Living Hypersensitive

In the last few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed with work, which is why I’ve gotten behind on blogging. No, overwhelmed is the wrong word — I don’t get overwhelmed with the work itself, because I’m very organized. But there have been nights when I’ve gotten home, eaten dinner, and simply fallen asleep for a couple of hours. Then I get up again and work. So what is it that overwhelms me? What is it that takes all my energy, so that at some points all I can do is collapse?

Part of the answer is people: I have so much to do with people, almost every day. For me, a truly restful day involves doing just as much work, but entirely by myself. Then I spend a lot less energy doing it.

One problem, of course, is that I’m introverted — that means people drain my energy rather than energizing me. Spending a day alone is like recharging. After time alone, my battery feels full again. But another problems is being hypersensitive. Which basically means that I have fewer boundaries protecting me from the world. Have you ever gone into a store, heard music playing, and tuned it out? I can’t tune it out. Or smelled something and then forgotten it was there? I don’t. Which is why I don’t cook with garlic . . . because the smell never seems to go away, and it never seems to stop bothering me.

A lot of people are hypersensitive in that way, but we’re in the minority, I think. And we live in a world that is not made for us, that is made for people with with a higher level of tolerance (for noise, for dirt, for all the things we can’t seem to stop noticing). It’s like living in a world made for men who are about 5’10” tall, when you’re a 5’4″ woman, which is of course my other experience of the world. (I have to stand on a stool to reach my highest kitchen cabinets. On the other hand, I fit comfortably into airplane seats, which seem to be made for people my size — despite the fact that most people are not my size.) We live in a world that is often too much for us.

So if you’re hypersensitive, what are you hypersensitive to?

1. Noises, smells, tastes, textures. The world is too loud for you. It often smells too strong, although there’s a benefit too — you get to appreciate flowers more, I think. Or the smell of baking. Being hypersensitive does have its benefits. But for me, restaurant foods are often too highly flavored. I’m perfectly happy eating a bowl of brown rice, broccoli, and peas with butter and salt. (Confession: that and a hard boiled egg is one of my standard dinners.) Some clothes are too scratchy. Do you buy clothes specifically because they’re soft? Do you cut out the tags? Then you may be hypersensitive . . . The physical world itself can be overwhelming.

2. Temperatures. I know it sounds ridiculous to people who don’t respond this way, but I notice the difference between 68 degrees and 72 degrees. When my university office is 68 degrees, my hands are so cold that I can’t write. Which means that staying in hotel rooms drives me crazy.

3. People. Do you pick up on people’s emotional states? Do you often know what they’re thinking or feeling, or about to say even before they say it? This is a useful skill if you’re a teacher. You can say things like “I think the real problem isn’t that you’re not sure how to structure this introduction, but that you’re worried about your exam. So why don’t you take the exam, and then think about the introduction? When your mind is clearer and you’re not worried about Biology, you’ll be able to set down your ideas in a clearer way.” It’s a serious problem if you live with people who are angry or depressive, because it means you pick up on their emotions. And when you can’t filter them out, and you usually can’t, they become your emotions as well.

Tip: If you’re hypersensitive, make sure the emotions you’re feeling are your own. If you’re sad, make sure it’s your own sadness, that you’re not picking it up from someone else. It’s so easy, when you don’t have those filters, to feel someone else’s feelings and assume they’re yours. The only way to tell is to go off by yourself. Go to a place where you can be alone. Now what do you feel?

4. Beauty and ugliness. If you’re hypersensitive, you need beauty, the way you need sleep or food. So make sure you get plenty of beauty. One of my best investments has been a membership to the Museum of Fine Arts. There is something so calm about an art museum . . . And if I need to see something beautiful, I can go stand in front of a Monet. Go to the symphony or the ballet if you can afford it. If you live in a city, find the parks around you. If you live in the country, plant a garden. Honestly, I would have people who are hypersensitive write themselves a prescription: “Beauty, to be taken twice daily.” (I live in the city, so I buy myself flowers; I have houseplants, and paintings on the walls. I think of decorating my space as an investment — in myself, my own productivity and peace of mind.)

Tip: Give yourself permission to avoid ugliness. Yes, I know it’s important to find out what’s going on in the world. But violence and ugliness will overwhelm you, and that doesn’t make you any more effective, does it? Figure out what you can do to help in your own corner of the world, and then do that. Don’t get into the fights that are raging all the time, unless it really is for an important moral principle. Make your message positive.

5. Stress. You will be more sensitive to stress, including the stress you generate yourself. You may have a tendency to catastrophize, to constantly imagine the worst. I do: I imagine the worst and decide how to prepare for it — it’s a way of feeling secure, which is fine, as long as I don’t then continue to imagine the worst, over and over. Because that’s not useful or healthy. The way to deal with stress is, first, to get rid of the stress if you can (change your external circumstances). But so often we can’t, and then the way to deal with unavoidable stress is to create resilience. You have to make yourself stronger. Anyway, certain kinds of stress are good for you — teaching is stressful, speaking in public is stressful, I even find signing books stressful. But they are good things for me to do, and there are also things I love about them. So how do you make yourself stronger?

Tip: You must take care of yourself. Really, you must. What makes you happy, what can you do just for you? It’s absolutely essential for you to do those things, or you’ll become depleted. You’ll collapse, the way I’ve been doing some nights. Your list will probably be different from mine, but mine includes the following: bubble baths, chocolate, reading books, flowers, going for walks. Make sure you’re getting the things you need for your soul.

Of course, also make sure you’re getting the things you need for your body: sleep, the right kinds of food and exercise, calm spaces. Soft textures. Contact with people who ask for nothing from you, who don’t take energy from you (those are the precious few).

There are both good and bad aspects of being hypersensitive. The good aspect, which is what I generally choose to focus on, is that you’re sensitive, very sensitive to beauty, to art, to music, to spring when it finally comes after a long winter. The bad aspect is that sometimes you’re too sensitive for a particular context — a rough environment, whether home or school, can send you spiraling. You need to be aware that you’re living in a world with people who respond differently than you do — not all of them, but the majority. It’s OK to adjust the world for your own needs, to the extent you can. In fact, it’s necessary if you’re going to function at your best and highest level.

You can see my tiredness in this blog post: it’s disjointed, the points still logically following one another but without the sort of flow I usually try to achieve in my writing. That’s all right. This is what I have, right now, for now. It’s the last month of the semester, and soon enough I’ll have time to rest and focus on my writing . . .

Friday Night 2

(This is me last night. Tired . . .)

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10 Responses to Living Hypersensitive

  1. This is an awesome post, Dora! I am all of this and never really thought about any of it but the introvert part. I just copied it into a file. Is there a book on this?

    • Melinda, I think the book closest to talking about it is Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person. Here is her website: But I’ve also taken some useful information and tips from books on what is called “sensory defensiveness,” which you may be able to just google. I like Aron a lot, but for me she doesn’t get at every aspect of the issue. So I use her ideas as a starting place and go on from there . . .

  2. Martin says:

    Thanks for this very timely reminder of the perils/benefits of being an introvert. I’m an older guy, a bit on the shorter side compared with most other males (both are definite negatives in our culture) and score INTJ, which, from time to time has brought me to deep internal anger/rage at the world and other people in general.

    Over the years, I have learned to channel this energy into a practice closely related to “Chop wood, carry water” which is to say I refocus this energy into what to others would be the mundane, the everyday, and use it to beautify and maintain my own local universe.

  3. Those of us who write are used to being alone. The chaos of crowds and noise is a major problem for a lot of us. Then, as you were describing, if one is somewhat intuitive, the sudden bad or sad mood is often somebody else nearby–in a coffee shop or an elevator, perhaps. I try to manage this kind of chaos as best I can and look forward to getting back home with my books. Wonderful post that speaks volumes, but in a soft voice.

  4. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Tranquility. It’s a lifelong quest. Planning solitude for writing, and working on trying not
    to worry. I can be gregarious as in theatre, it has a pattern. Mimic and entertain. One gets close to an audience, as a tribal group struggling for the right ending. Most recently, Yoga and breathing deliberately. Best friends who know your limits. Hate fights. Big why? Little shrines around my studio and books, books. books. And reading your blog. Stayed away from tech-stuff as I thought it would be scattered and difficult. Not so. Here and Myth and Moor. Part of a gentle, beautiful life. Oh, and a cat.

  6. jackiehames says:

    Though I am not hypersensitive, I am highly sensitive… Which is to say I experience the same things you just described, but I have a higher tolerance for physical stimuli. But not emotional or spiritual. I’ve been exhausted for three weeks straight because my emotional and spiritual defenses are shot.

    Let’s hope we can all get some rest soon.

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