Inside: When we can put a face and name to an experience, we understand it better. Perhaps you’ll see yourself in some of my experience as an HSP. This post contains referral links.
Personality typing and deepening my roots of self-awareness and self-compassion in different ways over the decades has helped me, layer by layer, make sense of, and in many cases normalize, my experience as a highly sensitive human. No test or model can tell us the full truth of who we are. We are the experts on our own life and experience. But tests and models can help us make sense of a thread of our experience or how, and in some cases why, we habitually respond to the world as we do. Only once we acknowledge a pattern can we choose our response to heal or thrive forward in a new way.
It can be hard to distinguish characteristics that are part of being an HSP or other forms of neurodivergence, from trauma and grief. There’s plenty of crossover. At least in my case, it’s not super important to untangle it all, and more important to simply name the truth of what is and bring compassion and curiosity to my experience.
LEARNING TO HONOUR MY WIRING and experience as an HSP in a noisy + fast-paced world
In addition to being very high on the scale of sensory processing sensitivity, I’m an ISFJ (Myer’s Briggs), strong introvert, an Enneagram 1 (living whole and integrated as I pull from the wisdom of of my 7 and 4 stretch and release points – both are gifts), intuitive and gut-led. I’m also a spiritual seeker, deeply curious, and compassionate.
I love science and a good evidence-base, acknowledge its limitations, and make space for mystery. Story – in the form of both fiction and non-fiction – has changed my life in powerful and positive ways. And it’s in learning to embrace paradox, and welcome all parts of life and self, that I thrive.
On Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Model, I’m a questioner with rebel leanings. No surprise here because as a deep questioner, I’m constantly learning and following trails of curiosity and I do not bow to external authority. I’ve always wrestled a lot internally to make sense of things and drill down to truth. I don’t follow the crowd but do struggle with comparison so maintain good boundaries around media and whose voices I listen to.
Being a questioner like this isn’t easy or comfortable and it can lead us down dark paths if we’re not careful. We need safeguards in place including healthy and wise community. We need to consciously build our resilience toolbox, practice good self and health-care, and learn to ask for and receive help as needed.
5 Weird And Wonderful Things About Me: DO YOU RECOGNIZE ANY IN YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE?
When we honour our wiring we feel safe, at home, and joyful in our body and life. This allows us to show up whole and wholeheartedly in every season and offer our gifts to the world. We’re not meant to BE the same, to look, sound, or feel the same. Healthy community comes from diverse humans showing up in their unique wiring, each of us offering our gifts and perspective, to form a beautiful whole.
Sharing our stories helps us know we’re not alone. I’m sharing the following bits of my experience in case it feels helpful to other sensitive souls. You may live in self-judgment, you may still try to conform and perform for belonging, you may even feel despair and think about leaving this world because it’s too heavy for you. Or perhaps you’ve been unraveling the truth of who and how you are for a long time and still need a bit more encouragement to fully embrace your True Self and fully own your beauty, wisdom, and strength.
All of you is welcome here.
1. feeling good in my own skin
Many highly sensitive humans have sensory challenges. I cannot wear clothing in which I do not feel like me or ‘me enough’ – or in which I do not feel at home in my body and skin. My clothing must feel comfortable and easy so that it fades into the background of my attention. This is still hard to explain but isn’t as simple as having likes or dislikes; I have a strong visceral response to clothing that can provoke a fair bit of anxiety.
Braless and barefoot is my favourite state. Most of my minimalist wardrobe is patternless and neutral, with a few bits of colour thrown in, and I prefer fabrics like bamboo, linen, hemp, and wool as long as it’s not itchy. I hate shopping but because I must at times, I prefer to shop from small sustainable companies in Canada and on Etsy which costs more but also feels values-aligned. I’m also lucky to have a daughter who happily shops me for at times. Like many others, I don’t wear super structured or underwire bras. When I find comfortable clothing I wear it over and over which is never a problem until I travel and for some reason feel like I ‘should’ have more variety or trendier clothing.
Finding something to wear to special occasions (including my own wedding) feels stressful! For my wedding, I would have chosen NO wedding over wearing a traditional bridal gown. That seemed like absolute torture. Instead, my husband and I wore matching white ‘Boubous’ with light embroidering, handmade in Togo, West Africa, and simple leather sandals that we bought cheap in Old Québec. Likewise, I’m not into diamonds or fancy jewelry. My engagement ring was an inexpensive silver and copper band with a bit of unique detail and my wedding band was also a simple gold band. These days, in lieu of my wedding band, I wear whatever ring I most love in the current season, usually something I bought during travel and that holds meaning for me.
Shoes are a real challenge and I have a hard time finding footwear that feels both comfortable and that I feel like me in. Bare feet or simple Merrell sandals are my preference. Flexible soles, ample room for my toes, and ideally winter boots that are lined with wool or ‘fur’ so I can wear bare feet at least until -20 Celcius work best for me. Mobility issues and chronic pain starting in childhood, a hip replacement, and a limp make it even more important than my shoes don’t make walking feel even more awkward than normal.
2. Finding calm and focus in a noisy world
What a noisy world we live in! I’m very distracted by scent and sound. Some people have a better ability to block out certain sounds or to play the radio or music (or in the case of my husband, three devices all playing at once) in the background of their lives without ever hearing the words. I do not have this ability. Words and sounds draw my focus. We have never kept a TV in our main living space for this reason and I appreciate that it’s commonplace these days to listen/watch media on separate devices with headphones.
Many HSPs enjoy music – and there is science to support the healing benefits of music. (source) I can enjoy a bit of music (when my brothers send me guitar riffs they’ve been working on or when my daughter played piano regularly) for short periods of time. If I need to focus, though, music is disruptive as my brain wants to figure out the lyrics. But also, most of it feels like noise and the beautiful stuff I respond to emotionally causes me physical pain. Not only emotional pain but physical. I feel it so deeply that it hurts. All of my kids, including two HSPs, listen to music regularly though my son also experienced the physical pain caused by some forms of music. Yet he seemed to be OK with that or maybe even seek it out. I suspect it allowed him release and permission to feel in a way he struggled to access otherwise.
But for me, apart from bilateral music/ocean sounds which help me focus in therapy or while writing, I love silence as I walk around my favorite mountain lake. Hearing birds, wind rustle the leaves, or the roar in deep winter as snow falls from the tree tops along the wooded trail where I regularly walk. And I naturally favor words over music. I love story and listen to a lot of audio books and podcasts (fewer podcasts recently). And as long as I’m not too interested in the topic, sometimes podcasts serve as ‘my background music’ to help me focus, think, process. It stops my brain from worrying or thinking about many different things so I can instead home in on one line of thought or questioning. Playing a light fiction audio book at bedtime, on a timer, quiets my brain so that I can fall asleep. I often need to turn it back on several times throughout the night.
3. A slow, soul-honouring, seasonal way of being in my body and life
My sensitivity and intuition are gifts, the way my brain works is a gift. But living in a world geared toward doing, producing, performing, keeping up, jumping through (arbitrary) hoops to measure up, takes a toll.
I’m a slow mover and cannot force my body or self to move at a rhythm that isn’t my own. Throughout much of life, I felt a little behind no matter how hard I worked. As a result, I’ve developed a Seasonal Living Framework for my life and work which supports a soul-honouring way of being in my body and life. I need ample rest and solitude. I need context and scaffolding onto which I layer my learning. Time to think, putter, and connect the dots inside my mind and heart. When I get this time and spaciousness, not only do I thrive, but this allows me to offer my gifts to the world.
A slower pace of life does not mean only doing NOTHING, though there’s room for that in a full, meaningful, brave and beautiful life. Instead, it means being intentional about where I direct my focus, time, and energy. It means a seasonal living practice that honours ebb and flow and the wisdom and beauty of each new season. And for me it means living a values-aligned life that supports me in practicing consistent imperfect action as I bring my vision to life for who and how I choose to be in the world, and for my values-aligned work.
I love time with my favourite people. Eating good food and laughing with my inner circle friends, kids, and husband, or long meaningful conversations with the people I love most, are two of the most joyful experiences of my life. But I can only enjoy time with others if I also have ample solitude built into my life.
This alone is not weird – many people feel this way. What might seem a little weird to some (though less so the HSPs I work with) is that I can FEEL when someone else is in the house, even if they’re quiet and in a different area altogether. I feel their presence or energy and it’s distracting and uncomfortable. When I crave solitude what I really want is 100% alone time. Best choice is to be alone at home for a chunk of time, but it can also help to head to the mountains for the day. Short of that, it’s restorative for each person to head to a different corner of the house for a while. I do this when travelling with friends and family as well and it makes for a much more enjoyable experience.
4. intense somatic response to Trauma and Grief and feeling in general
My body is wise and leads to me toward healing and wholeness. This has not always been easy, though. Like a canary in the coal mine, I developed allergies, autoimmunity, and anxiety at a young age. I feel life, emotions, and sensations intensely. Sometimes so intensely that they threaten to overwhelm me. I learned coping and numbing strategies from a young age to survive and then, in my mid 30s onward, slow and steady as I equipped myself with tools of resilience, deepened my roots of self-awareness and self-compassion, and felt safe enough to do so, I learned to shed my armor bit by bit and give myself permission to feel in a more resourced way.
Canadian-Hungarian physician, Dr. Gabor Maté, renown for his expertise on trauma, addiction, stress, and childhood development, often speaks to his belief (in the course Embracing All of You as well as many other places) that those of us, mainly women, with autoimmune diseases have a history (rooted in cultural conditioning/patriarchy) of tending to everyone else’s needs above our own and not feeling able/permitted to say NO or express anger in healthy ways. Makes sense to me. I learned early on to be ‘a good girl’ by swallowing my no and keeping the peace.
Given my sensitivity to environment and life in general, it makes sense that my responses to grief and trauma are also different and more intense than for some. After a serious car accident and the death of my son three weeks later, I experienced severe panic and dissociation worsening until it lasted up to 12 hs/day of my waking hours, for 17 months straight. No tool, medication, or therapy made a dent until I tried psilocybin which helped within two micro-doses. I had episodes of my body shaking, sometimes violently, as it spontaneously released trauma. I dove into studying even more during this time around trauma and grief, to be my own advocate, and often felt like my life was a walking and breathing textbook. And I learned to find a felt sense of safety even here, in the wilds of grief and trauma.
Neurodivergence can heighten or decrease interoception – the brain’s perception of body state / internal information. “If you are more adept at accurately detecting your bodily signals, you will be able to form more nuanced interpretations of your feelings about a situation, and this in turn should help you to make wiser choices about the best ways to respond.” (source) Body based trauma therapies work best for me. I have a lot of head knowledge and strategies and all of this learning can help me avoid pain not move toward it, but also, I know ‘the right answer.’ Sometimes I find myself taking care of the therapist whose job it is to support me. Somatic therapies (and in some cases with the help of psilocybin to help me stay with the terror and pain) allow me to access, process, sometimes untangle, and release stored energy, memories, and feelings.
feel calmer in your body + mind
Being perpetually calm isn’t the goal – life is messy. But when you feel stressed or anxious, you can pull out this list and try one of the 30 ideas to shift yourself back into a calmer and more empowered state.
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5. visions or transformative numinous experiences
I’m a deeply intuitive person and over my life have had ‘visions’ that directed me and supported me as I grew into more freedom, wholeness, and joy, and in some cases, prepared me for challenges that lay ahead. Looking back I can see a common pattern with many, though not all, of these types of experiences: I hear something, know in my body and spirit that it’s true, and then there’s a long period of time between the first seed planted and the fruition of the vision. It’s like I have to walk it out or grow into it.
This may not be something that all or most HSPs experience – we’re all uniquely wired after all – but I do believe that for me it’s linked to my ability to see and hear beyond the 5+ senses we’re taught in kindergarten or the 8 senses some people talk more about these days. I suspect there are many more senses that we don’t yet understand and eventually this might shed even more light on the intuition and inner knowing many of us experience.
Until very recently, I’ve never had other/alternate language for these experiences besides ‘vision’ though for years I felt hesitant to call them that. I didn’t want people to think I was claiming some kind of mystical or super spiritual experience, when they felt calm and even fairly commonplace to me.
A psychologist who interviewed me a few months ago suggested that I might like a book by psychiatrist Daniel Z. Lieberman called Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind. In it, he writes about ‘numinous experiences.’ A numinous experience, he says, is an experience of “knowing”; a non-ordinary state of consciousness, or “when the conscious mind is invaded by unconscious contents.” Ex. experiences that are hard to put into words, but they feel important and powerful. They’re personal, invigorating, sometimes feel like a ‘remembering of truth’, they stimulate yearning. And they often lead to true change in our lives.
It’s OK if you don’t want labels, and it’s also OK if you wish we had more accurate labels for all the weird and wonderful ways that we are human and experience life.
At 51 I have finally grown fully into my True Self and now, in Second Spring, I’ve stepped into a whole new adventure and a new way of being in my body and life. Sometimes I wonder if this makes me a ‘late bloomer.’ But this feels like more judgment – more holding myself to an arbitrary and even ageist standard. What’s true is that I’m blooming at just the right pace for me. I’ve always carved a path that felt right for me and my family: I lived my first wonderful (unpaid) career as nest-builder, homeschool parent, human in progress, and mom. I grew up, as we do, while learning how to parent my kids. My husband and I have grown up over the past 30 years of life together.
Now, at a soul-honouring pace, in freedom, health and joy, I’m gently and bravely stretching into something new.
learn more about your gifts as a highly sensitive person
From free webinars, a great book, a letter to give your medical team to help them understand how to best work with a sensitive patient or client, and more… psychotherapist Julie Bjelland offers amazing resources to support the Highly Sensitive Person.