Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2007.
At one time I mostly shopped in used clothing stores. Why? Besides being an HSP, I am far more “intuitive” than “sensing.” (These are terms from the Myers Briggs, a measure of introversion and extraversion as well as four other “functions.” Most HSPs are high on intuition. The other two, “thinking” and “feeling,” are less affected by the trait.) Like many HSPs, I find decisions difficult, but the low sensing function especially fouls up my shopping decisions. I often make mistakes, which we HSPs try so hard to avoid. So I reduce my risks by paying less for things, as I can at used clothing stores. (I shop in them less now, in part because of the smells. Oh we are finicky.) The point of this is not that you should shop in them, but that it begins a story.
The Lesson of the Red Cape
One of my proudest finds was a floor length, red raincoat with a cape. Very dramatic. A fashion statements that was a cross between Little Red Riding Hood and the French Lieutenant’s Woman. I bought it excitedly. And it hung in my closet for years.
The first time I wore The Red Cape was on Halloween night in San Francisco—in “the Castro” to be exact, if that means anything to you. Everyone told me, “You have to go there for Halloween. It’s amazing.” My costume was a mask and the cape, to keep warm while wandering among the wildly got-up revelers. My goal was to see but not be an object of attention myself. (By the way, for an HSP, Halloween in the Castro is not “fantastic.”)
The next time I wore that swirling scarlet cloak was to the symphony—a few blocks from the Castro, this time I stood out rather than blending in. Everyone in the lobby seemed to be noticing, as I guess I should have wanted and expected. At the time I don’t think I was aware of my discomfort. I just never wore that thing again.
After a few more years it came out of the closet, when my husband was helping me throw things out—something I’m also bad at, as you can make mistakes there, too. He had liked me in it and wondered why I never wore it. In a flash I saw that lobby and knew the cape was not me. I don’t want to stand out in a crowd. What a relief to understand that. So I sent The Red Cape back into retail circulation without regret.
Along with it went a red silk dress with huge black flowers I also never wore, and I have never since bought any large floral prints, or those flashy, flowing “goddess” clothes so popular in the Bay Area. Not me.
The point is, I think I happened upon an essential point about the wardrobes of most HSPs, that we do want our clothing to express our unique selves, but not to cause us to be over aroused by too many looks or comments directed towards us. Naturally I have met many HSPs over the years, and thinking back I see them in soft, muted, pleasing colors, with an emphasis perhaps on the subtle texture or look of the fabric, or interesting details. The styles are generally not flashy, but just a little unique. Maybe even eccentric. We are a minority even in our clothing.
Notice I try to say “most,” because nothing I write will be true for all of you, of course. I am writing from vague personal experience, not hard data.
Comfort and Convenience
We all know that sensitive people are sensitive to scratchy labels, rough seams, tight shoes, and so forth. (Shoes! A whole other topic.) We probably gravitate to natural fibers, too, because they tend to be softer. Wool can be rough, so we might choose sweaters and such made from synthetics. I personally do not like the weird, plasticky feel of polyester or nylon—for me, the clothing equivalent of fluorescent lights.
Then, on the other hand, there are those high-end outdoor clothes using the “new synthetics,” and we love the outdoors. Also, personally, I hate to iron. I waste time ironing. I know HSPs who love ironing as a quiet task providing down time for processing while making things become nicer with every move. But at my house it was the perfect chore for a sensitive, perfectionist, obedient child, so I sweltered for hours, ironing for the whole family. My blouses are cotton-polyester blends that come out of the dryer looking ironed.
Having a professional laundry do your cotton shirts to perfection might also be a good use of an HSP’s money. In short, we have to balance comfort and convenience, and the balance point can be hard to find.
Getting the Weather Right
Sensitive people are sensitive to heat and cold—often very sensitive to it. Cold! yuck! But then, I’m a native Californian. I cannot understand how people live any place where they could not spend the night (much less the day) outside and survive. To me, cold is below about 70. I marvel at those who run around in t-shirts in almost all weather. I don’t like my arms bear when the temperature is below about 75. Just a breeze on my arms feels a little too cold. I will tolerate more breeze on my legs in order to wear skirts, which leave me free of the constriction of pants, although I know many sensitive women who only wear pants or long skirts, just to be warm and not have to worry about their legs being covered properly. But skirts mean shaved legs, which can hurt sensitive skin. Or stockings—more nasty, itchy synthetics. Crazy making. It’s really complicated for us, isn’t it?
Heat? I may be a Californian, but I moved north as soon as I could. On the national weather map during midsummer, ours is the only area not in red. If you leave me in the sun on a hot day, I don’t just wilt—I panic. For heat, I prefer to wear a shade tree. Otherwise, it has to be loose cotton clothing that covers me from the sun without roasting me and a hat that does not make me look old and silly. Not demanding, are we? One thing I have learned: Wet clothing is always cool clothing. In that sense, heat is easier to escape than cold. On a hot hike, if I find a stream and no one is around, I strip off my shirt and dip it in the water. It’s no time to be shy. On a hot night a wet towel is a good friend. On a hot day, hose yourself off—it’s just water and you’ll be dry in five minutes anyway.
Not Easy Come or Easy Go
I am sure some sensitive people love to shop. As I said, it is difficult for me, so I am slow at it and feel like it is a huge waste of my time. If you also struggle with shopping, it can help to have someone along who knows you well. They need to understand your tastes and not provide you extra choices, but rather reduce them by searching the racks, selecting, and bringing the best to you. Even going back to find another size means additional stimulation you cannot afford, so they can do that, too. Then they can help you decide what looks best and help you give up the things with the subtle details you love, being aware of such things, but really do not work. And they can help you rationalize spending so much money on yourself, if you have that issue, too.
My main shopping friend is my husband. I am sure the sales people think we are throwbacks to the caveman days as he says, “yes, keep that,” “no—terrible,” “yes that,” “no, not that.” I exercise my veto now and then, but he knows my preferences as well as I do and can be a little more objective—the clothes aren’t for him (although I figure he should have at least some say, since he has to look at them). When he’s shopping, I do the bulk of the deciding for him, as well. It’s just easier. But that’s the result of a forty-year relationship.
I also have a friend who goes back even farther who can do the same thing for me. I’ve decided it’s not being dependent—it’s having a personal shopper. A very personal shopper.
If you are shopping alone, it can help to leave the store and come back after a break, or even the next day, after you have processed what you saw and know what you want. Try not to shop when you are under a time pressure, and just leave if a salesperson is pestering you. Finally, figure you will make mistakes and plan to give those flops away to some worthy cause.
What about the items that are not flops, but never wear out? Discarding can be as hard as purchasing when you are an HSP and not very hard on clothing. When do you give it away? Will you make a mistake here, too? I let husband help with this as well. But one time we pruned too much. As usual, it went to the local Cancer Society shop, and when I visited a few weeks later, there were my clothes. I was almost in tears! One dress was hanging in the window, poor thing. It was one I had particularly regretted sending to the orphanage, so a week later I actually came back to buy it. I knew I would never find anything like it again. And I didn’t even find it then. It was sold. Are there tears in your eyes yet?
Recently I have shopped for clothes in the same general style as I have always worn and eventually given away, and found the styles had changed. The simple, tailored, but youthful and well made clothing I had liked was not being made anymore. So be careful what you throw away—styles may be even less HSP-friendly in the future. Personally, I think there is nothing wrong with finding something you like that has an almost timeless good quality and sticking by it.
Why It Matters
If you think it is too self-absorbed to worry about what you wear, think again. You will always be more comfortable if you are wearing something suitable. With the right clothes, you are not bothered by that little bit of stimulation that comes with wondering whether you are dressed correctly, or finding you are too cold, hot, vulnerable to mosquitoes, or whatever.
Further, since as a general rule HSPs make a better second impression, you can allow your clothes to help you make a better first one—they can introduce you without words. How about a shirt that says to strangers, “I like to be comfortable and want you to be comfortable, too, and a little bit pleased by what you see”? Or a jacket that says, “I know I’m standing here on the sidelines and observing, but as you can see, I’m pretty with it”? How about a tie that says, “I have very good taste.” Or a hat that whispers, “I’m an artist.” Or, “I love the outdoors.” Or, “Try getting to know me—I’m not like anyone else you will ever meet.”
Once they do know you, and know you are highly sensitive, then perhaps they will also think, “Those sensitive people—they sure can dress. Always subtle. Nothing junky. Fine folks. Very wise.”