Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” ~Benjamin Spock

I used to believe that I was my thoughts. I really believed that everything happened well because I had analyzed and planned and prepared. I didn’t even know that I was doing this. I didn’t know there was any more to me than my thoughts.

I also used to believe that there was something seriously wrong with me, so thinking about how to fix myself was my main pastime.

All my life people told me, “You’re too sensitive,” “so intense,” “you’re just so emotional.”

I told this to myself, and plenty of other people told it to me too, both directly and indirectly.

I didn’t know how to live. I had an analysis of life rather than an experience of life when I was with others. When alone, my life was deep and vivid and rich. I felt it all. Little did I know then, no one knows how to live. We do it.

It only felt safe to feel it all alone. I’d get sideswiped by inexplicable emotion at inconvenient times. So, I just tried to keep it all under wraps, keep it all under conscious control.

I didn’t trust myself at all. I didn’t trust my body. I didn’t trust anything other than my thoughts. My body was so unpredictable and confusing, this sensitivity was so out of control.

Then, when I was twenty-five and married, after just graduating with my Master’s degree as a marriage and family therapist, I couldn’t do it anymore. It all fell apart. I realized that there was more to me, and the life I was living was a fake, a construction based on my thoughts.

I got divorced. I quit my job. I moved. I dropped it all. Realizing how much of my life was a lie and how directly I could connect with and trust my body made me see that I couldn’t keep living that life. It was a beautiful break down.

It was then that I started studying hypnosis in depth and I came in direct contact with my subconscious.

It was a funny paradox that it was so hard for me to relax because it was hard for me to let things be easy. I thought that every thing took a lot of effort.

I couldn’t believe that I could have such immediate and powerful results from a seemingly simple process of listening to my sensations and using them to give my body what it wanted.

Many times what my body wanted surprised me, or seemed hilarious. My subconscious seemed like this alien that was living in me; it was not the “me” that I identified with, yet it seemed to be living in me, generating these images and emotions and ideas that “I” did not create.

And this was the time that I learned about the genetic trait of sensory sensitivity.

I found the work of psychologist and researcher Dr. Elaine Aron about the “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP). It was the culmination of much personal study I had done on genetic sensitivity.

I had found out about being genetically sensitive to gluten (protein in wheat), genetically more susceptible to rumination (analyzing), and many other clues that pointed to me having a very different physical makeup related to loads of autoimmune disorders I experienced.

Finding this work on HSPs brought it all together. Understanding that I had a more highly sensitive nervous system that I was born with really helped it all click into place.

I learned that life is easier than I think it is. Thinking about life is hard. But life already is. It’s already happening. That’s easy.

I discovered that highly sensitive people seem to develop backwards compared to traditional theories. 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.

As a highly sensitive person, I am starting out with all this raw sensation at the transcendent level. It is up to me to self-actualize it and bring it into my body to feel it there, then bring it to thought and belief, and on down the levels to get a physiological manifestation.

And, it is so easy to just stay at the top, to stay in my head with it.

What a revelation to realize that there is nothing “wrong” with me, and all my thinking. It’s just the way I am built. And, I just hadn’t gone far enough with what I was sensing. I don’t start out at the physiological level, and I am not meant to!

In all my personal work and my work with highly sensitive clients, I have learned a few tricks at working better with sensitivity that I want to share with you. And, even if you are not genetically highly sensitive with a sensory sensitive nervous system, you are sensitive.

All human beings can sense, it just may not be what you start with if you are not highly sensitive.

What is sensitivity?

Sensitivity is your ability to pick up on sensory information with your nervous system. It is neutral. It’s like a sensitive microphone; it picks up on subtle sounds. Not good or bad.

What kinds of sensory things can you pick up on?

Your sensitive nervous system can pick up on other people’s emotions, the weather, lighting, sounds, smells, and more. I think of the human body like a vessel for receiving information, and your nervous system is your antennae bringing in that information. You can then process it in your body with your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions.

Why do we so often think of sensitivity as weakness?

We often think of sensitivity as weakness for three main reasons: it is out of our logical control, it makes us vulnerable, and we don’t know what to do with it, which means that we suppress and judge it—so it has manifested in weakness.

What can I do now to start to experience my sensitivity with greater strength?

Understand the difference between a sensation and an emotion. 

A sensation is neutral sensory information in your body (butterflies in stomach, tension in shoulders, pit in stomach). An emotion is a personal response to a sensation (I personally feel scared about this).

Allow yourself to feel your sensations neutrally and engage with them.

For example, “I feel my body shaking right now, and that is okay. I can shake.” Rather than judging it by saying, “Why am I shaky right now? What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be nervous now!”

Remind your self that you are a participant in life, not just an observer.

I liken this to being on the chessboard of life rather than just looking at it from above. Allow yourself to notice what you feel in response to the position you are in. There are actual energetic dynamics that you will feel based on where you are physically in your life. Ask yourself “What would feel better right now?” and then just let that come to you. 

You really can trust yourself; your body knows more than you think. Your nervous system is getting a lot. Trust it. Trust is a practice. It’s a work out. Start where you are and take a step in the direction of trusting your body and what it is telling you.

That is how you strengthen the connection with your body. The present is here for you to unwrap in each surprising moment.

Photo by Helga Weber

About Ane Axford

Ane Axford is a highly sensitive person & licensed psychotherapist who's leading the Sensitive Revolution to change the way that we use sensitivity. She is the creator of sensitive + thriving where she teaches Sensitive Leadership, has a live weekly show, an Atlas full of sensitive resources, and a lot more.

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