Tuesday, August 03, 2010

For Highly Sensitive People (and Those Who Love Them)

I read a very interesting article the other day, courtesy of a Facebook group of which I'm a member. It's called "Highly Sensitive People--Sounds, Smells, and Sentiments."

Apparently, sensitivity (the temperament trait) is not just social measure (as in, sensitive people get their feelings too easily hurt or lack Teh Social Skillz)--there's physiological evidence that shows that sensitive people (like me and Ryan, and possibly Sean) have more sensitive neurological systems (emphasis in original):

High Sensitivity and Introversion: Introversion is no longer "low sociability."

Modern personality researchers have done hundreds of studies on the personality traits of introversion-extroversion.

Early research treated it as a measure of sociability, later research looked it more generally as a physiological measure. The studies concur that introverts are:

    * More physically sensitive

    * More sensitive to stimuli and stimulants

    * They process information more thoroughly

    * They prefer to reflect before acting

    * More reflective when given feedback

    * More vigilant in discrimination tasks

    * Slower to acquire and forget information due to their deeper processing into memory

Greater sensitivity is found at all levels of the nervous system from sensitivity to pinpricks, to skin conductivity to faster reaction times

And even MORE interesting is this statement (emphasis in original):

Some highly sensitive individuals are still extroverts!

Usually these are people who have grown up in supportive extended families where social interaction was a source of comfort and the family "ran interference" protecting them from over-stimulation and anxiety until they had the skills to manage the world themselves.

They still typically report needing a lot of "down time" to recuperate after social encounters.

So sensitivity and introversion do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, though they often do.

I find this especially fascinating as Ryan seems to have become more extroverted over time. There was a time when I really worried that he'd be painfully shy, that he'd never want to talk to other people--kids or adults (I know), that he wouldn't learn how to interact with others appropriately, that he'd always hide behind my . . . well, I rarely wear skirts, so we'll just say jeans instead.

To add to my concern/distress over this (during his first four years or so), I encountered many, many people who did not (or could not) understand him. Doting grandparents (Ryan is the first grandkid on both sides of the family, and first great-grandkid on 3/4 sides) tried to connect with him, and were rebuffed time and time again. It upset them and confused them, I think.

They wanted desperately to play with him and talk to him and touch him--he wanted none of those things from anyone except me and Brendan. Many of our family and friends tried erroneously to "push" themselves into his space and his life, as if forcing the issue with him would make it happen. It did not, and in fact, made things more stressful for Ryan, for me and Brendan, and for them.

It wasn't just noise or touch either. He'd cry when he heard slow, sad songs. The first time I noticed this, he was less than a year old. Later, the teacher of our mommy-and-me music class noted that he cried any time he heard a song in a minor key (and it's still true today--he won't listen to anything in a minor key, especially if it's slow). It took him forever to warm up in a new situation--he preferred to observe and observe and observe, often not joining in a playdate at all, or not until the very end. It took him--and my fellow homeschooling moms at co-op will attest to this--MONTHS before he would confidently go into chess class without me.

A few people believed Ryan's reluctance to be touched, his amazing intolerance to loud noises and weird textures, his refusal to play with toys that flashed bright lights or made loud noises, the fact that he really didn't enjoy Day Out with Thomas (heaven-on-earth for most 3-4 year old boys) the one time Brendan took him . . . all of these things and more . . . led a few people to believe we were "sheltering" and "overprotective" and "controlling." Sigh.

So yes, especially in the first 4, maybe 5 years of his life, Ryan was on the track toward introvertedness (introversion?). But that's changed, and I think at least in part, that change has come about because Brendan and I have taken especial care to respect his sensitivity. His sensitivity is CHALLENGING. Ryan is not an easy kid in many ways, and yes, it's seriously trying at times, to have a kid "who is old enough to know better" freaking out at strange lights or sad music.

But we have taken care to send him the message: "Hey, this is a part of who you are. It makes you a neat person. We know that sometimes your sensitivity makes things hard to deal with, and it's our job to help you manage your sensitivities in an appropriate, rights-respecting manner."

What has this meant? It meant that we left "Touch a Truck," a super-fun event in the next town over where all kinds of peopleguys and their peopleguy equipment are parked in a big parking lot for everyone to go and touch and climb into and try out. Sounds like a perfect event for Ryan, no? It's beyond loud, all those sirens going off, and horns. Lights, too. It was overwhelming and horrifying to him, so we left.

It has meant that when we had a fun day taking the train into the city with Kelly and Livy (Morgan was a little baby at the time, so Ryan would have been about 3.5), I had to put the baby in the stroller, and hold Ryan on my lap, helping him hold his ears because the noise of the train was too loud. He didn't freak out, but he needed help managing and coping with this overstimulation. Thankfully Morgan didn't seem to care. Livy, as I recall, was climbing all over the place, completely unaware of the "loud" train (I didn't even notice the noise of the train until Ryan got upset).

It's meant that I've interjected myself between Ryan and other kids, and Ryan and other adults (strangers, family, and friends) when Ryan was becoming overwhelmed by invasion-of-space issues, touches, being scooped up without warning. I have helped him learn to say "No thank you. I need some space right now!" and I have said to others "Please put him down." or "He needs my help right now, thanks anyway." I have seen their hurt and confused expressions and I have done those things anyway.

I have cultivated a level of patience with this that I never knew could exist in my character (I am fundamentally impatient), and spent hours talking to him, explaining, teaching him coping skills and words to say, figuring out when to support him and when (and how) to gently tell him that it was time to try something on his own.

I have questioned myself and our parenting, our temperaments and styles, more times than I can count. Should I have forced him to go to chess class without me? Why doesn't he want to go on sleep-overs? Will he ever leave home? Why can't he just deal already?

But he can't, not without help, and I understand that most of all.

So many times I've heard the same thing: someone telling me "You're too sensitive!" or " Stop being so touchy." I couldn't walk down the laundry detergent aisle at the grocery store because the smell was overwhelming and nauseating (I can still hardly stomach it, though I'm a grown up and thus must suck it up cope). Couldn't stand to be touched by people I didn't know. In large noisy crowds, I can barely think or breathe (remind me to tell you about how I'm never ever EVER going to Taste of Chicago ever ever EVER again). I can't stand to have too many noises going on in the background (though having a few kids will help a person learn to get over that to a certain degree).

I need space, a certain measure of quiet, nobody touching me. Dude is just like me. :o)

It's taken me YEARS to get more in touch with my extroverted abilities--and I will be the first to admit I'm not a super-strong introvert. I spent my teens and twenties on purpose hiding from situations that would overwhelm me. I've spent my thirties learning how to go out into the world and cope with situations that overwhelm me. I am definitely happier now that I can cope.

Ryan has matured out of many of his specific sensitivities--or maybe he hasn't matured, but has managed (I hope with our help) to learn how to cope with overwhelming stimuli in a more responsible way. He is still apt to become overwhelmed, hates sad songs and movies, complains more than the others about smells or sounds. He still needs "downtime" after lots of big situations, but nobody meeting him today could call him "shy." He is confident and talkative, and he is managing his sensitivities much better than I could at his age. 

So I hope that Ryan will feel happy that he has learned how to cope, too, happy that we helped him learn to cope, that we were (mostly) patient with his sensitivities and (mostly) understanding. And that introvert or extrovert, I hope he knows we love him more than a little for this wonderfully challenging interesting aspect of his personality.

9 comments:

Amy said...

I love this post. My husband should take a note from you to learn how to treat me when we're at the airport or a concert, or even when two people are talking to me at the same time. Sure, we all need to learn to cope, but we also need to have our temperaments respected. Good for you for doing this for Ryan!

It's great that you have 2 other children for differentiation. With only 1 myself, it's so hard to know what is temperament and what is just a stage of development.

Oh, and by the way, I made the same pledge many years ago: I'm never ever going to Taste of Chicago again! :)

Riceball Mommy said...

This is a wonderful post and I can relate. I'm not one for crowds, I don't like to be touched by people I don't know, and I'm not much for talking to new strange people (funny how a lot of that got worse when I was pregnant).
I've had the problem in the past of some distant family members using the excuse of "well I'm family, she knows that" and then trying to pick up my daughter.

We've had a few family members come on too strong but after backing off she got comfortable with them. Now she really enjoys her company.

I have a question for comparison, does your son hate it when people sing together, like "Happy Birthday?" My daughter just can't stand it, she'll cover her ears and hide if she can.

Also I think what you are doing for your son is fabulous. I love that you are being patient with him, even though some people don't understand.

Anthony said...

Thanks for this post Jenn. I don't have time right now to write more, but thanks.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Very interesting. High sensitivity may be correlated with the broader autistic phenotype, and with high intelligence. This has to do with how the brain is wired, and with the processing speed--which is faster among those who are intellectually gifted.

My son and I are both highly sensitive people. My daughter may not have entirely escaped it, although she seems to be more evenly keeled.

These situations lead to certain preferences--which have no moral assessment attached--but are often judged on a moral basis by outsiders who do not understand. Highly sensitive people have a very hard time of it in schools, where ignorant and bossy teachers often decide that there is something wrong with being an introvert and want to change the person. I had this happen to me, and I therefore had a very unhappy school experience.

I had a similar experience with the Objectivists I knew in high school and college. They were very dogmatic and Ayn Rand's preferences had to be each Objectivist's preferences. For these particular people, one's preferences became a moral issue, and in my judgment, denied the very basis of individuality which is individual differences within a species created by genetics, epigenetics and environment. I was not only sensitive, but also highly independent, and I remember one meeting in which my dislike of New York City became an impromptu Kangaroo Court. Conform or be cast out! This became one reason why I enjoyed associations with libertarians throughout my college years, since they accepted my difference rather than Objectivists, who didn't.

This was a very odd thing, because I am involved in neuropsychological research now, and am getting a second doctorate to work within the autism field. I have a pretty good understanding of the issue of high sensitivity, and when I watch video of Ayn Rand, I see the neurological mannerisms and responses of a highly sensitive person. I am not sure why these Objectivists were so willing to confuse moral choices with neurological preferences, but it was what it was. Older Objectivists (that is a generation older than my 50 years) that I talk to have said that this was more common then than it is now, and that the new generations of Objectivists tend to be more forgiving of individual differences and I have found this to be so.

In any case, I am happy to have found people like you, Jenn, who can make the important distinction between moral choices and the reality of individual preferences, and I congratulate you on how well you are raising your children to have the same respect and good will towards others in this respect.

Good post!

Kevin McAllister said...

Wow! Of all the things I've read about Ryan here I never put together this picture. The reason it's interesting to me is for a while it was like you were describing Ashley, my 4 year old.

The example, the first time Michelle used the babysitter service at the gym she just did a short 15 minute workout when she came back she found that Ashley had spent the entire 15 minutes standing in the same spot hiding her face in her jacket.

And she is still afraid of the vacuum/hair dryer, and forget it if a smoke detector is accidentally triggered by steam from the shower. Hates any strong smell.

Although looking at both her & her older sister, Allison, who also tends toward shyness just not on the same scale. They both surprise me with occasional boldness. Ashley will try any and all foods, and gladly went for a pony ride while her older sister will more often speak up in a social situation.

The only other way to draw Ashley out is to make a mistake. Boy does she love to correct people who make mistakes.

Thanks for this I plan to read through it again.

Vinnie said...

This really caught my attention, I was very shy growing up. A lot of what you said about your son Ryan definitely reminds me of me. I would never want to play with the kids that played outside in the neighborhood. If there were kids playing in my house, I would have all my toys on the floor and watch them play while I sat on the couch. I think I never wanted to come across as too eager for anything. Thankfully, this lasted only until my freshman year of high school. I really enjoyed your post, Thank you!

D. Jason Fleming said...

Ryan is incredibly lucky to have you and Brendan as parents.

Some introverted children are punished for these things, because "there must be something wrong with them". Introverted kids are also prime targets for emotional abusers and manipulators, because they have no defenses.

Mona said...

Thank you for this post! I never realized my need for downtime and my intense dislike of the minor key were connected! It's great to see that you are so understanding with Ryan. When I was in 4th grade, I was labeled "shy" and I really think that this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering a kind of shyness, self-consciousness, and dislike of social situations that I hadn't had before. Before that time, I was perfectly okay with who I was and had no problem with social interactions, although I may have been quieter than the average kid. It took me a long time to work through this. Learning about temperament was eye-opening for me.

I also like thinking about introversion as needing to recharge your batteries with alone time, because I think that's the fundamental - not how extroverted or introverted you may seem to others or how talkative you are at parties. I think defining it in that way makes it more clear that people can cope and adapt, separates introversion from actual shyness, and destigmatizes introversion.

I wonder if there's a correlation between having migraines and introversion, because migraine sufferers tend to have some similar sensitivities.

Sam said...

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them ... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off… They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.” - Pearl Buck

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