Most days, the Sumo and I share space in a relatively cooperative coexistence. We wake in the same room, nod to one another in acknowledgment, and go about our day. While I wouldn’t call us friends, there is a familiarity about him that I am comfortable with. He is my life companion, for better or worse.
Sometimes I notice his heavy, round shape, lingering in the shadows, ready to take a rest on my chest. I have become accustom to the sound of his steps, the heat from his thick, deep breath on my neck, and the unmistakable odor of his labored movements. But I am never prepared when he comes to rest. The weight of his crushing sit is most impressive.
As you read this, you may think I’m referring to our old friend depression. But I am not. Depression is defined as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection”. My Sumo may cause depression if he lingered, but generally would have nothing of it. He is much kinder than depression, though no less intense. Instead, I am referring to the occasionally crushing, often physically painful, confusing, and confining feelings that can come with having high Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
This is HSP
A person that rates high on the scale of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is often called HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). Like most HSPs, I have always known there was something different about me. A couple of years ago, when I learned of this innate trait, it was immediately apparent that I was a part of the 15-20% of humans who have it. If you are curious, take the self test here. I answered yes to 25 of the 27 questions. I’m affected by all the things in varying degrees.
I quickly ordered Dr. Elaine Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Person” and read it twice. I felt un-empowered by what I read. It was as if HSPs should expect to have great difficulty operating well in society. I felt doomed to failure. The Sumo came to sit. I felt crushed, confused, and confined as would anyone who found themselves under a Sumo.
This was not depression. It was hard and painful, but not desperate or hopeless. I evaluated every aspect of my life through my new lens (as one does as an HSP). While I have had challenges that are hard to explain or justify to others and within the context of society’s expectations, I am not maladjusted. High SPS is only a part of who I am. It refers to the biological nature of my nervous system.
Sensory processing is the way in which information is transmitted to and processed by the brain. For an HSP, this process is very, very efficient. There are other defining qualities of my personality. I am an ENFP – Extroverted (most HSPs are introverted), Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving – as well as very creative.
Also important to the development of an HSP are positive and negative experiences. The impact is more extreme due to how deeply we process. According to Dr. Elaine Aron “We do better than others in good environments and worse than others in bad environments.” Having a healthy childhood, which I had, is a very important plus. At the same time, having had several negative experiences in intimate relationships, that area of my life poses a much greater challenge. Given a nurturing environment, the trait lends itself to incredible potential and has even been described as highly evolved. We are not only more perceptive and aware, we also process this information much more deeply.
Unfortunately, in our culture, sensitivity is often confused with weakness (which makes the name disconcerting). It comes with a negative connotation, especially for men (the trait is equally apparent across genders and in some animals). There are other social misconceptions about HSPs. Because we take time to consider everything, our delayed reactions can make us seem shy, socially awkward, or distracted, as can those times when we are completely overstimulated, causing us to shut down all together.
For me, the greatest challenge is communicating this almost invisible difference to others. It takes time to reach a basic level of understanding. It usually comes with well developed, functional, respectful, communicative relationships, unless the other person is also HSP, in which case they are more likely to understand early on. I value my close relationships greatly because I rely on them to help me navigate the confusing parts without judgement. You know who you are. Thank you. The four main areas in which HSPs differ from non-HSPs are summed up in the acronym DOES.
• D for Depth of processing – process information more deeply
• O for Overstimulating – easily overwhelmed or stimulated due to depth of processing
• E for Emotional responsiveness and Empathy – deeply affected by positive and negative experiences, great deal of empathy for others
• S for aware of Subtle Stimuli
Each in itself can be a lot, combining all four? Yeah. Ouch. Each of the DOES consists of a constant state of activity, consuming mass energy. They all move. All the time. Resources are easily depleted. On occasion, I was called ‘lazy’ in my teenage years. I remember being tired and confused. I was using all available energy, although often in internal, unnoticeable ways. Growing up in the country, I was just beginning to experience the world. I had not yet learned how to set myself up to conserve energy. It has been said that high SPS affects individuals as much as their gender, since it comes into play in every aspect of life.
My Life as an HSP
Even if you know me well, you may not know my Sumo. So, let me tell you a little about the things that cause his visits. First – I am greatly affected by my environment because I am highly perceptive and sensitive to stimuli. This includes weather, light, color, patterns, sounds – everything. Disorganization, bad lighting, loud or constant noises, and large crowds can be distracting. I prefer a simple home and am most comfortable in nature. I organize my environment to make it easier to process – straightening photos, closing doors to messy closets, painting walls white, getting rid of excess things. I have even been known to move my body to align my visual perspective.
Second – physical sensation is heightened. I’m highly in tune with human touch, the feel of fabric against my skin, temperature and movement. Blowing air on my skin can be uncomfortable and cold water has always been painful. The Princess and the Pea and I go way back.
Third – my physical well being is delicate. Balance must be maintained with hydration, nutrition, sleep, and exercise. Imbalances send me into a very vulnerable emotional or physical state. When the Sumo comes to sit, these are my very first checks. Alcohol, drugs, herbs, and caffeine can affect me intensely and for days.
Forth – I cry easily. My emotions are often reactive and close to the surface. Crying does not mean I’m sad or upset, it usually just means I have intense feelings. I might just be overwhelmed. The Sumo is very empathetic to my tears and almost always offers some relief.
Fifth – I am highly empathetic and understanding. I am affected by others’ moods and emotions. I usually know when someone is uncomfortable, and often know why or how to fix it. I almost always know when something is wrong. I’m slow to judge. I listen well, and can sense dishonesty. I can be understanding to a fault, sometimes letting unacceptable behavior persist because I allow too much room for the why. I’m more empathetic to another person’s feelings than I have need to be right. I forgive and forget easily. I avoid violent, graphic, and horrific entertainment.
Sixth – I am always thinking. All the time. I have a vivid imagination which enhances my creativity. I can see connections in people, places, things, and ideas, making for an innovative approach to problem solving. I can spend hours quietly creating in my mind. All this time spent in my head, despite my emotional reactivity, actually makes me incredibly rational given enough time to process. I have been doing this all of my life. I have a great deal of experience to draw from.
Seventh – I am very self-critical. I know myself well because of all that time I spend in my own head. I know what I am capable of and become very disappointed when I under-perform. I consider high SPS to be a gift and generally live my life in the positive. I conserve energy by simplifying, avoiding things that suck energy (like driving my car), lessening unimportant decision making (I rarely care where we eat), and balancing my physical and emotional health. By this, I am able to lead an incredibly free, rich life, full of great experiences, creativity, and high quality interactions with others. Even if you are not an HSP, I recommend evaluating your daily input/output and cutting off the energy leaks. You’ll find greater freedom to choose your experiences, for thought, deeper connections, and more rewarding relationships.
Despite my best efforts, there are times when I become overwhelmed and the Sumo comes to rest on my chest. Most often it is because of miscommunication with another human or disappointment in myself. It is easy to control my environment but people are way less predictable. Some are uncomfortable being seen with an empathetic eye or being open to deep connection. It requires a great deal of trust at the outset and can feel too intense and unfamiliar. While I get it – I’ve seen it many times – in the moment I can become confused and feel rightfully misunderstood and mistrusted, causing a retreat or emotional overreaction. Right. Yeah. That.
Ascribing human characteristics to this feeling, calling it my Sumo, makes it easier for me to work my way through, explain to others, and offer a little empathy to my own self. When he comes to sit, I know it is time for a break. I may experience anxiety, discomfort, confinement, and even physical pain, but I can usually see the light on the other side. I actually feel protected and even find comfort in this depth of feeling. This is where I learn to trust myself.
The Sumo doesn’t move until I relax. Taking this time out gives me space to reflect, rest, regroup, evaluate new directions and perceived dangers that I might have intuitively picked up on, but not yet come to understand. When the Sumo gets up, shifts his weight from my chest, I feel a rush of resilience as the breath returns to my lungs. With a few strong beats, my heart plumps and fills with joy, and all these fresh resources incite my brain and body to action.
So, the next time I yell “SUMO!”, you know what to do! DODGE, DIP, DIVE, DUCK, and DODGE! Just kidding! Be responsive and kind, give me a hug, try to be understanding, and send me to my room for some down time. Never tell me I’m overreacting, because I’m not. This is exactly how my nervous system is telling me to act. Trust that I will recover. I’m very strong and resilient, just affected. Later, take a moment to gently point out differences in how a non-HSP might see the situation.
– Sarai Snyder – Boulder, Colorado
Thank you for your attention and patience as I attempt to share my experience as an HSP. I have found little relatable information for myself and those who share my life. This is an attempt to bring a smidge of clarity to the day-to-day. I would greatly appreciate your feedback and questions, especially you, my dear friends who know me well and have watched my progression in learning to understand how I fit into the world a little better.