What are you supposed to do with that information?
What does it mean to be a HSP? And what does it mean for you, as their loved one?
I’ve interviewed three people whose partners are HSPs. Rose and her husband are parents to five young children; Jon’s and his girlfriend Viv travel the world while working on their business; and Jim is my husband.
What follows are their opinions and answers to my questions about being in a relationships with a HSP.
What did you think the first time your partner told you about Highly Sensitive People? Did you believe that it was a “real” thing?
ROSE: When my husband told me about HSP, I definitely believed it. I stumbled across a list about introverts on Facebook and I instantly tagged my husband as a classic introvert. It was actually a relief to find out what was “wrong” with him. It turns out nothing is wrong– he’s just an introvert HSP!
JIM: She was very excited when she told me about HSP. She has a tendency to get into stuff, to obsess over things. I thought it was another one of those things. At first I thought it wasn’t real; I think now there’s more to it. I don’t fully understand it though. It’s not that I believe it, I don’t not believe it.
JON: At first, I dismissed it into that mental file of “something we must do something about”. That is to say, I looked at it as: “stop complaining and try to be less like that!” This is making me sound harsher than I was – I certainly appreciate it was a problem (i.e., not made up) but at first I felt like it was something fixable, not something inherent.
How would you define “Highly Sensitive Person”?
ROSE: Off the top of my head, an HSP is someone who is sensitive to one or more elements of their environment. One may be sensitive to crowds, loud noises, bright lights, violence, too many people talking at once, or a variety of other things. Often an HSP is also an introvert, but not necessarily.
JIM: Highly Sensitive Person means someone who perceives that they are sensitive, but there’s no real baseline for them to judge [whether or not they are more sensitive than others]. They cope with things in a different way.
JON: I’ve been doing more and more reading about it. As I understand it, HSP is the condition of being hyper-stimulated by external inputs, be they audio, visual, or perhaps even touch. This results in being upset by things that don’t have an affect on other people, be they noisy eating, bright lights, or even the way people breathe. As I understand it, the emotional effects range from a feeling of claustrophobia or being trapped, to genuine distress and even feelings of violence, depending on the severity of the condition. I’m sure it comes partly inherent in your DNA, but I’m also fascinated with what childhood / youthful experiences fuel it.
HSP strikes me as similar to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in that it’s easy for onlookers to sniff at. It’s not something that’s widely understood as a “serious condition” like (dare I even say it) cancer, not that you could ever compare the two. It’s not even something acknowledged as non-lethal but highly troubling like Tourette’s. “Oh, you hate noisy chewing and bright lights – cry me a river.” That must be tough; it’s very easy to assume people are just being fussy.
What are some examples of HSP behaviors your partner exhibits?
ROSE: Some HSP behaviors that my husband displays are sensitivity to lots of people talking at once (my large Italian family can be a bit overwhelming at times), crowds, and violent stories in the news, especially ones about children being hurt. When he’s more tired he also can get much more emotional about things, so during those times if he listens to a song that he can relate to, or he hears a story about someone doing something good in the world, I might find him with happy tears.
JON: Viv is particularly upset by sounds. Her condition (which we discovered after we started dating) is called misophonia, which is hyper-sensitivity to certain noises. The scale ranges from mild irritation to having to stop yourself from physically hitting perpetrators. My girlfriend’s tolerance lies somewhere around the middle, thankfully.
What are the hardest things to deal with in regards to your partner’s high sensitivity?
ROSE: The hardest thing to deal with is how he reacts when he’s overwhelmed. He can get angry (never physical) and start yelling, not at anyone, but just in general. The anger comes and goes in a flash, but it leaves him exhausted and worn out for the rest of the day, and often it’s hard to get back to our routine. The other thing I find hard to deal with in regards to sensitivity is how often he needs to take breaks and be alone. This can be especially difficult because we have 5 small children. A final difficulty I have is explaining to the kids why Daddy needs a break, or why Daddy is currently unavailable to give them attention, and to keep them away so that my husband can have his down time and then be able to go back to being with them.
JIM: It’s hard for me to understand because I don’t feel the same way. It’s hard to relate. I think I find it funny more than I find it annoying–like when she is scared by her own shadow. I don’t take it personally when she wants to be alone.
A Highly Sensitive Person might not cope with things very well, so instead of trying to find ways to cope, they just think “Oh, I’m sensitive, that’s how I react.”
JON: It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned that it has nothing to do with me.
I imagine it’s similar to the way I feel when I smell dog poop. My brain goes: “Ergh, that smells like dog poop.” I’m not going “Hmm, I wonder what I feel about that odor…I think I shall turn my nose up at it.” I’m going “Gross, that shit stinks like only dog feces can.” I imagine it’s that same level of instinct, it’s just that with HSPs, the sensitivity levels are turned to a higher dial, through no fault of their own. Most people just don’t realize how much distress they can cause, because they’re just not aware it’s a thing that could possibly upset. Finding out can be hard, but it’s something you just have to understand and deal with.
Are there positive aspects to your partner’s high sensitivity?
ROSE: My husband is very conscious of other people who might be HSP. We have been able to identify it in two of our children, both of whom my husband is able to help because he can relate to them. He is very careful to give them their time and suggest that they go take breaks when needed. Before we understood HSP we were both very frustrated with them, but now we know how to help them.
JIM: Knowing about HSP helps my wife understand herself better. Like when she reacts a certain way, she realizes it’s because she is HSP, and it helps her reason why she feels that way, and that makes her feel better, so that’s a positive.
It seems like she appreciates things more than I do; that’s something I’m envious of. I can look at a flower and think it’s nice, but I don’t appreciate it like she does. I’m jealous that she gets more excited about things. Like, “Look at the dog’s new trick!” and she is genuinely excited by that. She is also very considerate.
Has learning about HSP affected how you look at other people? Are you more open-minded?
ROSE: Yes, learning about HSP has affected how I look at other people, especially my children. [see previous answer]
JON: Totally. The only thing is, I worry about it a lot now. I wonder if I’m chewing too loudly on the train, and annoying someone three seats away. It’s made me a tiny bit more sad as a person, to know that there is so much more heartbreak out there than I realized, but I think – weirdly enough – that that’s a good thing; I’d rather be a little more upset and aware than be ignorant.
Do you have any tips for other partners-of-HSPs?
ROSE: To help my husband, I try to identify when he’s having a hard time, especially when dealing with noise or crowds. When I see him start to get overwhelmed I will ask him if he needs to go take a break. I think the most important thing to do is to put yourself in their shoes; try not to get annoyed at their need for extra alone time. Remind yourself that you love this person and to love someone is to want what is best for them without expecting anything in return, so be accommodating to their needs. I try very hard to think about how he may feel by being in a certain situation, and then I am able to be pro-active in insisting he takes a break. If we are at a family gathering and see him feeling overwhelmed I may ask him to go home and check on the dog to get him away for a while or I’ll encourage him to find an empty room and sit there quietly while I send away noisy nieces and nephews who may come too close while he’s taking a break.
JIM: Just being aware of it helps. Be open to it. Have patience.
Like when she says she is tired of a party and needs to go, I understand, and I’m like, “Let’s go.” Even though I might want to stay, I understand that it’s hard for her.
JON: This is going to sound very Doctor Phil, but talk to your partner. The more we non-HSPs understand about your condition, and HSP in general, the more we can do to mitigate its effects.
Also, let your partner-of-HSP know what it’s like to suffer from it. Viv showed me videos of people on the high end of the misophonia scale, and it was genuinely sobering viewing. It made me grateful her triggers weren’t so severe, but also gave me an understanding of what it’s really like. The human brain is a marvelous thing, but there are times when it gets its wires crossed (please excuse the oversimplification). Everything is just electric impulses, but a tiny alteration in someone’s brain chemistry can create such misery for people, and I think just understanding this situation can make a huge difference.
Ultimately, in a relationship you’re there to support each other, and this is just another example of how that needs to happen.
Thank you to Rose, Jon, and Jim for taking the time to answer these questions.