On: Being a HSP

It is morning. I get up from my bed, pad over to the living room to draw the curtains aside. Sunshine bursts into my flat. The bright sky and gently swaying trees lighten my mood as I prepare my breakfast. A cup of tea, two slices of toasts, an array of fruits. I don’t have anywhere to go today, which means I can stay at home and read, write and do household chores. It is a simple, quiet day, and I couldn’t be happier. I will cook something delicious today. Maybe I will take a walk in the woods. A volume of poetry collection, or perhaps my favourite novel? There are letters to write and laundry to do. I hum and get ready to tackle all these homely, joyous tasks.

The church clock chimes ten as I step off the bus. Even in my weary state, I am glad to see the familiar surroundings. I’ve been up since six in the morning, and out of the house since seven. Two hours of commute, ten hours of classes and three hours of meetings later, I am finally at home. My ears are still ringing with all the voices and music and chatters in the bar the meeting/socialising took place at. I am exhausted, it is cold and I am too wired to sleep. Even though I know I have to get up eight hours later, I can’t fall asleep until one in the morning. My mind is too busy analysing all the impressions I got during that day: people’s facial expressions, their voices, choice of words. The flood of information in five different subjects. What I said to whom, and how I said it. Have I offended someone? Was I too quiet during the meeting? Why couldn’t I think of anything witty to say? I try to mute this voice by occupying my concentration with some mindless tasks until I literally can’t keep my eyes open and I tumble into a blissfully ignorant exhaustion.

The first time I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I wrote about my experiences of being an introvert. Now I am doing the same with being a highly sensitive person (HSP) after finishing The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron.

I was very lucky to be born into a country that appreciates sensitivity, or rather the characteristics of a HSP. I do not know whether South Korea (or any other (East-)Asian countries) has more highly sensitive people than other parts of the world. Almost all of my family members display some characteristics of being a HSP but at the same time, some of them seem to have an average threshold for stimulation, so I’m not sure.

As I was born in South Korea and grew up there, I did not associate my traits with being extra sensitive. At kindergarden I was a quiet, serious child with an uncanny ability to concentrate. I don’t remember this but apparently I took fellow kindergardeners, who would cry when they arrived in the kindergarden, ‘under my wing’ by comforting them and showing them around the building. At home I could wrestle around with my sister and shriek with laughter (that was often quieted by our strict, children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard father). But often, I think, we played games we made up by ourselves like ‘being adventurers’ for which we would drag all of our prized possessions into the living room (‘the ship’) with snacks and comic books and sketchpads (for my sister). My sister loved to draw and invent new worlds for her characters to live in. I loved to read her manhwa and doodle around.
My parents were very busy and with my sister being too young herself, I was often sent to my grandparents after kindergarden. For about two to three months every year, I’d sleep over at their place, too. My grandparents delighted in having their granddaughter with them, but they didn’t know what to do with me, so I was often left alone or my grandmother took me along to markets or gardens. I had a good sense of imagination, now that I look back. I’d pretend to be a spy and flit around the house, hiding behind the bed or wedge myself in the small space between the wall and a wardrobe. Sometimes I’d even stop my breath, certain that the invisible enemy was upon me. Or I’d read easy books for kids or write simple sentences, or draw a picture. At nights, however, and sometimes by day, too, I’d miss my mother and cry and cry silently in the dark beside my snoring grandmother. It was inconceivable that I’d throw a tantrum in front of my grandparents or even cry in front of them and thus embarrassing them. Behaving badly before elders and thus disrespecting them was simply not done.
By the time I entered second grade, I was deemed old and responsible enough to stay alone at home after school, so I did not have to go to my grandparents’ or sleep over there. I still associate those afternoons with dark, silent home and loneliness, even though I’m sure I must have had some happy days too. I didn’t spend that many hours alone each day – perhaps two, or three before my sister came home.
When I was in the fourth grade, I was old enough and my parents busy enough that they did not care or worry when I came home (I had to come before them, of course, but otherwise it was a fair game), so I often spent afternoons at school with my friends – some days with the girls whose mothers volunteered for the school sickroom, which was great because there was seldom any sick student resting in one of the three beds, so we could romp around all we wanted. Other days I stayed in the school library until its closing time with my best friend whose mother volunteered as a librarian every Wednesday. Or a friend and I would buy some snacks, find some remote spots, sit on the steps and talk for hours. These are all great memories that I cherish.

I loved school. Later all my schools became places of stability, of structure. In my Korean elementary school, I was not academically the best in my class but I had many close friends, was friendly with almost everyone and could talk easily with teachers (another common theme – me making friends with teachers). I could be goofy until my desk-mates howled with laughter, but mostly I was quiet, studious and authoritative student who did all her homework.
I never felt self-conscious unless I was standing alone in front of the class (when we had to make a speech or something). Being bookish and ‘nerdy’ was something to be admired for. I was the vice president for my class for two terms and whenever I was put in the position of a group leader, I tried to be a role-model and to minimize disputes within my group.
I wasn’t a saint by any means. I could be hypocritical, judgmental, absent-minded  and jealous. Above anything, I remember being ‘mismatched’ inside and outside the best. I wasn’t being my full self when I was at school, hiding my ‘bad’ sides whenever I could. However, I wasn’t unhappy with being a slight hypocrite as I would later come to be.

Why am I telling you all this? To (hopefully) show you that I never considered myself to be abnormal or weird when I was in South Korea. I was one of the normalest kids in the country. Being called a serious, mature ‘little-adult’ was one of the best compliments you could get as a kid.

Enter Germany. I was 11 years old when we moved to Germany. On the first day of the school, I felt for the first time that I was a quiet person. All the kids (So many bright colors all at one! (My Korean elementary school had uniforms.) So many voices speaking all at once! So many faces that all look exotic to me!) stared at me like I was some rare animal in the zoo (there was no other East-Asian kid in the class) and began whispering. I could hardly speak two words in German, so my mother (who was with me, thank goodness) translated the questions my head teacher asked me. They were meant to put me at ease, I suppose. I only remember my voice being so tiny that even my mom, who was standing right next to me, could not hear me.
My new classmates weren’t mean or anything. They were young, and as such prone to impatience or carelessness. Most of them were curious enough to stare but not interested enough to actively help me out every day. And they were loud. Holy moly, the way their voices echoed around in the school building! Or the shrill rings that signaled the end of a period or break!

For the first time in my life, I was painfully aware of how much I stood out. So I tried my best to blend in by not attracting any notice; in short, by being quiet and as invisible as I could get. I hated when teachers showed extra attention to me in classes like asking me ‘Do you know what this word means?’ because then everyone would swivel around and look at me get red in the face and mumble something.
I couldn’t speak German, so I didn’t talk much. Many kids interpreted this as me having a boring personality. Or maybe they didn’t know how to talk to a kid who couldn’t speak their language. But I learned the language quickly and made some friends, too. In retrospect, I was surprisingly open to new experiences, like going to a friend’s house or visiting a carnival. As long as I was a part of a group, and my friends were there to ‘protect’ me, I would go anywhere. But what I still liked to do at home was to draw or to read. I even liked doing homework because it gave me a sense of accomplishment. (When my teachers learned that I did two to three hours of homework every day (duh, language problem!), they were horrified and urged my mother to let me go out to play instead of being at home so much! Maybe this was the first time I realized that being a ‘home-person’ was not as good thing as it was back in Korea.)
I still liked school a lot even though I felt self-conscious and just plain foreign. I liked my classmates, my teachers and learning something new. What I loved most of all was the occasional feeling of being a part of a big group.

Starting middle school wasn’t easy. Because I went to a school a bit far away from my home, I was again the new kid and didn’t know anyone. The school was large, there were hundreds of students (from 7th grade to 13th grade), the building was foreign (even though I’ve been there twice before) and this time, no one was there to accompany me to my first day of classes. And of course my unusual name attracted every single teacher’s attention, and that led to all of my classmates staring at this Asian girl with the weird, unpronounceable name. I was at the center of attention again when I didn’t want to be. Making friends was a despairing business. I was nice and helpful and a good listener, but I wasn’t funny. I couldn’t make a flippant, witty remark. I couldn’t think of any interesting anecdote to tell. I didn’t have the natural confidence that some possess even at the age of 12. I wasn’t bold or interested in fashion or shopping for clothes. I learned the painful lesson that answering the question ‘What do you like to do in the free time?’ with ‘Reading’ was a bad bad bad thing. It made you boring. I wasn’t interested in sports; I didn’t have any pets or unique hobbies; I wasn’t musical or artistic. I just liked to read and write. Likewise, I also learned the lesson that answering the question ‘So what did you do at the weekend?’ with ‘Nothing much’ or ‘I was at home reading and doing homework’ was a terrible, terrible, terrible idea. It made you a nerd, a grind, a teachers’ pet. It was worse than being boring. I took a bus every morning and I would dread the moment a fellow classmate would hop on, take a seat next to me and ask that horrible question. It was as if everyone was in constant competition about doing the Most! Exciting! Thing! and I always came out as loser.

This was around the time it became clear that pursuing ‘boring’ hobbies such as reading or making up stories was considered juvenile and unhealthy. You had to go out more! Meet more people! Take up new sports! Teachers were concerned that while my written tests were good, I didn’t raise my hand enough, or I was too cautious with my choice of words and my opinions.

Because no one had questioned my temperament for so long, I thought everyone perceived the world as I did: jangled nerves when I was over-aroused; analyzing how she said what and why he did that; letting people’s off-hand remarks or airs of disinterest slice deeply into me; being on a permanent emotional roller-coaster. It was slowly becoming apparent that not everyone was like this. That not everyone liked discussing intense and thought-provoking topics such as meaning of life or the current social trend or the social structure of high schools. That not everyone was exhausted after a day of field trip.
My mother and sister couldn’t understand most of it, either, especially my emotional roller-coaster. I could be happy one day because I felt like I was an accepted member of my class and sulky the next because ‘hardly anyone talked to me’ (I diligently wrote down all of the happenings, too). In due course, I made friends, and some of them were probably HSPs, too, but we never talked about it because we didn’t know it was a thing.
I found the only comfort and solace – where else? – in books. Wonderful, funny, interesting books that made me feel understood.
There was a time in my adolescence when my turbulent feelings got so bad that I decided to ‘turn off’ my feelings and grow indifferent. I tried to ignore my conscience and my desire to please others and to be liked by them. It made me even more miserable than feeling too much. Plus, my mother complained that I was becoming ‘too cynical – it’s not like you!’ (But she didn’t like me overly emotional, either, so there was no pleasing her.) Then there was the guilt about having all these privileges and lucky stars and the unfairness of it all. I couldn’t live with the guilt, so I made myself miserable in order to ‘be fair’. How could I dare to be happy when so many couldn’t meet their daily needs? And why wasn’t I doing anything about it, like helping people rebuild their houses after a natural disaster?

Reading The Highly Sensitive Person has explained quite a few of my past experiences, including developing fast and intense crushes. Or the conflict between knowing I had to become independent and wishing to succumb to a traditional marriage so that I wouldn’t have to confront the real world. All the while calling myself weak and stupid that I would think like that in this enlightened age!
New experiences and surroundings are still not easy for me. I dread them due to my past negative experiences, which doesn’t help. Replacing the dread with positive affirmations and outcomes from the past is a slow process, and I often don’t have anyone to guide me the first time around as all my family has left Germany.
School is still the only social place I feel more or less secure about. Despite my two rather negative years of my first university experience, I am equally eager and weary to start over again.
I hate to admit it but it is important to be out there in the world. Given the choice, my first instinct would be to become a hermit and interact with the world only occasionally. But even I know that being in my head-world for too long has a negative impact on me. I need the fresh inputs of ideas and impressions of the outside world and, as my sister reminds me, the people who need my help – all of our helps – are outside, too. Plus, the longer you stay in, the harder it becomes to venture out.

It is weird, but I feel like I developed my high sensitivity as I got older. The signs were there since I was a baby, sure. But it wasn’t until I came to Germany that I had to confront the different treatments of my traits. I was a mass of feelings and perceptions when I was in Korea. In Germany, I developed logic, strong conscience and thinking. I never would have picked up The Highly Sensitive Person if I had stayed in Korea. I am more – dare I say it? – well-rounded because of my experiences, and I am glad about it.
But it wasn’t really until I entered the university that I became aware of how much all this meeting new people and being out of home for twelve hours exhausted me and made me anxious. It is good to know why so that I can prepare.

About ten months ago, I was ‘too out in the world’ and that made me physically sick (I just didn’t understand why I was sick). I needed the past five quiet months to recover from the ordeal. I also had to confront the fact that my chosen major wasn’t making me happy and that I was terrified of following my vocation.
Armed with the new knowledge about my sensitivity, I try my hand at balancing out my two opposite needs (although I take relieved comfort in the fact that my need for ‘being in’ is greater than ‘being out’).

Some of my friends casually mention how they hate inactive people, or how being at home all day makes them restless. Maybe it was aimed at me, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I am done letting others dictate what I need and – even worse – what I should want.

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