The First Rule of Acceptance: Ragù for HSP Spaghetti

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Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

It started with The “Thought of the Day”…

Last week, in the early hours of the morning, my head full of spaghetti was cooking up a veritable ragù: a myriad of things were churning through my brain, coating all the spaghetti in there, when a supremely clear thought popped into my head that piqued my curiosity.

It was “I don’t want to be defined by my HSP-ness”.

In truth I can’t recall the exact catalyst of the thought. But I do recall the strength of feeling that went with it, and that it was essentially a product of various frustrations: the feelings of overwhelm from the festive season;  difficulty sleeping because of noise and cold;  emotional overwhelm from absorbing general family stress; the mad tangle of spaghetti that was jostling for attention in my brain, related to the mass of ideas I have for what my working life is going to look like this year.  And I think I just wanted to a) have a day when I could switch it all off, and b) feel that I was more than just this mess of spaghetti, emotions and sensitivity.

I have been reflecting on this ever since, wondering what prompted that thought to surface and pondering the implicit message that seemed to be indicating that I was, on some level, resisting my innate temperament, despite all this talk of acknowledging and accepting your trait being key to everything!

(Incidentally, I have also been laughing at the irony of being HSP and being kept awake by thoughts about being HSP (how very HSP!)).

For me it is an interesting thought to reflect upon, because being HS is absolutely core to who I am.  It is instrumental in shaping how my environment affects me (due to my heightened sensory and emotional responsiveness and alertness), and how I relate to the world (I’m a deep thinker, I reflect and question).  So, as a product of these, I am very aware that some of my most innate needs are absolutely and unequivocally determined by my HSP nature.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

However, I am not ‘only’ an HSP.  I am also an introvert.  I have certain life experiences and interests.  I enjoy things that many people who are not HSP also enjoy, and I share values with both HSP and non HSP alike, and so on and so forth.   And I want these aspects of who I am to share equal space with my HSP-ness, because I am a product of ALL of these things, not just one (albeit a significant one). They all influence the way my HSP-ness shows up in my life just as my HSP-ness shapes these other aspects. I am a complicated product of the interplay between all of these things, and many more besides.

I feel that sometimes, because being an HSP means that we are so much more affected by our environments than non-HSPs, and that in the modern Western World this is often in a negative way, the other things that make us who we are are forgotten, by both others and by ourselves. It can also mean that when we start to ’embrace’ our HS nature, we can place so much emphasis on this, that we lose sight of the fact that we are more than this (and that sometimes our behaviour is not a product of our HSP-ness alone,  but of something else, or a combination of things!).  It’s a bit like the fact that I am a woman.  It significantly shapes my experience of the world, and makes me fundamentally very different from a man.  But it doesn’t mean that I don’t share things in common with men, and nor does it mean that I the same as all other women.  Nor does it mean that where I live, or the colour of my skin, or my education or anything else doesn’t also matter.

We can also be drawn into a feeling that in discovering our HSP nature, and how it explains ‘that feeling we have always had of not quite being the same as the vast majority of people around us’, we should be rejoicing and relishing all the wonderful things that this means (the depth of joy we can experience, the appreciation have for beauty, nature and the sheer wonder of our world,  the creativity and ‘different’, deep thinking we bring that shed insightful and often important light on the world, our capacity for empathy).  And all these things are true, and they are vital to acknowledge and share.   But….discovering that you are HSP with all the wondrous things it means, is not all sweetness and roses.  It can be really challenging, and there are times, (those times when I am feeling so overwhelmed,  so laden with the emotions of others, the troubles of the world, the disrupted sleep…) when I do look with envy upon those who do not experience life with such intensity.

Because it IS exhausting…

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…And yes, there are times when I DO NOT LIKE being HSP (there, I said it!).

Does this mean I don’t accept my Highly Sensitive Nature?  I don’t think so.

To Accept is not the same as To Like

The first and most important lesson I have learnt about acceptance is that acceptance of something does not mean having to like everything about it.  It  simply means that we are being honest with ourselves about it;  we see and own the truth of it, the good and the bad bits. Whether we ‘like’ it, or not.

Yet I often feel that talk about ’embracing’ life as an HSP life comes with an expectation that we must learn to love our entire HSP nature – all of it.  I love some of it, most of the time. Sometimes I find it frustrating. There are times when I am so exhausted by it that I wish I could switch it off.  And I think it is important that we are ‘allowed’ to be honest about that – otherwise we are not truly accepting what it means.

We are not Hermits

It is also important to remember that we have to operate in the wider world, which may mean that we can’t take the hours of down-time and solitude that we feel we really need to recuperate from a busy trip; instead we have to find a way to make it work in 10 minutes!  Or, we can become so caught up with own need for space, reflection, ‘nourishment’ that we overlook the fact that we are inadvertently restricting the ability of those around us to take the time and nourishment they need.  In short, it can make us a little selfish.  And whilst a little selfishness can be a good/necessary thing, sometimes, (especially if we are heading for a full-on bucket overload), we just need to be truthful with ourselves about just how much ‘me’ time we actually need to be able to function effectively, versus what we might ideally like to be at our ‘absolute best’.

So, what I have realised is that my desire not to be defined by my HSP-ness is not a rejection of my core nature, nor is it me denying my true nature.  It is actually about me wanting to put my HSP-ness into context. To say, YES, I am HSP and this means that I am more easily overwhelmed, and that as a consequence I will actively seek to manage my environment, where I can, to minimise its negative impact .  BUT it is not ALL I am.  And it is not the be-all and end-all of everything.  I can recognise that it will not always be possible for me to have my ‘ideal’ space or time, that sometimes I may need to just accept that it’s someone else’s turn and today I drew the short straw.  But I’ll cope (with the caveat that you can’t do this too often, or the overwhelm will become permanent, and then it will be a problem.  This is especially true if you are a Highly Sensitive parent, with a Highly Sensitive Child.).

The Nub of HSP Acceptance

For me, then, accepting what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person is not the same as always having to like being HSP.  It is facing with truth and honesty what it means to exist authentically in the real world as a ‘human antenna’, as ‘the canary in the coal mine’ or the ‘rose in the vinyard’, “warts and all”.

For sure, there are some wonderful things about being HSP, and we should absolutely embrace those things, and shout about them from the rooftops so everyone knows it’s not all bad! (more about the great and the good another time).   And these things are easy to accept.

But we also have to accept the things about being HSP that are more difficult to like.  The discomfort, the hurt feelings, the irritability and grumpiness, the feeling of being misunderstood, of being seen as ‘too’ sensitive, ‘too’ intense, of thinking too much, of never being able to switch off, of having a head full of spaghetti!

The First Rule of Acceptance

First and foremost, accepting your HSP-ness is about facing wholeheartedly your truth of what it means to be HSP in the world.  It is about accepting that overwhelm will be as inevitable to your being as your deep thinking, and that you will always have a head full of thoughts, feelings, reflections and imaginings; that you will always find scratchy labels (or seams in socks, or the smell of beetroot, or the noise of an electric toothbrush, whatever your ‘thing’ is) irritating to your very core.

Your job in accepting your HSP-ness is not to deny these things, or to seek to find ways of changing your nature so you don’t experience them – because that’s  not possible.

Your job is to learn to understand what it means for you, and how to more comfortably live with your sensitivity so that you are positively thriving, not just surviving.  It is to find ways of preventing, avoiding and minimising those things that cause you discomfort or overwhelm, learning to recognise when overwhelm is looming and what strategies work for you to cope and empty your bucket when you do face the inevitable overwhelm (and it is inevitable!).  It is about recognising that you must have the grace to ‘give-way’ to others needs, sometimes, for their benefit, even though it may not be the ‘right’ thing for you in that moment: to accept ‘good enough’ not ‘perfect’ conditions.  It is about leaning into the depth, joy, creativity and connection with others too.

This is where the hard work of understanding what this actually means for you begins.  That’s complicated and is contemplation for another day!

In the meantime, what do think about acceptance?  Have you accepted your HSP nature, and what does that mean for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Retrospective HSP Wish for My Father.

My father was a philosopher, by which I mean he was inherently curious about life’s meaning – both as a scholar and as a teacher.

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Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

Everyday he sought greater understanding about the meaning of life, and he felt it was such an important thing that he devoted his life (after a career change) to teaching others the importance too.  To achieve greater depth of knowledge and understanding he was passionate about the importance of education: not ‘teaching’ per se, but true education: facilitating and enabling others to question and learn for themselves, not as a ‘discipline’ but as a way of being.  He was a Humanist and an existentialist, a deep thinker and an activist, and had very strong values of justice and fairness, both personally and at societal level. His passion in this regard lead to active involvement in activities to promote both educational and social change.

It was not such big questions that seemed to trouble him the most though. Throughout his life, which was cut short at the age of 58, the biggest issue he seemed to grapple with was not “life, the universe and everything”, or even “why are we here?”.  It was his own sense of self.  He consistently felt like an outsider, that he never truly belonged.  He was a perfectionist, forever dissatisfied with his achievements and capabilities.  He regularly  berated himself for his shortcomings.  He suffered from anxiety and depression, carrying deep feelings of  inadequacy.

To those who knew him well he was frequently experienced as ‘difficult’.  He was challenging, often very deliberately so, particularly in debate, relishing the deconstruction of ideas, concepts and beliefs in the search for truth.  He was at times both overwhelmingly kind and generous, and remarkably self-absorbed and selfish. He laughed hard, especially at the farcical.  He was extremely clever, argumentative, insightful, principled.  He held strong beliefs (of the non-religious kind) which could mean that he was opinionated too.  He cared, and about the things he cared he was a passionate and loyal supporter. He was ’emotional’ – he cried, often: in sadness and in joy, and he shouted (a lot) usually driven by frustration, most often with himself.

mohammad-metri-421904He loved Jazz – once saying that if you couldn’t feel the music of jazz in your bones you can’t consider yourself alive. He found small-talk (tittle-tattle) dull. He detested ‘fancy’ flavoured food (he loved spicy food, but anything too herby or aromatic was too much for him).  He had an intense sensitivity to noise.  He liked only comfortable clothes, but he wanted the to look what he considered stylish too, and once he found clothes that worked, he bought more of the same. He was highly intolerant of interruption, thoughtlessness and ignorance.  Though he was highly curious and interested in people and in life, he rarely read fiction.  To me, he was a bit of an enigma, and whilst most of my friends thought he was cool (if a little odd, perhaps because he was so different from their parents), for me, he was a difficult dad to have.

With the realisation that my son was highly sensitive, and that in fact so was I, came the moment that illuminated the heart of my father and which totally and fundamentally changed my perception of him .  The very things that encapsulated the “difficult enigma” that was my father, that reflected the frustration and contradictions of being with the person he was, and being the person he was, were suddenly all crystal clear when viewed through the lens of the Highly Sensitive Person.

When you don’t know about the trait, being HSP and being around HSPs can be confusing, frustrating and unpredictable.  But as soon as you do know about it, the apparent contradictions and with them, the confusion, disappear, and whilst it can still be frustrating and unpredictable, it makes sense.

So, to my dad: I wish you were still here so I could share this with you.  It is something I could have taught you and I think you would have been intrigued, fascinated and enlightened. We could have spent hours digging deep into this one and connecting; exploring how it affected you growing up in a working class mining community; being the first to go to grammar school, the first to go to University; how it explained your desire to move from engineering to philosophy; how it drove your energy and enthusiasm for fairness, equality and open access to all, your empathy, kindness and generosity (and at times distinct lack of it too), and all those overflowing buckets!    Most of all, though, I wish that I could share this with you so that you could know this, and thereby find some peace with yourself, through understanding that you were normal and that it was truly OK to be you.

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Edgar (1938-1996)

Dedicated to all HSPs who are finding their path to understanding, and to all those who never had the chance and whose lives would have been all the better for knowing.

 

The No.1 Lesson I have learnt about being a Highly Sensitive Parent (that I wish I’d known 10 years ago!)

 

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Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

When I became a parent I didn’t know about the trait of High Sensitivity. I certainly didn’t know that I was a Highly Sensitive Person. But I wish that I had known because it would have changed my experience as a parent.  It would have explained and validated all those ‘gut feelings’ I had about things, and why I seemed to find being a mum so much more difficult than all the other new mum’s around me.

During the first 6 months after my child (who is a HSC) was born, my Health Visitor was convinced I was suffering from Post Natal Depression, because I was so ‘flat’.  I knew I wasn’t depressed, I just felt permanently and utterly exhausted, both physically (mainly from lack of sleep), and so very much emotionally.  The first year or two for me is a haze of complete exhaustion and total overwhelm – emotionally, physically and mentally. This only got worse when I went back to work to a job that was in itself emotionally and psychologically demanding.  I was in a constant state of feeling that I was running on empty and felt totally burnt-out.   Consequently I was irritable to be around, and I felt I had nothing left in my tank when I got home from work for my family, or to give to my job.

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Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

I gradually came to realise that lack of ‘down time’ together with the constant worry and guilt about whether I was getting it ‘right’ as a parent and the perpetual blaming of myself for the fact that I just seemed to be finding it so much more difficult than other people (and therefore that there must be something wrong with me!), were the main issues. But I still couldn’t understand why this was. Then, 5 years on,  I read Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Child book, which lead to me reading her book The Highly Sensitive Person, and everything suddenly made sense.  From there-on, things got a little easier, because I understood myself better.

It has still taken me some time, though, to really get to the root of what it was I really needed all those years ago, and what I continue to need.

By far the biggest lesson I have learned is Self Acceptance.

Accepting that I am Highly Sensitive means that I can not only understand and appreciate how parenting is likely to lead to over-stimulation, intense feelings & emotions (and, resulting from all of this, irritability and short-temper more often than I’d like to admit), but also it enables me to openly recognise and acknowledge where these feelings and emotions come from. It gives me permission to stop blaming myself for how I’m feeling.  It also enables me to put in place appropriate prevention and coping strategies.  Moreover, I can now see the great advantages my sensitivity has to my parenting.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s still a work in progress, and there is some way to go, but having this Self-Acceptance gave me the courage (with the support of my husband who thankfully ‘gets it’) to leave a job in a career that just wasn’t working for me when I had the additional demands of a young child, and which meant it no longer worked for us as a family.  This has not been without is sacrifices, but I believe it has created a path that will lead to a better ending.  Self-Acceptance has given me more confidence to set realistic boundaries for myself, saying ‘No’ more often to ‘non-essential’ demands on my time, and to say ‘Yes’ more often to things that re-charge and replenish me.  It allows me to feel OK about seeking total silence sometimes (many people find it odd that I rarely put the radio or music on in the car) and it has prompted me to be more open to asking for help, because I know I need to, even though it doesn’t come naturally.

I am also just beginning to appreciate that my High Sensitivity is what allows me, among other things,  to connect deeply with my HSC; to be able to recognise when things are not ‘right’, when others may miss the signs; to share imaginary worlds through books; to have deep conversations and to instil in my HSC the wonder and importance of nature as I share my love and appreciation of its beauty and fragility.

As I continue on my journey of discovery I’d love to hear your stories too, so please get in touch!

 

The Highly Sensitive Brain Part 2: It’s Normal! (or There’s nothing wrong with having a head full of spaghetti!)

austin-chan-275638The fact of some people being more highly sensitive than others is not a modern feature of humans, it has always been thus, but it is only in recent years that the idea of there being an underlying temperament trait to explain this has been revisited.

It is principally through the work of Dr.Elain Aron (who drew on the work of Karl Jung), that we now have a much clearer understanding of High Sensitivity as an innate temperament difference. Her seminal work, along with advances in neuroscience and greater collaboration with other disciplines, who independently have come to similar conclusions, have led to the following key findings:

  •  It’s now widely accepted that 15-20% of the normal population have this innate trait. Whilst a minority, this proportion is considered to be too great to constitute a ‘disorder’ – It’s Normal
  • Recent advances in neuroscience are enabling us to see that the brains of all HSPs have in common a depth of processing that is different from other brains. It is deeper and more involved, and also more connected to the emotional centres of the brain. This is why HS brains notice more subtlety (including of the senses), and why they tend to appear more ‘emotional’ in response to things. It’s Normal 
  •  Similar proportions of HS -vs- non-HS have been found in well in excess of 100 other animal species, leading scientists to conclude that it’s simply one of two fundamental strategies ensuring successful survival of the species.  Having a HS brain makes you much quicker to respond to prospective danger (and the vast majority of HSPs will report a very strong ‘startle’ reflex in response to sudden movement or sudden loud noises: this is one of the earliest signs in a baby that you may have a HSC on your hands!).  The other typical strategy is that of ‘don’t stop and think, just do it’.  Having a HS brain – It’s Normal
  • For years having a HS disposition was considered a vulnerability, and therefore treated as a ‘problem’ but we now know that whilst it can be a vulnerability, it can also be a huge advantage. It all depends on the quality of a person’s environment during childhood [look out for Orchid & Dandelion post coming soon].  But, whatever the outcomes, It’s Normal.
  • It’s Normal – BUT as only 20% of the population are HS, it is different from the ‘norm’. Our culture idealises the ‘go-getting, just do it’ strategy, as the best strategy, rather than one of two equally necessary strategies.  As a consequence, because HS is different from the ‘norm’ it is not treated as normal, (negative) value judgements are made about being HSP and the natural qualities of HSPs are undervalued.
  • It’s Normal, but it often doesn’t feel like it. The modern world is busy, loud, bright, troubled, and this often leads to HSPs feeling overwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, we are not at our best (in fact no-one is, it’s just we are in that place more often!) and this further fuels the misconceptions about HSPs.

It is for these last reasons that the first step to accepting your HS nature, is to acknowledge, accept to yourself and truly believe that it is normal.  Once you have done that, you can start to work with your nature, and you can start to understand how to live successfully in the modern world, drawing on the particular strengths that your trait gives you, and managing better those aspects that can make life more challenging.

To begin to see the both sides of the HSP trait, here are some key features beginning with The Bad Spaghetti.  Some of the more challenging aspects include:

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Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash
  • A high need for lots of time ‘out’ to recharge our batteries, or as I like to say, to ’empty our buckets’.  We are often heard to say that we need ‘a little lie down’ , or some peace and quiet, or to express that we just need some time alone, and this is all about just reducing down the stimulation for a while in order to get some space back in our busy brains (perhaps especially true of Introvert HSPs).
  • Linked to the above is a greater need for sleep.  Many HSPs report needing a lot of sleep, and when you consider the way the role of sleep, it’s not hard to understand why.  One of the reasons we sleep is to give our brain time to make sense of all the things that have been happening, and to embed memory.  With so much spaghetti in the HS brain, and with the detailed way in which the HS brain processes  information, there’s more to sift through, and sleep is the one time when you are taking in much lower levels of stimulation, so it’s perfect time for emptying that bucket.  So to me it figures that we need more sleep.  I believe lack of sleep is one reason why many HSPs I know report that they find it much more difficult to recall  events and places they have been in the same ready way as non-HS people (coupled with the fact that we may simply remember different things).
  • A deep sensitivity to Pain.  Both physical and emotional.  Think of the little HSC who has a tiny scratch but has reacted as though their leg has been chopped off!
  • Sensitivity to scratchy fabrics, labels and seams.  This makes many clothes extremely uncomfortable, bordering on irritating for many HSPs.  I for one have to cut ALL the labels out of my clothes, because they literally drive me mad; my son cannot stand seams in socks; and I know of at least one HSP who cannot bear any kind of rumple or lump on her bed sheets (a true Princess and the Pea).
  • Sensitivity to medication and stimulants: caffeine and alcohol tend to affect HSPs more, and likewise, like me, they often report needing minimal doses of medication.
  • Sensitivity to environmental conditions: HSPs are often more affected by extremes of temperature, bright lighting, loud and visually stimulating places, and this is most obviously seen in the very strong, sometimes extreme, startle reflex experienced by HSPs, as mentioned above.  This explains the high reactivity and dislike, bordering on fear, of many HS children to the sound of hand dryers in public toilets.
  • Sensitivity to foods and other allergens: It’s common for HSPs to be more intolerant of or allergic to certain foods, to have allergies like hay-fever and eczema, and to have sensitive skin and eyes.
  • Needing time to adjust: because we process so deeply, it can take us a little more time than others to get used to change and to feel comfortable in a new environment.  Others can misconstrue this as being fearful or cautious.
  • Feeling deeply: HSPs are very quick to take on the emotions of those around them.  It’s a core reason why they tend to be very empathic, but it can quickly drain them and can trigger tears quite readily. It also means that they tend to find it more difficult to watch violent, aggressive or emotionally very negative films, or to read books that are very graphic in this regard.  The news often presents real difficulty for HSPs.   This depth of feeling also has a plus side though (see blow).

There are numerous other ways in which the world can feel challenging to HSPs, but it’s not all doom and gloom.  For most of these things we can do something about to mitigate the effects, once we understand how it affects us (and in the coming weeks I’ll be exploring how I have learnt to do just that).  There are some real highlights to being HSP too, both for us ourselves, and for those around us too.

Now for the GOOD stuff!

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  • Feeling Deeply: HSPs experience their strongest emotional responses to things that give them joy!  The beauty in nature or a piece of Art; a kind word; spending time with the people they love; being in ‘flow’ doing something they love.  Tears from an HSP are as likely from joy and beauty as they are from negative emotions.  They are able to appreciate life in it’s full technicolour and surround-sound glory.
  • Empathy: The HSPs natural capacity for empathising with others and tapping into anothers’ mood makes them great to be around and it can help them to make great connections with others (as long as they are not in overwhelm, then the empathy quickly goes!!).  It lends them to making great doctors and nurses, advisers, guiders and counsellors, and leaders, and parents.
  • Problem Solving and Creativity: the way the HS brain works means that HSPs are drawing together connections in a way that other’s don’t, that is very creative and meaning-making and which, together with the deep reflective thinking that HSPs naturally embrace, results in novel solutions to problems, unique perspectives and insights, and great creativity &  innovation.  HSPs are commonly found in the writing, music and creative arts communities, combining this creativity with their appreciation of beauty.
  • Deep Connections : HSPs build deep connections with others and consequently make for very loyal and committed friends and romantic partners.
  • Love for Nature.   Research is now providing hard evidence of what we HSPs instinctively know, which is that as humans we are wired for connection with nature.  I know I relish time in nature, and really notice if I haven’t been outside for a while.  It also makes us care a lot about our planet, and we need more HS voices to be heard to make sure our concerns are acted on.
  • Thoughtful. HSPs think, deeply, a lot.  The consideration and reflection that we give to things means that we rarely take unnecessary risks or make bad decisions.  We are great sounding boards for others to explore thoughts ideas. And we have a great capacity for being incisive, getting to the ‘nub’ of the issue (or to put it another way, cutting through the crap!).  Whilst many HSPs are quiet, you know that when we do say something, it tends to be worth listening to.

So, having a head full of spaghetti is actually a brilliant thing, and I’ll repeat one last time, it’s perfectly normal!

Take some time to reflect on that, embrace those tears (and always carry a packet of tissues!).  See you next time!

A Head Full of Spaghetti – (My Highly Sensitive Brain)

spaghetti-2619327_1280My head is full of spaghetti – pretty much all of the time.

A head full of spaghetti is all about the feeling that you have a super busy brain, whirring away, constantly trying to make sense of things, reflecting on things, finding connections between things, thinking (deeply) about things, and trying to navigate through the complex tangle of thoughts and feelings that crop up throughout the day as we go about our business.

It was not until quite recently  (embarrassingly late in life) that I realised that this was not true of everyone.  In fact, it’s not true of most people.

Whilst it is true that most people will experience this spaghetti feeling sometimes, perhaps when they are uncharacteristically busy, or they’ve had an unusual amount of emotional ‘stuff’ going on (and often in the middle of the night),  for some of us this is what it is like ALL THE TIME.  And it doesn’t even have to be in response to anything particularly unusual or extreme, although this creates an even bigger tangle, it is simply how our brains operate. All day. Every day.

People like me have Highly Sensitive brains.  We are wired to notice more subtlety in our environments and to process that information more deeply.  We are likened to human antennae, picking up on, and reacting to the subtle signs that others miss.

It was Dr. Elaine Aron who identified that about 20% of us experience the world in this more attuned way, and she uses the term the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) to describe someone who displays the characteristics (more on this in a dedicated post).

Oh, and I am also an Introvert.

This blog is all about life as an introvert and a highly sensitive person, and the journey to understanding, self-acceptance and beyond. It is about what it means to be HSP and introvert. It is about how to be authentic and thrive, with a head full of spaghetti!