Who wants to talk about Frozen?! I know I do. I’m sincerely hoping you all have seen both the original and the sequel of this beloved Disney film because I will be discussing SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now, I’ll sit right here and wait…
….wasn’t it awesome?! Okay, moving forward:
In my last therapy session, I learned something new about myself (which I’m always a fan of). I learned that I am what you would call an “HSP,” or, a Highly Sensitive Person. This means that I have a highly sensitive nervous system— a nervous system designed to notice subtleties in the environment— and as a result am more sensitive, empathic, and impressionable than most people. According to Elaine Aron, the psychotherapist and author who pioneered our understanding of high sensitivity, being an HSP is a genetic personality trait (rather than a disorder that can be diagnosed and treated or cured) that affects 20% of the population. HSPs process information differently than most, and we are more easily overwhelmed by intense levels of stimulation.
When I first heard that I am highly sensitive, I was disheartened. Wasn’t being labeled as “sensitive” a bad thing? I was familiar with criticisms like “Stop being so sensitive,” or “You’re too emotional,” or “What are you so afraid of?” In situations with heavy sensory stimulation (such as the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, watching a TV show with loud music and strobing lights, or smelling really strong scents) I had experienced anxiety or panic attacks. Watching horror movies (which didn’t happen often) made me physically ill. And if a friend of mine (even if they lived clear across the country) told me they weren’t feeling well, suddenly I started experiencing similar symptoms. All of these things told me that being highly sensitive was nothing to celebrate.
Do you remember in the beginning of Frozen, Elsa is taught to stifle her magic so that she wouldn’t hurt anyone? That “conceal don’t feel” mentality is exactly how I viewed my high sensitivity. It either seemed to make people uncomfortable or it was implied that I was wrong somehow for feeling things more largely than everyone else. So, I put my metaphorical gloves on and only expressed myself in my art or to the people I felt safe with.
As I meandered through life, my anxiety continued to grow and fester inside of me, much like Elsa’s magic. When my high sensitivity inevitably made itself known, usually through my anxiety, I was reminded of the reaction Elsa gets when her magic scares the residents of her kingdom, forcing her to flee into the wilderness. There, she is free to use her gift freely, and we see that she has exceptional, and beautiful power; building an ice castle for herself and transforming her physical appearance into the gorgeous Ice Queen that we have come to love.
My “Let it Go” moment came in my last therapy session, when I learned that stifling my high sensitivity is only doing more harm than good. Any time I felt my body giving my a cue that I was being too overstimulated, I shoved it down. I told myself that I would be seen as weak or a failure if I paused that loud, strobing movie, or put down that triggering book, or chose something else to eat that didn’t taste or smell so strong. My therapist assured me that by embracing my sensitivity, and listening to the cues my body is giving me, my anxiety will decrease and my quality of life will improve tremendously. When I mentioned that acting on these cues makes me feel like a failure, she asked “Do people who are failures work to decrease their anxiety and take care of themselves?” What do you think my answer was? She then gave me resources to explore so that I may continue learning about what it means to be an HSP, and how I can repurpose the word “sensitive” so that it does not have a negative connotation.
Since then, I have learned that being an HSP is not a choice or an illness, but rather a genetic trait, just like having blue eyes or being tall. Sound familiar? No matter how much Elsa tries, she can’t will away her magic; it is a part of her, and trying to contain it is useless. When I look at my sensitivity that way, I realize that being an HSP may seem negative to outsiders, but it is, in fact, a gift that, when understood, helps me approach the world in a beautiful way.
Now that I have these resources, I’ve started digging into what it means to be an HSP, and how I can find purpose and beauty in it. Each book or website I visited seem to call out to me, like the voice that calls to Elsa in Frozen II. I learned that high sensitivity is not the same as shyness or introversion; in fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverted! (I am a part of that 30%!) I learned that HSPs who try to live by the same operating system of non-HSPs, are more likely to develop chronic illnesses. If you’ve read the blog before, you know that I have dealt with chronic illnesses since I was young. Also, an important fact: highly sensitive nervous systems affect both men and women equally, but because of our heavily dominant culture, men are discouraged from expressing their sensitivity. (These facts I’ve listed came from Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook.”) Every fact or anecdote brought me closer and closer to my own Ahtohallan; the river of truth that Elsa searches for throughout most of the sequel.
Along the way, I met some other HSPs— friends and strangers alike, that shared in my feelings and experiences— much like how Elsa meets the other four spirits (Wind, Fire, Water, and Earth) on her journey of self-discovery.
My journey is far from over, but in learning all of this, Elsa’s final song “Show Yourself” started to resonate deeply with me. This is the moment in the movie where Elsa learns that she had the ability to be an unstoppable force of nature inside her all along. It took learning about herself and the past to unlock the full extent of her magic inside her. She always knew she was special, but didn’t know she could use the special part of herself for good, because in the past, it’s always exposed itself negatively.
To any reader out there who has seen themselves in this post, I hope what you take away, if nothing else, is the idea that being highly sensitive may seem negative to outsiders, but it is actually a beautiful gift. I am still learning about the facets of this gift, but I know that— just like the spirit, Elsa— there is purpose to being highly sensitive. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a trait that continues to be passed down (that affects 20% of our current population).
Show yourself. It’s time.
Did this article resonate with you? Do you think you might be an HSP? Check out this Facebook group for Highly Sensitive People, founded by the website “Highly Sensitive Refuge,” found here. I’d also love to hear from you, if you feel like sharing your own story! Drop me a line on my Contact page…perhaps this site can provide a sense of community to the HSPs I’m sure I already know.