Excuse Me While I Go Sit Alone in a Dark Room: Irritability Reframed

“Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people – that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers” (from The Highly Sensitive Person). Something about this line reminds me of Mrs Dalloway.


The Highly Sensitive Person

Here, Elaine N. Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, is describing what it means to be a highly sensitive person, or an HSP. According to Aron, 15-20% of Americans are HSPs. Such people possess the “trait” of high sensitivity, referring to the impact of arousal on the nervous system. It’s a physiological trait. At a rowdy concert, the reactions of two people to the same stimuli – the smell of beer and cigarettes (and body odor), the unapologetic jabbing elbows, the thundering bass – can vary remarkably. An HSP’s nervous system becomes aroused more quickly, and to a greater extent, than that of a non-HSP, and they are more likely to notice and react to subtle differences in their surroundings. An HSP processes stimuli more meticulously and to a deeper degree.

Citing research involving identical twins, Aron writes that high sensitivity is inherited in most cases. But naturally, a person’s upbringing and experiences affects how they grow to react to their environment. The degree of control or security you feel as a child, for example, can make you more or less aware of how sensitive you are. An HSP who had a harmonious and safe childhood may understand themselves in significantly different terms than someone who, for example, suffered from neglect, bullying, or emotionally unstable parents. Identifying with the latter category, someone may be more aware of their tendency to react strongly to, say, yelling or intense emotions, since their nervous systems are acutely familiar with that type of arousal.

Reframing Your Sensitivity

After reading The Highly Sensitive Person, I felt for the first time, less guilty about my lifelong struggle with becoming VERY irritated – all the time! Yes, I know being irritable is quite unappealing. But there’s good news! Understanding what it means to be an HSP, or how to deal with an HSP you know, can ease frustration. Aron explains how one can “reframe” their childhood, casting their experiences into a new light toward understanding their high reactivity. Rather than perceiving themselves as simply inclined to becoming overly stressed, socially reticent, irritable, etc., they can instead begin to appreciate the positive side of the trait: a greater tendency of being conscientious, perceptive, highly intuitive, and capable of deep concentration. I like her suggestion that high sensitivity be understood as a neutral trait; like many characteristics, sensitivity is not entirely good or bad. Why should it be?

I have always been chided for my irritability. In fact, I am reminded of it often through other people’s comments. This pattern of continually hearing and internalizing the label of “being an irritable person” can lead to unnecessary guilt. Someone who is highly sensitive to sounds, emotions, smells, etc., may find it impossible NOT to overreact to stimuli. Instead of grumbling about things, make a point of securing plenty of time alone, finding ways to sometimes avoid truly over stimulating environments, and try to take a deep breath before snapping or lashing out at annoyances. Don’t totally sequester yourself from the world, though. The more you avoid stressful situations, the greater an effect they’ll have on you.

Sensitivity and Introversion

Carl Jung wrote about highly sensitivity people and indeed, was very sensitive himself. He suggested that HSPs possess “prophetic foresight” and are more able to tap into the wisdom of the unconscious. Apart from Jung, Aron refers to several others who have previously written about sensitivity. I was happy to find in Susan Cain’s recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a section devoted to distinguishing between sensitivity and introversion. I definitely recommend reading Quiet if you haven’t already; her book is probably to blame responsible for the surplus of “Are You Secretly an Introvert?” articles floating around lately.

Despite the excitement surrounding the topic lately, what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert is often ill-defined; fundamentally, the distinction describes how individuals become energized. Introverts become most energized through time spent alone with their thoughts. Extroverts are more likely to find pleasure and become energized through social interaction. Some people don’t identify much with either end of the continuum and fall somewhere in the middle.

Not surprisingly, many HSPs are introverted! But some are not. It’s intriguing to consider the apparently similar yet very distinct personality traits that get confused and misapplied to people: being shy, anxious, neurotic, introverted, and sensitive. Both books I mention do a nice job sorting through the differences. Some people are doomed lucky in that they seem to possess ALL of these marvelous traits! Not gonna say who!

So, are you a Highly Sensitive Person?!

If you identify with most of the following, you are probably a highly sensitive person:

-You seem to react more strongly than others to good/bad smells

-You easily sense the moods and feelings of other people, or you are unusually empathetic

-You were called shy or sensitive as a child, and were highly reactive (cried a lot)

-You feel the urge to avoid over-stimulating or stressful situations

-You have an extra hard time dealing with change (think traveling, moving, starting a new job)

-You have a satisfying, complex inner world

-You are easily startled

-You are quick to point out what is “off” or needs adjusting in an environment or situation – (“It smells like mold in here, and that red lamp is simply heinous next to that purple vase, and the lingering tension from Greg and Sarah’s fight earlier is exhausting the whole party.”)