Most HSPs fall into one of two camps when they learn that being an HSP is a thing.
’round here, we fondly refer to them as “Camp Cheri” and “Camp Denise.”
As you read the description of each, ask yourself: Which one resonates most with me?
Camp Cheri — “I’m an HSP! Yay!”
Hi, I’m Cheri. And I’m a self-improvement junkie.
I’ve always felt like the odd-one-out. Not just different; downright defective—which means I’ve spent most of my life trying to fix myself, paying for counseling and coaching, attending dozens of workshops and seminars…per year. Buying the entire self-help section of Barnes and Noble—all to no avail.
When I was just 16 years old, I attended a workshop that introduced me to the four basic temperaments: the fun-loving Sanguine, the detail-conscious Melancholy, the achievement-oriented Choleric, and the peace-keeping Phelgmatic. Initially, so many light bulbs went on as I gained vital insights into myself and my family members.
But the more I studied these personality types, the more questions I had. Something about me was off. No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t fully fit the descriptions of my primary and secondary temperaments.
My inner intensity switch seemed preset to “high” and wouldn’t dial down, no matter how hard I tried. I truly loved people and parties…until they wore me out. I could take charge of any situation…until I got overwhelmed and dissolved into tears. I couldn’t remember my own phone number—but couldn’t forget harsh words I’d heard.
Even as I went on to teach personality workshops with outer confidence, I berated myself inwardly for being an imposter. You’re just a wannabe. A failed extrovert. A fraud.
What I longed to change about myself was this extra layer of intensity that I couldn’t hide, no matter how hard I tried. I constantly felt “high maintenance”—like a burden to others and an enigma to myself. Well-meaning loved ones offered their best advice over the years:
- “Just stop overthinking things.”
- “Just let go and let God.”
- “Just don’t take things so personally.”
- “Just learn to r-e-l-a-x!”
- “Just don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Excellent bits of advice, every single one. But without the companion how-to manual (yes, I would buy Emotional Contentment for Dummies if someone were to write it) I could never figure out how to apply these well-intentioned cliches to my everyday life. What seemed so obvious to others felt unfathomable for me.
Turns out, I didn’t need advice; what I needed was a map.
Learning that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person was like finding that map and discovering that it’s actually a treasure map with a big red X that says, “You are here. This is what’s normal for you.”
As I read Susan Cain’s Quiet and Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person, I peppered the pages with so much highlighting and so many notes of “This is me!” that it finally hit me: There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m a normal HSP.
An enormous sense of relief washed over me. In the space of a few short days, my life-long list of everything I needed to do to fix my defective self changed into a list of things I could stop doing.
I could stop basing “normal” on everyone else’s experiences.
I could stop pretending to be someone I’m not.
I could finally stop wondering, What’s wrong with me?
You know how in the final moments of some Disney movies all the grim, gloomy grayness miraculously transforms into joyous, brilliant color? That’s what happened inside of me. All of a sudden, so much of what had never made sense in my life now made total sense. It felt like a miracle when it happened.
And it still feels like a miracle, six years later, each time I remember:
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m a normal HSP.
Camp Denise — “I’m an HSP? Ugh!”
Being the only girl in a family with much older brothers meant I was dared to try things—like jumping off a cliff or chewing a chili pepper—just for the fun of it.
My particular family dynamic meant that I learned to hang with the boys. My brothers were neighborhood legends, known for their daredevil stunts, like flipping out of swing sets and flying off roofs. By contrast, I was quieter and far more cautious. For a long time, I thought it was because I was a girl and they were boys, but most of the neighborhood kids—girls included—followed right along with whatever madcap scheme my brothers hatched.
I was different. That much was obvious, but sometimes I pretended to be more adventurous than I wanted. Nobody was going to call me weak or scared or sensitive. And nobody would ever, under any circumstances, catch me crying—not this girl, not ever.
When I read about Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) years later, I shook my head. I had to admit that I could relate to the concept of sensory overload. Strong perfume nauseated me. Constant noise flustered me. Tight clothing bothered me. Still, I wasn’t about to call myself a Highly Sensitive Person. If my brothers or other family members caught whiff of it, I’d never hear the end of it. So, I chose to investigate it more, but quietly.
Over time, and with much research, I had to concede—I definitely experience SPS. It’s like a backdrop to my everyday existence, but I struggle with the term “Highly Sensitive Person.” The connotations are all wrong, and it’s the last club I’d ever voluntarily join. So, when Cheri approached me about the possibility of writing a book on the subject, I told her honestly, “I’m not the poster-girl for HSPs. I cannot overstate how much I dislike the label.”
Cheri came right back and said, “I have a hunch there are a lot of HSPs out there who are like you. They don’t want to be associated with the word sensitive, so they’re still trying to be someone they’re not.”
That’s what got me. I spent so many years trying to be the risk-taking, roller-coaster-loving, adventure-living kind of girl instead of the quiet girl who wanted to curl up under a soft blanket and read a book with a cup of tea. That girl sounded boring, and I desperately wanted not to be boring.
Maybe that’s you too. Maybe you’ve tried to fit in by doing all the things you thought you were supposed to do only to discover that it left you feeling drained. Maybe you loathe the idea of being labeled “sensitive” as much I do, and you’re hesitant to get on this HSP train. (Don’t worry. It’s a quiet train, and everyone is in their own compartment anyway.) If that’s you, you’re not alone.
Understanding the impact of sensory stimuli and the effects of an overstimulating environment has been key for me. At the end of the day, I have to say I’m an HSP, but I will forever advocate that HSPs should not be caricatured as highly inefficient, easily fragile, and overly emotional people who get sucked into other people’s drama and then wear out from all the strain.
That’s not the story I want for my life, and that’s probably not the story you want for your life either. We can tap into the unique strengths of HSPs and become people who are strong and who contribute in healthy ways to the people and the communities around us and the world at large.
Sensitive and Strong
Denise and I have collaborated on a brand new book titled Sensitive and Strong. In it, we bring together both the “Camp Cheri” and “Camp Denise” perspectives.
We’d love you to join us in writing a new story for the word “sensitive”!
You can take the new, online “Am I a Highly Sensitive Person?” self-quiz right here.
Whether you’re “Camp Cheri” or “Camp Denise,” this much is certain:
God made you sensitive—in Christ, you are always strong.
Which resonates with you more: “Camp Cheri” or “Camp Denise” and why?