Sitting in the car in traffic with my husband is often excruciating. Suddenly the radio is just the slightest bit too loud and the air is blowing too hard. Oh wait, now it’s hot. I’m hot and I must get out of this inferno, stat. I’m simultaneously about to cuss and getting super nauseated, so I stick my head out of the window. While I’m shaking my head out the window like a mannerless dog, I remember the fight I encountered earlier in the day…And I feel so sad. I stop talking to my spouse and just think. Think, think, think about how sad it is that they were fighting and how I would have felt if I was them. And then my husband says something to me and I snap, like a teenager would verbally bitch-slap their mom after being asked for the thirtieth time, “When will you be home later, dear?”
And then I realize…oh, I am feeling really overstimulated. And I breathe. And occasionally alternately squeeze both of my arms like I’m giving myself tiny little repeated hugs, because my therapist told me it would help me calm down. And then I start feeling sane again and less like the mannerless dog and bitch-slapping teenager that abducted my heart for a moment.
I spent the majority of my 27 years thinking I had a stress problem. I get stressed more easily than most others and viewed it as an inherent character flaw. If only I could learn how to not get so stressed, then I would be better. Then my marriage would be what I hoped. Then I would be good enough for myself. Then others would truly love me…
Simultaneously, I spent the majority of my life feeling different from others. I’ve always felt slightly peculiar, not quite like my peers, friends, and family. At my best I’ve felt tapped into a stream of reality and meaning of which others don’t seem entirely aware. (And yes, I know how arrogant that sounds.) At my worst I felt isolated, too odd to be fully accepted by most people. Over the years I came to place of being able to appreciate myself—the quirks, intuition, and mesmerizing array of feels that make up Katie Jo. But I still felt secretly strange, knowing almost no one else that seemed like me.
As Anne Lamott (2005) writes, “I suffer from what a psychiatrist friend calls clinical sensitivity; she recommends that I avoid too much stimulation.” (Plan B, p. 59) But I don’t call my sensitivity “clinical,” because I firmly believe along with Dr. Elaine Aron that sensitivity like mine is not a diagnosis but rather a fixed personality trait, heritable, not inherently bad, and worth valuing in this aggressive, fast-paced world.
I spent the majority of my life internalizing the message that I am too sensitive.
And now I am daily injecting a new message into my soul:
I am beautifully sensitive. I am not “too much.” My sensitivity is a gifting. The fact that I get overstimulated easily is worth paying attention to and making space for. I am not the only one who is this sensitive. I am ok. I am loved and appreciated for who I am—by God, myself, and my husband.
I like to call what has happened in my soul a revolution.
Embracing the fact of my sensitivity has transformed everyday moments of stress into opportunities to believe and enjoy the fact that I am unique and loved by God.
I first learned about the personality trait of being a “Highly Sensitive Person” (or HSP, the shorthand term) from my therapist, Lauren Currans, in the early Spring of 2015.
I came to her super overwhelmed, having just had a pulmonary embolism at the tail end of spending about 1.5 months at the hospital with my little sister after the heart attack that almost killed her. Yeah...my then twenty year old sister almost died from a heart attack from her autoimmune disease (Lupus). And, yeah, having a pulmonary embolism felt like small change in comparison. (Laughably, I didn’t think it was a big deal…And then I started blood thinners and realized it would affect my whole life. But that’s a different story for a different day.)
I’m pretty sure my whole family had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from the horrors of what we saw and experienced in the hospital. I was having flashbacks to my dying sister hooked up to her balloon pump waiting for the weather to break for her life-flight to be able to land and how I lied, telling her she wasn’t dying so she would believe she could make it. (I don’t regret the lie. We both needed to believe it.) But, I also started seeing a counselor because I had to for my Masters in Counseling program. I really, really needed to see a counselor. So that graduation requirement was a win…
After I told Lauren I was pretty sure I have a problem with stress, (which I was starting to believe would never go away) and that I was committed to learning how to cope with it better, she gently asked, “Have you ever heard of the term Highly Sensitive Person?”
Inside a tiny button linked to a detonator was pressed on my heart and nervous system that said, “Shit, she thinks you are too sensitive too.” But something in me keyed into the affirming tone with which she shared, and, thankfully, the wires in that little bomb proved faulty.
“Highly sensitive people process just about everything more deeply than the rest of the population,” she shared. “From sensations like hearing noises and feeling temperature, to feeling emotions deeply—both positive and negative, to thinking critically, HSPs are wired in a way that makes them constantly process stimulation deeply. As such, we get overstimulated easily.”
We, she said we. I knew she felt like a safe person, like a bit of a kindred spirit, and I started seeing why. Suddenly my soul forgot about that detonator and instead felt safe.
"about 15 to 20 percent of the human population” are “born with a nervous system genetically designed to be more sensitive to subtleties, more prone to deep reflection on inner experience, and therefore inevitably more easily overwhelmed by outer events." Dr. Elaine Aron
Lauren told me about Dr. Aron’s research about sensitivity and how she had identified “about 15 to 20 percent of the human population” are “born with a nervous system genetically designed to be more sensitive to subtleties, more prone to deep reflection on inner experience, and therefore inevitably more easily overwhelmed by outer events.” (Aron, 2000, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, p. 3) The research-nerd in me lauded how Dr. Aron’s work is scientifically valid. But I would have believed it even without her copious amounts of qualitative data, because my heart told me this was the truth about myself. (In one session, cuz she is a badass) My counselor had just nailed all my quirks, the things about myself I felt I had to hide from the world in case they noticed I was so weird, the aspects of my personality I was partly ashamed of and partly reveled in.
Thus began a new season in my revolution: the Sensitive Revolution.
Over the following months I continued therapy with Lauren and read everything I could get my hands on about sensitivity. I even made an independent study course out of it for my graduate program. I reflected, journaled, and had countless conversations with my husband, friends, and God about this new language of “sensitivity” and “overstimulation.” Over time, my thinking about myself changed. I started really believing what Dr. Aron and my counselor say about sensitivity: that it is a gifting. “It’s not that our [Highly Sensitive Persons’] eyes and ears are better, but that we sort what comes in more carefully. We like to inspect, reflect, and ponder…We are very intuitive, meaning that we tend to know how things came to be the way they are are how they will turn out, but without knowing how we know all that.” I also kept owning the fact that I will continue to be prone to overstimulation.
I started getting a whole lot better at taking care of myself in light of my sensitivity. My marriage improved. I finally stopped feeling perpetually isolated. And I started being way kinder to myself.
The story of my Sensitive Revolution is not over, but it is growing more beautiful every day. If some of what I shared resonated with your experience or sounds like your spouse, best friend, or child, will you join the Sensitive Revolution by taking Dr. Aron’s self-test? Find out if you are an HSP like me by taking the test here. And then read, pray, and talk your sensitive, beautiful heart out with some safe friends or a counselor.
Your Sensitive Revolution may be coming, and you’ll be happy it did.
Follow Katie Jo's journey of wrestling with and resting in sensitivity, autoimmune disease, and suffering at Anchor for the Soul.