I don’t recommend being a Highly Sensitive Person. I first heard about this personality trait from a Facebook meme, which included a checklist of questions like “Are you startled by loud noises?…Does seeing another person crying make you cry?… Do you get physically overwhelmed by confrontation?… Then you might be an HSP!” Having answered “yes” to every question, I thought, “Well this sounds fake but it definitely describes me.” And then I forgot about it. Much like social media makes too big a deal out of self-identifying as an introvert with special needs or an empath with superpowers, I figured this was just another ploy to make people obsess over themselves and seek attention on the internet. And since I do enough of that already, I discarded the notion as goofy pop psychology.
But then it turns out it’s a real thing! I learned this when talking to my last therapist, whom I did not like very much. I was trying to tell her about an annoying person I knew who bore all the traits of a borderline personality disorder but refused to seek psychological help, which got on my nerves. That’s when she asked me, “Have you ever heard the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’?”
“Oh, yeah! I’m one of those. Wait, is that a real thing?”
“Yes, and it’s a personality trait shared by as much as 30% of the population. HSP’s cannot help having strong reactions to external stimuli, that’s just part of their nervous system. But for the other 70% of the population who don’t feel that way, they often think, ‘You’re exaggerating. You’re too sensitive. You need to grow a thicker skin. There’s something wrong with you.’”
“Oh for sure. I heard that a lot when I was growing up.”
“Well there’s been some recent evidence that shows a high correlation between HSPs and people with Borderline Personalities, and the theory is that they developed that disorder because people around them constantly told them their feelings weren’t valid.” Then she stared at me through our miserable Zoom arrangement with her judgmental Karen face. And that felt like a thousand cuts on my heart, because I’m cursed with that very condition that makes some people develop personality disorders. At least I learned from an actual psychologist that HSP isn’t just some internet hokum, but I had to stop seeing that lady because her critical vibe was too much for me.
I’ve been wondering lately if being the kind of person who reacts this strongly to any sort of negative feeling from others means I should give up on the whole political organizing thing. I used to find joy in this work. That was before the pandemic, when I would usually gather with comrades in person and pick up on their body language, their unmuted reactions, their always-visible facial expressions. Now (especially since the onset of winter and Omicron) it’s a lot of Zoom, a lot of silent black boxes staring back at me. So much emptiness, not knowing how people really feel or think. It’s a lot of me filling in the blanks with my worst fears. Did I offend that person? Did I not make sense? In group settings I do lots of silly wisecracking but in the Zoom room mine is the only laughter I hear. When I hear aggravation in other people’s voices (or perhaps worse, my own), the medium seems to heighten that feeling of resentment to the point of being toxic. All told, these meetings leave me feeling very alienated and lonely.
In brighter, more physically social times, I think the best thing I bring to this socialist movement is enthusiasm. I get excited about things like canvassing and turning people out for rallies, and that deeply felt energy gets other people excited. Unfortunately I’m really bad at the other emotion that gets so many of my comrades pumped — aggression. This is the time for fighters, because there’s so much anger to harness and powerful people to blame. My husband Dan is a fighter. He loves arguing with bad people in power and other sorts of assholes. Last week at Costco he saw a shopper toss aside the city-mandated mask a store greeter had just handed to her. Dan asked if she was gonna wear it. She just shrugged so he hollered, “Then you need to get out of here!” This prompted an elderly bystander to shout, “You tell ‘em!” I was happy they got to share that moment of solidarity, but my chief emotion when I heard about this was, “Oh my god, I am SO GLAD I was not with you.” Doesn’t matter if it’s some random anti-masker or the mayor (whom Dan also regularly confronts). Doesn’t matter that they absolutely deserve the wrath. My reaction when I’m in close proximity to these situations is always the same. My heart races. I have to avert my glance. I want to run. I wish to be cooler and braver than this, but not running is my version of being brave!
There are some organizing scenarios in which being an HSP has some benefit. One is deep canvassing, a persuasion methodology I recently learned that’s all about nonjudgmental listening, storytelling, and empathy. I love doing persuasion work because unlike fighting, it flows from a place of positivity. I don’t want to tell people why they’re wrong (harsh vibes, heart racing, run!). Instead I want to say, “Here’s why we should work together” (upbeat vibes, radiance, warmth). My big feelings also help with mentoring work I’ve been doing with some Democratic Socialists of America chapters that are trying to build people power in challenging circumstances. I know how frustrating organizing in a midsize southern city can be, so I tend to approach that project with a lot of humility and compassion. I do my best to stay attuned to other organizers’ passions and gripes to help nudge them toward whatever next step they need to take.
I find both deep canvassing and mentoring satisfying. The connection and idealism I feel when I’m talking with people about shared values and the change we want to see in the world is HSP at its best. I can only imagine the positive jolt I’d get from it if it were in person. I’ve only done this work over the phone or via video conferencing. This pandemic has whittled away so much of that human connectivity by shoving it through a lot of cable and satellites. Meanwhile my sense of alienation grows. I don’t know how much more of this great imbalance I can take.
So I daydream about quitting all organizing and just doing creative stuff instead, which feels like a better use of HSP characteristics. I can just focus on cultivating a rich inner life and embrace solitude. Amateur writers don’t have to spend several hours a week on Zoom. I know I’d probably go back to feeling a lot of the hopelessness and isolation I felt before I got involved with a socialist organization, but at least I wouldn’t be so exposed to these distanced interactions that confuse and tire me. I don’t know how to bring enthusiasm anymore. How could I even expect anyone to match that energy? Aggression makes more sense in these times, but that’s not my bag.
I feel bested by this pandemic and with that comes a sometimes overwhelming sense of failure. I know feeling that way isn’t fair to myself. It isn’t my fault my strengths aren’t suited to these times. I wish I could just be a different sort of person, but I know from experience my skin can only grow so thick.