By Kimberly Zapata
My daughter was a few days shy of her 2nd birthday when I first heard the term “highly sensitive.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what it meant (or what it was), and I didn’t really care. I thought it was just another catchphrase coined by uptight parents to make “emotional” children seem braver, more resilient. To make “touchy” children seem stronger. And to make their worried asses feel better.
I thought it was a crappy clickbait headline and nothing more.
I was wrong.
Because as my daughter shifted from a babbling tyke to an energetic, intuitive, and emotional toddler — as she moved from her terrible twos into her “holy hell, what the fuck just happened” threes — I saw a change. I saw a shift, and I knew something was different.
She was different.
And so, like any 21st century parent, I began Googling her actions. I turned to the internet for help and answers. And it was then, nearly a year later, the term returned: highly sensitive. Articles and message boards seemed to imply my daughter was highly sensitive.
And you know what? She was. She is. And so am I.
But what makes my daughter — my beautiful, smart, and sassy little girl — “highly sensitive”? How do I know I am “highly sensitive?” Well, because I learned what highly sensitive meant.
I learned about HSPs, or highly sensitive people.
You see, contrary to popular belief — and my initial assumptions — being highly sensitive doesn’t mean one is touchy or unstable. It doesn’t mean one is wimpy or whiny or “dramatic,” and being highly sensitive doesn’t make one an overly emotional, hypersensitive pain in the ass.
Instead, it simply means that the person, or HSP, has an overactive nervous system which is particularly sensitive to some sort of stimuli, and that stimuli could be visual, textural, auditory, or social. Do you hate loud noises and loathe scratchy clothing? Do surprises make you anxious? Does change make you nervous? And do you constantly worry about others?
Well, if you so, you may be an HSP.
You may be.
Make no mistake: There is more to being an HSP than a list of symptoms. And yes, most HSPs are sensitive souls. For example, my daughter yells when I try to brush the knots from her hair, she screams (and cries) whenever I raise my voice — whenever I tell her no — and every time we watch The Lion King tears well in her eyes when Mufasa dies not because “his body stopped working” but because she is worried about Simba.
Her heart aches for Mufasa’s son.
“Is he okay?” she asks. “Will he be ok?”
But that is because HSPs, like me and my daughter, see things differently and hear things differently. They experience and interpret things in a unique way. And they feel things more acutely than most.
We feel things differently.
How so? Well, if you ask me what I want for dinner I will tell you I don’t know — and I don’t care — because in my mind, there is no right choice. There is no right answer, but there is a wrong answer, and if I make the “wrong choice,” I will lament it. I will dwell on it. It will bother me for hours, days even. Something so trivial to most, feels big to me.
If you tell me you are hurting or struggling, I will ask you what I can do to help. I will spend hours, days, and weeks focusing on what I can do to make you smile, and worrying about you, and thinking of how I can help.
And if you tell me you cannot get together, if you suddenly cancel plans, I will wonder what I did wrong; I will assume that I did something wrong because highly sensitive people aren’t just criers and empaths, they are also perfectionists.
They are people-pleasers.
And while my daughter is more decisive than I am, at least right now at 4 years old, she also worries about her peers. She cares for and mothers her peers. In dance class, she is affectionately referred to as a class mom.
And she is hurt when other children do not talk to her, when other children do not play with her. She is genuinely disheartened when other kids walk away from her or ignore her. She is hurt when “friends” refuse to say “hi,” because in her mind, everyone is a friend, and she takes these interactions personally.
Of course, raising an empathetic, emotional child is challenging — especially when you are just are as sensitive. When you are just as empathetic and sensitive. Because my heart beats for her and bleeds for her.
I lose sleep every time she loses a “friend.”
But as her mother — her highly sensitive mother — I also “get it.”
Without words or explanation, I understand her.
And while I cannot change her perception (or her personality), I can help her. I can empathize with her, and I can acknowledge her feelings and talk to her about them in a way we both “get” — in a way we both understand.
Besides, while being an HSP is tough, very tough, it isn’t all bad. HSPs are gentle and compassionate, sweet and kind, and they’re often extremely focused and responsible. They are intelligent, intuitive, and creative souls, like my daughter.
But I know this “gift” is hard for my daughter to understand, and I know it is a moot point when she is hurting. When she is feeling deep anguish, loss, and pain. But I hope that in being open with her and talking to her, I can give her the skills she needs to empathize with herself. To feel compassion toward herself.
And I hope that, one day, she (and I) can love ourselves the way we love others. Wholly and completely and with all our heart.
© 2017 Kimberly Zapata, as first published on Scary Mommy