why i am the way i am

(dear psychology and neuroscience friends, please correct me if i've stated anything inaccurate or outdated here.)

there are many times when i feel frustrated about the specific combination of all my unusual tendencies and quirks that don't seem to go together and don't seem to be found in other people. i've known that part of the reason i feel this way is that i'm what psychologists (mostly elaine aron and her minions) call a highly sensitive person (HSP). apparently 20% of the population is comprised of HSPs. (which population? i don't know. i haven't checked the specific studies, but tell me what you find if you end up looking into it.)

so what's it like being a highly sensitive person (HSP)?

this means that i tend to process any kind of sensory input in a very deep, subtle manner; it doesn't mean my eyes and ears work better than non-HSPs', but that i sort what comes in more carefully, and i don't necessarily do all this processing consciously. my intuition tends to be complete and accurate -- i somehow know how things came to be the way they are and how they'll turn out, but i don't necessarily understand how i know all that (or at least, i can't always verbalize my understanding in a way that makes sense to other people right away). this all sounds great, but picking up on subtleties all day also means i'm easily overwhelmed by new and persistent stimulation, which sucks. it also means that my eyes leak tears whenever i feel any kind of strong emotion, which can be easily misinterpreted as me overreacting or feeling upset or negative about something when i don't, which also sucks. my optimal level of arousal seems to be somewhere below most people's; what's optimally arousing for someone else might be too much for me, and what's optimal for me may be too boring for someone else.

being a high sensation seeker (HSS)

none of this is new to me, but what is new is the discovery that i am also what psychologists (mostly ken carter and his minions) refer to as a high sensation seeker (HSS). i seek varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and am willing to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences. in other words, i'm easily bored and eager to take risks in order to try new things. this seems like it'd be in conflict with being an HSP, but it's not. the two traits are completely independent of each other and both traits can be explained through genetics (hsp study 1, study 2; hss review) and psychology+neuroscience.

what's going on in my body?

as an HSP, my behavioral inhibition system (BIS) acts more strongly than non-HSPs'. this is the system that helps you take in your current situation and sees if it can match it to any of your past experiences before you decide what to do. in psych-speak, it inhibits behavior in response to signals of punishment, nonreward, and novelty and is associated with serotonergic pathways in your brain. in neuro-speak, if you hooked me up to an EEG, you'd see greater relative right prefrontal activation.

and as an HSS, my behavioral activation system (BAS) is highly efficient. this is the system that makes you curious, eager to explore, and excited about rewards. in psych-speak, it activates behavior in response to signals of reward and nonpunishment and is associated with dopaminergic pathways. in neuro-speak, if you hooked me up to an EEG, you'd see greater relative left prefrontal activation.

personality and behavior

according to this study, people with greater BIS sensitivity (e.g., HSPs) tend to be more reactive to negative events. they anticipate the potential for negative events more readily and, as a result, might actively avoid these situations. and people with higher BAS sensitivity (e.g., HSSs) reported more positive daily events and appear to be predisposed to higher average positive moods (positive affect), perhaps because HSSs tend to seek out situations in which positive events are more likely to occur. this is interestingly in alignment with how i've been trying to live my adult life -- maximizing my happiness via two avenues: 1) preventing myself from getting into shitty situations, and 2) actively engaging in experiences that might bring me joy. (actually, i'm actively working on undoing point 1, but i'll save that story for another day.)

the downside is that my optimal level of arousal is even narrower than being an HSP alone; i'm easily overwhelmed yet easily bored. it's sometimes difficult for me to assess what i really want because i'm often conflicted by wanting to collect new experiences and not wanting to stress myself out. a good example of this was my alpaca birthday 1:1s. for people who don't know wtf i'm talking about: i usually avoid hosting parties because it's stressful and i don't get as much meaningful interaction with each friend/guest as i'd prefer. usually i avoid hosting a birthday party by not celebrating my birthday at all, but this year, i avoided it with my seemingly at first brilliant idea of celebrating through a series of 1:1s. for each 1:1, we'd chat and catch up while doing some fun activity we'd never experienced together before. some examples include waking up before dawn to go fishing in the bay, touring a small dairy farm followed by cooking a communal-style lunch using the farm's products, going hipster/artsy mini-golfing in a sketchily-located warehouse, spinning yarn from wool, and so on. this shit was so fun and awesome and memorable and made the HSS in me super happy, but having these intense 1:1s also meant that each 1:1 was, well, intense, and that my calendar was filled to the brim for weeks. i ended up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and even got sick at one point likely from chronic stress/stimulation (the HSP in me was like omg stop gail you're killing me).

as one HSP+HSS put it, "it always feels like i have one foot on the gas, one on the brakes." so no wonder i'm always moving apartments yet hate moving. and no wonder i've changed jobs more often than most yet would prefer to commit and stick to one role. and no wonder i can relate strongly to both adventurers and homebodies.


think you might be an HSP? try checking some boxes here. or think you might be an HSS? try checking some other boxes over here. the wording's not perfect for each (and if you're an HSP, you'll certainly notice the flawed language in the HSS questionnaire (lololol Sunil)), so take it with a grain of salt. if you end up checking boxes, let me know how you score on each. i'm curious to see how you line up with my prediction for you. :)

and if you think you might be an HSP, here are some books that might help you better understand yourself: