Kids usually like birthday parties…but I remember one that I hated. It was 1956; I was about four years old. A little girl who lived in the three-family house across the driveway from our two-family in East Cambridge on Fifth and Gore Streets invited my brother and me. I don’t remember who she was, though I think she was my older brother’s age.
I recall being overwhelmed from the moment the door opened. There were a lot of little girls in frilly, pastel dresses. I don’t recall there being other boys there. It was warm out, but my mother still dressed me in itchy flannel woolen pants, a dress shirt and clip-on bow tie. There was lots of noise. I remember our young hostess tearing into her pile of prettily-wrapped gifts. The cake was good, though I had a tough time balancing it and the ice cream on the flimsy paper plate. Get me out of here! I thought.
This kind of experience repeated itself enough so that by the age of six my self-identity as a sensitive child was pretty clear, though I didn’t have words for it. I simply felt radically different. Now, a half century-plus later I know what the issue was. I, along with about 20% of the human population, emerged from our mothers’ wombs wired as highly sensitive persons. At the time it felt like a handicap. Now I see it as a great gift.
Tending to be overwhelmed by my surroundings I used to do a lot of observing from a distance, constantly calculating the relative safety or threat the other children present. I felt like a little alien, recently arrived from the planet Zocar, sent to study the earthlings I encountered. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
The children I observed seemed so strangely unself-conscious and natural. They ran and yelled, played and shoved, got into mischief, and made up excuses for what they did wrong. But my own ethical thermostat had been set very high. Something in me told me that I was not to risk getting into trouble. Judge Judy had nothing on me. From the age of 4 I constantly made judgments as to what would be appropriate behavior for a good boy like me!
Being a sensitive child was a great way to get positive attention from adults. In fact I usually saw adults as my friends and protectors. I was smart and precocious as well as being nice and polite! What better combination did I need to receive from adults what I wasn’t getting from other children or as it turns out, from myself?
Fast forward many years, several therapists and spiritual counselors later. I left the formal ministry that had kept recycling unhelpful behaviors. I am no longer trying to be a good boy; I know I am a good man at heart. I still tend to observe humanity from a distance and feel threatened in new situations.
Though I have an ironic wit and years of practice “working the crowd”, I am not as extroverted as I appear. I don’t enjoy small talk and prefer intense conversations with interesting people. I still get overwhelmed: by loud sounds, crowds, and ambient noise, by others’ strong emotions, such as anger, grief, fear, and loneliness, and by the passage of time and the shortness of life. I work at trying to be natural and comfortable in relationships and still wonder if I’m trying too hard. I still feel best at doing and have a hard time simply being. I feel everything deeply and have to be aware of setting boundaries to protect my psyche.
But now I use the gifts as a means to negotiate through life and be of service to others. My highly developed empathy and deep intuition help a lot of people to get unstuck. I feel a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose. I am using my high sensitivity to make the world a safer, healthier place as a life coach, one person at a time.
Is there a sensitive child within you? Maybe you remember crying at random moments, or still do. Perhaps you had a particularly tough time adjusting to school settings. Did you have to force yourself to interact with others and still felt unsafe? You might have been terrible in team sports or excelled in only one position, or maybe, like me, stayed on the sidelines with some kind of excuse in order not to be shamed by peers for not playing well.
But now you’re a sensitive adult. Hopefully you’ve grown to manage more effectively various aspects of your sensitivity, but you know you’re wired like this for life. How have you experienced your empathic abilities? Have you allowed them to flourish? What about that intuition of yours? Have you discovered how on target you’ve been in reading situation and people? Do you appreciate the wonderful gift of being highly sensitive and using it to make your world a little better?
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From a correspondent:
After reading your post yesterday, I think I fit into your category of highly sensitive men. Of course, I always thought that “highly sensitive” is a euphemism for gay! lol
I am frightened of chaotic situations and loud boisterous people. I too ALWAYS felt different (and still do!). I don’t know if I came forth from the womb this way or if it was a product of the insanity of my home of origin. Anytime I’ve ever had to describe my feelings as a kid, it’s always “A stranger in a strange land!” My self diagnosis of myself from toddler-hood through age 30 has always been “emotionally retarded.” Maybe I should change that to “highly sensitive.”
I think that most adult children of alcoholics are highly sensitive. We learn very early to always be “taking the temperature” of our surroundings. Am I safe here? Is there anyone here who wants to hurt me? Will I be criticized for being me? Who do these people want me to be?
So, thank you for putting into words, many of the feelings I’ve always had.
After reading this blog post I finally understand what you mean by highly sensitive person. The difference? You’re using detailed and personal anecdotes form your life to illustrate the HSP .
I find the examples, true, compelling and a challenge to my working class family background, where being “sensitive” was a sign of gayness or at best a liability. Either way it had to be shocked and purged out of you by crass humor, brutal work, and disparaging parenting.
Thanks for opening the doors and windows on my own psyche. It’s good to see I wasn’t crazy.