Filed under: art, comedy, music, theatre | Tags: Highly Sensitive Person, HSP, Introvert, Quiet, sensitivity, Susan Cain, vulnerability
A copy of The Highly Sensitive Person fell into my hands recently. I read it with interest – as I assumed that if there was such a thing as a Highly Sensitive Person, I was probably it. I’ve heard “You’re just too sensitive” so many times, it’s like the soundtrack of my youth. A colleague once said, “You’re like an eyeball. You make me feel like sandpaper.” I felt that metaphor was apt. Like an eyeball, I leak tears easily and will turn red under stress.
After reading Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s book on Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) I can affirm that yes, I am one and apparently there are lots of us. (15-20 % of the population in fact.) I knew I was sensitive (I was always fighting it) what I didn’t realize was what a hand biology has in that sensitivity. HSPs have nervous systems that respond quickly and dramatically. Our systems go into high alert – what Aron calls overarousal – in response to things that have no effect on less sensitive people. This means, yes, that we blush easily – but also that the levels of cortisol in our blood get higher in these moments.
Overarousal isn’t all bad. Think about falling in love – all your senses go on overdrive. On one hand, it feels great and on another, you might lose some control of yourself.
According to Aron, HSPs tend to become overaroused when they are being observed or judged and this can have a radical impact on performance. For me? True, true and true. For years, whenever I would audition or compete, my chest would get bright red and splotchy. Evening gowns were an embarrassing costume choice for me. My teaching would turn to shit as soon as someone came in to give me an evaluation. Overarousal causes all these PHYSICAL responses, which explains why so many songs that sounded fantastic in my living room suddenly become strained in performance. My voice can become restricted, my fingers less facile.
For the most part, I learned to adapt to these little quirks. When I played with the band, we would often plan our set list in a way that would allow me to ease into performance. In other words, the first songs we played couldn’t feature my most challenging guitar parts (my fingers wouldn’t behave appropriately at the start) nor could the first songs feature my biggest wide-open singing. I had to begin with songs that sat comfortably in the easiest parts of my range and then move on to more challenging material once my system had calmed down a bit.
I’m thinking this whole HSP thing was probably a factor in my choice to skip the auditioning part of the performing business and focus on making my own work. In my own work, I can be completely at ease. Auditioning for me was always unpredictable. It felt like I had no control over my own system. Sometimes I was on fire, fantastic, blowing people away and other times I’d trip over my own tongue, have trouble breathing, turn red. Now that I understand this HSP thing, I feel like I could find some work-arounds for those quirks if I were starting all over again. (I’m not – there are a whole host of other reasons I make my own work.) I just wish I’d known then, what I know now.
It does feel somewhat liberating to recognize that I am not alone in this sensitivity, that there are others like me and that there is actual value in the the things that cluster around high sensitivity. Many of those things have not been of great value to me in the gladhanding theatre business (it is a loud “Everything is Great!” world.) Nor have these HSP qualities been particularly useful in my work in the loud landscape of the Education Business. However, I am finding that this sensitivity thing is an extremely important asset in my new career as a Feldenkrais practitioner. In fact, long before I’d heard of HSPs as a category, I was coming to appreciate the value of heightening my kinesthetic sensitivity. When I began to study the Feldenkrais Method, I encountered, for the first time in my life, a place where I could not only give my sensitivity free reign but found that I wanted to increase it. Suddenly, my ability to sense subtle differences allowed me to be of service, gave me opportunities to make a difference.
I find, too, that I’m interested in the possibilities of re-framing the benefits of being highly sensitive in the Arts. Sensitivity has always felt like a disadvantage in the marketing stage, the getting it out there stage, the publicity stage but it feels important to honor its benefits in the actual art-making stage.
Most of the work I like best has been keenly observed. I prefer highly sensitive art and highly sensitive artists are my favorite sort. I would like to see more sensitive work, to somehow develop a channel for HSPs to make HSP art and not have to dull their high sensitivity just to have it seen.
And still, even as I write this, I can feel my own internal skeptic sneak in and laugh at the sensitive artist in search of more sensitivity. “Sensitive” has been a criticism for so long that it is very challenging to reclaim it. In fact, what I think that laughing skeptic is responding to is vulnerability. It feels like a great risk to broadcast where I am so tender.
But to SENSE is of great value, especially to an artist. To be sensitive is to have greater access to those senses. And, yes, sometimes they can cause me to over-respond to things (there is no earthly reason that a person yelling NEAR me should cause such a dramatic startle response in my body) but those are the same senses with which I am able to take in the world. The finer tuned my sensitivity, the greater my ability to make something with it.
I would love to hear from other HSPs, I would love to hear about your work-arounds and understand your methods for proceeding through this loud and challenging world.
And here’s a little 30 second song that I wrote many years ago about being too sensitive.
Just in case you feel like making a mash-up or something, you can download it there, too.
Also, this XTC song reflects some of my HSP feelings.
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