I have just been reacquainted with the book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and its companion, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love. I’d read these books years ago when going through my divorce. “Yup, I’m one of those.” It explained a lot. But then I put them back on the shelf and forgot about them. I was reacquainted with them recently after a painful confrontation with some people I love. Although I believe in the benefits of productive confrontations I’m not very good at them… part of being highly sensitive I presume. I get really rattled. These things go deeply inside me.  But right there, on the bookshelf in the guest room where I was staying, as if written in neon was The Highly Sensitive Person book. There are no accidents. It was time for me to re-learn some things about myself.

All of us have a degree of sensitivity. It is part of what makes us human. We ‘feel’ the world around us. It’s just that some of us feel it more than others. To some the world is fun and exciting. To others it is just prickly and loud. Research has shown that 15 to 20% of the population, divided equally between men and women, are born with highly sensitive nervous systems. It is thought that the highly sensitive serve as an alarm system for a community. HSPs are sensitive to changes in energy and routine, and are attuned to the tiniest details and most subtle nuances. They are also affected by food, air and water stressors more than most people. In terms of the alarm system for a community, this kind of sensitivity can be lifesaving. I am usually the first to feel the effects of a toxic situation. I was once in a basement conference room located next to the hotel pool. The chlorine gases from the pool were burning my nose, eyes, throat, and lungs. Few others noticed it at all and none noticed it enough to demand it be remedied. That job fell to me. I’ve since learned that chlorine gas is very toxic.

High sensitivity is genetic. It can be managed but not undone. Things aren’t changing for me in this life.

HSP’s are easily overwhelmed. (The subtitle on the book says something like, ‘How to thrive when the world overwhelms you.’) My default reaction to the overwhelm has been to deflect it, to write in my journal about the stimulating circumstances-often caused by people in my world, to meditate, to talk it out with those who will listen. I didn’t realize, until this confrontation I’ve spoken about, that my deflecting it to others has been viewed as negative and hurtful. I had no idea. (Too bad they can’t feel what it’s like on my insides if the little bit that I share on the outside is so hard to hear.) Nonetheless, now I know. Now that I’ve found the HSP book again I am learning new coping skills and am doing my best to reign in my fears and negativity; not just for others, but for me, too. (HSPs can be fearful/tenuous because we see things coming a long way off – whether it’s an argument, a social change, a political move or a natural disaster. We get restless before they are even close somewhat like animals who sense an approaching storm well before the humans around them. The ultimate end of both personal and societal bad choices–environmental as an example–loom large in our faces when, to 80 to 85% of the population, they are a mere blip on a distant horizon.) HSPs tend to be very conscientious.

All this got me to thinking about the overwhelm I experienced in and around my divorce. I came unglued many times, feeling like I was hanging on by a thread. I definitely looked over that edge of “Why am I here?” and “Would anyone care if I wasn’t?” I was certain that the amount of hurt I was experiencing wasn’t normal (whatever that is). Now I wonder if knowing then that I was a HSP would have made it less intense. I surmise that it would have. I would have at least known to be much more gentle with myself.

If the pain of your divorce or breakup seems too much to bear you might want to take the HSP test online to see how you rate. If you find you are a HSP I suggest Dr. Elaine Aaron’s book for The Highly Sensitive Person to learn techniques to help you manage the overwhelm. Divorce is overwhelming enough without feeling it about 50 times more more intensely than the majority of the population. The test has 22 questions. Dr. Aaron says if you answer yes to 10 you are probably highly sensitive. I answered yes to 21 of the 22.  Oh my.

One of the ways I’m learning to manage this is by being aware of my bent toward negative thinking. Because I am so acutely aware of possible overwhelming future realities I (apparently) try to prepare myself by thinking of worst case scenarios before they happen so I won’t be shocked and thrown into overwhelm. HSPs don’t like change, especially change that leads to over-stimulation.

This morning I was reading Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life. She mentioned viewing our thoughts like a smorgasbord. Instead of a variety of foods at the buffet imagine that the choices are thoughts instead. Would we willingly choose hurtful thoughts over positive and affirming ones if they were all laid out that way? “I think I’ll have a little guilt today” instead of, “I’m doing great right now.” Looking at it that way, well, no.

We HSPs have an odd job in life. One of those “tough job but somebody has to do it” kind of things. Walking for my morning meditation yesterday I smelled fresh coffee wafting from a neighbors window. It actually brought tears as I damned this high sensitivity that doesn’t even allow me to have a friggin’ cup of coffee if I feel like it. Oh well. I will continue to look for the myriad of benefits that being highly sensitive does bring.

If you are a highly sensitive person I would love to hear how going through divorce or other trials has been for you. Please leave your comments below. I always respond.

I notice that Dr. Aaron has another book for highly sensitive children that might be useful for helping your kids deal with the overwhelm of divorce. I haven’t looked at it, yet, so if you have recommendations please let me know.