My Journey Through Sensitivity and How It Makes Me a Better Doctor
While the trait of high sensitivity has been known for decades, it still seems often unknown or misunderstood in our society that prizes the fast-paced and believes in “toughening up.” I feel grateful to have known my whole life I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), thanks to both my HSP parents who’ve done a lot of reading & research on it. (So much research, they were interviewed for Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Child. You can read about me as the child named Janet!) As a child, I would need extra time taking in new people & environments, and I would often hide behind my mom’s leg in new situations. “Oh, she’s just slow to warm up,” she would explain.
Knowing I fit the definition of a highly sensitive person and understanding what that meant for me, how to manage it, and how to respond to a mostly non-HSP world are completely separate, though. When I was young, I once told my mom in the middle of the summer that I was cold. “Cold? Really?” she asked. I answered, “Yes, because I’m slow to warm up!” It’s a cute story that makes me laugh, but I didn’t know what it really meant or even that it was ok.
As I got older, through elementary, middle and high schools, I didn’t connect my feelings or experiences with being highly sensitive. I knew I felt different from most other classmates, I got emotional more easily, I liked having a lot of internal, quiet time, I never felt comfortable speaking up in class (because I was also shy and because I needed to process internally before feeling ready to give an answer on the spot). School was fast paced & always overstimulating (fluorescent lights, noise, energy from lots of angsty, growing kids). I often felt my differences were wrong, bad, or holding me back.
I didn’t know how to consciously process or release everything I was absorbing, but I was very athletic from a young age. I realize now that was my natural balancing mechanism for my sensitivity. When I was active, I could be in the zone, only absorbing what I needed to give my all to the sport, and it released whatever that had gotten stored. Because I was doing something active almost every day of every season, I rarely felt too overwhelmed. Until junior year of high school, when I developed knee pain so severe I couldn’t play sports, had knee surgery, and spent months on the bench during recovery. I had no more outlet for the over-stimulation and emotions that piled up. I became highly depressed, feeling nothing & feeling everything miserable all at once. I withdrew from friends, family, and all the activities I had previously loved.
Thinking back on it, that may have also been a subconscious attempt at a replacement survival mechanism, as if I could shut out everything that activated my sensitivity, everything would turn out ok. In reality, the withdrawal ended up serving to keep all of my sensitivities and emotions trapped inside, which only made things worse. It wasn’t until a classmate divulged their concern for me to a guidance counselor, who called my parents, who started me in counseling, that I started processing again. What seemed to make the biggest difference initially was moving to New York City for college, starting on my journey of independence & self-discovery in an exciting new place!
If I had to go back & do it over again though, I definitely would not choose living in NYC as an HSP. Talk about overstimulation! And to make it more challenging, my second year of college I lived three blocks away from the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001. I woke up that morning to the sound of the first plane crashing, stunned but thinking it must have been an accident. When we heard the second plane hit, we rushed to turn on the tv, then grabbed our essential belongings and left as we felt our building shake when the towers collapsed. As we walked through the dust cloud, I went in to shock. Again, that was likely my HSP survival mechanism. So many sounds, smells, lights, heaviness, fear, sadness, anger, tears. If I had taken all that in at the time I think it would have obliterated my sensitive soul.
What started as a survival mechanism got me stuck in a place of holding on to everything & processing nothing. What I now know as a naturopathic doctor is that anything your body doesn’t deal with, whether it’s a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual stressor, will show up begging for attention to be addressed in some way or another. I developed asthma, digestive issues, muscle tension, fatigue and severe anxiety. It took me several years to come un-stuck enough to realize I had any issues, and even more time to feel like I made progress with my symptoms.
It wasn’t until I was making my way through that healing journey that I really started to realize different ways my sensitivity showed up and how to live my life to best fit my needs as an HSP. My 60-year old self will probably look back at this and laugh hysterically because of all the things I haven’t figured out yet at this time, but that’s all part of the life-long journey of growth and self-awareness. Because my HSP trait includes a rich, complex inner life and the ability to process deeply, I feel confident I will continue my self-awareness journey.
It was also through exploring natural medicine to get myself well that I realized I wanted to become a naturopathic doctor. I have always cared so deeply about helping others, a trait common among HSPs. I wanted to support others through their healing journeys.
While being an HSP in the healing professions comes with its set of challenges, I believe it is my greatest asset. Because I care so deeply, I will do whatever I can to help my patients reach their goals and feel better mentally, emotionally and physically. Part of the philosophy behind naturopathic medicine involves working to heal the whole person, as opposed to treating symptoms, and the ability to process deeply leads me to naturally work on processing a patient’s story and symptoms to get to that root cause.
I also aim to hold space for patients as they’re dealing with challenging symptoms, life circumstances or emotions. Everything that I have been through, the highs, the lows, the challenges, the stuck-ness, has shaped my ability to be there for others. While everyone’s experiences and responses are different, my capacity to feel deeply during joy & pain allows me also a deep capacity for compassion & empathy for others on their journeys.
My patients help me learn more about my sensitivity and how to live optimally with it as well. They provide me with added purpose to keep up my self-care & sensitivity-survival practices, because I can tell the difference on days when I haven’t. I can handle one, maybe two, things that cause my processing to slow down, like being tired, or eating a food I react to. But if two or more of those happen within a day, especially when I haven’t kept up things that speed my processing up, like running, I find myself more drained by the end of the day, it’s harder to let go of their energies, and I end up having to get back to them on questions or next steps as I need more time to process.
One benefit of sensitivity I’m still learning to master is the power of intuition. Because HSPs naturally process all of the cues from the environment, it’s easier to sense subtleties in body language, personalities, and moods. When I’ve been in my best moments in practice, I’ve been able to use these clues from patients to sense what has been left unsaid that needs to come out, which type of treatment plan I suspect would or would not fit well, how they feel about my suggestions and alter accordingly. As it becomes easier to balance & process being a doctor, a business owner, a boss, a partner, a cat mom, a community member and a highly sensitive person, I expect I’ll have more of those moments with patients. Another motivator to continue my self-awareness & sensitivity-survival practices!
While it can sometimes feel challenging (I don’t want to feel strongly about everything all the time!), it is a superpower I would never choose to live without. Whether my patients are HSPs or not, I strive to use my sensitivities to help them bring out their own superpowers.