The Highly Sensitive Person

February 26, 2009

Recovery is all about knowing and honoring your boundaries. This can be very difficult and can involve sacrifice, but it is worth it. Today I did not attend the candlelight vigil for eating disorder awareness week. I really wanted to, because I want to show my support and because I think it is important, but because of my sensitive nature, I decided not to go.

I’m doing really well with my eating disorder-I cook, I eat three meals a day, I don’t even feel incredibly guilty most of the time, which is great, but I do seem to get triggered pretty easily. Like in that instance I wrote about a week ago-all I did was see a woman getting weighed and I was so jealous! My counseling is at the same place as where I was hospitalized and that seems to get to me a little bit too lately. It’s also where the vigil was going to be.

I hope next year I will be in an even better place in my recovery.

Of course, it is reasonable that I would be sensitive to these things, but lately I have come to the realization that I more sensitive than most and that that is okay. In fact, I have learned that there is a relatively new classification called “the highly sensitive person.” I found this on the support group site to which I am a regular and boy, has it been liberating knowing this. Here are some things about highly sensitive people from Elaine Aron, who has written four books on the subject:

• This trait is normal--it is inherited by 15 to 20% of the population, and indeed the same percentage seems to be present in all higher animals.
• Being an HSP means your nervous system is more sensitive to subtleties. Your sight, hearing, and sense of smell are not necessarily keener (although they may be). But your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply.
• Being an HSP also means, necessarily, that you are more easily overstimulated, stressed out, overwhelmed.
• This trait is not something new I discovered--it has been mislabeled as shyness (not an inherited trait), introversion (30% of HSPs are actually extraverts), inhibitedness, fearfulness, and the like. HSPs can be these, but none of these are the fundamental trait they have inherited.
• The reason for these negative misnomers and general lack of research on the subject is that in this culture being tough and outgoing is the preferred or ideal personality--not high sensitivity. (Therefore in the past the research focus has been on sensitivity's potential negative impact on sociability and boldness, not the phenomenon itself or its purpose.) This cultural bias affects HSPs as much as their trait affects them, as I am sure you realize. Even those who loved you probably told you, "don't be so sensitive," making you feel abnormal when in fact you could do nothing about it and it is not abnormal at all.

Her website at has a lot of useful information and a quiz to help determine if you might be a person who is highly sensitive.

I remember some adults tried to convince that my sensitivity was a good thing, but I didn’t believe them at the time-I cried all the time! And while it is true that I became depressed at a young age, I have been extremely sensitive since even before the depression. For example, one of my Aunt Janie’s favorite stories is about how when I was a baby, I cried when she barely looked at me. Knowing that there are other people who struggle with this type of personality is liberating. It means that I can feel justified in being easier with myself and it means that this sensitivity is a part of my personality and not part of a disorder. That’s the best benefit that I see so far, because since I take medications for mood swings and yet I am still so sensitive, I have always thought that they weren’t working well enough, but now I know that it’s because it’s part of my personality. Medications are for the disorder, not one's  personality.

In fact, I feel a little pride now about my sensitivity-it means that I am really caring, spiritual, and insightful. Besides, taking care of oneself is the best way to honor those whose battle with their eating disorder ended prematurely.

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