How Being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Affects My Creativity and Mood

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?

 

Hey, let’s stay in touch.


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By | 2017-09-05T13:37:37+00:00 October 28th, 2016|An Editor's Life|4 Comments

About the Author:

Sophie Playle runs Liminal Pages, where she offers editorial services to authors and training to fiction editors. She's a Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and trained with The Publishing Training Centre. She worked at the largest publishing company in the world before galavanting off to do an MA in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London (to add to her BA in English literature with creative writing from UEA). She would like to live on a steampunk airship.

4 Comments

  1. Lynn November 1, 2016 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Great post, Sophie. Thank you.

    I ‘officially’ discovered my own sensitivities some years ago when I had treatment for tinnitus. The consultant suggested that one element of this annoying condition can be a great sensitivity to one’s inner head sounds. At first I was outraged, because I felt he was blaming me, but as the treatment began to help a little, I came round to this point of view. Not only that, I saw I was highly sensitive in other respects.

    As for my creativity, I know that when I’m not physically comfortable enough, it’s tough to create. Like you, I experience hunger as something painful. Also, despite being very hard of hearing, I also need a quiet working environment. Loud, shrill sounds are sickening. About a year ago, an ambulance tore past me in the street, siren screaming – I had to fight not to throw up.

    It’s only since being freelance that I’ve really started to appreciate how much the normal office environment was degrading my health and wellbeing. Now I make sure to give myself the best chance I possibly can to be creative – this means covering my basic physical needs before I sit down to work.

    • Sophie Playle November 3, 2016 at 9:20 am - Reply

      How interesting! (But also tinnitus = horrid.) Yes, it’s amazing how much of a negative effect an office environment can have for a lot of people, especially HSPs.

  2. Cathy Turner November 1, 2016 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Hi Sophie, thanks for this post. It’s really interesting to read about the trials and benefits of being an HSP. Not sure if I’m and HSP or just a plain old introvert, but I do recognise quite a few of the traits that you mention – aversion to loud noises, sensitivity to light, need for quiet and solitude after spending time with people; and I realised when working for an old journo who used to write about food and drink (mainly drink), and who used to encourage everyone else around him to contribute notes on taste and smell, that my senses are pretty fine tuned in that area. I often berate myself for being far too sensitive to what other people say and do, or just how I think they feel, so it’s useful to consider the positive side, the ability, hopefully, to understand the tone of piece of work or grasp an intention which maybe isn’t obvious to everyone. I love your description of ‘hanger’ – it strikes a chord, and I think my son suffers from it too!

    • Sophie Playle November 3, 2016 at 9:25 am - Reply

      I’m sure it’s something people can have on a sliding scale. When experiencing the downsides of it, it’s hard to remember the positives – but they’re there! 🙂

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