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By Katie Leigh Matthews
I see them everywhere, doing everything. All the school events, all the extracurriculars, all the errands, everything. They seem to float along, from one thing to the next, light and unhindered. It is as if all those things fill them up or, at the very least, they don’t seem to be drained by doing everything.
I am definitely not like them.
I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Research suggests HSPs make up about 20 percent of the population. No, we aren’t defined by not being able to take a joke or bawling over every sad commercial, although both can be true! Rather, High Sensitivity refers to a deeper (or heightened) sensory, emotional, and cognitive processing that permeates every aspect of our being. Our sensitivity is baked right into our nervous systems.
HSPs are easily affected by their environments— everywhere and everything. They can be extra sensitive to anything such as itchy clothes, loud noises, bright lights, crowds and traffic, and any such sensory input is enough to send an HSP into overstimulated mode. Just as overwhelming as those external factors is their inescapable awareness of others’ vibes and even subtle emotions. Although distinct, there is a lot of overlap between Empaths and HSPs. Dr. Amanda Cassil explains that all of this together makes a Highly Sensitive Person like a phone running multiple complex apps in the background all the time. It drains their battery, so they have less energy to offer up even for simple tasks in their daily life.
I have spent most of my life trying not to be an HSP. I have tried not to be bothered by the things others don’t seem to be bothered by. HSPs can’t help but notice things others can’t help but ignore and it can cause us to sink into experiences others seem to float through. I could never get the hang of floating.
So perhaps the best word I can think of to describe Highly Sensitive Parenting is intense.
I can sink, sink, sink into the relentlessness of parenting. How it just keeps coming and never stops or slows or subsides. For HSPs, ample downtime is essential to our well-being. All that involuntary processing we do while doing anything drains us like the humidity of an Alabama August. We have to give our nervous systems a break and allow our bodies and minds to catch up to what we put ourselves through just in a normal day. It’s the only thing that can fill us back up. Not surprisingly, the universal truth that adequate downtime as a parent is a myth hits HSPs especially hard.
So, when I used to see those moms everywhere doing everything, seeming to float through parenting, I figured they must be the gold standard of motherhood. And if they were, then I needed to not be me to make the cut.
I look around and while I know all parents struggle, it can feel like I am sinking more than others. I find myself wanting to yell out, “Wait, how are any of us even doing this? How do we get out of bed in the morning knowing not only are we entirely responsible for the survival of other humans but also for their flourishing? Why are we not all losing our damn minds about this insane responsibility?”
In the middle of my spiraling, the kids will inevitably call out to me, needing something, again. So, I tuck my stress back on the shelf and go live another chaotic day. It can all feel much too much, much of the time.
There are times, though, when the intensity is a gift. When I sink deeper into joy instead of despair. When I finally get an overtired kid to sleep, I drink in their peaceful rest and, for a moment, I am filled with peaceful rest. When I watch my kids dancing like maniacs around the living room without a care in the world, for a moment I am without a care in the world. When they come to me with their childhood woes, I don’t dismiss them. I am able to be with them in their distress, no matter how seemingly small the situation, and we ride out the storm together.
In those moments, my sensitivity is a strength. It is a superpower. It connects me with my kids in ways I can’t adequately describe. I guess I could say that I sink into them. And no matter how drained I am in those moments, I am full.
That fullness is changing me. Or rather, it’s changing how I see who I’ve always been. What I once saw as inadequacy—falling short of that gold standard— is becoming abundance. The deep well I draw from to guide my kids in life is worth the irritating drain on my energy. I am beginning to see my sensitivity as an asset, not a deficit, in my parenting.
Motherhood is teaching me that I was right. I cannot be me and be those moms I see everywhere doing everything. But I was wrong in thinking they were the gold standard. I was wrong in thinking I should strive to be like them.
I have given up on that foolish pursuit of being anything other than who I am for myself and for my kids. Instead, I strive to be fully and completely myself, realizing that their flourishing is directly tied to my own. I see now that accommodating the burden and nurturing the superpower of my sensitivity is my gold standard. It’s a pursuit that will serve me in my parenting and beyond.
I still worry that one day my kids will look back and regret that their mom was Highly Sensitive. That it made things too hard or that I stressed too much or that I wasn’t as fun as they wished I was. I just hope that even if they do feel that way, they will also feel my deep acceptance of them. I hope they grow up knowing that their gold standard is to be fully and completely themselves. I hope they will be able to say they learned it by watching me learn to accept myself.
I hope that will be enough.
Katie Leigh Matthews is a Birmingham, Alabama native and mom of two. She writes about life as a Highly Sensitive Person to shine a light on their strengths and encourage HSPs to embrace who they are and find more compassion for their lived experience. She writes at katieleighmatthews.com.