by Lauren Hunter
I was 40 years old when I first read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I devoured the book and felt a huge sense of relief. All my life I had felt that perhaps something was wrong with me. I noticed things others didn’t, I could read people’s emotions as though I knew what they were thinking, and I became quickly overwhelmed and needed lots of quiet downtime.
What Dr. Aron detailed about sensitivity in her book pertained directly to me. While I had taken several different personality assessments, none had pinpointed with accuracy the overarching sensitivity I had experienced throughout my life.
In 1996, psychotherapist and researcher, Dr. Elaine N. Aron, published her seminal work, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Now a national bestseller and foundation of a movement to better understand the trait of high sensitivity, Dr. Aron posed that high sensitivity was “not an illness or a flaw,” but a trait present in what she documented as present in 15-20% of the population.
Now that I had answers to some of the questions, this information about myself began to inform decisions in my life.
Uncovering Sensitivity in Midlife
Why do I take everything everyone ever says so personally? Why do I notice all the subtle details of every environment? Why does noise and chaos bother me so much? Why do I overthink EVERYTHING?
These and many other questions were answered as I studied this trait of being highly sensitive. As I chewed on what I was learning, I started seeing patterns in my life. I wanted people to like me, and I tended towards people pleasing. If I could just get on the good side of people before my sensitivity caused any issues, perhaps things would be easier. I didn’t value my unique personality and felt ‘less than’ others. I considered my sensitivity a flaw and not an asset.
Some people avoid personality testing, others find them a welcome beacon to guide them to where their passions lie. I, perhaps, put too much weight on my Myers-Briggs results hoping that the designations would bring answers.
In reading and better understanding my trait as an HSP, I found freedom to step into my personality more freely, and to be okay with working through difficult emotions in counseling.
I wanted to use my sensitivity to heighten my parenting. I suspected that my kids were sensitive as well. Turns out, according to Dr. Aron’s sensitivity quiz, that three of my four kids were HSPs too.
By addressing some of my issues with overwhelm, sensitivity to sound and stimuli, I was able to help two of my kids through difficult friendships as well as countless other issues.
Fast forward five years to my own wrestling with intense overwhelm. We launched our oldest child to college out of state, I sold a 14-year-old business that had provided me purpose. We also taught our second oldest to drive plus my ‘baby’ entered her tweens, beginning to pull away. If it’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I detest too many transitions at once.
When I found myself in a bad mood, I began making lists. I’d list all the reasons that were causing me to be overwhelmed and upset. Once I detailed the things that were bothering me, I could pause and be thankful for the many things that were going right. It was almost as if I had to name my issues and get them out of my head before I could listen and process them. There would be no other way but to go through the setbacks one by one.
Midlife Stress a Constant
Although I was a smart, creative, and sensitive child, my parents pushed me to excel and value success more than anything. I leveraged my ability to ignore my needs for solitude, calm, and quiet in exchange for a gratifying and lucrative career right out of college. I lacked boundaries and didn’t know when to stop, when to take a break, or how to take care of myself as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
It’s been scary, this unknown zone of having sold a business and moving into the second phase of my career; this liminal space between the independence my teens now assert and the dependence to which they often revert. But that goes with the territory, doesn’t it? Navigating the in-betweens, the almosts, and the what-ifs are often the trickiest yet most informing times of our lives.
I had to learn and re-learn how to manage my stress levels, anxiety, and overwhelm in midlife after half a lifetime of trying to figure out what I needed. Instead of crisis, I think of midlife as my version upgrade. I’m still me, I just want to enhance to a more seasoned and wiser version of myself. In a way, I’m working towards a new path to peace and hope to implement the success I’ve acquired as I go.
Midlife Transitions Never Quick and Easy
I took advantage of my health insurance’s wellness program and was assigned a coach. She encouraged me to lean on my intuition and sit with it. I had been in the rat race for so long, and I just stepped off. What did I want next?
She probed, “do you even want to get back on the hamster wheel again?” I wasn’t sure.
“Explore yourself with curiosity,” my coach suggested.
As I explored, I realized that there were many aspects of myself that I had pressed down deep inside for protection. I pursued success, I thought more of what other’s thought of me than what I thought of myself. As I reviewed the years, I realized that I often said no to myself and yes to everyone else more times than I could count.
Inside I could feel this nagging voice inside saying, “It’s my turn now. I need to be heard.”
I listened, I tried to be still, I hoped to hear. It’s been slow-going, but I know I’m on the right track.
Gradual Acceptance to Midlife Transitions
Our lives as women can often feel like a blur of events hitting us rapid fire while other important changes happen slowly when we’re not looking.
Gradually, I’m becoming more comfortable with myself as a Highly Sensitive Person. As with most periods of change, it’s hard to tell when the switch to the next phase is complete.
I’m getting use to my college son living away from home, albeit difficult. I’m working on not inserting myself into my tweens and teens social lives unless asked. I’m rekindling my love affair with my husband as soon-to-be empty nesters. I’m scheduling more time for myself to listen, feel, and regard my sensitivity and my needs as a cherished and beloved gift.
Call it a transition or a crisis, I’m finding that the answers worth arriving at rarely come quickly. The good stuff of life—including the awkward periods of change—happens in the slow, hard moments when you least expect them.
Lauren Hunter is a writer who loves exploring the big picture of the journey we are all on together. Her career spans more than two decades in public relations, content marketing, freelance writing, and most recently, self-publishing. She founded ChurchTechToday in 2007 and served as publisher and managing editor through 2021. Her latest book is Write Your Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide to Write Your Life Story Fast. She can be found online at https://laurenhunter.net.and https://hspjourney.com/