Monday, August 04, 2014

16 Habits of Highly Sensitive People: Something of a Health Report

Roger tipped me to this Huffington Post article a while back and told me I should write about it. I didn't, but he did here and here, which has prompted me to give some opinions on it. I recognize a lot of this list, and I've actually brought up a number of these things with my new therapist.

1. They feel more deeply.

Roger pointed out that the suggestion of feeling more deeply than others seems arrogant, and I would agree with that. I don't think I have any special insight into my emotional state that others don't have. But I do think that the effects of those feelings can last much longer than most people I know. If something makes me feel bad, especially, it can affect me for days or longer, even years.

2. They're more emotionally reactive.
They may also have more concern about how another person may be reacting in the face of a negative event.

True. My capacity for empathy is easily overloaded. I personalize the suffering of others sometimes, particularly others who are facing injustice or simply not being heard. That's very frustrating. Any kind of victim-blaming leaves me yelling and angry. I get frustrated very easily by politics because of the ignorance not only being displayed, but championed, and while rich people in Congress are jockeying for position there are people in this country struggling and not being paid any attention to.

I also am prone to outsize emotional reactions, especially when I feel attacked. I've internalized a lot of feelings of worthlessness over the years, and it makes me defensive and even desperate when I feel like I'm being judged rather than my opinions. I don't remember what people say anyway near as much as I remember how people made me feel, and if you make me feel hurt, feel stupid, or make me feel bad for liking things, there's a good chance I will never initiate a conversation with you again.

3. They're probably used to hearing, "Don't take things so personally" and "Why are you so sensitive?"

Or some variation of it. "Why do you give other people the power to make you feel bad?" "Stop taking things so seriously." "You're overreacting." I hate that. It's dismissive and invalidating, and it will probably make me hate you. It's a big trigger for me, and I don't like people who do this.

Roger adds further the idea that sometimes he just wants to hear "I'm sorry you're feeling that way" over a "Get over it!" type of response, and that's just it: When I feel bad and need to vent, I don't want to hear advice or be invalidated, I just want to be heard for a moment. Just acknowledge that you heard someone and that it sucks, or else don't say anything. It's not your job to mitigate someone else's reaction. You're not a mental health professional.

At best, I'm sure people mean well and don't realize that's what they're doing, but it's what they're doing.

A corollary to that is people who apologize by saying things like "I'm sorry you feel bad" or "I'm sorry that's how you feel" or "I'm sorry that's how you took it," all of which you should recognize as not actually being apologies.

4. They prefer to exercise solo.

I won't even do simple walks up and down the stairs of my building if there are people in the hallway because I'm so self-conscious. And if there are too many people at the pool, I'm just sitting there miserable.

5. It takes longer for them to make decisions.
Even if there is no "right" or "wrong" decision -- for example, it's impossible to choose a "wrong" flavor of ice cream -- highly sensitive people will still tend to take longer to choose because they are weighing every possible outcome.

I don't know if this is sensitivity so much as my internalized feelings of worthlessness. I often feel I don't "deserve" to be happy or satisfied, so when presented with choices I have a tendency to shut down. Especially if it's something that seems innocent but is kind of vague, like "What do you want to do today?" or "What do you want for dinner?" There's too much choice in situations like that, and it's hard for me to really want things when I think they're just for me. Saying "let's watch [x movie]" seems like imposing myself and my tastes (and by extension, the fact of my existence) on someone, and I can't make a decision about dinner because (a) it might be something that only I like, or (b) it might not be good, which will make me feel guilty.

6. And on that note, they are more upset if they make a "bad" or "wrong" decision.

Yup. Obviously. I still feel like I did the wrong thing by going to college, because towards the end of it I had a trauma that took years for me to fully acknowledge, but it kept me immobile, indoors, locked inside of myself, and constantly anxious. It took all of the problems I've dealt with to varying degrees since as far back as I could remember and amplified them, making it extremely hard to function, and all these years later I'm unemployed and weighed down not only by crippling, inescapable debt, but the feelings of guilt and even shame that have developed because of it.

7. They're extremely detail-oriented.
Highly sensitive people are the first ones to notice the details in a room, the new shoes that you're wearing, or a change in weather.

That's true; I'm very sensitive to surroundings and experience. I notice little details in movies. If the weather changes, I always notice, even if it's just gotten slightly darker or lighter. I always notice insects in the room because it's like I can feel something is off. It makes having a pet a little bit anxious for me, because every time Princess gets up and hops around the room, it takes me a moment to re-calibrate. It's especially bad when I've been home alone for hours and my wife comes home; it's like I have to readjust to a whole different level of "normal" to compensate, and I'm afraid sometimes she takes it as just simple annoyance at her presence. Just adjusting.

I wish I was the kind of detail-oriented where I was really organized and great with numbers and had a better understanding of science. Instead, I'm the guy everyone goes to if they want to know what year an album came out or the name of that guy who was in the movie with that woman where they did the thing.

8. Not all highly sensitive people are introverts.
In fact, about 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts.

I've always got someone who knows me surprised to find out that I'm shy and have terrible social anxiety. It's because I'm polite and even talkative if I think someone's uneasy, or if I'm uneasy. It's like a mask, you know? I can interact, and I've been complimented a lot on how polite and nice I am--and what a warm phone voice I have--but later I admonish myself for how stupid I must seem and how annoying my presence must be.

9. They work well in team environments.

Sometimes. At most jobs, I just want to be left alone, do my work, and go home. I feel like I've been penalized a lot at jobs for not being more social, but all I want to do is my work and do it well and just leave it at the site and not go home all pissed off about some political bullshit. It makes me feel undervalued.

I'm not a fan of having to make decisions, but I've been able to manage others and even direct scenes on stage, perform on stage, etc. I'm not always sure what I'll be able to do with other people around.

10. They're more prone to anxiety or depression (but only if they've had a lot of past negative experiences).
"If you've had a fair number of bad experiences, especially early in life, so you don't feel safe in the world or you don't feel secure at home or ... at school, your nervous system is set to 'anxious,'" Aron says.

Put that on my tombstone, you know? The problem for me seems to be that any negative experiences I've had in life, particularly from childhood--bullying, parents divorcing, emotional abuse, physical abuse--all became so internalized that it's hard to break away from how I still feel about them, or how other things that happen to me seem to only reinforce those feelings. And a lot of it has affected how I respond to certain situations, and it's hard work to overcome those things.

A good example right now is a commercial that's been on for some cleaning product or other, where the kids are at the table and spilling chocolate milk and giggling. The mom just laughs at what a good time her kids are having, and calmly wipes it up with whatever paper towel or wipe or whatever is being advertised. That commercial makes me feel anxious, and it's because if I had done that as a kid, my Mom would have screamed at me in frustration and probably slapped me across the head. Because of that kind of thing, I take everything very seriously, like every mess is a dire situation, and when I get frustrated I yell and want to hit things. It still happens, but not as often as it did when I was younger.

11. That annoying sound is probably significantly more annoying to a highly sensitive person.
They tend to be more easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by too much activity.

God, yes. Too many things at once overwhelms me and ramps up my anxiety. But drowning things out with music also helps. Sometimes I just want quiet. Also, little things bother me greatly, like my wife sneezing or coughing, or running the water in the kitchen.

12. Violent movies are the worst.

It depends. I don't have a violence threshold as much as I have a cruelty threshold. I'm desensitized to a lot of more cartoonish or obviously fake violence, but if there's a cruelty to it, that can be very hard to take. I'm willing to put up with a lot for a great film. 12 Years a Slave is an excellent movie, one of the best of the decade, but so much physical, mental and emotional cruelty happens that I felt really, really bad after watching it and will probably never watch it again.

13. They cry more easily.

True. It doesn't make me feel bad, actually; I've come to accept this as just part of how I am. I think because most of the time when I cry, it's during a movie. That seems more socially acceptable to me, and it feels cathartic. I have a hard time laughing and showing joy, because that seems less socially acceptable for me (the worthlessness again), and as you might be able to tell from my blog, I don't always like talking about things I like, because I will feel bad for weeks when someone inevitably comes along and makes me feel stupid for liking it, particularly if they won't let it drop. Crying is an emotional expression that just feels more acceptable to me for whatever reason. Music, movies, television, books, it's all emotionally reactive to me.

14. They have above-average manners.
Because of this, they're more likely to be considerate and exhibit good manners -- and are also more likely to notice when someone else isn't being conscientious.

Very true. You might not realize that if you only know me online, but I have very, very good manners in public and I always notice when people do not. I am very concerned, especially at my weight, of getting in someone's way or accidentally being inconsiderate, but I think this also ties in to the empathy I mentioned in #2. Everyone's a person and should be treated like one. (Except for me, apparently, because as much as anyone might dislike me, I'm way ahead of them.)

15. The effects of criticism are especially amplified in highly sensitive people.

I think most of the people reading this could probably pull an example they've witnessed out of the comments section of this blog. My reaction can be intense, particularly when I feel criticism is directed at me as a person rather than what I've said or an opinion I've expressed, and I know relationships have been severed because of it. And then there's that magic zone, where someone criticizes me in a way that I've already criticized myself, which just makes me shut down entirely.

16. Cubicles = good. Open-office plans = bad.
Many highly sensitive people enjoy working from home or being self-employed because they can control the stimuli in their work environments.

I've never had a cubicle or an open plan; I've usually been the guy who either works in a room alone or with one or two others, or who just floats in and out in an ancillary capacity (delivery driver, substitute teacher). I can't even work now because it's overwhelming; when I can, I plan to talk with my social worker about finding me something I can do from home.

Roger also mentions a mental health counselor in the comment who notes tactile sensitivities in some, which is certainly true. For a long time in my life, I would only wear flannel shirts and jeans, because I didn't like things rubbing against my arms or legs (the grass, other people, etc.). Oddly, now I'm more sensitive to the clothes themselves; I prefer to wear shorts and soft tee shirts. And I can't stand wearing socks and shoes anymore; I always take my shoes off in therapy. I've reached the point where being self-conscious of my appearance has been outweighed by my desire to be comfortable (and my inability to relax myself).

I'm not sure how to end this post, so...


Autumn said...

Except for #1 these all apply to me in one way or another. So I guess I'm highly sensitive? Are most people not this way?

As a side note, I can't tell if you are being negative about people who apologize for your feeling bad, but sometimes it's an expression of empathy and sometimes people really are apologizing. When my husband tells me about a bad day at work and I say "I'm sorry" what I'm expressing is that I wish he was not unhappy and that I really am sorry I cannot take away the bad bits and make him happy in this moment and add a smattering of, I've also had bad days and understand how much it sucks so I feel you.

I don't feel like this response is telling you that you are feeling wrong, which is what the earlier phrases sound like to me. I think it's a perfect response, it conveys everything I'm feeling and keeps it short because that moment isn't about me, it's about the person who is feeling bad so this isn't a time for a sympathy story.

SamuraiFrog said...

What I'm really referencing in #3 is insincere apologies in general; I've had experiences here on this blog where people have made me feel absolutely stupid and childish for liking something or doing something, which makes me defensive. It usually goes like this:

Me: "Wow, I really like [x thing] and it means a lot to me."

Someone else: "Your opinion is idiotic and you're stupid for liking [x thing]. Here's a very long comment detailing the ways I am dismissive of your opinion."

Me: "Here's an admittedly defensive comment that's dismissive of the rude way you were dismissive of my opinion."

Someone else: "WHY ARE YOU SO RUDE???"

Me: "Because you made me feel like an asshole."

Someone else: "Well, I'm sorry you took my total invalidation of you so seriously, but that's not what I meant so you have no right to be offended by my rudeness."

It's a non-apology apology when you cause someone to feel bad, even inadvertently, and then simply dismiss their reaction by saying "Sorry you took it that way."

What you detail is perfectly sincere and genuine. What I was saying is that I prefer to hear "I'm sorry that happened" or just "I'm sorry"--which is genuinely sympathetic--rather than advice or something along the lines of "well, get over it." The last time I had to call a suicide hotline I explained to the operator what happened, and her saying "I'm so sorry that happened to you" made me feel much better than anything else. I just felt heard, validated, sympathized with, etc.

It's a lot better than complaining about losing something on my computer on Facebook and getting a dozen "You should have backed it up" comments. Well, no shit. Thanks for making me feel stupid.

You know what I mean?

This list is really more about me being so sensitive to most of these to the point where it keeps me inside and makes normal interaction very, very hard, sometimes impossible, because of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and other mental problems (including, I'm now being told, possible Clinical Depression).

For example, your question "Are most people not this way?" at first glance seems dismissive and invalidating, and made me feel not only defensive, but ridiculous. I wanted to just delete this post in response, because it felt like a "Stop taking everything so seriously" type of comment. I know you didn't mean it that way, but that's my immediate reaction... BECAUSE of that sensitivity, regardless of how you meant it, I took it the worst possible way and overreacted. It's why I've had to train myself not to answer comments as soon as I see them.

My old mentor told me "When someone disagrees with you, don't say they're wrong; ask them what they mean." Great words, but hard to keep in mind when I'm subconsciously looking for outside validation of my worst feelings about myself.

So I think it's a matter of to what degree you feel these affect you.

Autumn said...

I completely understand where you are coming from now, thank you for explaining! I also dislike insincere apologies and that tone of voice they often come in...

And my comment on everyone feeling that way is sincere, I'm confused at how so many of these apply to me, I thought most people felt this way also. It never occurred to me that everyone's brain isn't doing this on the inside, even if it isn't what they are showing on the outside. I don't know how to explain that better, but it was just...a moment of realization that my thinking isn't "normal" and I don't feel I feel is the wrong way of doing things? It was a scary moment and I reacted before I had a chance to gather my thoughts and not sound rude. I honestly apologize!

SamuraiFrog said...

I understand! No apology necessary, but thank you.

I told my therapist about the article, and she told me not to read articles like that anymore.

Roger Owen Green said...

Sorry I've underminded your therapist's ex post facto advice. I found the exercise useful, if only in a confirming way, and I'm glad you responded.

SamuraiFrog said...

I think there's another way in which I'm sensitive in that I can read stuff like that and convince myself that not only do I have every symptom, but to a much higher degree than I do. This list was all me, but it's also the reason she doesn't want me looking up symptoms on Wikipedia or ever looking at WebMD.

In a nutshell, it's because sometimes my anxiety has physical pain, and my first thought is always "I wonder if I'm finally having that stroke..."