Monday, 28 August 2017


Labels are useful and so I generally don't get upset by them.  Other people will apply labels to me and I will apply them to myself and others.  They help us understand, clarify who we are and what we intend.  Of course they can be misapplied, they can become inaccurate over time, categorising and labelling anything is rarely a fixed thing.  A label I have not been in any hurry to apply to myself is HSP, also known as Highly Sensitive Person.  I know I am very sensitive so adding the label didn't help me in any way.  Finding out that there are psychologists who have studied this concept, decided what it means and to whom it applies and that there are people who identify with it and have been helped by this identification was only ever of mild interest. For the most part, labels that mark us as different from the norm are helpful if they allow us to find out we are not alone when we worried that was the case, and to encourage those not like us to accept our differences.

For someone who identifies as an HSP it is helpful to be around others who understand, don't judge and can offer support.  It isn't easy to live in a way that is different from the norm, and many people do that in various ways putting them at greater risk of harm than being an HSP can cause.  Having carefully explained my disclaimer, I am aware that what I write here might seem to some as trivial whining at worst or at best incomprehensible.   I would imagine only those with any sympathy towards Highly Sensitive People would bother to continue reading.

I've included the INTJ label in this because there is much misinformation or embellishment on the internet about the MBTI types and many if not all of the types can end up being described in terms of caricatures,  the INTJ in particular is somewhat idealised (if the ultimate villain can be considered an ideal) as a cool, unflappable, arrogant, confident, not giving any fecks at all sort of person.  Reality is much more complicated than that, of course.  So an INTJ type personality can also be highly sensitive.

What is meant by 'sensitive'?  In the case of the Highly Sensitive Person it is meant that over-stimulation of the senses can occur, especially in situations that most other people are not overstimulated by.  If you have not followed the link in my first paragraph, note now that it goes to the website of Dr Elaine Aronson, a psychologist who studies sensitivity and is, as far as I know, the one who coined the term HSP.  

I have not done as much reading and researching on this subject as I often do on subjects that interest me because I am not yet certain how interested I am.  I already know that I have been sensitive to smells, noises and bright lights, even bright colours my entire life to a point that I know isn't typical and I startle easily.  My fight or flight response is triggered by things others seem almost oblivious to or seem to enjoy.  I feel invaded or attacked and since flight is often unsuccessful, I cannot escape the situation, anger is triggered and I have thoughts of a fighting nature.  I fantasize about punching the person causing the 'attack' as a form of retaliation.  I want to inflict the same trauma that is being inflicted on me. 

Normally I am not a violent person at all so feelings like this only add to the stress I am already under.  If I am under emotional or psychological stress I become even more sensitive and verbally lashing out or a tearful meltdown are likely.  Being someone who is not typically emotional, who doesn't display emotions readily and who prefers to be in control, to be calm and collected, to respond logically, finding myself in such a state is highly distressing.  Perhaps you can begin to see how this all snowballs.

If, like me, you have lived your life with this way of being, you probably have coping strategies.  If you have discussed it with people you have probably been given suggestions like meditation, calming music, marijuana or herbal tea. Perhaps you have rubbed lavender oil on your temples or sniffed rose-geranium essential oil from a small bottle.  As an INTJ I prefer hard science to back up claims of cure or easing of symptoms but I also know what it is like to be willing to try anything that seems to work.  Desperation does that which is why the charlatans who exploit desperate people are so despicable.  But amongst the charlatans there are those who just mean well and believe in the miracle of herbs or think that it's not going to hurt to try something.  It may hurt your bank account but a fool and her money are soon parted and that's that.  Spend your money as you see fit but if you can't feed your children because of all that you spend on homeopathy you won't get any sympathy from me, although your children will for both their hunger and their having been saddled with a stupid parent.

Oops, that was a bit of a digression...anyhow, while I am aware that there are various relaxation techniques available to people and that they have varying degrees of efficacy and success, I've not found one that works for me and I need to make it clear that being a Highly Sensitive Person is not about being an uptight person, it is not about needing to relax more or de-stress, although finding ways to do those things can help as much as they help anybody.

Psychology is not a hard science, and although I value hard science greatly I am also very drawn to psychology.  I want to know why people are the way they are although I accept that it might be unknowable and I am inclined to favour neuroscientific explanations although it's a science still in infancy.  HSPs are considered to have not only a hyper-sensitivity to external stimuli, but also a greater depth of cognitive processing (which I think must not be mistaken to mean they are better in any way) and high emotional reactivity.    I have also read that we must distinguish between the terms highly sensitive and hyper-sensitive, with the former being biological and the latter being a coping style that is learned.  See this article.  The two can go together but do not necessarily. 

I have seen high sensitivity referred to as a disorder and a gift  but there is speculation, confusion and uninformed opinion at work there.  Sensory processing disorder is a different thing which may initially sound similar.  It is a neurological disorder which causes senses to get confused.  Sensory processing sensitivity is about perceiving more, being bombarded with sensory information that needs processing and being overwhelmed by it.  It would have survival advantages at times and be a burden at others from an evolutionary perspective but those survival advantages could lead to its continued existence in what is estimated to be about 20% of the population.  As someone living with it I don't consider it a gift.  I don't know any differently but I also know that if I could de-sensitise myself I would.  Just for some peace.

I prefer to think of it as something that just is, neither good nor bad, better nor worse, however for the most part it is not easy to live with and does need to be managed because an HSP is living generally living amongst others who are not over-stimulated by their environment and their sensitivity may be perceived as a weakness, as whining and attention seeking or as a bad attitude.

Here is what the good weather typically brings me.

Where I live we are visited twice a year by the Snowbirds, a Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Squadron.  For most people it is an awesome treat to have these jets flying overhead for a few weeks each year.  For me it is like living in a war zone and I loathe them.  I consider them noise pollution and when they fly over my home with no warning I want to duck and cover, curl up in a ball and cry. I would do anything to stop the assault including shoot them out of the sky if I had the means.  If I express my dislike of the Snowbirds I am considered strange and even unpatriotic by most people I know.  

I also dislike cigarette smoke intensely and live with neighbours who smoke outside so as not to stink up their own homes.  The smoke floats upwards and into my windows.  Again, to me it is an assault, an invasion of my safe space and a gross act of inconsideration. 

The noise of power tools has increased in my lifetime and nobody does any yard-work without power assisted machinery.  Wash, cut, prune, paint, you can do it all with a massive noise and you can do it all day.  When you have finished someone else can start up.  Summer, the time of year when I want my windows open and the fresh air to come in is also the season of extra noise.

Pot smokers have become even more confident as Canada prepares to legalize marijuana use, and while I have no ethical objection to marijuana I do object to the stink of it.  Skunk, dog shit, burning rubber tires, essentially it smells like one or all three of those to me.

Recently staying in hotels while on vacation, the stomping of overhead footsteps and the slamming of doors seemed endless and barely tolerable.  I lay in bed alternately cringing and

I resist believing myself to be special or unique, in fact I loathe the idea.  While labels generally don't bother me I cringe when labels applied to me hint at being special.  I am inclined to believe nobody is special and really dislike the self-empowerment movement that encourages everyone to believe they are.  It's impossible.  Not everyone can be special because that negates the definition of special.  I was raised to value humility, to not believe I am special in any way.  I don't think I can do and even if I were tested and declared gifted or any other kind of special I would resist it.  Having said that, I do have to admit to being a creative, intelligent, highly sensitive worrier.   I don't know anyone who doesn't believe they are intelligent despite evidence to the contrary so take my self assessment for what it's worth.  It's worth very little.  I really don't want to belong to the community of internet users claiming special snowflake status... poor me I am an empath!  I really don't want to, but I might belong there.  You can't make me join though, and I rarely join anything so that reassures me.  Clubs?  Groups?  Ugh!

But what does an introverted, self-reliant, reasonably smart person who worries, gets anxious, is stressed often, highly sensitive and is a bit worried about high blood pressure do to try and sort this out?  She Googles, of course.  How far that will get me, I don't know.  I dislike the touchy-feely stuff, refuse to do guided imagery and am suspicious of anyone who looks like she would sniff a bottle of rose-geranium.  However, I am willing to read and when I read I do glean nuggets of useful information.  In many cases it's a reminder, something I already know but have forgotten and am neglecting.

For me it is important to keep my mind busy.  If it is not busy and stimulated it pursues its hobby of obsessive thinking by worrying about things.  A recent example might be how many different ways I could die on the back of a motorcycle travelling on the Interstate highway.  Of course, it is difficult to be intellectually stimulated while sitting on the back of a a motorcycle and that's a problem I've yet to solve.

As important as it is to keep my mind busy, it also needs rest and making it rest is very difficult.  Reading fiction helps.  So does painting and gardening once did.  I need to do these things as well, to let my mind sleep.

I also need to know that I will not be able to employ these strategies all of the time.  Shit is going to happen.  I am going to react.  A bit of self acceptance is helpful here and so is knowing that while I may be different from the norm, neither am I a freak.   I will dredge up two of my favourite pithy and meme-worthy statements. 

Life is a journey, not a destination and I am always a work in progress.


  1. Ha, I giggle at your suspicion of alternative therapies, it makes you pretty unusual for an ISP type if I'm not mistaken! I am sceptical but also lacking religion not a complete atheist either. I enjoy ruminating on meditation and crystals and astrology without any particular purpose. The meditation lately is of most interest to me. I enjoy guided meditation, it stills my brain and calms me - unguided meditation and I lose focus, I lack the self control I guess!

    My husband's aunt has super high intuition, to the point where for better or worse she believes in seemingly everything, angels, crystals, tarot, premonition, god, conspiracies, and has her own deeply emotional reactions and self driven psychic moments. She is a wonderful, generous woman, but I see how it drains her sometimes to believe in so much and feel seemingly responsible yet helpless to it all. She insisted on hiring a psychic who she deeply believes in for me as a gift. I confess I thought the woman was a complete charlatan but I played along because I knew it made her happy. I think we must take care to protect ourselves from those who would profit from our yearning for higher understanding, whereas she gives much more benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I wish I was a little bit more like her, I do like to think that the universe has a purpose and nature isn't an accident, it calms me in these trying times!

    I also struggle with protecting the sensitive side, I tend to lash out of my boundaries are crossed, I love my husband dearly but he is a Leo and if we spend too much time together (as we did last week when he had the week off!) I can find it a bit draining, he doesn't really seem to have the same need for solitude and contemplation that I do - don't even ask how a Capricorn who never dated a Leo or even had Leo friends really ended up married to one, that is lightning bolt love at first sight for you - 16 years on it's still a challenge/learning process!;-)

    1. If it isn't well supported using a scientific method I am skeptical of it or outright dismissive. As an HSP I am sensitive to real world phenomena but don't imagine for a moment that I am experiencing sensitivity to spirits. I would suspect that was brain damage. LOL I suspect that while I get upset if my boundaries are crossed I am also not good at making my boundaries clear sometimes. I have a tendency towards too much confidence in my ability to handle anything. It's very INTJ to believe you can think your way through anything, and I forget that I cannot think my way out of a physical reaction/over stimulation experience. Oh well, it gives me something to write about. Your husband's aunt would drive me nuts but then INFPs have more patience with people than INTJs do, I think. ;-) It sounds like you and your husband are an extrovert/introvert combination which can be tricky, depending where you fall on that extro/intro scale. It also sounds like you've got it mostly sorted.

    2. On the scale of Leo extroversion, he is very mellow. His extrovert side really only comes out in groups. He is happy enough to "do nothing" with me, but when our version of doing nothing differs, I tend to defer eventually because I think he takes my fairly complete contentment to be alone/in my own world personally sometimes. I wish I had more confidence to think my way through things, I tend to wander into an INFP thought fog and get stressed under pressure! I think you would maybe like my husband's aunt despite the differences, she is immensely sweet and the most thoughtful, seeking understanding in others, always trying to help and make other people happy person I have ever known. And not in an overbearing way, because I hate people trying to tell me how to live my life and she has never made me feel judged or anything like that. But you are right I think INFPs do have a high tolerance and curiosity for people generally. :-)

    3. My son is INFP and unless someone really affects him negatively, really irritates and insults him, he is quite content to accept everyone as they are and since he gets close to very few people this is okay for me. Me, I am offended by ignorance, disdainful of magical thinking and inclined to resent people who I think contribute to the dumbing-down of the human race. Then I remind myself it's okay, the human race will kill itself off anyhow so I should just stay home in my cave and forget about people. ;-) People who are very sweet but believe in woo woo drive me nuts unless they are open to debating it or hearing me tell them why their beliefs are nonsense. Since some people are totally unmoved when it is pointed out that there is no basis in science for their beliefs discussing doesn't get anywhere and I eventually give up. I would be irritated by this aunt but would feel guilty about it so I would be very nice to her. I have several Facebook friends who are just like her. Some of them I have unfollowed. This is what happens when an INTJ is raised by an ISFJ. LOL- all the classic INTJ traits but with guilt.


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