I have been a highly sensitive person all of my life, although I have only been consciously aware of this for the last fifteen years or so. I remember as a child being described as “difficult”. As with most children, I had my favorite foods, but I would refuse to eat a lot of specific types of foods as well as different combinations of foods, leading to the added label of “picky eater”. We also lived in a northern climate where it was cold much of the year, and in preparing to go outside, my protective clothing had to be absolutely perfect; this meant all zippers and buttons done up properly, my gloves tucked evenly inside my jacket sleeve, my socks pulled all the way past the top of my boots, and a host of other seemingly unrealistic expectations. If these things were not properly adhered to, I would have what most parents would call, a fit.
If someone had asked me to explain all of these things back then, I would have been at a loss for what to say, because I did not understand the reasons, only that these things must be done. In retrospect, I now understand that I was (and am) a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. Over the years, I have learned that I am super sensitive to many things related to the five senses. There are taste textures and even combinations of foods that I just cannot tolerate. The sense of touch restricts me to wearing specific materials. I cannot deal with loud, sudden noises, or even specific “tones”, which also means I cannot listen to certain types of music or even a song that includes an intolerable tone – these things actually just come across as noise. I get a lot of headaches due to intolerance to light. Issues outside of the five senses include high emotion; for example, I am a conflict avoider, because I struggle with anger. I also struggle with love. This is not to say that I cannot love, but when I do, there are times I need to back off due to overwhelming feelings that I cannot process. I find that I do much better with “grey area” emotions such as contentment versus joy and irritability versus anger. I can also feel emotion in others, and it changes the way I respond to my environment.
Our world has evolved in such a way that “sensitive” is considered a bad word. Sensitive is stigmatized in society; to be sensitive means we cannot keep up in the corporate world, in relationships, and even in our own mind. We ourselves see being sensitive as negative due to receiving messages from society to that end. But it doesn’t have to be. Sensitivity also means we can listen to what our bodies are telling us; they can alert us to system disfunction long before we cognitively understand there is a disconnect. We have learned creativity through sensitivity. And, we have the ability to be introspective and aware of situations in our environment that other people may not pick up on. In short, being highly sensitive can be an advantage.
A good example of this is in my ability to pick up on non-transparency in other people. I can meet someone for the first time and instantly I will get a “vibe” from them about whether or not I can trust them. I know what their motives are, I know the emotions they are feeling, and I know their initial impression of me and the relationship they are seeking to have. This actually has nothing to do with a first impression; it goes much deeper than that and is in essence, a “deep knowing” of what I can expect, and this helps me in determining how much information I will share with them and how I will interact.
As a counsellor, I think it is important to understand my client’s sensitivities as well. When working with a highly sensitive client, there may be resistance to trust due to many years of having to repress emotion, or they may have felt criticized by others for their inability to tolerate aspects of the five senses. They may not trust their own intuition anymore, through years of being told it is a first impression and that it may be “wrong”. I think it is important to be aware of all of these aspects of sensitivity, and also to be aware of my own as well. Even if I do not talk about being highly sensitive to a client, bringing awareness to how this may be affecting their situation is highly beneficial. By identifying this, we can better connect on a professional level and work to develop rapport creating a much stronger therapeutic relationship, which will solidify connection. And, we will most likely learn very valuable things about our own selves in the process.