I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). And I have the world’s most sensitive nose. So I had to laugh out loud when I saw a cartoon that showed two dogs lounging at their master’s feet. His shoes are off, and one dog says to the other, “Superior sense of smell: blessing or curse?”
“Blessing or curse?” That’s a familiar question to those of us who were born sensitive. You might not have a bloodhound’s sense of smell: maybe your skin is so sensitive that you cut tags out of your clothing so they don’t irritate you to a point of frantic insanity.
Or perhaps you are a human bat, incredibly light-sensitive. My HSP partner does his pre-dawn, get-out-the-door-to-the-gym routine in the dark: for him, bright light in the morning is like an ice pick to the brain.
Elaine Aron, the psychologist who identified and named the HSP trait, puts these reactions under the category of sensory sensitivity. While sensory sensitivity shows up differently in each of us, all HSPs have it in some form, along with the three other shared HSP traits of emotional intensity, depth of processing, and overwhelm/overarousal. And unfortunately, our HSP sensory sensitivity can feel like a curse.
Have you tried to deny or hide your sensory sensitivity?
I remember the first time I noticed there was something unusual about my sense of smell. I was in middle school and my family had traveled overnight to attend a wedding. At our hotel, everyone had showered using the cheap hotel soap. In the car on the way to the ceremony, the scent was so overpowering, I felt nauseated.
A person with a less sensitive nose might find my reaction strange. But what I find even more strange, looking back, is that it never occurred to me to mention my distress. I hung in there. I tried not to throw up on my party dress. My nausea existed only in my private reality.
Why did I not speak up? Because speaking up about our HSP sensory sensitivity is risky. Others may respond with irritated incredulity, or worse, with disbelief. These reactions may even come from other HSPs: my beloved partner switched deodorant scents, and when I complained, he simply refused to believe I could smell the difference between Regular Speed Stick and Ocean Surf, let alone be bothered by the change. We actually had a fight over this!
But at least I spoke up with my partner. More often we HSPs do what my younger self did in the car: we try to ignore or minimize our discomfort, and we keep our reactions to ourselves. Worse, over time, we start to hate our own sensory sensitivity—not just for the discomfort itself, but because we find it baffling and stressful to see ourselves respond so differently from the people around us.
The problem is, denying our sensory sensitivity makes us resentful. The longer we “put up and shut up” about our sensitive reactions, the more our happiness suffers. To fully enjoy life and not merely endure it, we need a positive way to address our sensory sensitivities, whatever those are. And that requires a three-pronged approach:
1. Appreciate the positive aspects of your sensory sensitivity
My sense of smell was a torment in the car on the way to the wedding. On the other hand, I prevented a fire at a memorial service I attended recently because I smelled something burning: a flower arrangement had fallen into a candle flame. I have an exquisite appreciation of the scented flowers in our garden. And when a skunk dug in to our basement and sprayed all our belongings, I provided refined evaluations of our deodorizing efforts.
2. Mitigate your external conditions if you can
I bring earplugs to loud concerts and movies. I cut out tags that scratch my skin. If I’m in a workshop where the room is stifling hot or freezing cold, or the traffic noise from the open window is loud enough to make me strain to hear what’s being said, I’ll muster my courage and speak up. And I remind myself that when I speak up, I may be helping others, too.
It’s not realistic to expect non-sensitive people—or other HSPs who have different sensitivities than me—to understand what it’s like being in my skin: I need to let them know what it’s like. And to feel good about bringing up my sensitive needs with others, I’ve found I must be both firm and kind. This combination is tough to pull off if I feel apologetic or defensive. Hence the importance of #1 above—“appreciate the positive aspects of your sensitivity”: it puts me in the right frame of mind to approach others with my requests.
It’s great to cultivate appreciation of my sensory sensitivities, and to mitigate them when I can by changing my external conditions. But sometimes neither of these strategies is possible. I can’t “find the positive” in whatever I’m feeling. I can’t change my environment. And maddeningly, my helpless focus on the sensations in my body seems to make them worse.
Is there a way out of this sensory torment? Yes. I can meditate.
Meditation helps me do the only thing I can: surrender to reality as it is. By choosing where I put my mind, I develop mental discipline and focus—essential skills for me because my HSP mind is quick and deep: it can go downhill fast. This mental discipline alone would be worth the time I spend meditating.
But I have an even more powerful reason to meditate, one that relates directly to the challenge of sensory sensitivity. When I meditate with the strong intent to connect to my spiritual essence, I am able to transcend my identification with my physical body. Then, I touch the “peace that passes all understanding.”
No scratchy tags, loud noises, bright lights, or unpleasant smells can touch this peace, because it is not subject to conditions. My HSP sensory sensitivity can feel like a curse at times, but paradoxically, it becomes a blessing when it spurs me to find the deeper peace of spiritual connection.