Over the summer I read a book called The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. The premise of the book is that some people have an uncommonly sensitive nervous system.
The self-test is in the very first chapter (also available on her website) and I checked off 22 of 27 indicators. Huh. The test included such statements as:
I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days,into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation. <— THIS!!!!
Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me,disrupting my concentration or mood. <— Definitely, and if I put off eating for too long I get a migraine.
I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes. <— Reason #1 why I hate parties and clubs!
I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. <— I like schedules because I need time to prepare myself for social situations.
I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time. <— One of the main reasons why law school stresses me out so much, and why I don’t want to be a lawyer. Deadlines on top of deadlines on top of deadlines.
I have a rich,complex inner life. <— Absolutely. I get so lost in thought I can completely ignore someone right in front of me.
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells,coarse fabrics,or sirens close by. <— I can’t wear mismatched socks because my feet don’t feel the same, and I frequently cut the size tags out of my clothing because they itch.
My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself. <— Yes!
All of this rings so true for me. I’ve always thought there had to be a reason why it takes so much out of me to be around people. It goes beyond being introverted, because I had plenty of introverted friends in college who liked to party. They didn’t do it as much as my extroverted friends, but when they went out they genuinely enjoyed themselves. I can think of only 2 parties I really had fun at, and that was because the music wasn’t too loud and they started before my bedtime (midnight, in case you were wondering). Usually I just stay home. For example, Tex went out to a bar for a friend’s birthday Saturday night while I watched Halloween movies on the Disney channel. And I was perfectly fine.
But back to the book. I really loved it because Dr. Aron laid out my issues in a way that de-problematized them. There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just different. “Everyone, HSP or not, feels best when neither too bored nor too aroused. People differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation, under the same stimulation.” See, I’m not a crazy 80 year old hermit lady stuck in a 23 year old’s body! I’m just sensitive. I pick up on everything and my mind is going 100 miles a minute at any given time. Tex always tells me I think too much, I tell him I can’t help it. For me, everything important happens in my head and the outside world is something I’ve learned to live with.
The thing is, I very much like the idea of socializing. When I get a house, I want to host fish frys, barbecues, tea parties, game nights, and themed dinners. But I also want people to show up on time and leave by midnight so I can recuperate. With people (and by “people” I mean everyone who isn’t Tex or an immediate blood relative), there is so much work involved. I have to smile enough and watch my tone so that they don’t think something’s wrong. I have to talk more than I’d like to avoid seeming rude. I like in depth conversations, but those don’t happen in groups because someone tends to change the topic every five minutes. I like being around people, but the optimal amount of socialization for me is maybe four hours a day. I can deal with 8 hours because I’ve been forced to by the workplace and the public school system. But after that? No. It’s just too much information.
I’m very intuitive with people’s moods, expressions, etc and I like things to be at equilibrium. However, most people are NEVER at equilibrium. That’s why I spend so much time with Tex–I love him, obviously, but more than that he is soothing. Why? Because he is PREDICTABLE. He’s not overly emotional so I don’t have to coddle him the way I did my ex. And when he’s upset, he will tell me why he’s upset and then curse at the tv while playing Madden and that’s it, he’s back to normal. He’s very plain spoken–no hints, no grudges, no prying information out of him, all his cards are on the table. It’s not that way with other people. Dr. Aron says, “What this difference in arousability means is that you notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others. This is true whether we are talking about subtle sounds, sights, or physical sensations like pain. . . This greater awareness of the subtle tends to make you more intuitive.” I can sense all these undercurrents of things going on, and trying to ignore them–or alternatively, decipher them–while carrying on pleasant every day conversation is just purely exhausting.
I’ve often bemoaned my lack of a party animal gene. But it’s hard when your HSP tendencies make you loath to go to even regular social events, and you feel like a big fat fail because what’s your excuse for not going to happy hour at the bar/a football game/the homecoming step show/etc? People just label you antisocial and pretty soon you’re reading tweets or looking at Facebook photos of events that nobody bothered to invite you to. Not that I’m mad. It just sucks to be misunderstood. You could have played the Hallelujah Chorus in the background the whole time I was reading this book because it described me to a tee. It makes me wish that basic psychology was a required curriculum in school. People skills are so important, and I think we would all treat each other better if we just knew where we were coming from. At the very least, maybe if we knew more about ourselves we wouldn’t feel so angry and misunderstood.