I didn't know there is a label for what's “wrong” with me, but I'm happy that I can give a name to it now. Yes, I am a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP), which means that I'm extremely sensitive to sensory input.
On Dr. Elaine Aron's list of 27 indicators, I ticked of all but five indicators, and of those five that I didn't tick off, a number of them used to be part of my sensibility, for example a high sensitivity to pain and startling easily. The only reason I didn't tick these off as well is because my decades of martial arts training has “conditioned” me to endure pain, and not to startle so easily anymore.
Wikipedia summaries the attributes of HSPs as follows: depth of processing; over aroused; emotional reactivity and high empathy; and sensitivity to subtle stimuli.
Here are some HSP examples about me:
I hate bright lights. My apartment is always dimmed to a mellow ambiance, as the bright lights disturb me. I'm constantly dimming the brightness of my computer screen and mobile phone, as the bright lights bothers me, to the chagrin of other people trying to use my digital devices.
I similarly hate loud noises. Loud music to me can be torture. Seriously, sometimes when I'm at a cinema I have to put in my earphones to dampen the sound and at concerts I cover my ears. I've went to church with earplugs numerous times, finding the excitedly loud voice of the preacher overbearing, and the only way I can sit through the sermon and listen at it is by dampening the sound to a subdued conversation. A few weeks ago at a work event where there was a musical performance I had to walk out the venue to the other side of the building. The loudness of the event put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. A gaggle of children playing and shouting makes me anxious. I admit to not liking children, and I realise now that a major reason for this is that children are too noisy and haphazard for my sensibilities.
I hate strong smells. In fact, while I'm not prone to headaches, some of my worst headaches ever have been triggered by overwhelming smells. Yet I'm constantly sniffing at things: flowers, wood, books, spices. Different aromas bring me great joy.
I'm also very sensitive to taste and am often capable of distinguishing subtle flavours in dishes, this has enable me to recreate dishes I've tasted before without a recipe, purely based on remembering the different tastes.
I find the textures of certain fabrics uncomfortably rough. I have in the past bought some warm, woolly shirts, but I struggle wearing them as it feels like they are scratching my skin and since there I was a child there have been certain blankets under which I cannot sleep, as the feeling on my skin is too rough and disturbing. On the other other, soft textures like plush blankets can make me giddy with joy. I love touching silk and polished surfaces like marble or smoothed wood.
Visually, I can get enthralled by colours and textures. A small flower or colourful autumn leaf can make stop in my tracks to take in the moment and feel blessed for having witnessed such beauty. I sometimes crave to see certain things like other people might get a craving for certain foods: for instance I might crave to see bamboo in a bamboo forest, or crave to see a diamond on black velvet, or crave to see cobalt blue. Thankfully such cravings can in part be suppressed by quick image searches on the internet.
I'm also unusually attuned to people's emotional vibes, and can sometimes tell that someone is upset while they are still far off. Actually, awareness happens at an unconscious level, so that it feels like a form of telepathic empathy, although I'm guessing it to be my subconscious picking up on faint body language cues, if a more logical explanation is necessary.
HSPs tend to be very sensitive, empathetic and cordial. This is very true of me. They are likely creative (check), imaginative (check), and intuitive (check).
One writer on the topic stated something that I found quite profound: “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that in order to develop as people, we must meet certain needs in a certain order, starting with physiological needs. Well, I find that HSPs actually start at the top with transcendence needs and work down to the physiological needs last.”
How literally true this is I don't know, but it sure does feel to be the case with me sometimes. I'm often more preoccupied with the higher level needs, and have been so even during times when I was concerned about my physiological needs such as not having money for food or being stressed about where I will stay, or while in pain or discomfort from an injury or illness. Even during such times—or sometimes particularly because of such discomfort—my thoughts are taken up with matters of philosophy and spirituality.
This discovery, this new label brings surprising comfort to me. It confirms that it is not just in my imagination, that I do experience certain stimuli more intensely than most other people, that there is nothing wrong with me; my senses and nervous system are merely acute, more than the average. And now that I have a term, it is much easier to research it. I've already found some excellent coping strategies, some of which (like dimming lights and avoiding caffeine) I've discovered through the years by myself; but there are other suggestions as well, which I'm sure to test out.
If you think you are an HSP as well (about 15%-20% are), or if you suspect someone in your life is an HSP, listen to the following talk by Dr. Aron that she gave last year.