Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
I was certain the night would be significant. I had followed this iconic figure since middle school. She has inhabited my psyche since then. It’s mind boggling and heart rousing to see in person someone you have idealized for over four decades.
I was intentional in keeping the day quiet. “Saving up” brain neurons that would get devoured if not assaulted at the concert. I wondered if others needed to prepare their psyches and bodies for events. I mean, for crying out loud this isn’t the Olympics. By lunchtime I began to think rather odd thoughts, suddenly fearing the overwhelm that was sure to happen or wanting the concert to get canceled so I could have more time to prepare. Prepare? For something wonderful? Who does that? I thought of “normal” folks who mindlessly schedule events and contemplate outfits and departure times but planning how to handle something so wonderful you don’t want it to come so you don’t have to experience it’s ending? Who does this? I do.
A few hours before departure time I began to feel brain weary and contemplated reaching Elaine since surely she would normalize my experience. How awful to feel embarrassed at one’s authentic experience. Somewhere I had learned that feeling this way was wrong or at the very least, odd. What was brewing deep within that felt heavy and unfortunately, draining? I decided to do a task and self handedly shift the activity from my right to left brain. This helped. All this processing surely was depleting but how does one turn it off? Was this the anticipatory stuff us sensitives grapple with? Suddenly I felt an empathic and world wide connection to every single hsp breathing on the planet since they had to know what this felt like! That thought alone calmed my body and mind.
I did a checklist (am I fed, hydrated and giving myself enough time should traffic be a nightmare) and chose an outfit I felt most “me” in. I was headed to this concert solo and knew my company would be satisfying. In the car I was intentional about playing instrumental music so I could freely think about anything and not be distracted with lyrics. As I drove I pondered the history I’ve had with this artist. I began to recall how in middle school her music and movies drew me in and nurtured me. I remembered how each new album and movie became significant life markers that went on the calendar and directly into my soul. Why her? What was it about her music? Her movies? Her persona? The thought remained throughout the evening: why was it so important to understand what I was experiencing? I decided to play her music in the car and suddenly felt an enormous sense of comfort and presence. Wait, SHE is like me. SHE is singing about matters I care about. Wait, SHE is hitting notes that I can physically feel. Wait of course, this is an hsp I am traveling to see. Once again, the capacity and gifting of the artist to profoundly impact, shape and connect humans. Another aha moment: SHE was there all along to offer a mirror and validation to the intense emotions and deep thoughts I encountered throughout my life. When those around me were unable to meet my level of depth or wonder, she was, by displaying it. (In Self Psychology this is referred to as twinship. A genuine need individuals have that validates their sense of self and contributes to a level of cohesion an individual can and needs to experience.) I felt a fresh gift of peace accompany this realization. I entered the venue calm and excited if you know what I mean. The perfect combo. I was present, open, and full of expectation. And then it happened.
The iconic superstar appeared on the stage and my body exalted and every cell tingled. Tears surged as I stared directly at this fellow human realizing I literally had to alter my breathing to make room for the abundance of joy I was experiencing. For the next several hours I received the glorious, intimate and thought provoking connections this artist allowed and there was a knowing I was operating at the divine frequency. It felt amazing to cry and remember and my heart voiced deep throbs of thankfulness and peace. Once again I was grateful the Maker of this beautiful planet and its inhabitants includes the complexity and passion that can fire within us sensitives.
On the drive home although exhausted I smiled and thought, “Ok, THIS is when it’s pure gift to be wired this way and thankfully I’m not the only one.”
If you want to be in awe of how music impacts us, watch this:
Why So Many Artists Are Highly Sensitive People
Psychologists have found that the creative personality contains layers of depth, complexity and contradictions.
This excerpt is from the new book Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and HuffPost Senior Writer Carolyn Gregoire.
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.”
— Pearl S. Buck
Recalling his recording sessions with the young Michael Jackson, producer Quincy Jones said that “Michael was so shy, he’d sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat with my hands over my eyes — and the lights off.”
From watching his electrifying performances onstage, most people would never guess that Michael Jackson was a deeply shy and sensitive person. From the time he was a young boy, the King of Pop exuded energy, strength, and charisma onstage, while his personal life was characterized by crippling sensitivity, loneliness, and struggle. As Jackson heartbreakingly said, “It hurts to be me.”
Jackson’s biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli all but gave up on trying to make sense of the many paradoxes that defined Jackson’s personality. “I think that when you’re talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it’s like analyzing electricity, you know?” he wrote. “It exists, but you don’t have a clue as to how it works.”
The only thing that seemed to really make sense to Jackson himself was music. The singer opened up in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, saying, “I feel I was chosen as an instrument to give music and love and harmony to the world.” By channeling his sensitivity and suffering into his work, Jackson found a sense of meaning and a way to escape from the loneliness and isolation that often overwhelmed him.
The paradoxes of the performer
Jackson embodies a personality contradiction seen in many performers: They are both incredibly “out there” and open, and also highly sensitive. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified openness and sensitivity as oppositional personality elements that not only coexist in creative performers, but form the core of their personalities. This paradox helps explain how performers can be bold and charismatic on the one hand and emotionally fragile on the other.
“Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote. “Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable.”
The fact that many seemingly extraverted performers are also highly sensitive people can also be found in the complex personalities of metal rock performers. Psychologist Jennifer O. Grimes went to three major metal rock tours, including Ozzfest, one of the largest (and wildest) in the world, where she conducted thorough interviews with 21 musicians from the various bands in quiet backstage rooms. What she found from these conversations was that most of the musicians exhibited the contradiction of openness and sensitivity (as well as introversion and extraversion) in their personalities.
Onstage, the musicians appear to be the prototype of extraversion: bold, loud, and wild. But backstage, Grimes saw a different side of their personalities. They required alone time to recharge and solitary activities like reading, playing their instruments, and writing to “rebalance.” The musicians she spoke to reported that when they were onstage, they were “in the zone” and able to “tune out” external stimuli unrelated to their performance. Many of them reported a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and an intensified experience of sensory input like sound, lighting, and scents. They were often prone to daydreaming and had an appreciation of fantasy, and they said that listening to or creating music allowed them to recharge when they felt overstimulated.
All of the musicians also said that they experienced unusual perceptions—meaning that they had perceptually rich experiences that reflected a high level of sensory sensitivity, such as “hearing the confluence of a multitude of sounds and tonal qualities that make up a single bell chime.”
Taking in the world with heightened sensitivity can be both a blessing and a curse, and it often requires spending more time alone. Grimes writes, “Sometimes, individuals seek to ‘block out’ overwhelming stimuli, and sometimes greater intensity and focus are desired. One subject reported that his hypersensitivity to his surroundings is so powerful that he finds it effortful to associate with his environment.”
The subjects all described music as a way to express themselves, connect with others, and find personal fulfillment. They also tended to agree that creating art was an important way for them to bridge their inner selves and their outer worlds—pretty sensitive-sounding comments coming from hard rock musicians!
Unusual depth of feeling
Grimes’s findings suggest that behind the external appearance of any highly creative person are layers of depth, complexity, and contradictions. Not only performers but creative people of all types tend to be acutely sensitive, and conversely, sensitive people are often quite creative.
Here’s another example: Mark Salzman, a friend of the great cellist Yo‑Yo Ma, describes Ma as one of the most joyful people he’s met. But he noted that the musician isn’t always cheerful—he also experiences negative emotions as deeply as he does positive ones. “Yo‑Yo is so responsive to what is going on around him … If you put him in a room with people who are grieving, he will be as sad as anyone,” Salzman said.
This depth of feeling almost certainly explains how we feel when we hear him perform. Many audience members at Ma’s concerts are left, as Salzman puts it, “excited to the core.” He writes, “You find yourself paying more attention to the person you’re with, more aware of the rain on the windshield on the ride home. You feel more grateful just to be alive.”
It’s easy to see how one trait feeds into the other: To both the highly creative and the highly sensitive mind, there’s simply more to observe, take in, feel, and process from their environment. To highly sensitive people, as Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Pearl S. Buck suggested, the world may appear to be more colorful, dramatic, tragic, and beautiful. Sensitive people often pick up on the little things in the environment that others miss, see patterns where others see randomness, and find meaning and metaphor in the minutiae of everyday life. It’s no wonder this type of personality would be driven to creative expression. If we think of creativity as “connecting the dots” in some way, then sensitive people experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection.
Are you an HSP?
Research led by psychologist Elaine Aron has identified sensitivity as a fundamental dimension of human personality, finding that highly sensitive people tend to process more sensory input and to pick up on more of what’s going on in both their internal and external environment.
An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people are considered to be, in Aron’s terms, highly sensitive, but among artists and creative thinkers, that percentage is likely much higher. High levels of sensitivity are correlated with not only creativity but also overlapping traits such as spirituality, intuition, mystical experiences, and connection to art and nature.
Aron conducted interviews with people who self-identified as “highly sensitive.” The Arons put up advertisements looking for people who were “introverted” or easily overwhelmed by things like noisy places or evocative or shocking entertainment, selecting an equal number of men and women across a wide range of ages and occupations. They then interviewed each person for three to four hours on a range of personal topics, from their childhood and personal history to current attitudes and life problems.
Many respondents expressed a connection to the arts and nature as well as an unusual sympathy for the helpless (animals, “victims of injustice”). Many also expressed their spirituality (“seeing God in everything,” going on long meditation retreats) as playing an important role in their lives.
Later, psychologists identified two main factors on the HSP Scale: “temperamental sensitivity” — relating to one’s level of sensitivity to sensory input — and a “rich inner life.”
The 32nd HSP Gathering – Fennville, Michigan
September 22nd – September 26th, 2016
With special guests: Sydney, Jericho, Juniper, Maya, Gus, & Clara of Sundance Center
To Register for the 32nd HSP Gathering, including meals and lodging, contact Jacquelyn.
***There is a commuter option. Email Jacquelyn for details ***
While honoring the mission and success of the previous HSP Gatherings, we will be spending time gaining insight and wisdom from these beautiful horses. Co-host and HSP, Ulla Frederiksen is a psychologist, and a nationally known EAGALA trainer, and an HSP.
Still have questions? Please email Jacquelyn @ Jacquelyn@
In this together,