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Embracing Paradox as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

I didn’t always know I was a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In fact, I first recognized myself as an Empath and an Intuitive and they felt “right”, but also not encompassing enough.

Both of these are types of Highly Sensitive People: An “Empath” being someone who can very easily pick up on the emotional states of others, and “Intuitive” being someone who perceives (and trusts) invisible energetic guidance.

But it was the moment I took a deep-dive into what a Highly Sensitive Person was that I finally felt understood. It was the self-description I had been waiting for my whole life.

I was beginning my certification to become a Coach for Spiritual Emergence (how typical HSP to certify in that, BTW!) when I was introduced to Dr. Elaine Aron’s work on HSPs.

The simple description of D.O.E.S (Depth of Processing, easily Overstimulated, Emotional responsiveness, and Sensitive to Subtleties) resonated immediately, but it was the rabbit holes of videos, films and articles that offered deeper, more thorough descriptions of HSPs that could have read like a biography. But that said, to the uninitiated they present as contradictions or paradoxes.

I think HSPs are familiar with paradoxes because some of our D.O.E.S qualities complement each other, while others really amplify each other. We don’t necessarily need to choose one or the other, but simply embrace living the paradox.

I've chosen three of my "favorites", but I am sure I could go on and on! Let me know in the comments if any of these resonate!

Paradox: Those you admire most overwhelm you, but those you love most bore you

I look at my collection of friends and I see two common themes: I am either friends with: 1) Very weird, eccentric people or 2) Very calm, deep, and dare I say it -- boring people. They each scratch a specific itch in me, but I need to rotate my time with them often or I will go a bit nuts!

I think friendships with eccentrics scratch the HSP itch of always wanting stimulating, exciting experiences that represent all parts of human experience. In fact I used to host weekly dinner parties with the most outrageous characters you can imagine: a magician, preacher, film-maker, musician, artist, comedian, ballerina--you name it, I somehow met these people and was instantly attracted to their larger-than-life personalities. I would invite them all to the same dinner and watch what was a more-real-than-real reality show ensued.

But eventually these dinners got… you guessed it: overwhelming.

I began having anxiety the hours before the event wondering: who was going to upset who, what time everyone would leave so I could go to bed, and even if I would be able to talk to enough people so they’d feel welcome.

Then after everyone left, I was shocked that my partner could just fall asleep with no troubles, but I would be up ALL NIGHT buzzing from the adrenaline of being with such intense characters.

Extroverted HSPs love a good party, but we are also known to just go from 0 to 100 and be DONE once our nervous system “overheats”! We had our fun, and then we’re ready to go home, zone out, and snack in silence.

In order to refrain from overheating too much, we tend to pick close friends or partners who are calming, stable, and scratch the HSP itch of needing relaxation (to avoid overstimulation).

I do this as well: my absolute BEST friends and life-partner are what I would describe as super-CHILL. They are developmentally mature, self-aware, no-drama characters who prefer a quiet night at home talking deeply over a night out of theatrical drinking or partying.

And my nervous system LOVES these friends (and the yummy snacks they share as we chat all night long!) because they scratch my HSP itch of wanting deep, meaningful conversations often. I even married my best friend who fits this exact description. (If you are reading this honey--I love you!)

And sometimes--as paradoxes go--these stable people bore me to death.

It’s not that I want drama out of these characters--no way, I can’t handle that emotional turmoil! I am usually escaping the drama of the world to be with them! It’s that I want them to ALSO embrace the depth and weirdness of life like the eccentrics do… but without the overstimulation!

Is that too much to ask out of people!?

To be equally eccentric and boring?

Yes. Yes, Katie it is.

So I have come to embrace that paradox of liking both kinds of people and to mix them up just enough to keep me on my toes!

Paradox: The world you love so deeply will endlessly disappoint you.

Highly Sensitive People fall so deeply in love with all parts of the natural world and the diverse humanity within it. There is a magical quality to Earth that touches us not only emotionally, but within our souls.

We love to travel, explore, and engage with the world in gritty, authentic ways that go beyond what you can find in a travel guide. We want the behind-the-scenes tours of real people, real stories, and real places. We love absorbing the energy of a culture, trying a country on for size, and becoming a new person in every new city we visit.

HSPs get a ticklish excitement when somewhere they see or someone they meet represents the archetypal version of what they thought it could be. I remember the first time I saw a red, double-decker bus in London and thought, “OMG! They do exist!” Or my first time in India seeing cows in the street, I giggled at the living-stereotype in front of me!

But these same archetypal characters/images can deeply disappoint us.

We know we are capable of polluting our planet, but the first time we see the seas covered in plastic, we cry inside recognizing we’ve done this to ourselves.

We know there are bigots around every corner, but every time we hear a racist rant, we are saddened that “these people still exist”. Interestingly, instead of ignoring them, we let these images and people in because we really do want a taste of the whole, real world, but each time we do, we are left with a sour, bad taste in our mouths.

I have mentioned before that “weltschermtz” is one of my most common maladies. It is the German term for “world-pain”, meaning you feel the world so strongly, it hurts you. I tend to get this once a month (and yes it does coincide with pre-menstruation--as my “forgiveness goggles” disappear the lower my estrogen gets) and I tend to cry with sadness first, then anger at how disappointing we can be as humans.

So, can HSPs just ignore these sad truths and live forever in the romanticized, idealistic world?

Sadly, no.

(Which is not always true for some non-HSPs who enjoy living in their bubbles).

Our paradox is that the same lust for life that drives Highly Sensitive People to explore is the lust for truth that exposes us to some deep, dark realities.

We must embrace the dark to have the light.

Yet, I like to think that it is HSP’s quest for the big picture-- warts and all-- that makes us really understand the complexities of this world.

We don’t ONLY see through rose-colored glasses, but we do put them on enough to cure the hangover we get from seeing the world for how dark it can be.

Paradox: You feel misunderstood, but it also feels impossible to show the REAL you.

There are so many things I want to say about this paradox I don’t even know where to start! (Which proves this point already!) Honestly, I feel like I could talk ONLY about this (FOR HOURS!), but let me be brief with two angles here: hurtful childhood memories and being just too inarticulate.

Childhood Memories:

Do you remember the first few times you tried to share your REAL self with the world and got a less than ideal response? And then you shrink inside and begin avoiding sharing too much.

I remember mine too--and if you are like me, the reaction you got to something so “normal” to you made you question how normal you really were.

One time was in seventh grade when our teacher started explaining the concept of Platonic Ideals and Innatism (the concept that there is a “realm” where all forms exist in a perfect state and we are merely attempting to remember them (not learn them for the first time)) and I mentioned with sincere confidence that “Yes that is how it is”--as if I could remember this realm. Her look of disapproval was all I needed to think hard before sharing what I KNEW to be true.