As a highly sensitive person, sitting in the car in traffic with my husband can be excruciating. Suddenly the radio is just the slightest bit too loud and the air is blowing too hard. Oh wait, now it’s hot. I’m hot and I must get out of this inferno, stat. I’m simultaneously about to cuss and get super nauseated, so I stick my head out the window.
While I’m shaking my head out the window like a mannerless dog, I remember the fight I witnessed earlier in the day—and I feel so sad. I stop talking to my spouse and just think. Think, think, think about how sad it was to see the couple fighting and how I would have felt if I were them. Suddenly my husband says something to me and I snap.
That’s when I realize: I’m overstimulated. I breathe. Occasionally I squeeze my arms like I’m giving myself tiny hugs, because my therapist told me it would help me calm down. Eventually I start feeling sane again.
I Thought I Had a Stress Problem
I spent the majority of my 28 years thinking I had a stress problem. I get stressed more easily than other people, and I viewed it as a character flaw. If only I could learn how to not get stressed, I would be better. Then my marriage would be what I hoped. I would be good enough for myself. Maybe others would truly love me.
Simultaneously, I spent the majority of my life feeling different from others. I’ve always felt slightly peculiar, not quite like my peers, friends, and family. At my best, I feel like I am tapped into a stream of reality and meaning of which others are not aware. At my worst, I feel isolated, too odd to be fully accepted by most people. Over the years I came to the place of being able to appreciate myself—the quirks, intuition, and mesmerizing array of feelings that make up Katie Jo. But I still felt secretly strange. I didn’t know anyone else who seemed like me.
Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, writes, “I suffer from what a psychiatrist friend calls clinical sensitivity; she recommends that I avoid too much stimulation.” But I don’t call my sensitivity “clinical,” because I firmly believe—along with leading sensitivity researcher and author Dr. Elaine Aron—that sensitivity like mine is not a diagnosis. Rather, it’s a fixed personality trait, heritable, not inherently bad, and worth valuing in this aggressive, fast-paced world.
I spent the majority of my life internalizing the message that I am too sensitive.
Now I am daily trying to inject a new message into my soul: I am beautifully sensitive. I am not “too much.” My sensitivity is a gift. The fact that I get overstimulated easily is worth paying attention to and making space for. I am not the only one who is this sensitive. I am okay. I am loved and appreciated for who I am—by God, myself, and my husband.
My Sensitivity Revolution
I like to call what has happened in my soul a revolution. Embracing my sensitivity has transformed everyday moments of stress into opportunities to believe and enjoy the fact that I am unique.
I first learned about being highly sensitive from my therapist. I came to her super overwhelmed. I had just had a pulmonary embolism after spending 1.5 months in the hospital with my little sister after she had a heart attack that almost killed her. That’s right…my then twenty-year-old sister almost died from a heart attack from her autoimmune disease, Lupus. And, yeah, having a pulmonary embolism felt small in comparison.
I’m pretty sure my whole family is traumatized from the horrors of what we experienced in the hospital. I was having flashbacks to my dying sister. When she asked me if she was dying, I lied to her so she would believe she could make it. (I don’t regret the lie. We both needed to believe it.) Thankfully, I had just started seeing a counselor because I was required to for my Masters in Counseling program. I really, really needed to see a counselor—so that graduation requirement was a win.
After I told my counselor I thought I had a stress problem and that I was committed to learning how to cope with it better, she gently asked, “Have you ever heard of the term highly sensitive person?”
Immediately a tiny detonator in my heart was pressed. “She thinks you’re too sensitive too,” I thought. But something in me keyed into her affirming tone, and, thankfully, the wires in that little bomb proved faulty.
“Highly sensitive people process just about everything more deeply than the rest of the population,” she shared. “From sensations like hearing noises and feeling temperature, to feeling emotions deeply—both positive and negative. Highly sensitive people are wired in a way that makes them constantly process stimulation deeply. As such, we get overstimulated easily.”
We. She said we. She felt like a safe person, like a kindred spirit, and I started seeing why. Suddenly my soul forgot about the detonator and instead felt safe.
She told me about Dr. Aron’s research about sensitivity. I learned that about 15 to 20 percent of the population are born with a nervous system genetically designed to be more sensitive to subtleties. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are more prone to deep reflection and therefore they are more easily overwhelmed by outer events. The research-nerd in me lauded how Dr. Aron’s work is scientifically valid. But I would have believed it even without her copious amounts of qualitative data, because my heart told me this was the truth about myself. My counselor had just nailed my quirks, the things about myself I felt I had to hide from the world.
Thus began a new season in my revolution: the Sensitive Revolution. Over the following months, I continued therapy and read everything I could about sensitivity. I even made an independent study course out of it for my graduate program. I reflected, journaled, and had countless conversations with my husband, friends, and God using this new language of “sensitivity” and “overstimulation.” Over time, my attitude about myself changed. I started really believing what Dr. Aron and my counselor say about sensitivity: that it is a gifting. She writes, “It’s not that our eyes and ears are better, but that we sort what comes in more carefully. We like to inspect, reflect, and ponder…We are very intuitive, meaning that we tend to know how things came to be the way they are, and how they will turn out, but without knowing how we know all that.”
I also kept owning the fact that I will continue to be prone to overstimulation.
I started getting a whole lot better at taking care of myself in light of my sensitivity. My marriage improved. I finally stopped feeling perpetually isolated. And I started being kinder to myself.
The story of my Sensitive Revolution is not over, but it is growing more beautiful every day. If some of what I shared resonated with your experience or sounds like your spouse, best friend, or child, will you join the Sensitive Revolution by taking Dr. Aron’s self-test? Find out if you are a highly sensitive person like me by taking the test here. And then read, pray, and talk your sensitive, beautiful heart out with some safe friends or a counselor.
Your own Sensitive Revolution may be coming—and you’ll be happy it did.
Katie Jo Ramsey
Katie Jo Ramsey is a joy-seeker, recovering idealist, autoimmune patient, and counselor. As a highly sensitive person, Katie Jo is passionate about helping others reclaim their personality as a positive, integral aspect of their beautiful, unique story. As a student in the counseling department of Denver Seminary, she served as an intern at Where Grace Abounds. She has written for The Huffington Post and Christianity Today and blogs regularly at KatieJoRamsey.com. She’s also on Instagram.
Thanks for writing this article because I think it may be a life-changing discovery for some people who read it. It was a life-changing moment for me when I discovered that I’m an HSP and INFJ (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test). Both helped me understand that I am a rare but normal kind of person who shares common personality traits with others I had not realized existed. Through this discovery I learned how my predisposition towards sensitivity created conflict with a less-sensitive world who are largely extroverted, and that my hatred of myself for being sensitive was causing more problems. I also learned that I have gifts due to my sensitivity and and I am able to be a helpful part of society and my workplace that helps bring balance to a lot of situations with relationships and workplace objectives and challenges. I finally felt like I had value for being sensitive and that I could make adjustments to my expectations of myself and others’ perception (or judgements) of me. I started to give myself permission to limit my stimulating encounters and duration of activities, take more time alone, understand better what I need and monitor whether my needs are being met. I also don’t compete with a faster paced world or expect myself to keep up and I try to be less busy than before (although not as successful as I would like working and going to school full-time). I am so, so much happier and my mental health is so much better. I finally feel like I have peace and I am able to love others better, be less angry and judgmental and engage with others rather than dreading groups other social engagements. I highly recommend her books, group workbook and reading her research papers online. As a counselor, I recommend reading Psychotherapy for the Highly Sensitive Person too if you are a helping professional.