Photo of orchids

Orchids in bloom.

I always wondered what predisposed my feelings of overwhelm from seemingly innocuous things. Scratchy shirts, loud talkers, tense moments, bright lights, violent television shows, short deadlines—just a few examples of what could easily send me into hyperstress mode. Those things are annoying, yes, but why was I always so affected? Why did I want to claw my way out of that turtleneck sweater? Why was I plagued with nightmares after watching one scene of Jaws? Why was I so hamstrung—then utterly wiped out—after trying to complete a writing project on time?

A few years ago while researching psychological terminology, I came across the term “highly sensitive person,” described as someone who is overly responsive or reactive to the environment, other people’s moods, social stimuli, and external expectations. I had never read a truer sentence about myself, and I became engrossed in learning more.

HSPs, as we are known, have an inborn trait called sensory processing sensitivity (not to be confused with sensory processing disorder). SPS shows up in 20 to 30 percent of the population and can often be mistaken for shyness or anxiety. HSPs may indeed be plagued by those qualities too, but they are not mutually exclusive. Shyness, in fact, is a learned behavior—certainly something I learned as a child when my sensitivity was dismissed or invalidated by others.

Thoughts, choices, behaviors: they all filter through my SPS trait. The best way to describe being an HSP, if you’re not like this yourself, is to say that you often find yourself wrestling with big feelings over small things. You experience near-constant cognitive dissonance—life feels wondrous and frustrating at the same time. You can be both enthralled and repulsed by events, activities, or places that other people seem unaffected or less affected by (this is how I feel standing in Times Square—and at dinner parties). No matter what you are doing or where you are, you notice everything, every nuance, about what you’re thinking and feeling. All of this deep processing means your energy is easily depleted, and you require long stretches of time to recharge. Which is to say that most of the time you are either processing the world or recovering from it.

Another way to explain sensitivity is like this: huge swaths of people on this earth are like dandelions: hardy, stalwart, naturally able to weather a variety of elements. Many others are like tulips, a balance of steadfast reliability and suppleness. And a smaller percentage—the HSPs—are like orchids: delicate by nature and requiring a particular environment in order to grow and thrive. No flower is “better” than the others. They just are what they are.

This flower metaphor is not mine; it comes from a 2018 study about the continuum of sensitivity in people. One of the co-authors of the research is Dr. Elaine Aron, a clinical psychologist who is famous for her work studying sensory processing sensitivity. Her most successful book, The Highly Sensitive Person, discusses SPS at length, exploring what it means to be an HSP. In other words, what it means to be an orchid.

What’s most intriguing about my experience as an HSP (and many others’ experiences) is not that I am one, it’s that I’ve spent so much of my life trying to squash it down. This trait wasn’t embraced by the adults in my world as a child—I’m sure they didn’t know any better—and consequently, I didn’t embrace it either. If I was told not to be shy, I suppressed it. If I was told not to worry, I shoved those feelings away. If I was upset or crying and told to shape up, I did so on command. I kept these habits into adulthood, paradoxically making myself look as though I wasn’t sensitive at all. The aloof me was the pretend me. The consequences of these actions unfolded slowly, over decades, manifesting in my physical body as insomnia, gut dysfunction, and anxiety. Oof.

It wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve truly begun to make changes in my life to accept and yes, even love, my sensitivity. Over time, I’ve learned a lot from Aron’s research and other studies about SPS. I can see in myself the depth of evidence she plumbs. It’s not that I lack tolerance or appreciation; it’s that my nervous system is working overtime to absorb and process information. HSPs, for instance, tend to absorb the emotions of others, and in unhealthy cases, will leach empathy to a fault, to the point that they have trouble releasing themselves of what they’ve absorbed. Unhealthy HSPs who suffer from low self-worth can also become people-pleasers to the point where they lose recognition of their own unique strengths and authentic self.

I’ve walked in those unhealthy shoes before—both sides—and still sometimes wobble toward one or the other. But understanding my SPS has helped me embrace it as a good thing and learn ways to cope when I feel myself bumping against those unhealthy sides. Holding up boundaries is one such way; knowing when to say “no” is a big one. Building in wide margins of solitary time is another. I have so much more appreciation now for my depth of processing; that if I understand it and allow myself to embrace it, it can serve as a strength. Quiet strength. Emotional strength. Strength from the wings instead of the spotlight. Strength as an adviser, dreamer, wonderer, coach.

If you have SPS too, try not to think of it as a deficit. The world needs those of us who notice subtleties, pick up on other people’s vibes, and learn how to create an environment in which we can thrive. We can spot details other people miss; we can help others become more observant of themselves and their needs. We can be wise counsel to those who are coming up behind us; we can demonstrate what it’s like use sensitivity as an advantage.

Just don’t ask us to do it wearing an itchy sweater.