I recently spoke with author Bill Allen, who wrote ‘Confessions of a Sensitive Man’; a book reflecting on aspects of his life as a highly sensitive person. Through his work Bill wants to raise awareness and help others (especially men) understand, accept, and integrate the depths of who they truly are.
It was great to chat with Bill about some of the joys and challenges that we both experience as highly sensitive people in the world today.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a trait found in over 100 species, and makes up a fifth of the human population. Despite misconceptions, high sensitivity is about more than being highly emotional. It plays a cautionary role in evolutionary terms and is systematically baked into humankind as a way to identify and warn of potential risks and sources of harm in the world around us.
High sensitivity is defined by Elaine Aron through the acronym, D.O.E(e).S:
Depth of Processing
HSPs take information and grind it down in order to get every bit of data out of it (both consciously and unconsciously). They have a deep sensory experience of the world. This can sometimes lead to rumination and ‘overthinking’.
HSPs usually have an open aperture for picking up sensory data. They let a lot of information in and this can result in overstimulation when they’re out in the world all the time. They require regular down time to recalibrate before getting back out there again.
HSPs have a deep capacity for empathy through highly active mirror neurones. This can influence and colour interactions as HSPs absorb the moods and feelings of those around them.
HSPs are often easily affected and moved by things happening in and around them.
HSPs often pick up environmental sensory information that others might not. This ‘nuancing’ ability allows HSPs to find things around them and make connections. This is also a big reason many artists and creative people are highly sensitive.
The Aperture of High Sensitivity
We might think of high sensitivity like a camera lens. A longer shutter time and wider aperture means more data is absorbed. This leads to noticing more and the risk of overexposure and overwhelm from the inward flow of information.
With a naturally wider aperture, Highly Sensitive People need regular downtime in order to internally recalibrate, process, and re-charge.
Take Your Comfort Zone With You
Humans instinctively move towards pleasure and away from pain. When we experience a strong emotional response to something it can become overwhelming and feel out of our control.
Bill and I talked about the role the ‘comfort zone’ has when it comes to our relationship with growth (and quitting things) as highly sensitive people. He encourages us to think of our comfort zone as something that expands with us.
There are always going to be uncomfortable and imperfect things that we need to do in life. For highly sensitive people it’s important to nurture a safe relationship with the comfort zone. It’s important to find ways to let go and absorb these things rather than quitting what truly matters.
Quitting vs Giving Up
This highlights a difference between ‘quitting’ and ‘giving up’. These words are not definitive descriptions, but they can highlight an important distinction between two types of letting go.
Quitting is an intentional and active decision to let go of something that you know isn’t right for you. Giving up is letting go of something that is important to you (a decision you know you might lament and regret later on).
In this sense, quitting is an intentional and informed choice to let go of something that doesn’t fit your broader vision for life. Whereas giving up is an emotional reaction in order to avoid/stop a fear or pain.
Using Deadlines and Boundaries
When we experience fear we instinctively want to eliminate the source of it. This can lead us to run away in the face of something new, challenging, or different. Many people lack adequate support for how to work with our emotions and so we don’t work out how respond to the fear we might feel at times in our lives.
HSPs might struggle with criticism and not feeling good enough when starting something new. This fear might lead to a temptation to throw in the towel. But as Bill found with his son’s acting classes, we can create conditions to make informed (quit) rather than reactive decisions (give up).
We might use manageable deadlines as a way to do this. For example, I’ll keep going until the end of the month or I’ll attend 3 lessons that I’ve paid for. We can identify how far we might need to go in order to reach an intentional and deliberate decision.
And we can gently remind ourselves of the reason why doing or having this matters to us at a deeper level than the initial discomfort. Rather than a sink or swim approach, HSPs need gentle encouragement and a sense of safety in order to develop and grow. And with the right conditions they can absolutely thrive.
Creating an Operations Manual for High Sensitivity
We are all different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ definitive operations manual for high sensitivity. But we can learn from one another, experiment with other peoples’ observations, and integrate the things that work for us in our own lives.
Journalling is also a great way to build an operations manual for ourselves over time. Looking back into our past experiences, emotions and ways of dealing with things can give us great insight for present circumstances. We can see patterns and behaviours that provide clues as to how we might make good decisions for ourselves today.
A journal (in whatever form) can provide a positive feedback loop that both shows and contributes to our personal evolution and growth. We can create bridges between our past and future selves as we build self-awareness through time.
If this resonates with you then you can check out Bill’s book, Confessions of a Sensitive Man here.