“Why didn’t you care about my feelings?” I asked. “It’s so confusing how sometimes you’re so tuned into me that I feel like your love borders on that of a stalker but then other times you can remain unmoved when I’m crying.”
“I felt like my being was annoying you,” he said. “You said my breathing was too loud. And then you waved your hand in my face like you were trying to make me disappear.”
“I didn’t even know that hurt your feelings! You didn’t tell me!” I blurted. “I would have cared.”
“I know. I didn’t tell you because I don’t always know when to mention hurt feelings or when I need to just try to let it go. I am really sensitive, and I take things to heart. When a pot falls out of the cabinet and crashes on the floor, it’s hard for me not to take THAT personally. And I know that it’s a pot! But it still just feels like the universe is conspiring against me. So if I can feel offended by a pot, I think sometimes I need to wait and see if I should let it go before I confront you.”
Seeing as though “just letting it go” isn’t exactly part of my emotional repertoire, I asked him in the future to notice if he’s affected by it, and if so, to tell me.
It was in this moment that I realized that Collin is a highly sensitive person (HSP). This is a list of traits and a neuro-wiring detailed in Elaine Aron’s work. She’s a brilliant psychologist who has studied the Highly Sensitive personality and has a large body of research indicating that this temperament is a certain kind of wiring that about 15 to 20% of the population has. HSPs are profoundly empathic, and their environment affects them significantly. They can tend to feel others’ feelings as though they’re their own. They are typically internal processors.
So, I always knew Collin was empathic and kind, and I saw that he was sensitive. But for some reason, I never identified him as an HSP until this moment.
Then I had an epiphany.
“Oh, my gosh. I think I’m intense,” I proclaimed.
Suddenly all the dots connected, and I acknowledged something very helpful about myself. I experience heightened emotions across the spectrum, constantly. There is no break. Not for my emotions or my mind. The inner world that I have is so huge that sometimes any input from the outside world is overwhelming. Sometimes emotional or intellectual intensity can be called “over-excitability.” I must have had this information lodged in the recesses of my brain because all of it was accessible in this moment.
“So, I’m intense and you’re sensitive. Where does that leave us? How can you truly know me without being hurt constantly? What do I do with the negative feelings I have? I am not sensitive like you, but I do feel things intensely inside all the time. When I’m overwhelmed sensory input from others makes me feel crazy. Breathing, chewing, smells, unnecessary sounds—it all makes me feel enraged inside sometimes. I don’t want to feel disgusted, but I get grossed out by people a lot. I can’t help it. It’s too much for me and I spend a lot of time feeling overwhelmed and masking it around others. I don’t want to hurt you, but do I have to mask with you?
“No, you can tell me. I would prefer to know. I may feel embarrassed or sad, but I want to understand your experience. Maybe you could just be considerate in your delivery” he offered.
“Okay. Thank you. That means a lot. And I’ll be more mindful about the delivery. For the record, you gross me out less than anyone else” I complimented.
“Thanks. You hurt my feelings less often than anyone else. You’re usually really good at caring for my heart” he replied.
“Thanks. I am glad that you do breathe. And it doesn’t usually bother me. It’s just when I’m already feeling overstimulated. Then every noise feels like an assault on my senses.”
So that was our walk and talk (or an abbreviated version), and I share this with you because I think many people can relate to the complexities of being either sensitive OR intense OR both, and being in a close relationship. Sometimes it’s really challenging to know yourself and figure out who you are—especially when you’re a full-on adult and think you are already well-acquainted with your identity and your partner’s personality. And all these nuances and complexities that make us each who we are present opportunities to grow closer together (albeit sometimes clumsily along the way).
The truth seems to be that we can always learn more about ourselves and others. And we can always choose to grow if we greet these challenges with an open heart and mind. Okay, or even if we greet these challenges initially with a “go away, I’m not interested in growing today!” but then later text them and say, ‘hey, I think you were trying to tell me something useful. What was it?” We can still grow from that too.
In sum, my experience has shown time and again that if are willing to be curious and compassionate about our experience, take mindful responsibility for our feelings, and then admit when we act outside of our values, we can find our way back to ourselves, our ideals, and our commitment to love.
In other words, we can get better because we’re not dead yet.
https://chaplain.yale.edu/people/rev-sumi-loundon-kim For more information on Sumi Loundon Kim, author and Coordinator of Buddhist Life at Yale University
https://www.groktheworld.com/what-nonviolent-communication-nvc-also-known-compassionate-communication-language-life For a helpful synopsis of Non-Violent Communication
https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/the-gifts-of-being-emotionally-intense For information on Being Intense
https://www.verywellmind.com/highly-sensitive-persons-traits-that-create-more-stress-4126393 For information on Being a Highly Sensitive Person