I can’t remember how I first came across the concept of the Highly Sensitive Person a year ago, but it has been a game-changer.
I couldn’t figure out why since becoming a parent, I wanted to spend most of my free time ALONE. I’m an extrovert so this desire for solitude was something I seldom craved in the past. Before children, I loved to spend my free time with others, but now all I want is to sit in a cafe by myself and read a book. Ok, that and maybe eat a savoury muffin unharmed by chubby little fingers.
So stumbling across the work of Drs Elaine and Arthur Aron, who coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (or HSP) in the 1990s, was such an a-ha moment. It didn’t just explain my new need for alone-time, but explained a LOT of things about myself that I’d never articulated (or even thought about) before.
The Highly Sensitive Person is someone with a high level of sensory processing sensitivity. It is an innate trait which means the HSP processes sensory data more deeply than most people due to the biological nature of their nervous system (more explanations and links to the research can be found here). In a nutshell, HSPs are people with high levels of social, emotional and physical sensitivity. We make up about 20% of the general population, and around 30% of HSPs are extroverts like me.
Firstly, I just want to say that HSPs are a real thing. There is solid science behind this, and if you are intrigued by this topic I encourage you to check it out for yourself (you can start here). Secondly, being an HSP does not mean you have a sensory disorder. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is not ‘shyness’, neurosis or introversion (although 70% of HSPs are also introverted).
So, how does someone know if they are an HSP or not?
You can take a quick self-assessment here. Developed by Dr Aron, the test covers the common characteristics of HSPs, and a score of 14 or more generally indicates that you are an HSP. I scored 26/27.
Some HSP characteristics are:
- getting very rattled if you have too much to do in a short time
- startling easily
- disliking loud noises or chaotic scenes
- being deeply moved by art or music
- being affected by other people’s moods
- a low tolerance for pain
- trying hard to avoid making mistakes
- needing to retreat to a quiet or dark room on busy days
- being overwhelmed by strong smells, coarse fabrics, bright lights or sirens.
If this sounds like you, head on over to take the test!
What is it like to be an HSP?
Mostly, I find being an HSP very advantageous. Because I notice a lot of things that others don’t, I find I’m generally able to get on well with notoriously ‘difficult’ people. I can walk into a party and tell you which couple just had a fight before the party, or who is hiding some sort of sadness, who is feeling shy and uncomfortable, and who fancies who. It’s been really beneficial in previous jobs or voluntary work I’ve done with offenders, because I know when I’m being lied to. My empathetic nature means that people readily open up to me, which is a huge privilege.
But there are downsides.
I am very light-sensitive and have to wear sunglasses when I’m outside. I hate summer because the bright sunshine is so overwhelming (those who have lived in both northern and southern hemispheres can testify to the harshness of the light down under), and I can get headaches on ‘glarey’ days. I’m very sensitive to strong smells; smells like paint or carpet cleaner make me violently ill. (My skin is also very sensitive, so I only use the gentlest, nature-based products.) I hate loud noises and jump through the roof if surprised. D often catches me unawares and has gotten used to my scream of shock. I need to eat in peace and quiet most of the time, and I get overwhelmed by visual clutter. I literally cannot relax if my house is too shambolic.
I don’t like to read the paper or watch the news on TV much because I get upset and agitated by the doom and gloom that they peddle. I can feel someone else’s pain as if it were my own. If someone is experiencing deep grief, it can be quite overwhelming for me. If I am in the middle of a particularly chaotic party, I need to nip to the loo or somewhere quiet for a minute or two, just to get my equilibrium back. And it takes me ages to get to sleep after a great party!
Parenting as an HSP
The most helpful thing I came across was not to compare yourself to non-HSP parents. HSPs generally make good parents, due to our sensitivity to the emotions of others. But we find many aspects of parenting much harder than non-HSP parents. Noise, mess, and being touched all day by children are difficult for HSPs to tolerate. For me, this knowledge liberated me from a lot of guilt at my inability to cope on particularly chaotic days. I used to feel inadequate or like I was a bad mother as I saw other parents coping with far worse scenes than I could.
Children are noisy, messy and generally leave chaos in their wake. Young children can leave HSPs feeling touched out, and wishing we could retreat into a sensory deprivation tank. I occasionally get to breaking point when all the noise, clinging and mess is just too overwhelming, and retreat to my bedroom for a few minutes of peace and quiet.
If you are an HSP it is crucial to practice good self-care, or you will burn out, especially if you are caring for very young children. Our nervous systems are already running at higher levels than most, so the demands of parenting can easily tip us over the edge. Through my growing knowledge of HSP life, I have learnt to do several things that have made a big impact on my well-being and my ability to stay a calm and loving parent. If you are an HSP to young tots, I hope these strategies help you.
- I guard my sleep. Sleep is a precious commodity to any parent, but I guard mine like Smaug guarded his treasure in The Hobbit. I try to be in bed and on my way to sleep by 9:30pm because I need at least 8 hours sleep to function well. 9 hours is even better. Yep, I am living the Nana-life, but I cannot cope when I am very sleep-deprived. I turn into a weepy, bitchy shrew who isn’t much fun to be around, so guarding my sleep helps keep me – and my husband – sane.
- I guard my quiet time. After much trial and error, I realised that one of the reasons I like exercising early in the morning is because it’s quiet. I LOVE being up before my family, and before most people on my street are up and about for the day. On days when I’ve slept in, I notice that I get quickly frazzled by the demands of my children, and can be in a grump within 30 minutes! My early morning starts are hard some mornings, but I go into the day on a more even keel.
- I eat my lunch in peace. I need to eat my lunch in peace. Again, it’s carving out a little quiet time, before I head back into the crazy afternoon with my two darlings. My son sleeps, my daughter watches a TV show to chill out after kindy, and I get 20 minutes of solitude. Before discovering HSP, I couldn’t understand my disproportionate rage at getting disturbed by a phone call or a child waking up early while I was eating my lunch. Now I know why.
- I get lots of help. I am so blessed to have loving grandparents for my tots who regularly take one or both off my hands for a morning or an afternoon. I know many people don’t have this support. If I didn’t have my Mum and my mother-in-law around, I think I would have cracked by now. If you don’t have any family or good friends to give you a break – get help. A morning or two of daycare will make all the difference to your ability to parent well. HSPs need more help than non-HSPs simply because our nervous systems get overstimulated more easily. You are not a bad parent. You physically need more breaks than your non-HSP friends.
- I try not to get overstimulated. This is crucial. If I am overloaded, I lose my cool easily with my kids. Not getting overstimulated is hard for me, as I am a extrovert who is always on the lookout for fun and exciting things to do. But I limit what I do during the week, and try to keep my weekends more on the chilled-out side when possible. I try to pay attention to what things overstimulate me. As I said above, great parties are hugely stimulating for me, so I have learnt to choose between the party or how bad my sleep debt is at the time. I love going to Playcentre with my tots, but I can only face it once a week as the busyness of a session means sensory-overload for me.
- I connect with other HSPs. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of my friends are fellow HSPs. My Mum and Dad are HSPs. I belong to an HSP Facebook group. Nobody gets it like an HSP. Nobody. If you have felt all your life that you are a bit different, that no one is as considerate towards you as you are to them, that your sensitivity is a weakness, then connecting with other HSPs could change your life. No joke. My HSP Facebook peeps are a mine of information about how to take of myself better, and a lovely reminder that I am not alone in some of my quirks.
Are you an HSP? What strategies help you cope with the demands of parenting?