Explaining Your Sensitivity
Explaining your sensitivity to people who "just don't get it" can feel next to impossible. As sensitives, we comprise 20 percent of the population. So at any given gathering, only one in five people will be sensitive to subtle stimuli. (And it doesn't feel subtle to us!) It's important to remember that everyone eventually gets overstimulated; for sensitives, it happens more quickly. Our threshold for tolerating stimulation is lower than it is for others.
Something to keep in mind about explaining your sensitivity is deciding when or if to do so. Sometimes relationships don't warrant it. For instance, I wouldn't explain my sensitivity to an acquaintance, but I certainly would to my intimate partner. Family members and coworkers fall into the "as needed" category. Remember, sometimes a simple, "No thank you," or, "I'd much prefer . . ." will suffice -- without explanation.
When you do choose to explain your sensitivity to a "non-HSP," author Elaine Aron recommends that you talk about it in the context of the temperament traits of everyone involved. Dr. Aron points out that traits such as persistence, flexibility, expressiveness, and openness all have shadow sides, including stubbornness, flightiness, drama, and distractibility. This is also the case with high sensitivity. The upside: intuitive insight, expanded awareness, conscientiousness, etc.; the downside: overstimulation, criticalness, perfectionism, etc.
So what does this mean on a practical level?
* Find a quiet, calm time to talk about your trait. Wait until you're not overstimulated or upset (and neither is anyone else).
* Use your best communication skills. Be polite and considerate, speak directly, and listen well. Ask, "Do you know what I mean?" periodically to ensure your message is getting across.
* Bring up your sensitivity as something that you've discovered about yourself. Describe it as a neutral trait, with both positives and negatives. Talk about being highly sensitive in simple terms. For example, "So this means that I'm more sensitive to sensory input, like loud noise, bright lights, crowds, and other people's emotional states, and I get overloaded by those things more quickly than people who are not highly sensitive." In the case of a close loved one, you may want to offer Dr. Aron's book The Highly Sensitive Person as additional reference material.
* Talk about other traits as well. Focus on the contributions each of you makes as a result of your different traits. For example, "Just like your flexibility enables us to come up with creative, spontaneous solutions, my sensitivity enables us to thoroughly plan things."
* Present your trait as something you are responsible for managing for yourself. In other words, let the person know that you take responsibility for taking care of yourself and for asking for what you need and want.
* Ask for support. If there are things that you are finding challenging,
ask for support. For example, "Because I'm sensitive to sensory input, I
find it challenging to work/relax/focus. (Include your situation: with
loud music playing, with bright lights glaring, without privacy, etc.)
Could we collaborate on a solution that would work for both of us?"
And when challenging situations do come up, be ready to: 1) take responsibility for your needs, and 2) ask for assistance if you need it!