I used to think there was something wrong with me. Not the kind of wrong that pushes people off bridges or into emergency 51/50 care. Not even the kind of wrong that has you showing up at your doctor’s office wondering if there might not be a drug to cure a very real ailment. No…it was much more subtle than that.
My kind of wrong felt similar to the sensation of an eyelid tick. Or an itch you can’t explain. Or a birthmark that is unique to you…so unique you sometimes wonder if maybe you ought to see someone to be sure it’s not a tumor…but then you move on and forget all about it.
As a child, it was odd to me that all the other girls loved slumber parties. They slept soundly on the floor of a strange house with foreign smells and unfamiliar noises. I didn’t. I slept poorly and went home exhausted from chit-chat about things I had little interest in. I was delighted to get home and bunker down into the privacy of my own room.
And yet…I kept seeking out those experiences. I was incredibly nervous in front of crowds, but I still went out for school government in Jr. High (and lost by a landslide). I didn’t even mind having lost. I was too busy being proud of myself for trying. I think I was relieved to lose. It allowed me to slink back into anonymity.
I hated organized sports. I was a pudgy and awkward kid. I would have preferred staying on the couch with a good book. But I didn’t want to hide behind those books. I wanted to know what it was to feel physically capable. Strong. So I went out for cross country and swimming. I was never the first to cross the finish line. But again…I got in the game. I might never have won a cross country race, but I did lose a significant amount of weight. I did learn how to make friends with my body. I learned how to move with power and…maybe even a little bit of grace. It was a much more significant victory for me.
With every new and uncomfortable experience, my capacity to endure discomfort expanded. It was a source of both pride and confusion. Confusion because most people didn’t even see these things as uncomfortable to begin with. Pride because, whatever “tick” was inside of me…whatever itch that crawled across my skin when I engaged in fairly normal social rituals…it wasn’t running the show.
I pushed myself to go to high school parties. Well…one party. It wasn’t really my scene. But hey…I tried it!
I didn’t just go to college and fall in the background. I double majored (politics and economics). I interned in Washington D.C. I volunteered to work as a teaching assistant. I crushed college.
The only troubling part was it seemed to take a toll on me. I had difficulty sleeping. When I pressed even a smidge too hard, my whole system would short circuit and spasm with electrical currents of mild to moderate anxiety. And once caught in a cycle of insomnia, anxiety and overwhelm, it would sometimes take weeks or even months to recalibrate and get back to my otherwise productive and high-functioning self.
On the flipside, if I hung back too long. If I gave in to the longing to stay in and remain comfortable…my system would slink into some strange combination of boredom and even depression. It felt like stagnation. To stand still too long felt like moving backwards. Have you ever seen those long treadmill-like pathways in airports that help move you along even as you’re standing in place? That’s what standing still felt like. Except that the treadmill moving below my feet was gradually shifting me back…back…back. As William S. Burroughs said “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” I felt that on my own skin keenly.
In this, too, it seemed I was a bit odd. I am fairly sure everyone wants to continue to grow and expand. But in my case? It felt like a compulsion. I was less patient than some of those around me. I didn’t just want to flow along with the current of life. I wanted to steer. I wanted to see how fast the boat could go. I wanted to see how high the swing could stretch into the air. I still want those things.
When you look around and regularly report experiences and yearnings that others don’t seem to relate to on BOTH sides of the spectrum, it doesn’t take long before you start to wonder…WTF? Sure we are all unique. But this felt different. I started to wonder – am I, maybe, bipolar? Is this a sign of a sort of imbalance?
I channeled my near obsessive curiosity into self-exploration. And after a myriad of books and temperament quizzes and blood sugar tests…I eventually stumbled upon some of Elaine Aron’s research about Highly Sensitive People (HSP).
Reading her work on sensory processing sensitivity was like paging through a scientific autobiography that I didn’t remember having written. And the relief! Ohhhhh the relief at hearing that my experiences weren’t only housed in my body. Others felt it on their skin, too. The only thing was…some of those I read about seemed to feel perfectly comfortable as soon as their environment was calm. I might feel that way, initially, but if I spent too long in a “calm” space, I’d feel a little caged in. What was that about?
Dr. Aron had an answer for that, too.
Apparently, just like high sensory processing sensitivity, a craving for intense experience can be traced in the human brain. It has to do with our brains’ activation systems. The brain has a behavioral inhibition system (BIS). When people sense danger in their environment, they are less likely to engage. Alarm bells are going off and trying to coax us back from the perceived ledge of doom. Those who identify as being more “sensitive” simply have a slightly more vigilant BIS system. That’s why so many experiences others find to be perfectly normal might make a more sensitive person slink away.
We all also have a behavioral activation system (BAS). This is the system that lights up when faced with a potentially rewarding opportunity. If a person has a strong activation system, it makes them more intensely curious. They are more likely to seek out novelty and intensity. They see an opportunity for a reward, and they don’t want to pass it up.
Now…you would think these two traits would be related in some way. Evidently not. One can be a high sensation seeker with very little sensitivity (thrill seekers anyone?) One can also be extremely sensitive with a low activation system (where are my bookworms at?!?) But some of us…some of us have BOTH.
For years, I apologized for my makeup. I was self conscious about my desire to both push life to the limit AND hang back. It had to be confusing, particularly for my loved ones. One day I would leap at an opportunity others thought would be too challenging or too risky to take on. The next day I would want to burrow in my bedroom to recover from the previous day’s adventure. What a strange way to navigate life. Why not strike a balance? I mean…damn girl…PICK ONE! If you’re so “sensitive” why do you insist on moving homes every year? If you’re so prone to anxiety, why are you jumping out of a currently stable job and into a startup? And if you’re such a nervous ninny, why do you insist on falling in love with larger-than-life personalities? How could I enjoy both solitude and suspenseful movies? And why did I insist on listening to my music so damn loud, anyway? Is that heavy metal? WHAT is going ON with you?
But the more I have gotten to understand these seemingly conflicting tendencies, the less willing I am to apologize for it. And here is why…
- There is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel fully alive. My fiance tells me that I use the word “amazing” too often. This woman is amazing! This book is amazing! He challenges me and says “sorry, Leah…but not everything can be “amazing.” But you know something? In my little slice of reality, it really can. A kind gesture sends me soaring. A touching song makes my skin tingle. Every moment has the potential to be an adventure. Every experience has the capacity to be amazing.
- I love that I am curious about everything. I never grew out of my “why” phase as most children do. If someone is cruel to me, rather than leaping toward taking it personally, my first go-to is often “why?” If I see something unraveling, I can’t help be but fascinated by it and ask “why?” And when an offer to travel to a new place presents itself…even when I know it will probably come with some sleep loss, my usual response is why not?
- I am absolutely enthralled by the spectrum of emotions I am capable of feeling. It feels like there is an ocean in my insides. I have felt depression thick enough and heavy enough to sink me down under that water. But I never drown. Because when it comes to my emotions, I’ve learned how to breathe under the metaphorical sea. I am comfortable with depression. When my anger sets in, it’s like swallowing fire. It lights up my insides and threatens to consume me. It threatens to turn my whole consciousness into embers…and to scorch the person in front of me in the process. But the fire always slows. If I can breathe through it, it shifts into a pleasant campfire. Keeping me warm and safe in an otherwise scary place. And when I am happy? I am jubilant. I am a walking release. It’s the feeling you feel when on a swing…you hang on to the chains, tilt your head back as you come crashing down and feel your whole body tingle while the blood rushes away from your head. I’m coasting along the downswing of a rollercoaster ride. And although I know that joy, too, is temporary…maybe because I know it’s temporary…I soak it in. I bask in it for as long as the ride is in motion. Not worrying about when it will come halting to a stop.
- I can connect to most people relatively easily most of the time. I know how messy and imperfect I am. But I love me anyway. So when I see other people’s messiness, it’s easy to love them, too. It doesn’t mean I always like them. But I can usually find something to appreciate about them. I know what raw pain feels like inside of me. So it’s not hard to empathize with the raw pain inside of someone else. I don’t think I would call myself an empath. I just see people. I look. I pay attention.
- I almost never feel lonely. Maybe this is more an introvert thing. Maybe not. But because simply existing is rich with so much possibility…I can entertain myself for hours. I don’t even have to be DOING anything. Just watching my thoughts can be a kind of comedy. Or a tragedy. I love being loved. I love being in love. But I’ve never felt afraid of being single. I’ve never feared an empty home or a cold bed. My imagination keeps me company.
- I rarely (if ever) take it personally when someone cancels plans with me at the last minute. It legitimately doesn’t bother me. Because I get it! I know what it is to be thrilled to make plans to go see that concert on Tuesday…only to balk at the idea that Saturday come time to get in the car to go.
- I am resilient. I kinda have to be. When you go through life with every nerve feeling like it’s exposed to the elements, you get used to feeling beaten up and raw. You get used to that very specific sort of exhaustion. So I don’t mind taking emotional risks. I don’t mind saying “I love you” first. I don’t worry about rejection. Brene Brown implores us to dare greatly…to be vulnerable. I don’t know how not to be vulnerable. The downside to this is that I am easily hurt. But the UPSIDE is that I regenerate quickly. It’s an emotional muscle I’ve been working out since birth. Rejection isn’t scary to me. Because I know how fast I can grow my juju back.
- I love that I’m the kind of person who agonizes about a wound I might have inflicted on other people. I can count on one hand how many regrets I have. I usually don’t “regret” even the mistakes I make. Because they are so rich with learning. But when I cause another person pain? It causes me physical pain, too. I toss and turn. It’s exhausting. There are times I wish I can turn it off. But then I remember that it says something about me that I’m the kind of person who agonizes about inflicting a wound. It says that I have some level of honor. And I want to be that kind of person.
- I love that I’m a cheap date. My novelty seeking self is always out to try new things. But sensitive nervous system promises that it will never take much to have a good time. You want to see me turn into roadrunner? Just add a quarter cup of coffee in my system. You want to see someone giggle senselessly? Just give me a manhattan. Just one. I’m good for the night.
- I love that in learning about these traits in myself, I have become passionate about helping others who might share the same experience. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. Getting to this place where I could not just accept myself as I am…but really and truly love these parts of myself? That’s something all people should have (sensitive or no). I have had to cultivate a treasure trove of tools and skills to be able to navigate these qualities. I’m far from a jedi-ninja at it. But I’m good enough at it to want to help others see the potential for joy they might have if they hone their traits.
There are times…oh trust me…there are times…when I wonder and maybe even wish that I had something resembling a more normal non-sensitive, non-sensation seeking existence. But it never takes me long before I take it back. At the end of the day, I like that a part of me seeks tranquility and another part of me seeks to howl at the moon. It might not be neat or tidy. I don’t want to be neat or tidy anymore. I want to be known. I want to be messy and complicated and wholly, intensely myself.