In the last few months, I have been noticing some odd things and I wanted to make sense of them.   I began seeing people around me who seemed to have extra sensitivity to sights, sounds and smells.  What was this interesting phenomena?  Do these people have super-human seeing, hearing and smelling abilities?  Was this somehow linked to greater intelligence?  I was intrigued by a girl who seemed to be able to smell everything and was always sniffing me!  I was baffled when my partner could hear the smallest whir or buzzing sound coming from a computer or the fridge.  What was going on here? I needed to find out.

For some reason, after searching the web, I stumbled upon a book about people who were highly sensitive.  Shortly after, I ordered the book and began reading it. (“The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine N. Aron) Aron had actually discovered a trait that existed in human beings and in other species–she found that 15-20% of the population had a nervous system that was more easily aroused.  These people, and animals, were more sensitive to stimulation than the rest of their kind.  After looking at the self-test, I immediately thought, this sounds like me!

At nearly the same time, my therapist recommended a book on perfectionist thinking. ( “Never Good Enough” by Monica Ramirez Basco)  I started reading both books at the same time.  Hmmm…there seems to be a connection here.  I guess always knew that I was a bit of a perfectionist but didn’t really give it much thought.  It only seemed to come up when a job interviewer asked me, “What’s your greatest weakness?”  But as I began to read this book, I had the same feeling–this sounds like me!

Furthermore, in the last month, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety.  Not like the kind of moderate worrying that I had felt in the past or even the generalized kind of anxiety I had suffered from recently, but extreme fixation on a future event that I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about.  I seemed to spend half of my day in an anxious state, unable to still my mind or calm down.  I wondered–Could this, too, be related to being sensitive rather than merely a menopausal symptom?

My theory is that menopause or hormone imbalances often magnify problems that are already there.  If there are any repressed feelings, they are sure to come bubbling up to the surface.  If there is a gnawing dissatisfaction with work, it will probably come to a head.  If marital issues had been swept under the rug, they will likely to become impossible to ignore.  And if you have any minor vitamin deficiency or hidden health matter that your body has been compensating for, there’s a good chance that the hormonal upset is going to turn these mole hills into mountains.

Looking back I can see that I was probably always quite sensitive, as my family members, friends and past teachers would no doubt concur.   As I read the book on highly sensitive people, my life seems to make more sense.  I have flashbacks from my childhood.  I was the one in my family who had allergies, hay fever and eczema.  I was the one who cried in terror when going to the dentist or going to the doctor for a shot.

I seemed to handle changes and the moves the worst.  I can remember when I started at a new school and I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get home even though we lived across the street!  I can recall a period in university where I was so scared of being called on and blushing in class that I usually hid in the back hoping not to be noticed.   I was the quiet one.  The girl who kept things to herself, wrote in her diary and immersed herself in creative play.  Now I’m beginning to think, “Hey, I’m not weak; just more sensitive than others!”

So what does it really mean to be sensitive?  I think this trait is misunderstood by many and frequently confused with introversion.  Children that seem shy or cry a lot are labeled ‘sensitive’ or maybe even thought of as weak.  Adults who don’t want to go to big parties or busy restaurants are viewed as introverted, antisocial or strange.   Phrases like, “Don’t be so sensitive!  You are overreacting!”  are used in attempt to dismiss what appears to be an unreasonable response or too much emotion.  Unfortunately, sensitive people are pushed into trying to adapt to the world of their thicker-skinned friends who are the majority of the population.

The fact is that highly sensitive people have this acute awareness of everything that is going on around them.  They see, hear and feel subtle things and they process and sort information differently.  Of course we all need stimulation.  Ideally, we want our nervous system to enjoy a happy medium;  not too much arousal and not too little.  This is when we can perform and respond at our best.   As Aron put it, a situation that is moderately arousing for the average person could make a highly sensitive person feel overly aroused, causing her to feel frazzled–confused, distressed and out of control.  She may even completely shut down.

Delving back into my past again, I can see that my body was desperately trying to tell me that all the stimulation around me was too much.  In my last nine months in Japan, I had become unable to tolerate crowds, loud noise or music, and bright lights.  When I was in a crowded place, it felt like every cell in my body was screaming, “NOOO!  Get out of here!”

Going back further, I can remember afternoons at the preschool I worked at when I felt completely overwhelmed and my brain seemed to just turn off and I became unable to cope or respond  quickly and efficiently.  It felt as if a cord had been cut between me and the people around me.  As I have now learned, I was likely in a state of dissociation–a mild detachment which served as a coping mechanism to minimize my stress. 

Even when I was healthy,  I almost always wore my sunglasses and had my headphones in when I was walking on the street or taking a busy train.  I never understood how my coworkers could go out and socialize after a long day at work when I just wanted to go home and enjoy a quiet evening.  I didn’t really enjoy large gatherings where people sat around drinking and talking.

For some unknown reason, I loved clubbing despite the loudness, the lights and all the people.  Maybe my passion for dancing and self-expression overrode my fear.  Perhaps, since I completely absorbed myself in the music I was able to block out some of the other stimulus.  Quite often I would just close my eyes and feel the music and it was like nothing else existed.  I believe it’s likely that my sensitivity was what allowed me to be so deeply moved by the music in the first place.  I think, though, in the end, my nervous system did pay a hefty price.

I’m sure my endocrine system was working overtime to try to regulate my hormones but eventually it just couldn’t keep up.  And I’m speculating that my adrenals, in particular, had been depleted from my self-destructive, non-stop hyper dancing weekends.  At 41, suddenly, my tolerance for stress dipped way down–the fight-or-flight response was zapped.  Although for several years I had been able to adapt my sensitive body to a high stress environment, I had pushed it too far.  I think I have gone from being quite sensitive to a highly sensitive person as a result of the severe hormonal fluctuations.

As with most traits, there are advantages and disadvantages to being a highly sensitive person:  Noticing lots of subtleties and picking up information that others miss can be an asset, especially at work, but getting too caught up in too many small details can lead to perfectionism and wasted time;  missing the forest through the trees.  Being aware of how others are feeling can make you a compassionate and empathetic person but on the flip side, you may have the tendency to be affected by the moods of others, have trouble separating your emotions from those of others’ or have poor boundaries. Taking in information without even being aware of it will make you more intuitive but too much can be overwhelming and exhausting.  Being alert and aware of everything is sometimes very useful but over-stimulation can cause a person to avoid stressful situations which results in increased anxiety.









I watched three different TED talks last week.  One was about ‘coming out our closets’  or speaking our truth no matter how hard it may be.  The second one proposed the importance of vulnerability in developing our connections to others.  The third was based on a theory of needing space in long-term relationships to keep desire from dying.  I went to bed one night with all of these ideas floating around in my mind and I suddenly saw how all of them were connected.   This post is an attempt to explain how I interpreted what they said and how I merged all of them together.

What shame really boils down to is the fear of rejection.  We don’t want other people to leave us or abandon us after they find out our ‘terrible’ secret selves and all the not so pretty bits and pieces.   Basically, we don’t want to be left alone and disconnected from others;  especially the people we love.  To cover up this fear, we try so hard to prove we are perfect, strong, loveable, invincible and whatever else we think will help us to be accepted.  We put on our masks and don’t show any of those nasty negative emotions like worry, anxiety, sorrow and pain.  We wouldn’t want our friends and family thinking we are weak!

Unfortunately, this shame leads to a lack of vulnerability and instead of bravely speaking our truth, expressing our authentic self and sharing our true feelings we stay hidden, where we think life will be safe and certain and people will continue to like us.  As you can probably guess, this is not healthy.  By not expressing ALL of who you are, a whole person with good and bad, you lose confidence and courage and you close yourself off from compassion.  Essentially, you stop trusting yourself and the process of life.

Once we have put up walls of steel, we no longer feel connected to others.  In all of our pretending and striving for perfection, we forget that other people are flawed and sometimes weak just like us!  This disconnection makes us feel more separate and makes us feel less compassion for others and ourselves.  Then we feel more disconnected and more ashamed and the cycle continues.

The cycle we should really be aiming for is one of feeling worthy, showing vulnerability and feeling connected.  It takes both courage and compassion to be vulnerable.  First, you need this courage and compassion for yourself.  Looking honestly at yourself and fully accepting yourself is a necessary step before you reveal yourself to others.   Revealing yourself also takes courage and compassion. You need the courage to express yourself authentically and accept the uncertainty of how the other will respond.  Plus it takes compassion; seeing that your listener is doing his/her best just as you are.   The more we show our vulnerable selves, the more connected we feel.  Again, we come full circle to a place where we feel that we are worthy, we are good enough and we have nothing to hide and nothing to prove.

Now, let’s take a look at how relationships fit into all of this.  Why do we seek long term relationships in the first place?  For most of us, at least part of the reason is to relieve our feelings of insecurity, instability and uncertainty.  We want to feel connected to another human being and we secretly hope that this will take away our fear of rejection.  The irony is, as relationship becomes closer and more intimate, our fear of rejection actually increases. Yikes!  Of course, this only feeds the shame we are so desperately trying to escape.  We don’t dare to speak our truth now.  Surely our partner will be totally turned off.  So we hold back our true feelings which makes us feel less connected to our partner.  Some of us end up in familiar patterns of distraction and addiction to numb our pain, resentment and longing.

Yes, we love to avoid those nasty ‘negative’ emotions and shame is no exception.  We love to numb out our bodies with alcohol, drugs, carbs and sweets.  And we love to keep our minds busy with computers, smart phones, TV shows and video games.  But avoidance of feelings like shame, guilt and worry can lead to anxiety and repression of feelings like anger, hurt and sadness can cause depression.   So what is the healthy thing to do?  What I believe is that we need to do two things:  1.  take care of our bodies through healthy eating, proper exercise and sleep  2.  still our minds through meditation, relaxation and refection.   Both of these strategies will help you find the strength and courage and the detachment and objectivity you need to feel those ugly feelings.

What another speaker suggested was that we have the need for security, stability and safety as well as the need for excitement, adventure and unpredictability.   In other words, we want the best of both worlds; especially when it comes to relationships.  We look for that feeling of being secure, loved and really close to someone but yet we also yearn for the mystery and uncertainty that we feel at the beginning of a relationship when there is more distance between us and our darling.  Desire is really nothing more than strongly wanting something which immediately implies that we want what we don’t have.  How do we keep desire alive?  So there is this dichotomy between our needs for closeness and connection and our need for separateness and space.  This is what makes long term relationship so challenging.

My theory is that to overcome this awkwardness and confusion, we must face our shame head on.  Ask yourself:  What are the things that I am so terrified my partner will find out?  What are the words I am so afraid of saying?  This will likely give you a clue as to where you need to be more authentic and truthful.  It takes extreme courage to be vulnerable in front of your partner and say–Hey!  This is who I am, and this is what I need…take it or leave it.–  I think this is at the heart of vulnerability–speaking your true thoughts and feelings and expressing your needs with no holding back, no shame.

This brought to mind building boundaries.  Even though the word ‘boundary’ sounds as if you are blocking something out, building healthy boundaries is really all about being vulnerable!  It seems crazy, doesn’t it but there it is.  It’s about drawing the line between where you begin and your partner ends.

In building boundaries, we increase our individuality and our separateness.  We create this space where desire can grow and thrive.  When your partner can see you again with in a new light, the excitement has the opportunity to return.  Another upside to being vulnerable is that you will begin to have less need for security and certainty which again creates more space, making you more attractive to your partner.   Finally, with all this openness and honestly comes compassion followed by true connection and love.  True love cannot exist in the same place as fear.  You can’t love someone completely when you are afraid of losing them.  I see true love as a connection between people who have bravely bared their hearts and souls, leaving themselves completely open and vulnerable.

Like many truths in life, vulnerability is a paradox:  In showing our weakness, we become strong.  In accepting our separateness and embracing ourselves as unique individuals with our own unique needs, we can feel real connection and true love with other human beings.  If you do one thing today, say one true thing that comes from a place deep in you heart.  Say one thing that expresses the whole of who you are.  Say one thing that exposes you for the perfectly-flawed human being you are.



Ash Beckham: We’re all hiding something. Let’s find the courage to open up

Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability

Esther Perel: The secret to desire in a long-term relationship