting pins that represent this penchant for clever solutions, ease of use, and organization. I’m a big fan of pop-up wipes, vinegar and baking soda, which I use for about a hundred different purposes. I only drink and cook with distilled water, and prefer to drink it from a glass bottle (like the kind you buy for cooking oils). I function best and feel the most calm when I have control over the environment I’m in, and this is a necessity for my well-being. Do I have a meltdown if there are some dirty clothes on the floor? No, I just grab them and toss them in the hamper. I’m not a maniac about all this, I just have preferences that make my life more enjoyable and I employ them wherever and whenever possible.
This rule of thumb does not seem to apply to my creative endeavors in progress, however. When I am painting a picture, sculpting something, making pottery, or anything of the sort, I tend to make quite a mess. But it’s a creative mess and I have methods of keeping control of it, and clean up after myself. While I am immersed in something creative, it doesn’t bother me to have disarray, as long as it’s related to the creative thing I’m doing at the time. It represents the capture of something chaotic and forming it into something orderly. (One reason, I suspect I am rather addicted to doing computer jigsaw puzzles. It’s very satisfying to make order from chaos).
But for daily habits, and ongoing environmental conditions, I must feel that things are organized. For example, my closet is organized a certain way. Almost all my clothes are hung up, as I don’t like dressers with folded clothes; it’s hard to find what I want, and it also invites clumps of disturbed fabric and gets them all wrinkled, and disordered. (I do like apothecary cabinets and other multi-drawered furniture for other things, though). All my clothes are hung in the closet on thick plastic hangers, facing the same direction, with lounge pants, jeans, then slacks, and then the shirts are ordered seasonally from short to long sleeves, and also by color…so I might have T-shirts first, by color, lightest to darkest, then collared shirts the same, then sweatshirts or heavier shirts, and so on. This way I can go to my closet and choose precisely the shirt I need for the weather conditions, and the color I desire, without digging through drawers, or having to iron or steam the wrinkles out. For my underwear, I use a hanging transparent shoe bag (the kind with all those pockets), attached either to the wall in the closet or to the back of my bedroom door, as home-design permits. I put my socks in one column, my underwear in another, and bras and other things like gloves and scarves in the other columns.
My bedding is another set of preferences. I have to have either T-shirt sheets or flannel sheets, a memory foam pillow, and the bed itself needs to be foam, as well. It’s the only thing I can sleep on comfortably (except for the occasional emergency air bed). Any standard mattress feels like I am sleeping on a big rock. I cannot have any scratchy blankets on me either, and that usually means soft cotton or suede comforters.
I also have a certain system I need for my bedside tables, with everything organized according to my activities in or around that area. A proper reading lamp for when I am reading a physical book, rather than an eBook on my Nook reader. Usually a candle, a spot for my iPhone and Nook, and some sort of basket for various and sundry things like lip balm, charging cables and reading glasses, etc. I usually also have a box of tissue (always the Puffs Plus with aloe and lanolin), some container of coconut oil, and a storage basket, usually under the bed with various erotic supplies. (I will spare you the details of that).
I have certain hygiene rituals in the bathroom, and usually do everything the same way every time. From what I do in the shower and in what order, to how I arrange everything in that room. This requires a collection of products and supplies, which I keep tidy and accessible. In the shower, I must have a storage rack of some kind for my shampoo and conditioner, organic soap, a great razor, a back brush and a facial brush. There must always be soft towels that match the décor, a soft bathmat, and preferably, a bidet attached to the toilet. Near the bathroom sink, I usually have a great-smelling candle, a small spray bottle of Apple-cider vinegar (for my skin–it’s the best skincare product ever), several types of electric razors, my Sonicare toothbrush on its charging base, my Arm and Hammer toothpaste, a shot glass for rinsing when I brush, another cup of some sort with flossing picks and safety Q-Tips, a stack of tiny cloths cut from old T-shirts to wash my eyes, as I am prone to blepharitis and this requires maintenance to prevent it. I also have my daily vitamins and supplements there, (usually in gummy form, since large pills stick in my throat), a decorative bottle with Listerine mouthwash, a pump-dispenser soap that smells good, a fingernail brush, and I store all other bathroom supplies in another hanging transparent shoe bag, for easy access and organization.
The bathroom and kitchen are particularly disturbing places for me if they are not clean. I can barely tolerate an unvacuumed carpet, and if I visit someone else’s home, and the bathroom and kitchen are dirty, I’m not likely to ever visit them again. These two rooms seem the source of my most powerful deterrent, where cleanliness is concerned. A soiled floor, a sink full of dishes, a dirty counter, dirty toilet, hair in the sink, and so on, are bane to my existence. It agitates me as if someone were poking me with a hatpin. I follow the mantra A place for everything and everything in its place. I hate not being able to find something, so all things are organized to keep things running smoothly in my domestic domain. This leaves me the time I need to do other things I must, or other things I wish to do.
In the kitchen, my grocery lists are even organized according to the layout of the grocery store I go to the most, so that I make one pass through the store without backtracking or forgetting anything. And I usually shop in the middle of the night because I can’t stand the crowds and chaos of a busy store.
I can’t cook in someone else’s kitchen, because I have to have things that work for me; the certain appliances I use, the utensils, the storage methods, and I have to have organized pots and pans and dishes, an organized pantry, with all the cans ordered according to type (all vegetables in ordered rows, labels facing out, all boxed items together, etc.). My refrigerator is also organized, and I have a system to prevent foods being wasted or lost in the shuffle. I have used lazy Susan turntables before in the ‘fridge, and that was quite satisfying. Nothing got pushed to the back and left to become a Petri dish of mold. All things in my kitchen are almost OCD in nature, from the spice rack, to the pantry, to the under-sink storage and dishes arrangement. I have a routine for everything I do in the kitchen, and I follow it.
I have a certain way I load the dishwasher, like the cutlery–forks and knives and spoons are each in their own partition in the basket. It’s not that I am incapable of having a few dirty dishes, or in throwing in cutlery all together, haphazardly. It’s that I just feel better when I do, and the routine and ritual is comforting, as it makes me feel I have control, and being an HSP is most of the time a daily struggle with the sense of having no control at all. So domestically, these things are important for my peace of mind, so that I have as few irritants as possible. I know that the world at large will toss plenty of irritants at me that I cannot control, so this is a way of ameliorating that sense of helplessness and discomfort.
I have a basket or bin of some kind for all things that are going out the next time I leave (such as mail, paperwork for errands, or returns of products to stores). And I also have a three-tiered basket attached to the wall by the door, and each tier is for certain things that I place there or retrieve, when I am coming or going. Like, sunglasses in the top, (sunglasses are a necessity, as I am light-sensitive and get headaches in bright sunlight without them), wallet and receipts in the second, and keys in the bottom; from top to bottom, the order in which I pick them up or deposit them when I come in. This system has saved me countless bouts with frustration and stress.
My bookshelves are sorted by subject and author as if it were a public library, although I have managed to resist the urge to paste Dewey decimal system designations on all the spines. An accomplishment about which I am very proud.
I know all of this could easily sound like OCD. But it really is just a practical set of preferences for a sensitive person, that alleviate unnecessary daily aggravations. And for an HSP, that’s a huge advantage for the general serenity and enjoyment of daily life.
As an HSP I am also soothed or repelled by certain colors. I like black and white and gray, but also teal and turquoise and some pinks, chocolate browns and minty greens and other earth tones, but am disturbed by neons, primary blue and green, bright orange or a peagreen-soupy type of colors. Patterns that don’t match or are visually confusing force me to look away, like stripes. If I look at one of those spinning stripe things, like an old barber pole, or some visual animated gifs we find online, and I am likely to lose my balance and fall down. It makes me profoundly dizzy and a little nauseous. I become agitated by stripes and floral patterns displayed together. Or colors that don’t complement one another. In fact, I dislike all furniture and décor that doesn’t seem to naturally go together. I am also drawn to things made of wood or clay or tile or stone. I intensely dislike most glass items, especially like those found on some kitchen and coffee tables, and also cheap plastic items, or items that are soiled, broken, damaged. I always have an intense desire to repair and refurbish things for this reason.
This sensitivity regimen extends to my vehicle, as it is sort of a mobile-home. Not a mobile home, like a trailer, but a temporary home that is mobile. There must be places for my beverage, and a console to store necessary items. I also carry a bit of survival gear in the back in a tub. There should be a plug in my stereo to hook in my iPhone to play whatever music I want to hear (if any at all–sometimes I don’t want music at all when I drive, as I do a great deal of thinking and creating when I drive, and the music is distracting. I often have to turn down the volume on music, so that I can “see” street signs.) I have Velcro strips attached to the center of my steering wheel and by the stereo, so that I can mount my iPhone there for use as GPS or to plug into the stereo. This avoids me fumbling around with my phone while I drive, which is a great safety concern. Another way my Bluetooth earbud comes in handy. My vehicle also must be clean and in good repair, with window washing fluid filled up, or it disturbs me.
Even my preferences for pets are influenced by my sensitivity. I prefer cats, because they are small, soft, clean, and I find them calming, especially because they purr, and have little tiny voices they use to communicate, which I find cute. And I also appreciate them because they are independent, intelligent, and make me laugh. Few things make me happier than having a cat around. I have never owned an “outside” cat, as I can’t tolerate the idea of them bringing things inside, whether it’s dirt, or fleas, or the inevitable “gift” of a dead mouse. I buy baking soda infused clumping litter for their litter box because it cuts down on smell, and is easier to clean out. This is quite unlike what you have to do with dogs. The very idea of having to pick up warm excrement from a dog is enough to send me into fits. I just can’t do it. But the cat litter box set up for my felines is perhaps out of the ordinary. I always use a cabinet of some sort with a hole in the side, where they can enter, and doors I can open in the front of the cabinet to clean the tray, and then close. That way, the litter box is out of sight, the cats have their privacy, and I can place their food atop the cabinet, and then the whole thing just becomes another piece of nice furniture. My cats also get automatic water and food dispensers.
No surprise, then, that I am not a dog-person. Dogs usually smell bad to me, and they are prime transportation for flea infestations, which are nightmarish. They tend to jump on me, soiling my clothes or tearing them, and dogs also drool and chew things up, and bark and whine, and get on furniture and beds, leave hair and footprints, and require me to walk them when I am perhaps not willing to go outside. I am disturbed by the way they eat–the “wolfing things down” type of eating, and the way they dribble water all around their water bowl. Never mind the frequent accidents they tend to have, which causes an excruciating smell problem and ruins carpets and floors. And especially, I hate the way they lick you, even in the face, when you get near them. In fact, nearly everything about dogs disturbs me, unless they are small, unusually well-mannered and obedient, and can take themselves outside when they need to, without interrupting my attention on that something I’d rather be doing.
All of these things were cumulative adjustments I have made throughout the years, and only when I found myself in my current situation (in another country, in someone else’s home and environment, without my personal things, and helpful devices and solutions) did I fully understand how many adjustments I had made in order to enjoy my daily life.
So the hardest lesson to learn here, is that as an HSP, I cannot thrive when I don’t have control over my environment and can’t exist within the comfort zone my adaptations have provided me. No matter how much I wish to be a more easy-going, adaptable person, I simply am not capable of it, because I can no more shut down my sensory processing sensitivity than I can change the color of my eyes.
Thus, my partner and I have had to reach the unpleasant and devastating decision that I must return to America, to a life I can rebuild again; my life that afforded me that comfort and well-being, and prepare a life that she can share with me after her youngest son is on his own.
It’s unfair. It’s heartbreaking, but it is what it is. And somehow, I will have to find a way to avoid this guilt I carry that who I am is exactly the obstacle for us being together here, where she currently has to stay. She has made the point that if she were different, too, and could offer me a life I can thrive in, this might not have been our only solution. But I have a double standard. I don’t blame her at all, but I certainly seem to blame myself. Hopefully, I can reach some kind of peace about it all, and our time apart will be tolerable if only because we are both working toward the ultimate goal of sharing our life together in love, creativity, comfort, laughter, and abundance.