Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: February 2008.
Dear Highly Sensitive Teenager,
Most of the information you need about being highly sensitive is here on this website, including the Comfort Zone newsletters, or it’s in the books I have written. So I do not have to explain the basics. Here I want to speak just to you. (But if you are older and your “inner teenager” is interested, you are welcome to read this too.)
Was Your Score High Enough, but Not High?
First I want to explain more about the self-test on this website and in the books. Persons your age may score lower than others and still be highly sensitive. This is because adolescence is the time in life when people born with this trait are often the least sensitive, especially to noise and having to do more than one thing at once. There are many theories about why, but I will not bother you with them. And, you may find you have your own.
Also, there are as many baby boys born who are highly sensitive as there are girls. By your age most males score lower on the self-test. The reason is obvious. It is so difficult to be highly sensitive in this culture if you are a man. So most sensitive men and boys are trying to hide their sensitivity. Often they do not even know what they are trying to get rid of. But the last thing they want to do is to answer a list of questions that seems to uncover something in them that they fear is not masculine.
Being “gender appropriate” is very important in most cultures, but what it means to be a man or woman differs widely. In some cultures men are expected to be particularly aggressive and even cruel, whether in war or in business. They should be shrewd. Decisive. They should never show their feelings. Even being smart is a bit suspect, especially at your age. Being sensitive is definitely not considered masculine.
In other cultures men are valued as much or more for their learning, insight, artistic sensibility, depth of feeling, ability to love, and devotion to protecting others. Sensitive men have more of these virtues. (And being gay has nothing to do with it.)
You know which type of culture you live in. But do not despair. There are cultures within cultures all around you where sensitive men are respected. You will simply have to manage being “different” for a little while longer — see below.
What I Will Write About in This and Future Newsletters
I hope I will eventually cover most of the subjects that concern you. I will write about the first two in this newsletter and the others in subsequent ones. Here’s the list (but subject to change, and if you want me to cover others, email me at email@example.com):
- Feeling different
- What to do about your intense emotions
- Dealing with your family
- Friend troubles
- School troubles
- Worrying about how you will do after high school or college
Two Strategies, Equally Good
Before I plunge into the first topic however, I want to explain a little more about high sensitivity, in a very objective and scientific way. This will help you understand yourself much better.
This trait is really one of two “personality types.” These two are found in almost all animals, from fruit flies and fish to dogs and chimps. The two types are really two strategies or “bets” on how to survive.
Some animals, the sensitive ones, bet that the best approach is to be careful, to plan, to explore with their senses. They mull over what they can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell before they actually do anything. Sometimes they seem to others to be timid or shy, but they are not really because they are not usually afraid. They are just watching and waiting for the right moment. Their motto is “Do it once and do it right.” Or “Look before you leap.” This strategy is used by about 20% of animals, including people.
The other approach, that of the less sensitive, is to bet that “the early bird gets the worm” and “opportunity only knocks once.” They explore physically, not mentally. They act now and think later. They jump at opportunities.
Neither approach is superior. It all depends on the situation. Imagine two deer arriving at the edge of a meadow. The more sensitive one waits, checking everything before going out to graze. The less sensitive one only pauses. Then it goes on into the open to eat the new grass. If there is a hunter there, this deer is someone’s lunch. If there is no hunter, this deer is first at the grass, eating the very best while the other misses out.
Or imagine two mating strategies, found in many animals. The less sensitive fight the other males and bully the females, sometimes succeeding in mating and sometimes dying from injuries. Their lives are definitely shorter due to stress. The more sensitive males wait until the others are exhausted. Then they go off with one of the females, who often prefer them. (Maybe this sounds familiar.) They may mate less often in one season, but they have not risked injury or stress and thus over a lifetime may mate more often. (All of this is irrelevant for humans, who mostly use a different mating strategy, in which the two pair for life and help each other raise their offspring.)
The Problem of Overload
Because sensitive humans are so aware of all the small things in a situation and all the possibilities of what could occur, their brains are very busy. If they are in a situation with many, many things happening, their brains are extremely busy. This can lead to serious overload.
This tendency to overload is the only major problem with being highly sensitive. It has many effects. One is that we do not usually like to have as much going on as others do.
There is an exception to this. Actually, it is not an exception at all, but it looks like one. Some highly sensitive people are also “high sensation seekers.” This is another genetic trait. People high in sensation seeking are easily bored. They are curious. They like to try new foods, travel, and they rarely see the same movie twice.
While the two traits could seem to be opposites, they are not. When you have the two, you do new things constantly, but you think carefully and plan before doing them. You like to travel, and plan the trip well. You like new and even daring sports, but you pay close attention to safety.
Having the two traits does mean you can wear yourself out with your curiosity and your need to do new things while also needing to process all of it. As one person said, being high in sensitivity and sensation seeking together is like driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator.
By the way, 30% of sensitive people are extraverts, and many of those are people who are high in sensation seeking. But even if you are a highly sensitive extraverted sensation seeker, you do reach overload sooner than others. You do need a large share of quiet time to recover from an exciting day, week, or month.
The main thing about our being easily overloaded is that if we have to perform, compete, take a timed test, or think of something to say to a stranger at a party, we often do worse than others. Other people in these situations are probably just excited enough to do even better than they were practicing alone. But you are easily overexcited and could do your worst. It can make you angry!
Planning for Overload
There are many ways to reduce your tension when the pressure is on. One of the best is to over prepare: Practice extra, study extra, think about what you will say to a stranger before you go to a party. Knowing you are ready, you will be able to “think positive” for good reason, not just as a slogan.
But it also helps to “think negative,” in the right way. When the stakes are high, plan that something will go wrong. That way at least you are not shocked and have an idea of what you will do. Some people will tell you that this is “being negative.” But sensitive people almost always imagine every possibility, including the worst. That is our nature–to think it all through and be prepared. You can’t fight it and it is not a flaw.
Being Easily Overloaded Is Part of the Package Deal
If you think about what you may not like about yourself, I suspect it has to do with this problem of being easily overloaded. You’ve seen yourself fail in important situations. But these have been situations that any sensitive person would have trouble with. You are not a “failure.” You are simply being normal for you.
Maybe you have made choices not to do certain kinds of things–summer camp, dating, or being the lead in a play–and you look back on your choices with regret. Others seem to have enjoyed these things. You had no idea it was due to your sensitivity, but maybe even knowing it does not help if it means you are weird in some way.
So let’s agree that overload can be a problem. You will always have to take it into account when making your plans. But it is important not to focus on that while taking for granted all of your good points, such as having terrific aim, a good musical ear, a passion for social justice or saving the environment, or more creative ideas than you can ever carry out. Maybe you think everyone’s like that. Well, they are not.
Your greater awareness and your risk of overload are two sides of the same coin. They are a package deal. You cannot have one without the other. But both make you different. So let’s talk about your being different.
You do not need to read this section if you feel confident most of the time and have plenty of friends. Congratulations. This is how life should be. But for some of you it is not that way yet, or not enough of the time. This section is for you.
The Real Brain-Pain of Rejection
One of the most difficult things at any time in life, for anyone, is feeling excluded for being different. Studies of the brain show that rejection affects us as if we were being hurt physically. Since you are very different from the other 80% of people in the world, you are sometimes going to feel or be excluded by them.
What do you do? It should help to know why you are different. Being born highly sensitive is different from being flawed. It is a normal if less common way to approach life. Maybe you thought you were odd for feeling things more deeply; thinking more; crying more easily; needing to be alone more; feeling a pain in your body sooner; being bothered more by everything “loud,” from noise to cruel behavior; being fonder of subtle things such as classical music or art; or trying harder than others to do the right thing. Not all sensitive people will do all of these, but all will do some of them. Now you know why.
But you are still different, so there’s more to be done. Further, if you are sensitive, and then different in other ways, you have more than double the trouble. Maybe you are the “wrong” race or you’re “too” tall, short, fat, thin, smart, bad at sports, or whatever makes else makes you different. Being sensitive makes these differences even harder to bear. So let’s work on the problem head on. You are different.
“It Just Doesn’t Matter”
Now let me tell you the honest truth. In the long run, it just doesn’t matter. This dawned on me thanks to a scene from a 1979 Bill Murray movie, Meatballs. He’s a camp counselor, and the camp has been divided into teams that are competing over every stupid little thing. His team is full of sensitive types and they are losing to the tough, popular kids. He keeps giving his team pep talks, but in the middle of one he stops and says the obvious: “You know, how we do as a team at this camp… well, you know? It just doesn’t matter. Who cares?”
Then he repeats “It just doesn’t matter,” as if amazed that he even said it. Then he repeats it again, and again, then they’re all jumping up and down on the beds shouting “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” Or that’s how I remember it. Try jumping on your bed and shouting it. It feels great.
Why does it not matter that you are different? Junior highs and high schools are full of all sorts of people. No more than 20% are highly sensitive and even most of them do not know it or are trying to hide it. If you think about it, the kids who do not like you are probably people you do not like very much either. They just rule the school, so it seems that their opinion matters more than yours. But they will probably turn out to be adults you would not like either. They are too loud, crude, mean, superficial, dishonest, hypocritical, thoughtless, or whatever. Let’s face it–you would reject them.
Junior high and high school is the only time in your life when you will have to be around all different types, and especially these types. Right now you have little choice about who you are with all day long, face to face–shut in a room or a bus with thirty of them or in a gym with hundreds of them. The thought of it gives mechills. I’m not an elitist. People have their right to be as they are and to be with others like them without feeling ashamed, but you and I have the same right.
Life will never be quite like this again. Once you go to college or start doing the things you really want to do, you will be with people you really like and who like you. I have never forgotten what a friend said to me when we were talking about the misery of being unpopular in high school. He is a successful professor of physics now and has many dear friends. About his suffering in high school he said, “Who do you know and really like who was popular in high school?”
It’s true. Ten years after graduating from high school I went to a reunion. All the people who had been popular were now, to me, some of most boring people I had ever met. Maybe it was because they had never been different and were now too afraid to be. That won’t be you.
Getting Through These Years
You just have to get through this part of your life. Here are a few suggestions.
- Try to make a few friends and stick with them, even if they are not ideal. Maybe you are all oddballs, but at least you have each other.
- Find a group that accepts you. It might well be a youth group that is part of a church or temple. You do not have to accept everything about the religious part. People at these places tend to be more sensitive. Or it might be a club on campus–people interested in computers, France, animals, singing, math, or whatever.
- Do not stay in a group that makes you feel bad or that forces you to be someone you are not. This is poison for a sensitive person. There are better groups. Find them.
- Find a few teachers or other adults who value you and listen to them when they tell you about your talents. They are right about you.
- Try to avoid the other kind of adults. Learn about the teachers you might have next year and try to avoid the mean and narrow minded.
- Hang out more with your family if they are good to be around. Also, get to know your cousins who are your age. Other kids may not be doing this, but for you it could be a life saver.
Finally, use computers in ways that improve your life as a sensitive person. Email is great for a sensitive person for staying in contact with friends you know in other ways. You stay in touch without having to be out doing social things all the time. But stay aware that things can happen on-line that distress a sensitive person as much as any place else.
You can also use computers to meet others more like yourself by getting to know people with your interests. There are even places on-line to talk to other sensitive people. But you have to be more careful. You are back to dealing with “all types” and you know even less about them than you do about the kids at school.
You have heard it before, but do not stay at your computer too much. You can figure out what’s too much for you. I feel better if I am out of doors at least an hour every day. Plus, you know there’s something about face to face that is essential for feeling good. I know it can be rough out there, but you have to find some people to be close to who are nearby and whom you can see often. They are out there. Find them.
The Next Issue: What to do when your feelings overwhelm you. Another aspect of being highly sensitive is having strong emotional reactions. You’ll have them all your life, so you need to start now in knowing how to deal with bouts of depression, anxiety, anger, or whatever you can get stuck in.