When ‘Sensitive’ Kids Grow Up: Curse to Blessing

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emotional boyI was that kid. You know, the one who watched and listened and stayed inside her head? I paid attention to things that shouldn’t have been on a 10-year-old’s worry list but were.

The sensitive child.

I fretted that the Russians would drop the atomic bomb and destroy all life on the planet, including our house on Wishkah Road. The world could end at any moment and people didn’t seem to care.

When I watched the evening news, the stories about the earthquake in Chile and the American U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia frightened me enough to keep me up at night.

I railed at life’s injustices—whether on the playground or in a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s. The night Walter Cronkite reported that four men who wanted to buy lunch were not allowed to sit at the lunch counter, I asked Daddy, “Why?” When I heard that it was because of the color of their skin, I swore that someday I would help right those wrongs.

As soon as I got big enough.

At church, Pastor Meek said that people who died without being “saved” would not go to heaven. So, what if a baby died before it had a chance to be saved? Was God that mean to send him to burn in hellfire forever?

“That is not for us to know right now,” Mama said to me. “God has a plan and don’t you go questioning it.”

But I wanted to know what the plan was.

My senses were on overload. I jumped at sudden noises. If Mama raised her voice, my ears would hurt and it felt to me like she was yelling.

At bath time, the water Mama filled the bathtub with scalded my skin, though I was told that it wasn’t that hot.

I sniffed out things sooner—and stronger—than other people did, like the funny smell when my jovial Uncle Les visited. It was kind of like the tree Daddy would cut down in the forest behind our house at Christmas. Much later I would recognize that smell as gin.

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The curse of the sensitive child

It is the curse of the sensitive child, to feel everything at such deep levels. She leaves herself open to hurt and heartache. It’s better not to care so much, the adults around me seemed to be saying.

A woman down the road, Mama’s friend, just up and ran away one day. Who would leave her husband, kids, and a sink full of dirty dishes, I wondered.

But it wasn’t okay to talk about it in our house.

“It’s none of your business,” Mama said. “That’s private. Just stay out of it.”

Soon it was as if this woman had never existed. Her name was not spoken again.

Still, I wondered.

Why did she leave? Where did she go? And if it could happen to the kids down the road, what’s to say my own mother wouldn’t do it?

I was a curious child. I saw humor—in things, in people, in expressions—and loved to test boundaries.

“You didn’t touch your supper,” Mama said one night at the table.

So I touched my mashed potatoes with my finger. I got to spend the rest of the night in my room for that one.

I wanted to try things out just to see what would happen. Once, when I was seven, I came home from my friend Evie’s house, just up the road, and announced to Mama, “I just walked all the way home with my eyes closed!”

Mama did not share my pride.

Much later I learned there was a name for people like me

I wasn’t crazy after all. I was an HSP.

A Highly Sensitive Person.

Dr. Elaine Aron, clinical psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, had my number. It was like she knew me.

HSP’s, she said, are:

• aware of subtleties in our environment

• affected by other people’s moods

• more likely to be perfectionists

• very sensitive to pain

• easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens

• prone to having a rich, complex inner life

• uncomfortable with loud noises

• more likely to avoid violent movies and TV shows

• able to notice delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds and works of art

• seen as sensitive or shy as a child by parents and/or teachers

• likely to take more time to ponder decisions and their consequences

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What’s this got to do with writing—and living?

This, as they say, explained a lot. While not all artists and writers are HSP’s, we have a higher percentage in our ranks than the normal population.

We tend to spend a lot of time in our own heads. Our senses are finely tuned. For writers who are HSP’s, because we ponder decisions for a long time before making them, storytelling comes naturally. We have that cause-and-effect thing all figured out. It is like dominoes falling, with each decision a character in our story makes affecting the next one. And that is what plot really is: cause and effect.

If any of these symptoms are familiar to you, even if you are not a writer, you might have struggled with what you thought was a curse.

But guess what? Some of our most gifted people through history, like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Goodall, Thomas Alva Edison, John Lennon, Emily Dickinson, and others, were Highly Sensitive Persons.

Of course, all of them didn’t use their traits for the good of humanity—Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden were also HSPs—but, still, the list is impressive.

So if you are an HSP, or are the parent of one (you can take the test here), take heart. Not only are you in good company, but, because you feel so deeply, you not only recognize the pain and sadness, you have those special qualities our world needs to heal itself.

You have empathy.

You can accept people in their imperfections because you understand that we are all flawed.

To the rest of the world you may be a time waster. A dreamer. A silly heart.

But just know this. You are appreciated and needed.

Now more than ever.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for bringing attention to this. I, too, am an HSP. I was a lot like you as a child, and it seemed like a curse then. I seemed to be different from everyone around me. Now I understand that different doesn’t mean worse. Or better. Just different. I find that my sensitivity brings more depth to my writing. And I want to use my writing to help others.

    • says

      Tina,

      Yes. That feeling of being different can be very difficult, especially for a child. Years ago, I taught in a program for gifted elementary school students. I am not saying that all HSPs are gifted, but many highly intelligent people are HSPs. These kids, who felt so isolated, so “weird” in their regular classrooms, just blossomed when they came to work with me one day a week at this special school. Where they had problems relating and making friends in their regular schools, they were excited and chatty and off-the-charts in their interpersonal skills in this special class. So I do think that these kids have a hard row to hoe growing up.

      I absolutely think that you do bring those deep levels of thinking and feeling to your writing. I have no doubt about that. Thanks for the insightful comment.

  2. Anke ter Doest says

    Hi Judy,
    Interesting post! I’ve done the test and scored very high but that was not a surprise to me. As you say, understanding, and coping with, your sensitive nature is so important. HSP’s are very vulnerable people and it is really necessary to protect yourself at times.

  3. says

    I’m one too, Judy. It was such a relief to find out that there was a name for how I was. For a long time I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. Now, I can be who I am without feeling broken. I just notice and deal with things some other people never notice and I feel good about myself.

    • says

      Joan,

      Yes. Finding out there is a name for it takes much of the anxiety away. I just wish as a child I would have had adults who told me, “You know, it’s kind of rough for you right now, but you have a gift that will help the world and things will be better when you get older.” Or something like that. Just to let kids know that there is nothing wrong with them and, in fact, they can help other people with their gifts. I’d say that “noticing things” you mentioned is one of the traits of HSPs. They are very observant of people and the world around them. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  4. says

    Anke,

    We tend to get better with those coping skills as we age, don’t we? And as we begin to see that there are other people like us, we don’t feel so alone.

    You brought up a good point with the vulnerability going hand in hand with the sensitivity. But being open—even to being hurt—somehow makes us more alive, I think. Growing up, I was told to suck it up, don’t be a crybaby, etc., etc., until I just started to hold it all in. That isn’t healthy, either. It’s a fine line to walk.

    See, you have already found two other people here who share the HSP traits with you!

  5. says

    What a thoughtful article Judy! I should’ve known you were an HSP. I’m in the super-charged HSP Empathetic category in a monumental way. It’s interesting how I’m reading more and more about it these days. I would guess there are many, many more of us out there than we ever realized.

    • says

      Maura,

      Good to see you here. It’s been a while since we talked.

      I’m hoping that there is more education around this and especially that adults can recognize and affirm these traits in their children and students. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  6. says

    Oh how I’ve missed you, Miss Judy :)
    Your heart seems to sit comfortably at the end of your pen when you write which makes it such a joy to read … and feel. I’ve so missed my weekly dose of you

    • says

      What a kind (should I say sensitive?) thing to say, Di. I have had a crisis in my extended family to deal with and it has taken all my energies and emotions. I am back on track now and looking forward to posting weekly. Hope all is well with you.

  7. says

    I truly believe there is a genetic component to it, Lisa. And you being an HSP helps your daughters to see that it’s not a bad thing. In fact, you shining so brightly, with all your talents, show them that adults can use their traits to inspire other people—and do other wonderful things.

  8. says

    Wonderful piece and very informative. I had not heard of HSP before reading this. However, being an introvert this really hit home for me.
    In fact it seems like an HSP must be an introvert on steroids.
    I do live inside my head and in a world of extroverts this can be painful at times.
    My granddaughter may be an HSP – I know she is introverted. No one intentionally hurts her, but what the extroverts don’t see is her sensitivity to unexpected shocks to the system – a surprise birthday party for example. Not at all fun for her.

    Thanks for writing this.

    Incidentally, 14 is the cut off on the test for HSP. Wouldn’t you know, I checked 14. Like Rodney Dangerfield, I don’t get no respect. :)

    • says

      Hal, there does seem to be a point where introversion and HSP intersect… they certainly share some similar characteristics such as living in our heads and taking our time before expressing our thoughts. I believe most of the people Judy lists as HSPs are also introverts. I’ve found that just as we shouldn’t collapse introvert=shy, neither should we assume introvert=HSP. Elaine Aron writes, “In fact, 30% of HSPs are extraverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion.”

      Your “introverts on steroids” descriptor does have some truth to it; brain scans show that introverts have a lower tolerance threshold for stimulation (we’re more quickly overwhelmed by environmental stimuli) than extroverts, and I imagine HSPs have even less tolerance. One quibble I have with the way some people define introversion is that it collapses it too much with HSP. I see introversion as more about energy than sensitivity. Our energetic nature – being more internally oriented, preferring (requiring!) space and quiet to recharge – might lead to higher sensitivity than a typical extrovert, but that sensitivity is not what defines us.

      All of that said, I know there is value in reading about and extracting advice from any information that resonates with us, whether we fully fit the descriptor or not. I feel I have HSP tendencies, and just knowing that and what it means has been extraordinarily helpful.

      Thanks, Judy, for your excellent post – it’s lovely how you share your personal insights for the benefit of everyone :-).

      • says

        Beth,

        I knew you would help us make sense of it all. great way to make the distinction. Introverts being defined by the way they deal with energy—gathering it and using it—and HSPs more by the way our senses can be overloaded with all that external stimuli. And if one is both, well, we have even more to watch out for!

        Looking forward to reading that book of yours when it is published. Thanks for dropping by. :)

  9. says

    You bring up a very interesting point, Hal. I have wondered about the intersection between introvert and HSP myself. I, of course, am also an introvert. I have asked my friend Beth Buelow, a coach who works with biz owners who are introverts (and also author of an upcoming book, The Introvert Entrepreneur), to weigh in with her thoughts. Hopefully she will drop in because she always has thoughtful things to say.

    That is so true, what you said about your granddaughter and the surprise birthday party. She is probably an introvert and may be an HSP as well. For both, the unexpected can be hard to deal with.

    Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment.

  10. says

    Although not an HSP, I do posses/resonate with some thing: high on empathy, and feel deeply, sometimes carrying another’s pain and difficulty a tad too much on my own shoulders. And of course, I’d like to think I’m a natural writer/storyteller:)
    Just keep being your wonderful self. Luv ya! Cheers! Kaarina

  11. says

    You, my friend, are just beginning to tap your potential for storytelling. I am so excited to see where all of this takes you.

    I think that the HSP traits you mention that you possess are so needed in this world.

  12. says

    Well, this, as you say, explains a lot. ; )

    Judy, as I was reading your post, everything you were saying resonated with me. When I got to the part where you mention HSP for the first time, it was like bells started going off in my head. I clicked through and took the test — and checked 20 boxes. Surprise, surprise.

    I’ve always known that I have an unusually high level of empathy. It’s gotten me into “trouble” more than once — mostly when I’ve been around people with low levels of empathy. They couldn’t understand what was “wrong” with me, and I couldn’t understand how they could be so “callous.”
    Me: How can you not *see* what this other person is feeling?!?
    Them: Why are you overreacting like a crazy person?!?

    It’s so encouraging and such a relief to know that I’m not alone in this. : ) Judy, thank you so much for sharing!

    (This is my third attempt to post this comment. It keeps not showing up. So I hope I’m not posting in triplicate!)

  13. says

    Courtney,

    First of all, I am SO sorry you had problems posting a comment! Bob has been trying to solve this problem for me. It happened right after we took Comment Luv off the blog (because zillions of spam “comments” were getting through and, after a little research, he identified that as the culprit.) Since taking it off, I’m having the opposite problem: legitimate comments are being flagged as spam. Grrr.

    On your comment itself, yes, our HSP characteristics can be difficult for other people to understand. When I was interning for school principal, I got my first complaints in 15 years about my teaching, for the sole reason that parents didn’t want a substitute in the classroom when I had to be in the principal’s office. My supervising/mentor principal said, “You have to develop a thick skin. Just let everything roll off you, like water on a duck.”(The message: you are too sensitive.) But I felt their unhappiness and that hurt me.

    If we can just see that there IS nothing “wrong” with us, that is a big step. And a score of 20? I’d say you show strong signs of HSP. But you know what? You can use that in your writing because you can envision how those characters actually feel, and write dialogue and action that conveys that. :)

    • says

      Judy, anytime I figure out things like this about myself (whether it’s being an HSP or an introvert, or a Myers-Briggs INFP, etc.), I try to find a way to turn it into a strength insteadof letting it box me in. The temptation is great to say, “Well, this is just how I am, and I’m doomed never to be able to grow beyond that.” Not true! Understanding another piece of myself is just another step on the way up. It’s another slight expansion of my horizon…to which there are no limits. : )
      It definitely helps me envision characters, and it also helps me understand real-life people better. I count that as a win.
      I have also been having ridiculous problems with spam comments getting through. At least 4 or 5 per day. I’ve now deactivated CommentLuv to see if that solves my issues, too. Something’s got to!

      • says

        Courtney,

        You have a great attitude, looking at challenges as opportunities. Let’s leverage that HSP! I used to think that there was something really wrong with me. When I am riding in the car and Bob is driving) vehicles in the lane next to us seem ultra-close. I notice when they drift slightly over, closer to us. But, on the other hand, I have prevented a few accidents by calling out at the precise moment a driver has decided to change lanes and is heading directly toward us (as in a full collision). So sensing things in a hyper way can actually be an asset!

        I can detect smells (like milk that isn’t sour yet but isn’t quite right) and a burner that has been left on. And loud sounds, like the whistle of the train we have to stop for at the ferry landing before we get on the boat? That is almost painful, even with my hands over my ears. Sometimes I think Bob feels like I am exaggerating, but unless you feel things at that level, you have no idea what it is like. it is so refreshing to talk to other people who go through some of this stuff.

  14. says

    Excellent article. I note many dimensions that match up to my own childhood, and likewise, best I can tell, my (very) artistic child who is now in college. It certainly helps to know one isn’t alone. It’s especially interesting as a parent to see it, recognize it, focus on the advantages (with the child), yet provide some tools for self-protection. It can be quite challenging!

    • says

      D.A.,

      Glad you had a related post to share on the Gen Fab II Facebook page. Otherwise, we might never had this conversation. It is so true what you say: Parents have great powers to help (or hinder) their HSP children, depending on how they are able to help them understand it and know that there is nothing wrong with them, that, in fact, they are a gift to the world.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  15. Leslie Teater says

    This is a great post, Judy! I’ve spent my life kicking myself for not being able to develop a “thick skin” and it’s been frustrating to be compared to other people and told that I’m too sensitive.
    In the past few years I’ve (finally) very happily accepted the fact that I’m “different” and I rather enjoy my quirky nature.
    This post you’ve written explains things so well and it celebrates the uniqueness of this personality type. So there’s a name for our type! HSP! I love it!
    I took the test and scored very high. How lovely to have an explantion of my character traits.
    I live inside my head a lot, I write a lot, and I’m always mulling over a million things in my mind, deeply affected by things that other people “get over” quickly or don’t even notice in the first place. Life is full of details. I seem to see many more of them than most of the people around me do.
    When you and I both worked at World Vision, at times I felt a common connection of sorts with you, and this explains why. I recall having several chats with you in the break room, and you were always so sweet and just a lovely person to talk to.
    Thanks for writing this post. It’s quite enlightening and gives me great pleasure to understand that my sensitive nature is not a terrible thing!

  16. says

    Wow, Leslie. My World Vision days seem so long ago that it is amazing to reconnect with someone from that wonderful time of my life. Though it was perhaps the most challenging job I have ever had, I was truly a changed person after it was over. You are going to have to email me (see Contact Me on the top navigation bar) and refresh my memory. I remember another Leslie well, but your last name seems different.

    Yes, celebrate your HSP traits because the world needs you! So glad we reconnected. And do send me that email, okay?

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