A little while back I was reading a blog post that talked about Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. I thought huh, sounds like I’m probably one of those. So I picked up the book from the library and had a read, and it got me thinking about traits and illness and all the grey area in the middle.
At the beginning of the book, there is a true/false self-test to see if you would be considered a highly sensitive person (HSP). I came to the conclusion that I’m mostly not… but sometimes am. Specifically, only when I’m depressed. As I flipped through the book, I identified with it far less than I expected to me, and my reaction was more along the lines of “that’s what I do sometimes” rather than “that’s who I am”.
I have always been an emotionally sensitive person. My feelings get hurt easily, and I tend to empathize a lot with others. But the sensitivity encompassed in the concept of the HSP is much broader than that. Dr. Aron summed it up with the acronym DOES: Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity, and Sensing the Subtle. There seems to be quite a bit of emphasis placed on environmental stimuli.
In terms of emotional reactivity, I tend to be empathetic but don’t go that next step of internalizing the emotional energy of others. I don’t think I could work as a mental health nurse if I wasn’t able to stop before that point where empathy turns into internalized reactions.
When I’m depressed, I tend to lose my ability to filter out external stimuli. It’s like I’m being slapped by a million different hands all at the same time, and I become very easily overwhelmed. This can make basic tasks like going to the grocery store absolutely horrible. This isn’t an issue when I’m well, which has allowed me to travel in countries like India that are a spectacular assault on the senses. It’s like the stimuli wash over me like waves lapping against a beach rather than a tsunami crashing ashore. That has been a stable trait across much of my life that is completely disrupted by my episodes of depression. Based on the self-test in the book that’s what really stands out as differentiating me from an HSP.
Dr. Aron mentions that sometimes introversion is mistakenly equated with being a highly sensitive person, and about 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts. I’m a card-carrying member of the introvert club, and that is a trait that’s been another trait that’s been stable throughout my life. When I’m depressed, that introversion pushes to new extremes, and I tend to develop a more active, intense aversion to other people. Stuck inside the depression, I sometimes start to think this is how I’ve always been and/or how I’ll always be. Realistically, though, I know that I used to enjoy spending time with close friends and coworkers.
So who am I? Sometimes I have no idea. It’s so easy to try to describe or classify ourselves based on our illness, but personality traits aren’t the same as illness symptoms, and I think it’s fairer to ourselves if we can try to distinguish between the two. If I do that, I’m inclined to conclude that I’m not a highly sensitive person, which makes interesting food for thought.