I recently wrote about suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I believe talking about mental illness is a good thing. It helps lower the stigma around it by debunking myths. It helps people suffering feel less alone. And it allows us to share ideas on how to tackle it. However, I realised something about myself recently …
The more I read about depression, the worse I actually feel. When I’m feeling down, I’m drawn to articles, books and videos that depict depression. Part of me, I think, is looking for answers. When I understand something, it feels less scary. Another part of me feels relief that others feel the same. It makes the way I feel more valid, in a way, relieving some of the guilt it brings with it.
You’d think this would help lift me out of feeling low. But it doesn’t – not for me. If someone tells me their wisdom tooth is infected, I often become so anxious about mine becoming infected that I subconsciously over-brush my teeth and poke around my mouth with my tongue so much I cause an infection. In the same way, when I expose myself to others’ experiences of depression, it can trigger my own.
As the saying goes: don’t think of a purple elephant. (Oops, too late.)
What it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
I identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP), and I believe there’s a strong link between being an HSP and my mental health. Dr Elaine Aron first coined the term after she began studying the trait of high sensitivity found innately in around 15% of the population. She published her findings in a book called The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996.
Some of the HSP traits that I relate to include:
- Being easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics and sirens nearby. I can see a TV’s standby light even when my eyes are closed, I have to put my fingers in my ears when a police car goes by, and I when I was a kid I used to complain that the fabric of my clothing ‘rubbed’.
- Needing to withdraw during busy days or long social events (into bed or a darkened room or some other place where I can be in quiet solitude). I think most introverts will relate to this. If I’m in the middle of a city at rush hour, every detail bombards me.
- Having a ‘rich and complex’ inner life – sometimes I just have days where I like to spend time thinking. My dreams are always crazily vivid, sometimes to the point that I can feel pain in them, which isn’t fun when you’re prone to nightmares. I also like to stare at inked-up slithers of dead trees and hallucinate – an act otherwise known as reading.
- Being hungry is incredibly unpleasant. My friends and family joke about my ‘hanger’ (hungry-anger) and big appetite, but I actually have a mild fear of feeling hungry because it feels so extreme to me.
- Being shaken up by change. One time when I was a kid, my mum moved my bed an inch away from the window for the winter, so I cried until she moved it back. (Yes, I was a whiny child.) When I moved out of my mum’s house to live with my boyfriend, I cried uncontrollably for the first night because it was so overwhelming. (Okay, guess I’m a whiny adult, too.)
- Feeling sensitive to other people’s moods and emotions. If someone around me is in the slightest of bad moods, I pick up on it straight away and feel incredibly anxious. Part of the reason I’m such a natural people-pleaser is that it’s so unpleasant for me to feel other people’s negative feelings.
Which is why if I read stuff about depression, I’ll end up feeling depressed myself. Most people have the ability to be sympathetic. They can understand someone else’s point of view. But as an HSP, other people’s moods affect me a little more strongly. It almost steps into empathy – I end up feeling what I perceive instead of just understanding it.
How being an HSP makes me a good editor
The upside is that being highly sensitive makes me good at my job – or at least I believe it does.
I so very genuinely want to help my author clients to the best of my ability. I feel I’m able to grasp pretty well and fairly quickly what an author is trying to do with their writing. I do this in a number of ways – using questionnaires and exchanging emails, but also through a general feel of the writing itself.
Possibly this works best when I’m critiquing a manuscript. Clients have said things to me like ‘the level of detail and empathy for the goals of the story that you have is remarkable’ and ‘you “got” what I was trying to do; you didn’t just edit the words; you understood the concepts’.
Feedback like that gives me a serious case of the warm fuzzies.
How being an HSP affects my creativity
In terms of my creativity and writing, being an HSP can help me tap into different points of view and channel different emotions pretty well. The downside, I find, is feeling overwhelmed with possibilities and ideas, which can make my work spiral into something too big.
Alternatively, I’ll freeze, not knowing which option to choose, leading to a bad case of creative block. If this happens, it helps to set some firm boundaries in place to help me contain my thoughts and ideas. For example, instead of writing a novel with six POV characters, I’ll restrict myself to one or two.
Understanding ourselves is important
Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of self-analysis. A groovy old Greek dude once said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Pretty strong words, but I do think knowledge is power. Wait, am I starting a quote-spiral here?
Anyway, the more we know how our own minds tick, the better we can make decisions. And that includes decisions about how we create art and how we lead creative lives. Knowing what kind of person I am allows me to play to my strengths and combat my weaknesses, without comparing myself to others.
Do you feel like you might be a highly sensitive person? Is there anything you know about yourself that affects your creativity? How do you use that knowledge?