Highly sensitive person (HSP). The phrase gave me the heebie jeebies when I first saw it.
Not another category! I thought.
Not another ‘them and us’ I mourned.
Not another label that whiffs of ‘oh I’m special and you’re not’ I huffed and puffed.
I also thought it sounded a bit like ‘highly complainy people’.
That was until I read about it more.
And then I thought ‘thank F- that someone has written about this, and it’s not just me’.
It gave me a lens (the concept of sensory sensitivity) to see myself and better understand myself through.
I mean I was pretty comfortable identifying as introverted, I knew I needed time alone (or around very safe feeling people) to recharge, but I’d never really thought about how sensory input overlapped with social-emotional inputs to overwhelm me.
As an introvert I couldn’t figure out how an hour’s train ride by myself on an almost empty train didn’t feel relaxing, or why time around people could be extra exhausting if I was in a loud bar compared with sitting around a quiet dinner table.
For me, I realised that I am very sensitive to some noises. That faint beeping of an appliance two rooms away, I can hear it and it’s bugging me while you try to speak with me. The tv on in the ‘background’ while we try to have a conversation? It’s like two conversations shouting simultaneously in my brain. I find it hard to ignore many sounds and they don’t really fade into the background for me. Working in a busy open plan office was extremely stressful for me, because even with ear plugs I could hear the spontaneous standing meeting happening in the cubicle over and the phone call behind me, and , and … You get the idea.
I’m also sensitive to smell, and will sniff out offending smells or get distracted by smells I can’t place. I frequently recognise what my chef husband has cooked during the day just by the scents on his work clothes (he doesn’t super love it when I sniff him and guess!).
So now I know that being in loud, strongly smelly, ‘jangly’ environments is not relaxing for me, even if there are no people there.
Does that mean I’m special or extra finely tuned? I don’t imagine so. I guess it just means that my senses are turned up LOUD so the info comes in at full blast.
It also means that if it comes all at once I tense up and find it harder to process.
A schreechy train with strong oil smell and gusts of cold air as the doors open at each station is a lot to take in. Especially if there’s someone sitting near me and facing me.
A quiet cosy non smelly train with a double seat to myself and an almost empty carriage – another story!
Sitting with my back to a walkway in a cafe where knives and forks are being dried and clanged into a box, with concrete floors and screechy acoustics and stressed staff bitching about a coworker feels very different to sitting with cafe music and coffee machine white noise in a dark corner where the staff are chilled.
What this means is that I absolutely can be an annoying person to go to a cafe or restaurant with (“Let’s sit here, ooh no, hang on what about here, oh no actually THIS table!”) BUT what it also means is that I pay a lot of attention to setting up spaces that are calm feeling for my clients, that have nice light, smell fresh, look pleasant, feel peaceful.
The book that I really enjoyed on this* was written by an occupational therapist. She describes people with severe sensory issues, where the slightest touch hurts for example. It made me think more deeply about the full spectrum of ways that people experience sensory input.
Sensory sensitivity is often associated with autism, and some parents and advocates have been trying to make changes to how public spaces cater to the diverse needs of customers who can find their spaces overwhelming.
“Imagine going to a concert but being unable to block out any of the noises, touches, smells and movements happening around you. The volume of each of these sensations is turned way up: Whispers become yells, the odors of hot dogs and popcorn are stomach-churning, flashing lights are blinding. This can be the experience of people with sensory processing issues — since they can’t filter out sensory input like those with neurotypical processing systems, they feel bombarded by every piece of sensory information occurring in a space all at once.” – Hailey Reissman
I’m really interested in how developmental experiences, including trauma, also affect our sensory experiences. The child who never got to explore diverse tactile sensations through growing up in neglect, who now finds sensory stimulation overwhelming. The teenager who grew up around violence and now startles when hearing loud noises. It makes me wonder how each of our experiences of senses are shaped by our childhood environments and relationships, as well as genetic factors.
So, on balance I’m glad the concept exists and I’m interested in research going on to explore it further. I think it creates a framework to help some people understand themselves better and create environments that suit them best.
*‘Too Loud Too bright, Too Fast, Too Tight” by Sharon Heller, 2002 HarperCollins