Monday, February 28, 2011

Being highly sensitive

At the weekend, I read a newspaper article about a book that has recently been translated into Hebrew, The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron. The article featured a self test, and I was not surprised to find that I scored highly on it. This was not a "wow" moment, suddenly explaining aspects of my life. I have always known that I was sensitive in the ways described, and giving it a rather self-explanatory name doesn't make any difference to my experience or self-perception.

I have not read this book, only the article about it and a bit of background about this topic. The author claims that 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive people. Sensitivity, like most things, is a spectrum, so naturally some people score highly in it, and this may be a qualitative difference, not just a quantitative one. The sort of sensitivity described here encompasses sensory sensitivity and social sensitivity. It is not necessarily a disadvantage, and people at this end of the spectrum can become aware of their tendencies and learn how to minimize their discomfort.

I remember as a young child feeling overwhelmed by certain social situations. I often ended up crying under the stress, sometimes without really knowing why. I realized that this was going to cause me problems, and decided that I had a force field around me so nothing could touch me (you can tell that I have loved science fiction from an early age!).

Growing up, I never liked noisy parties, and clubbing has always seemed to me like a nightmare, in both sensory and social terms. That is not the way I want to experience music, or meet people. My ideal social event involves spending time with 1-5 other people, in a quiet setting where we can talk and laugh.

I sometimes experience sensory/social overload in crowded and noisy places, and experience physical symptoms that are not quite a panic attack, but serious enough that I just have to get out into the fresh air and quiet. I also get social overload when I spend all day in the company of large groups of people, and feel the need to spend time alone.

Over time, I have learned to balance these reactions. Just as I have overcome a lot of my shyness, learned to feel comfortable meeting new people, learned some public speaking skills, and gained confidence in myself, I have also learned to avoid the situations that are most likely to cause negative reactions, or at least reduce my exposure. I know that it can help if I close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing for a few seconds. Sometimes, even today, I remind myself of my childhood image of having a force field!

I was interested to see that highly sensitive people are also often sensitive to caffeine, and indeed, I gave up coffee many years ago because it had such a strong effect on me. Now I drink only green tea, which has a much lower caffeine content.

In my work life, I have always preferred to work alone, focusing my attention on one thing at a time. I don't like multitasking, interruptions, noise, or being watched while I work. My choice of career as a freelance translator working from home is ideal in this respect, most of the time.

On the positive side, being highly sensitive makes me extremely empathic. I always try to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, and to see any situation from other people's point of view. This helps me be considerate and helpful to others, though it can be frustrating when less sensitive people are unable to reciprocate and understand my feelings and needs.

I also think that my sensitivity helps my creative imagination, as I can easily imagine what different people would feel in a given situation. One of my aims as a writer is to portray people's inner lives, emotions, and motivations in a realistic, convincing manner.

Sensitivity is a feature, not a bug (as they say in programming), and it can bring great advantages once you learn to accept it and adapt your life accordingly.

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