This article is the first installment of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life.” Autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Going shopping used to be hard for me. Like panic attack hard.
If I hadn’t decided what kind of eggs I was buying before I left the parking lot, I’d find myself trapped outside the egg cooler, sweating through my shirt, lost in an ethical black-hole.
On the right, extra-large bleached white eggs in a cardboard container $1.99.
Extra large? I would see visions of thousands of chickens with feathers pressed down by the tiny wire cages. I imagined their tortured screams as they passed the extra large eggs they were genetically manipulated to painfully create.
On the left, brown natural eggs in a plastic container the words Cage-Free in bold $3.99.
Should I save the chickens for $2? It’s was the small ethical questions that always got me.
There were just too many factors to consider.
I would stare at the eggs and then my eyes would drift to the coffee display at the end of the aisle. Another ethical conundrum was waiting for me. Columbian women shaking their heads at me behind the light roast. There were dozens of organic/fair-trade options on every shelf.
I couldn’t afford it all. I was working part time at an inner city church, barely able to afford rent, and I had already gotten a call from my Kenyan friend asking me to help him buy food for orphaned kids in his village.
And as the tsunami of ethical considerations swirled in my mind, I watched as shoppers stood next to me for a moment, waiting for me to choose. Then I would step back as they casually reached in and grabbed a carton. Like buying eggs was no big deal.
I would stare at the eggs until my therapists’ calm fatherly voice cut through the mental noise. “You are a highly sensitive person. Normal situations can overwhelm you. Just take a few deep breaths.” I would swallow as much air as I could and slowly exhale it. “Just make a choice and keep living your life.”
Just keep living your life. I would repeat to myself as I turned and left the grocery store. The ethical tsunami now replaced by the shameful realization that I couldn’t just go grocery shopping like a normal human being.
I remember sitting in my therapist’s office with a paperback version of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine Aaron. I stared at the cover. The title was in bold lavender letters in front of what could easily pass for women’s bathroom wallpaper. I was deeply skeptical.
The first page was a quiz. I thought of the teen magazines I grew up with. But the questions were one’s I had never been asked before.
I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input. – I was always turning down my roommate’s stereo and flickering florescent lights gave me anxiety – check
I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation. – I remembered spending afternoon in the dimly light college prayer chapel trying to get my heart-rate under control – check
I have a rich, complex inner life. – I spent my afternoons reading philosophy and seeing visions of caged chickens laying extra large eggs. – check.
The quiz told me I was a Highly Sensitive Person.
At first I was embarrassed. Another diagnosis: anxiety, depression, exercise induced asthma, and Highly Sensitive.
But the first chapter helped uncover why decision making was so hard for me. Aron writes:
“[Highly Sensitive People] notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others. This is true whether you are talking about subtle sounds, sights, or physical sensations like pain…The difference seems to lie somewhere on the way to the brain or in the brain, in a more careful processing of information. We reflect more on everything. And we sort things into finer distinctions. Like those machines that grade fruit by size – we sort into ten sizes while others sort into two or three.”
When she says highly sensitive think Sherlock Holmes as he gathers information from a suspect. He’s just taking in a lot more information than the average person.
As I read those words my mind flashed back to the egg cooler, as person after person casually grabbed their carton.
The majority of people weren’t thinking about the eggs in nearly as much detail. They weren’t sorting them based on size of cage, pain to chicken, cardboard or plastic, environmental impact, price, the deeper ethical hierarchy implicit in choosing to support a chicken’s well-being over Columbian coffee farmers…
Most people where just thinking. I like happy chickens and I can afford it or I don’t care. Extra-large.
I had so much trouble doing things that other people seemed to do without a second thought. I would see others casually making choices that paralyzed me. And it wasn’t just ethical questions. It was everything: Go to the Party or stay at home and watch a movie. Watch a documentary on Climate Change or watch Seinfeld re-runs.
Making decisions is harder for Highly Sensitive People because we have a lot more to consider. And that can be a really good thing.
The Highly Sensitive Person helped me to re-frame my inability to shop into a unique character trait that, if properly managed, could be a great gift.
I stopped shaming myself with just get over it.
I started to give myself permission to live life differently.
I stopped forcing myself to go shopping without a clear plan of what I was going to buy.
I took the time to make decisions I felt comfortable with, so I could go into the grocery store and confidently grab the medium eggs and Fair Trade coffee.
I stopped trying to go to parties that I didn’t feel comfortable at.
And I stayed at home to recharge my batteries because I came to terms with the fact that meeting new people – and taking in tons of new information – would be draining…and possibly panic inducing.
When I started feeling my mind being sucked into an emotional black hole.
I took a few deep breaths and left the situation. And I stopped shaming myself for it.
As I spent less energy picking out movies and eggs, I realized that I could use my highly sensitive powers for good.
I started picking up on subtle clues from the kids at youth group. I noticed the small hints that things weren’t going well. And when I dug deeper kids would confess to me “I haven’t told anyone yet but…” I would sense the relief in their voice as they got the hidden burden off their chest.
I started noticing small phrases or hidden messages that made people feel unwelcome on Sunday mornings.
After a few years, I even had enough mental clarity to start writing.
I bought copies of The Highly Sensitive Person for friends who had secretly confessed to being overwhelmed by life’s seemingly simple choices.
So if you ever find yourself stuck outside the egg cooler, sweat dripping off your forehead, just take a deep breath.
You might not be going crazy, you might just be highly sensitive.