The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2013: Comfort Zone ONLINE
An Adventure of the Heart with European HSPs

As some of you know, I do not do a great deal of public speaking. Although I enjoy it, I am also very introverted. It seems that the larger the group, the more painfully over stimulated I can feel afterwards. However, in the last year I have been trying to "open my heart," which has seemed to be the next step for me as well as good for those I encounter. I have had the hunch that some of my fatigue from being with strangers is due to the energy my psyche is putting into self-protection. Thus I have hoped having a more open heart would mean less fatigue after speaking. Hence I said yes this year to more speaking opportunities than usual.

The Gargantuan Itinerary, April 24 through May 25, 2013

First there was the annual invitation from Kripalu in Western Massachusetts, a personal growth and yoga center in the Berkshires. I accept year after year because of the spectacular setting, the wonderful healthy food, and the calm atmosphere. It seems just right for HSPs. However, as it happened, this year's out-of-the-U.S Gathering was in Sweden, and The Highly Sensitive Person was also being released in Swedish and Norwegian this spring. (Funny how it has crept around the world--Russian and Finnish are next.) Since I was going from the East Coast to Europe anyway for our annual walking trip in Europe, I said yes to a visit to Scandinavia.

Finally, quite synchronistically, Maike Andresen, an HSP and full professor in business administration at Bamberg University in Germany, emailed me as to whether I would ever come to Europe and teach a course--the first on the trait in relation to human resource management. In the process we would collaborate on some research. How could I say no to that? So we fit this into the end of our trip.

In all, including the trips from and back to California, I think I took 11 flights and slept in 12 different beds during this trip. I became very efficient at taking rest where I could, often meditating a few minutes in airport lounges or unlocked back rooms of book stores, lecture halls, or TV studios. This article is long because the trip was long, and I wanted to share it with you.

By the way, back in the U.S., in June I will speak in Walnut Creek, CA, teach a course for psychotherapists in October, and then fly off again, this time to New Zealand, for a conference and to visit the HSPs there. I am serious about this opening-the-heart thing.

Kripalu, a Course in Heart Arithmetic

The last two times I gave a weekend seminar at Kripalu, it was on The Undervalued Self, and as with earlier courses for HSPs, we were happy to have 30 sign up. This time, about a month in advance, they told me 69 had registered thus far, and we knew HSPs tend to wait to the last minute. While we discussed it, 11 more signed up, so we capped it at 80 and created a waiting list. It was a gratifying surprise, but how do you open your heart to 80 people in one weekend? I was going to find out.

I decided to use more groups so that they could get to know each other better, even if I would know them less. The first evening, besides my introducing myself, they met in groups organized by where they lived. But how would they really get to know me?

At the end of the first evening I like to read a poem, but more and more I tend to cry when I read poems. Maybe a drawback to this opening of the heart. I had to stop over and over with this one, even though I have read it many times. I was embarrassed, but they were wonderful about it, and definitely getting to know my heart.

The next evening when I wanted to end with a poem, I asked for someone else to do it. To my surprise, there were protests. It seemed that they preferred my teary rendition. But I insisted because I like the poem too much to mangle it that way. Of course I still cried, even more, while my volunteer read it.

As I usually do, I had them vote on the subjects they most wanted me to speak about, and given the large group, the top three probably represent the concerns of many of you, so you might be interested. First, as always, was how to cope with over arousal--a theme of the book and many Comfort Zone articles, but always the drawback of our trait. The second was worry and anxiety, which I wrote about last time. The third was the problem of feeling others' feelings, which almost everyone in the room experienced. I reminded them that this is the result of our more active mirror neurons, which gives us more empathy and insight than others, which we can use in many ways besides simply being overwhelmed by it.

On Saturday they met in groups according to interests. As usual, men were a distinct minority. I have a special soft spot in my heart for highly sensitive men, so I decided to divide the group by gender and hand the women over to some very competent leaders. I (or rather my "inner man," a pretty out-there guy) facilitated the men, to see that everyone had a chance to speak. While I would not want to discuss anything specific, our hearts definitely opened in the brief time we had together.

I was especially worried about how to end the weekend--we HSPs do not like this part. I decided to seat us in a circle (80 still) and have everyone take to the center a slip of paper on which they had written words of encouragement for another HSP, something reflecting the validation they had received during the three days, so that another HSP could carry this in his or her wallet as a reminder of the weekend. Then I invited anyone to speak a few words if they wanted to. A non-HSP spouse (we didn't know about her) addressed us as especially wonderful people whom she was very glad to have come to know. That was validation for all 80 of us, who had just been ourselves. Another woman who had been silent and obviously shy spoke eloquently about the three days. Others also talked about what being in the group had meant to them. It was a moving moment for all of us.

I left Kripalu exhausted, as usual, but not more exhausted than usual, and this was after keeping an unusual number of people satisfied for an entire weekend. Most important, I felt more peaceful than after past years. I knew I had opened my heart more to this group, and it was working.

Good-Bye to Stony Brook

The next week was Art's last teaching at SUNY-Stony Brook, where he has been 20 years. He is NOT retiring, as he keeps reminding everyone, but will be working at University of California, Berkeley in a part time way while continuing his research. The Saturday after Kripalu, they gave him a very moving "Bon Voyage" party. The Monday after that, Art and I addressed the faculty and students in his area on the sensory processing sensitivity research (SPS, our academic term for all of this). After that, they gave him a surprise party that was warm and touching. The following day we locked his office for the last time and drove a rental care to JFK and our flight to Europe. I think I was more "at a loss" than even he was. It was another heart-filled time.

Sweden--Sweet Memories of Swedes and Many Others

Right now I am in a plane flying from Oslo to Nice. What a time I have had over the last six days. On Wednesday May 8 we landed in England, flew on to Stockholm, and were ushered to a luxurious "boutique" hotel in the artistic center of the city, not far from the Old Town. That was the physical trip, but the "heart" trip was just beginning. My publisher in Sweden, Ane Frostad, owns a small spiritual publishing company, Egia, specializing in self-help and spiritual books--a dream of hers for years. She knew from the beginning that she wanted to publish The Highly Sensitive Person and boldly outbid another company to purchase the rights.

We met Thursday evening and I knew right away that Ane and I would grow fond of each other. We made a good foursome, too, with Art and her boyfriend Peter, another HSP with a successful business as a book distributor. They are both well grounded, yet apparently unusually spiritual for being Swedish (87% belong to the Lutheran Church, but 2% attend it). It is indeed a very, very grounded culture, with their excellent design skills and practical orientation. It seems they have been this way for a long time: The first Christian missionaries to Scandinavia discovered that introducing the potato to the Vikings was the best way to win them over!

I was also totally delighted to finally meet Else Marie Gudul, who, although she lives in Switzerland, has almost single handedly (well, with 250 members and a lively board) created an association of HSPs in Sweden. She is slim and blond, an extraverted, highly organized, details-plus-big-picture, fun HSP for sure! We all had dinner together Thursday night. It was a sweet evening I will never forget.

Getting Down to Work

The first morning I did two photo shoots, posing over and over in different ways in a park just beginning to show signs of spring. These were for the leading Swedish newspaper and for a magazine on self-development. Both photographers were highly sensitive men and of course very talented. They seemed to like learning more about themselves as we chatted during the picture taking. During the interview for the newspaper, the photographer was especially alert when I mentioned crying easily being part of being an HSP, although it is not an item on the self-test because HS men check it much less often. He told me, with shiny eyes, that he cries as much as anyone, but on the inside--another moment of two open hearts.

The interview was also conducted by an HSP, this time a young parent, so I could share what I know so far about HS parents: They are very creative parents--the good news--but also easily overstressed, the not surprising news. She immediately told me about what happened to her the day before, which was a national holiday. She had planned a wonderful, activity-filled day for her family--she is also a high sensation seeker (typical of journalists, as they need to be sensitive to readers and interviewees, yet eager to meet new people). Those of you who know that HSP-HSS combo can especially appreciate what happened to her that day: Her children had a wonderful time, but she was almost too exhausted to enjoy any of it.

On Signing Books

In the afternoon, I did a book signing at the largest Stockholm bookstore (of the largest Stockholm bookstore chain). The manager warned me that probably no one would come on a Friday, as it was the second day of a long weekend, and the Swedes go out to the country as often as they can. Well, sixty came, and what a warm, loving audience! As I began, one HSPs guy winked at me, making me feel so relaxed.

I spoke for about half an hour and took questions for another half hour, then signed books that people had purchased. Signing books has always made me nervous. It seems as though it says I am special in some way, superior for having written a book, and I don't want anyone to feel one down around me. But I realized that was part of my tendency to "rank," which we all do, but hopefully avoid when it is not appropriate. The problem is that a complex in this area can blind you to the reality of things, but this time I got it that if people want me to sign their book and say hello, it doesn't mean they feel inferior to me. Duh! This overdue insight left me freer to make a sincere effort to meet each person's eyes, thank them for coming, and receive their heartfelt gratitude as "linking," not as an expression of their feeling inferior, envious, or worshipful in a "ranking" way. How good to be freed from that complex for awhile!

Lise August

Saturday morning brought two and half hours of videotaping. I was helping Anne Mari Gundhus, whom I was meeting for the first time, make a documentary on sensitivity for Scandinavia. How exciting! At the same time, Lise August, a psychologist from Denmark, was using the videotaping for an "interactive" book on HSPs that she is creating.

Besides being soothing yet delightful to be around, Lise and her husband Martin have made sensitivity a household term in Denmark. As a result, they have also met with some skepticism. Lise is such a "heart person" that she responds with something like, "How wonderful you care so much about your patients (clients, children, people generally, etc.) that you do not want to accept something new without being sure of its validity." But we hoped to give her, through this video, some fresh responses supported by the latest research and my lengthy experience with the subject.

When I opened my hotel room door that morning, I was so glad to see her. In fact I think it surprised me a little, how much I cared for her and had missed her. Lise and Martin have come twice to California to meet with me, and I gave a major talk in Copenhagen arranged by her, but it had been a long time since we last met because both she and Martin have parents who have been ill and needed them.

First thing, I asked her to help me figure out what to wear. I had put on a hiking shirt and spread out all my dressy clothes on the bed, feeling very anxious about what to choose for the video and the talk in Oslo, which would also be taped for the same projects, so I had to look different and both had to be good for the camera. She looked it all over and said Scandinavians would like best the hiking shirt I was wearing! So that's what I wore. Once again I was in tears, however--feeling so glad to see her and relieved by her taking charge (and probably tired, given jet lag). Fashion is definitely not my strong suit.

We only had three hours together before she and Anne Mari left for Oslo where they would also video me, and we used every minute. Lise interviewed me, exploring all the facets of sensitivity that she wanted addressed. We were in our element and having fun. It was over too soon.

The HSP Gathering--Feeling at Home in a this Pleasantly Strange Place

That afternoon, Ane and Peter personally drove us far out into the Swedish countryside to the location of the 26th HSP Gathering, the reason for my coming to Scandinavia in the first place. The drive was much longer than we expected, and all those back roads through farms and forests apparently felt a little strange to these city people. But we had a wonderful time getting even closer as we conversed in the car.

Once at the resort, we walked into the reception area and I immediately felt so at home, because I saw Jacquelyn Strickland's handwriting on a sign, greeting everyone. I knew her handwriting from past gatherings--her many sayings and illustrations about being highly sensitive which she places all around the walls of whatever meeting room I find her in, be it Marin, Santa Cruz, Colorado, New England, the U.K., or today, in Sweden. Art and I settled into an entire little house overlooking a lake. The surrounding forests of fir and alder were carpeted with tiny white flowers. Sometimes it feels so good to encounter an entirely new version of nature.

I was once told that Sweden has the national personality, if such things exist, most like HSPs. I don’t know about that, but that evening as I walked alone beside this huge lake, which extends from where we were all the way back to Stockholm, I felt that it surely is a good place for this HSP. There were no other buildings anywhere in sight. There are only 9 million people throughout this huge country. Being mid-May, it was close to solstice, so it stays bright until 10 p.m. or later. The light is exquisite, not like anywhere else on earth. Even as a child, I wanted to be in Scandinavia at this time of year, when the night hardly happens. Maybe it's because I am so affected by lack of sunlight. Anyway, I was as enthralled as I expected to be, filled with real fantasies of moving here--for half of every year.

A Truly International HSP Gathering

This was the first gathering in Europe proper, and there were people from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Finland, Poland, Norway, the U.K, and of course Sweden. I can recall almost every face, but have probably forgotten a country. Although I was only there until three the next afternoon, there were many good connections, including some time alone with many. I was moved by those brief yet often deep encounters, and in some cases the opportunity to be of some slight help.

It was also good to be with Jacquelyn again, and to have our first dinner there with her co-organizers, Annett DeZwart from the Netherlands and Barbara Allen-Williams from the U.K. (National Center for High Sensitivity). Jacquelyn is working on a book based on her experiences running these Gatherings, and I hope she completes it soon. She has amassed so much insight during this time, quite uniquely hers without losing sight of the basic trait and its research evidence.

What began as a group photo out on the porch that overlooks the lake became a photo of every national group. It felt like a historical event. I left exhilarated and ready for more, which was good given what I was doing next.

Oslo, and Many More People to Meet

I am now in an airport lounge in Dusseldorf, feeling a bit "whirly" on my way to our last stop, Bamberg, Germany. Now I can write about Oslo. While the Swedes already knew quite a bit about HS due to some other books published there, the Norwegians were learning about it for the first time, with the publication of my book. The enthusiasm was enormous, and much of this was due to Nina Aastad, one of the first HSPs to speak about the subject in her country. She and her partner met us at the airport and escorted us on the train into the city, where the low lying sun shone through the streets from behind the royal palace of the king of Norway.

The first day there were two more interviews and photo shoots, at the dramatic waterfront Oslo Opera House, designed as an abstract image of a glacier, complete with a glass "ghost ship" sinking nearby. With its soft natural light from the huge windows overlooking the bay, it is the perfect place to be photographed.

In the afternoon, I did a TV show to be aired later and had another book signing--160 people this time, and I was asked to talk for an hour and a half. I signed at least 50 books afterwards.

It's difficult to describe the cumulating feelings. I felt buoyed up, but also anxious about the effects on my ego of so much attention. Influence equals power, and power always corrupts to some small degree. My response was to try to drop all self-awareness and be present for each person I met. That was more difficult the next day.

That day I spoke for a company called Podium, which helps people develop professionally. They were doing an entire day on HSPs in the work place, with me as the keynote speaker in the morning. This time I think I spoke two hours, to a full capacity crowd of 260, in the lovely Oslo Concert Hall's smaller theater, and I signed another 50 plus books. It was more difficult connecting with individual members of such a large audience, but I was able to speak to many afterwards. The warm connections were touching, and getting overwhelming.

A Minor News Flash: Just as this is going to "press" I have heard that the Norway publisher is already doing its first reprint of the book, meaning the first printing was sold out.

Connecting With Kristine

The publisher had assigned Kristine Kleppo to guide us about town, get us to appointments on time, and generally watch over us. Kristine is a charming HSP for sure. She is also a writer, spending time in Paris at Shakespeare's when she can. We grew very fond of her, and she us. That afternoon she took us to the Vigeland sculpture garden, in one of the largest city parks, which allowed nature and art to soothe me. Then she left us in peace for dinner. In fact, both nights we were scheduled to have dinner with people wanting to spend more time with us, but introverted HSP that I am, I declined. I'm pleased that I knew when to say no as well as when to say yes.

We did say yes to Kristine's offer to meet us at our hotel the next morning at 7:30 a.m., before she went to work, to take us to the train that goes to the airport. We were sad to part, but knew we had made an important friend we will see again.

Looking back, I was especially impressed by the number of bright, successful HSPs I met in Sweden and Norway, each well integrated into the world and often functioning as leaders, whether extraverted or introverted. Scandinavia may be an especially good place to meet these HSPs, as the cultures do seem more sensitive--for example, to each other's needs. As a clinical psychologist and someone often hearing about the difficulties HSPs are having, it was good for me to meet these solidly developed HSPs. These experiences also reinforced in my mind Michael Pluess's article on vantage sensitivity, about which I was often speaking. I think we are uncovering a second wave of HSPs--those who maybe formerly did not recognize themselves in the term or at least did not talk about it--not to mention the next generation, who will be raised by HSC-savvy parents.

The Bamberg Adventure

Now I'm in the Munich Airport Lounge! The final part of my HSP odyssey was after our vacation. As I said before, early in the year, Maike Anderssen, a full professor at the University of Bamberg in their business department speculating in human resource management, emailed to ask if I would ever consider coming to Germany to teach her masters and doctoral students. Since it happened that I would be in Europe, I agreed to nine hours of teaching, with Art doing some statistical instruction as well.

We arrived late at night in Nuremberg, but Maike met us anyway and drove us the 45 minutes to Bamberg. She is funny and sweet, blushes easily and gets lost in her own home town (a very complicated one), but she has impeccable boundaries and common sense beneath her light hearted style. She has two daughters, four and seven, and still manages to publish and teach at the level of a successful academic, thanks in part to a husband on three years of paternity leave (one good strategy for an HS parent). Not that I was learning all that the first evening. I was too tired to make much conversation that night. Art, my sweet and durable non-HSP, chattered away with her.

A Teaching Marathon

We arrived at a strange hotel in a strange city, went to sleep in a strange bed, got up, took a taxi to a modern classroom in what looked like a business park, and started teaching for six hours. I presented all the research--pretty much everything I knew--and then wondered if these very quiet business students had really understood much of it? I would see the next day.

I was rather dazed after all of that, but finally at twilight, I had my grounding walk. (I try to take a lengthy walk soon after every plane flight.) What a walk! Bamberg is a World Heritage site, being an almost perfectly preserved medieval city dating back to 900. Two rivers run through it, with several charming bridges, including one with a timbered, medieval, remodeled-as-baroque city hall.

Its most notable developers were the King of what was then called Germany and Italy, later crowned as Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich II, along with his gracious queen Cunigunde, also the patroness of Luxembourg. Later canonized, they ruled together from 1002 to 1024. Besides being unusually charitable, they set out to create a German version of Rome, with a church on each of Bamberg's seven hills. They are buried together in the main church, and their handsome faces are on many, many portals, columns, and altars. They must have had a rare ability to maintain peace and prosperity in those difficult times.

The next day, I taught three more hours, trying to make the information useful for the non-HSPs especially. Afterwards, I returned to the hotel and went to bed for three hours, finally feeling truly burned out and a bit sick. I think it was because I was teaching mostly non-HSPs. In Oslo I spoke to a "mixed" crowd, but they had all paid to be there and knew what to expect. These were young business students with no prior understanding of SPS. Further, they simply did not ask questions. I learned later that this is partly because they rarely have the same classmates for more than a few days--the business department has thousands of students--but at the time I simply felt I was speaking into a vacuum.

Still, these students were game. The problem was that the non-HSPs could not quite figure out how to know if someone is an HSP, beyond giving the person a test, and that isn't always possible in a business setting. Further, we all realized that employees might feel afraid of having their sensitivity discovered. As the prime example, although I knew quite a few of them were HSPs, no one wanted to talk about it in the class. I realized that the theme of "how do you know who is an HSP" came partly from not knowing who among their classmates was highly sensitive, and those who were feared that others could tell. It was getting psychologically complicated indeed.

After building some trust by finding, through an anonymous vote, that no one would respect anyone less if they were highly sensitive, a few students talked about their trait. Then I addressed their nervousness by role playing with them, which lightened things up a bit. With one volunteer pretending to be a skeptical manager, I tried to talk him into doing a seminar on making better use of their HS employees. After all, before an employee (or student) discussed being sensitive, he or she would need to feel the people higher up would not use it against them.

However, when I suggested they now try this role playing themselves, they let me know that they still mostly wanted to know how to tell if someone was highly sensitive. So we made a list of ways, and I had them break into pairs and play a non-HSP trying to find out if the other person was an HSP, without threatening the person, and then they switched roles. Finally they were laughing and lively.

Still, the last statements made by two students stayed in my mind: From an HSP, "If you are an HSP, you know it; if you aren't sure, you aren't," and from a non-HSP, "How can I know who is an HSP given I'm not sensitive enough to recognize all these subtle signs of one?" I had several times explained the acronym DOES (Depth of processing, easily Overstimulated, Emotionally reactive, and Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli) as a way to understand the trait. But I could see what she meant, even if she could not see what I had meant for two days!

Something I Can Cross Off My List

We had dinner with Maike that night. Even as a little girl, Maike had wanted to be a teacher, and she was clearly good at it. The students who knew her best seemed to love and respect her. When she came to Bamberg, she found that the students were never expected to ask questions. They heard a lecture and took a test. She implemented a number of fresh ideas for improving the teaching, but the dean told her, "We don't do it this way; it isn't our tradition.” She went ahead and implemented her ideas, and the next year he told her the same thing. She implemented her ideas for a third year, and this time when the dean complained she told him, "But I've been doing this for three years, so now it IS a tradition." Spunky HSP, standing up for what she knew was right.

After a lively evening, we parted in the rain and Art and I walked home over the bridges to our hotel under the wall of the huge cathedral. The next day, Art and I explored Old Bamberg inch by inch, and today, here I am in the Munich airport, starting home.

Lessons learned: First, although least important, unlike Maike, I have not enjoyed university teaching that much. This time I realized why: My "depth of processing" brings up so many ideas, so many intuitions, that I get beyond what most students can or want to grasp. It works better when one focuses on an outline of simple points, but I have never been good at it. So I tend to lose them, and when I feel that, my complex kicks in and I feel judged and rejected. Once my complex is triggered, my heart closes tight.

To think out loud for a moment, I realize that teaching more from the heart would improve the experience for everyone involved--that is, paying close attention to what those before me need and want to know, right now, and to stay focused on their development. But I did not have the chance to get to know these business students very well. It was very satisfying to speak with those who did approach me, HSPs or not, about their personal concerns. But university teaching is mainly about advanced ideas, which is where I get too far ahead of students and do not enjoy that much slowing down for them, just as when I hike, I tend to go out in front. Further, in this class, my assignment was to talk about sensory processing sensitivity, and after six hours of that I sensed that the non-HSPs were growing restless and confused.

In comparison to university teaching, I always enjoy what I call "adult education," when people are present (or reading) because they want to be, HSPs or not. Adults are not required to listen; they are not there because they are supposed to be in school or want a degree. Of course with HSPs I feel especially safe and happy. They need to know what I have to say, and either they can follow me or are too polite to tell me when they can't! I don't mind skeptical questions from non-HSPs, but it's hard when anyone in an audience just loses interest. It's good to know that I can cut university teaching from my life for good.

Two Other Lessons Along with Some Final Thoughts

Second lesson: I was able to open my heart among HSPs, hundreds of them, and I was not as tired from it as I was in the past, or as I had feared. I guess there is not so much to defend against as I had thought. But I still have my physical limits due to my sensitivity, perhaps more than ever as I also grow older.

Third lesson: Again, there are some amazing HSPs out there!

I do not like to pressure HSPs into some kind of zealous evangelism about this trait, but there still are too many people who do not understand it, and therefore too many HSPs who are being stigmatized or fear that they will be because of their trait. At times on this trip, I worried that I was making us sound too good, especially when I spoke to non-HSPs, as if we are superior to others with our "vantage sensitivity." We will want to guard against that sort of misunderstanding. Non-HSPs have their own gifts and talents, but also should have the opportunity to benefit from ours. The point of vantage sensitivity is that we soak up our environments, the good ones as well as the poor ones. Sensitive children, students, employees and everyone else can make a superb contribution to others if they are treated well. We have to let the world know this. Gradually and politely, of course.


May 2013 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
An Adventure of the Heart with European HSPs
Vacation Time and Friends: Suggestions for You
HSPs and Hotels
Ted Zeff on Preventing Your Sensitive Son being Bullied
A Review of Attachment Play by Aletha Solter


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

May 2013 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

An Adventure of the Heart with European HSPs

Vacation Time and Friends: Suggestions for You

HSPs and Hotels

Ted Zeff on Preventing Your Sensitive Son being Bullied

A Review of Attachment Play by Aletha Solter



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