I’m a highly-sensitive person, but that doesn’t mean my feelings easily are hurt

A devoted follower of my Facebook page emailed me recently and asked whether I ever had been told I may be a “highly-sensitive person.”

My initial reaction was to chuckle, for two reasons. One, a couple of years ago someone referred to me as “clairvoyant.” This person indeed knows I am observant, careful, and that I remember every little detail about everything.

In terms of these skills giving way to predicting the future or seeing things others do not see, however, I don’t call that clairvoyance. I call it being smart.

Other people who have known me for as long and as well as the person who made the “clairvoyant” comment have gone so far as to say they think I might be psychic.

Ha! Again, I’m flattered. But reporters, like detectives, are trained to connect the dots. We’re not psychics.

As opposed to being “clairvoyant” or “psychic,” good reporters and good detectives often hear they have “good instincts.” And that’s an “Attaboy” I’ve heard many times throughout my career.

The second reason I laughed when asked if I was “highly sensitive” is because as a child, early on, I came to associate, “Your son is highly sensitive” with “Your son is gay.’

I mean, come on! How many 1970s boys were described as “sensitive” or “highly sensitive” and then turned out to be gay 20 years later?

That said, I suspect many did not turn out to be gay.

So, I wondered — am I “highly sensitive” in the clinical sense?

The answer is a resounding yes, according to one test I took.

What it basically means is that you’re attuned to everything: Sights, sounds, smells, moods, expressions. You’re multitasking when it comes to recording and analyzing what’s going on around you.

Some handle being able to do that better than others. Some go into journalism. Police work. Military. Healthcare. Those professions seem to be good fits, if you can handle your “gift.”

But if you can’t handle your gift, or can’t handle it every day, all the time, or eventually wear out from it, you can sit at home and write and cross your fingers and pray every day that the bills get paid.

Highly sensitive NOT a pseudonym for weak; au contraire

The simple test I took to learn whether I am “highly sensitive” (not to be confused with “hypersensitive”) can be found by clicking right here.

I want to quickly add that a psychologist on the venerable Psychology Today website refers to the quiz as “respectable.”

“Though they’re often mistaken for one another, high sensitivity and hypersensitivity are entirely different ideas and have very little to do with each other,” Shawn T. Smith explains in a blog post.

“High sensitivity is a biological predisposition traceable to brain structures like the reticular activating system,” he continues. “It has little, if anything, to do with emotional sturdiness.”

Some may take issue with this, particularly as it pertains to me. But I want to explain and defend myself on this point.

I have found that, in particular, it is very difficult for people to get by with lying to me. Even when they get by with it, people who know me well know that I know better.

Now, nobody likes being lied to directly to their face, particularly journalists. So, when I’ve been lied to and I’ve called someone out about it, I’m not being “hypersensitive,” I’m stating a fact. Most liars do so to harm others.

Nobody is going to harm me with their lies without me putting up one hell of a fight first.

How do I know when I’m right? Do I have ESP?

The short answer is, I don’t always know for sure if I’m right. I usually find out eventually, as do those around me.

Hence, “clairvoyant” and “psychic” are titles I have earned over time. I’m right more often than not about matters of murkiness.

Here’s what Smith has to say about almost always having that perfect read on somebody:

“It’s true that being an HSP tends to make a person more perceptive of other people’s moods. That can contribute to hurt feelings simply because the HSP has more emotional information to sort through. There may be the seed of something painful in that extraneous information.

“But being an HSP doesn’t condemn a person to emotional fragility. HSPs are no less capable than anyone else of developing emotional resilience and reliable coping skills.”

Let me tell you something: After two-plus years of cognitive behavioral therapy, sometimes as often as three times per week, I have all kinds of coping skills in my bag of tricks.

I am anything but weak. And not only am I strong, I grow stronger every day. And I know that’s very upsetting to some people.

Do difficult childhoods make for highly-sensitive people?

Back to the site where I took the “highly sensitive” test. The site is run by Dr. Elaine Garon, who began her studies into rhesus monkeys and people who are highly sensitive in 1991.

“I cited a study by Stephen Suomi about a minority of rhesus monkeys who are born with a trait that was originally called ‘up tight’ because they were more affected by being raised under stressful conditions,” Garon reports in a synopsis of her research. “Not only did they appear more depressed and anxious, but like depressed humans, they had less serotonin available in their brains, what anti-depressants correct.”

Garon said these “vulnerable monkeys had a genetic variation that results in lower levels of serotonin generally, and these levels are further reduced by stress. Sensitive humans have the same genetic variation.

“Interestingly, that variation is only found in two primate species, humans and rhesus monkeys, and both are highly social and able to adapt to a wide range of environments. Perhaps the highly sensitive members of a group are better able to notice the subtleties, such as which new foods can be safely eaten and which dangers to avoid, allowing them to survive better in a new place.”

It’s true that many highly sensitive people had difficult childhoods, Garon reports.

“Since many HSPs have had difficult childhoods, often because no one understood their innate temperament, their persistent bad feelings due to that could cause them to feel even more uncomfortable, rattled, or annoyed in situations that bother all sensitive persons to some degree.”

Difficult childhoods can and do make for highly sensitive people. What defined my childhood?

An abusive, alcoholic father with a rare brain disease (but we didn’t know that then), incessant domestic violence, endless angst due to my mother’s cancer diagnosis when I was 8, constant illness of my mother due to the cancer and cancer treatment recurring at least four times, and ultimately, her death to cancer when I was 24.

Read more: Why FTD is so hard to talk about. My dad’s story

Read more: Still full of life, breast cancer took my mom at age 53

I would argue that simply growing up with an alcoholic could leave a person with a diagnosis of “highly sensitive.” There is a ton of research about this. You can check out this article I wrote on the topic two years ago. It was my very first piece for Foundations Recovery Network, in fact.

At the time, author Blaire Sharpe summed it up to me this way:

“When you’re used to living your life on edge, as children of alcoholics do, there’s a hypervigilance (an acute awareness of your surroundings).

“You’re always gauging what’s going on, scanning the crowd, analyzing micro-expressions. Once you get past using it as a protective mechanism, it can serve you well in life.”

Why I’m grateful for my struggles anyway

As I always say, and completely mean, I am grateful even for my struggles. I never will be the same again after living through what I lived through in 2014 and 2015.

Does that mean I may never be able to form healthy relationships again? Possibly.

But I also am incredibly strong and growing more emotionally intelligent all the time, an area where for many years I was lacking.

Says Garon:

“Now, new research demonstrates that this genetic variation causing lower serotonin to be available in the brain also bestows benefits, such as improved memory of learned material, better decision making, and overall better mental functioning, plus gaining even more positive mental health than others from positive life experiences.

“The same mental benefits are also found in rhesus monkeys with the same genetic variation. Perhaps the best vindication for HSPs tired of being seen as weaklings or sick is a study by Suomi finding that rhesus monkeys with this trait, if raised by skilled mothers, were more likely to show ‘developmental precocity,’ resilience to stress, and be leaders of their social groups.”

Until next time.

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