My mom called me her “flapper” when I was a baby. Whenever I got excited, I would flap my arms, like I was young chick taking off for flight … in front of a hawk. I still do that, to some extent, but I manage to keep the arm movements to a minimum extension.
I am easily excitable, a “highly sensitive person,” as defined by Elaine Aron in her bestseller, The Highly Sensitive Person. If you answer yes to most of these questions on her website, you’re probably in the club, which holds 15 to 20 percent of human beings:
- Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
- Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
- Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
- Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
- Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
- Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
- Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
- When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?
This is not a terrible curse.
We highly sensitive people have gifts and aptitudes unavailable to the person who is oblivious to the fly that just landed on his eggs and that girl who doesn’t wonder if there is some symbolic meaning in the leaf that has just fallen from the oak tree in front of her. In fact, we excel at many things because of our heightened sensitivities.
I once interviewed Douglas Eby, a writer and researcher, and the creator of the Talent Development Resources series of sites, on the “perks” of being highly sensitive. He named these five traits:
Sensory detail. One of the prominent virtues of high sensitivity is the richness of sensory detail that life provides: the subtle shades of texture in clothing, foods when cooking, the sounds of music, fragrances, the different colors of nature, even traffic or people talking. All of these may be more intense for highly sensitive people.
Nuances in meaning. The trait of high sensitivity also includes a strong tendency to be aware of nuances in meaning and to be more cautious about taking action, and to more carefully consider options and possible outcomes.
Emotional awareness. We also tend to be more aware of our inner emotional states, which can make for richer and more profound creative work as writers, musicians, actors or other artists. A greater response to pain, discomfort, and physical experience can mean sensitive people have the potential, at least, to take better care of their health.
Creativity. Aron estimates 70 percent of those are introverted, which is a trait that can also encourage creativity. As examples, there are many actors who say they are shy, and director Kathryn Bigelow, who recently won an Academy Award, has said, “I’m kind of very shy by nature.” The star of her movie “The Hurt Locker,” Jeremy Renner (who was reportedly shy as a child) has commented that “in social situations she can be painfully shy.”
Greater empathy. High sensitivity to other people’s emotions can be a powerful asset for teachers, managers, therapists, and others.
However, if you aren’t aware of your highly sensitive disposition, it can make you crazy and cause erratic behavior.
For example, before I recognized the fact that I did not do well in places like malls, carnivals, and arcades — where all five senses are bombarded by stimulation — I would push myself to do the kinds of things that normal people enjoy, shop, and hang out in loud places. When my kids were young, it was common practice for the local moms to gather at the mall and let their kids goof around in a central play area.
Now, I was not in a good place for most of my kids’ very early years. On top of being highly sensitive and depressed, I had a host of hormonal issues going on thanks to a pituitary tumor.
Because I also had poor boundaries, I agreed to babysit a friend of my son, who was 4. So I took my two kids plus one more to the mall — one 2-year-old and two 4-year-olds. From the start, I was accosted by kiosk people spraying me with perfume, asking me to try a curling iron, shoving a brochure into my hands about a Chinese acrobatic show coming to the Kennedy Center. I was trying my best not to lose the two 4-year-olds who were running ahead, despite gazing at the Victoria’s Secret bra and underwear ads (“I wish I had that body”) and balancing the 2-year-old on my hip.
I saw in the horizon what appeared to be an oasis, a tiny bathroom at Starbucks. So I gathered the herd and locked us all in the bathroom while I proceeded to have a bona fide meltdown — crying, hysteria, snorting, etc. My kids were, of course, used to this behavior from Mom, but the other kid? He looked up at me as if he had just discovered Barney the Dinosaur was an alien dinosaur.
That was the moment I vowed never again to take small children to the mall, and, if I could pull it off, to keep my visits to that place under three a year — never between Halloween and New Year’s. Around this same time someone told me about Aron’s book. I devoured her pages, as I was relieved to know that there were other people in the world who hated amusement parks — even as kids — and got overwhelmed in grocery stores. People, other than me, who had to find a body of water somewhere by which to think, reflect, and just be still.
“Why do you find Whole Foods overwhelming?” my 10-year-old asked me the other day when I sat in the parking lot, stalling my entry into this world comprising upper-class, health-conscious people.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said.
My 13-year-old son gets it. He will do anything to get out of having to tag along to the grocery or any store. He already orders anything he needs online.
“It’s a lot of color and noise and choices hitting you all at the same time,” I tried to explain. “Plus I hate running into people I know at the store. And every time I shop here I run into at least two people I know.”
She looks up confused — not as puzzled as the 4-year-old who had never seen an adult meltdown — but a tad baffled. Those reasons are exactly why she loves Whole Foods. She will probably never lock herself into a tiny Starbucks bathroom in the mall. However, if you do, know you’re not alone.