I’ve worked with a lot of Highly Sensitive Moms who don’t even realize that part of the stress and overwhelm they are feeling may be directly related to a trait they don’t know they have. I used to view myself as part introvert and part extrovert, but what I realized about a year and a half into this mom thing was that I’m actually an extroverted Highly Sensitive Person (or HSP if we want to get all acronym fancy like us therapists enjoy doing). HSP’s comprise about 20% of the population (of this percentage, about 5% are extroverts) and are defined by a specific trait researched by Elaine Aron who coined the term, “Highly Sensitive Person.” The phrase is shorthand for the scientific term “Sensory Processing Sensitivity” (which is different than sensory processing disorder or autism).
Highly Sensitive People feel things very deeply, feeling joy or sadness to its full capacity. It is a trait that someone is born with, as opposed to a disorder. There is still limited research on the effects of the highly sensitive trait on motherhood, but understanding what it is can often be the first step in helping Highly Sensitive Moms feel less alone in their experiences.
Elaine Aron breaks down the understanding of sensory processing sensitivity in a relatively easy way through the acronym D.O.E.S. (see what I mean?! People in the mental health world LOVE acronyms. It’s so weird!).
Here’s the breakdown:
D – Depth of Processing. HSP’s are deeply reflective. They are often the ones who observe the way others interact in an environment before joining in. For children, this may look like shyness as they wait on the outskirts before moving into play. It may be hard to make decisions, as HSP’s tend to deeply analyze the results of their decision-making from all angles.
O – Over-arousal. Heightened senses are common for the highly sensitive. HSP’s notice more and feel things more deeply. Because of this, it is common for those with the trait to feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. HSP’s tend to need more down time the day after going to a crowded event like a party, concert or amusement park to decompress and feel more relaxed and at ease.
E – Emotional Intensity and Empathy. Having a great deal of compassion for others is common for HSP’s. They feel deeply, in that they may be just as easily prone to tears of sadness as they are to tears of joy. Both negative and positive experiences impact HSP’s equally. HSP’s are incredibly empathetic human beings, which can be a great gift, but, at times, super overwhelming. One example is walking into a room full of people where you may be able to sense the emotional experiences of those around you. Many HSP children are told, “Stop being so sensitive,” which can be incredibly damaging for a child who innately feels things (both negatively and positively) on a deep level.
S – Sensing More Subtleties. HSP’s notice even small changes in their environments. Have you ever walked into a room (maybe it was a class you attend regularly or a doctor’s office) and you notice something is different? Maybe a picture has changed or the pens are in a different place. They may also notice subtle facial cues or body language in others. This is another superpower of the Highly Sensitive Person. Other subtleties may include being bothered by strong perfumes or bright lights. For HSP children, seams in socks may feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Wondering if you might be highly sensitive? Take this quiz to find out.
Many people feel a wave of relief knowing there is a name for something they’ve felt their whole lives. While this hasn’t been researched yet, for some Highly Sensitive Mothers, their trait may became more heightened after giving birth, when their intuitive sense to protect and nurture is on high alert. Some Highly Sensitive Moms may wonder how to find support when they are able to feel the struggle other moms are feeling in the moment, feeling over-stimulated when a lot is going on (such as too many kids at the playground), or feeling completely exhausted from the mental energy it takes to psych themselves up to go out.
It seems that there just aren’t enough spaces where moms can get together and share their struggles and successes as it pertains to them and wherever they are in their motherhood journey. Often parent-and-me classes tend to focus on the parental feelings in reflection to the child or from the lens of child development, as opposed to the adjustment of the parent during this crazy transition. This is great to a certain extent, but many mothers need to feel more connected to the validity of their own feelings.
Mommy groups on social media can also be too over-stimulating for the Highly Sensitive Mom. As a result, many limit social media in their daily life, making mom connections that much more difficult.
Highly Sensitive Moms may find support from finding one mom they relate to from a group they have attended. Finding a mom who you enjoy, with a similar schedule, who is happy to get together either with the kids or without (if partners are home) to share experiences can be incredibly beneficial. Your “tribe” may start out as one really important friendship and grow from there.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where you fit in the world of motherhood. Support is important. If you are looking for more support in navigating your motherhood journey, I’d love to hear from you. Here’s where to go to do that.
Please note that this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice from a doctor or mental health professional.