Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of sensitivity, he has met 100s of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.
I Just Want to Be Alone!
These days, "Alone Time" has become a well documented part of balanced living as a Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Elaine Aron-- as well as a host of other HSP therapists, coaches, counselors and ostensible experts-- talk extensively about how important it is that we HSPs take time to be "alone and quiet" so we can recharge our inner batteries and ground ourselves when we start to feel overstimulated.
I think I must have always known this, even long before "HSP" was a public concept.
When I was a small child, I was always wary of lots of activity and being around large groups of people. When I sit with the memories of those days and really analyze them, I am acutely aware that I was not afraid of these situations, just cognizant of the fact that I would become "numb" and somewhat worn out, after a while.
I was also aware that the best "remedy" seemed to be to get away and be alone.
Introversion? Shyness? Social Anxiety? Or something else?
I think many HSPs "come to the trait" with a sense that something is wrong with them.
What I mean by that is that we experience a rift between the external world's perceptions of our experiences, and our true inner states as we perceive them. On top of that, a large part of the population regards "our normal" as "their neurosis." But it's not.
Now, there is no doubt that I have always been introverted. And many HSPs are. However, "introversion" simply explains a preference for spending time alone, not for feeling overstimulated. I have met plenty of introverts who have little sense of what "overstimulation" means.
In examining my early days as a human being, I'm pretty sure I was neither particularly shy, nor did I suffer from Social Anxiety. The truth of my "experience with people" wasn't about the people, themselves, but about the sense of not wanting to be around something that felt like "an emotional jet engine."
Interacting with people was not "scary," it was tiring. Intense experiences were not scary, they were exhausting.
In feeling hesitant to approach someone-- or to go to an event or party-- I have rarely felt afraid, just wary and resigned to the fact that I am approaching something that will leave me feeling emotionally drained.
And longing to be alone again.
Needless to say, that was a recipe for being considered "weird."
HSP? Read this book!
About Being an HSP
It is important to understand exactly what it means when I use the term "Highly Sensitive Person."
I bring this up because there can be a considerable difference between the pop culture interpretation of "Highly Sensitive" and the more scientific one, revolving around the inborn genetic attribute "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity."
Just because someone tells you you're "too sensitive" and need to "grow a thicker skin" doesn't make you an HSP. Nor does anyone's assertion that they have "extrasensory gifts" or are "psychic."
Dr. Elaine Aron's book (inset at right) has changed the life of millions of people, as it explored the reality that sensitivity could be an inborn genetic trait, not the result of personality preferences, emotional trauma, or something else. If you even THINK you might be highly sensitive, I strongly recommend reading it.
Failing that, at least take a few minutes to read my introductory article on the topic.
The Chasm Between THEIR Perceptions and MY Reality
I have long struggled-- as many HSPs do-- to understand the gap between how others perceive my experience of life, and how I actually experience it.
I am a peacenik, and I have never much liked arguing or having to "defend my truth" at every turn.
As I have aged, I have come to realize that we can-- ultimately-- only process the experience of others through their lenses of perception. Sure, we can empathize, but it's still not the same as actually having the experience.
Someone might insist that I suffer from Social Anxiety, because in their experience that's the only frame of reference that makes sense, in terms of describing what they observe when I state my preference for not attending parties, crowded events, going to malls and whatever.
On the surface, I may have slightly hurt feelings because it seems they are not validating what I am experiencing... but the fact is that they have no frame of reference for what it feels like to actually be an HSP; you might say that my experience is "purely anecdotal" to them, not "real."
Think of it with this analogy: If I love fresh strawberries and always have, I have no frame of reference for Susan's (100% authentic) experience that they are the most disgusting things on the planet. It takes both self-awareness and a good sense of self to simply say "Oh, that's surprising," rather than "Susan must be nuts."
Alone vs. Quiet
I sometimes get asked whether "alone time" and "quiet time" are the same thing.
My answer to that is, predictably, "it depends."
In my perception, they are not necessarily the same,
Whereas "alone time" often implies "quiet time," I am sometimes alone but my no means quiet. Alone time means that my time is my own, and that I don't have to "answer to anyone" with respect to what I am doing. But I may be doing anything but being quiet... I sometimes enjoy "alone time" while I spend a couple of hours mowing our lawn.
Conversely, I can find excellent "quiet time" on a loud and overstimulating day when I am part of a meditation group. Where, of course, I am not exactly alone... although "the group" is-- in essence-- a shared experience of inner solitude.
As an HSP, I have spent many years examining what it is I really need, in the situations where I feel overstimulated and want alone/quiet time.
Your experience may be different, but my experience is that overstimulation arises in situations where I lack control to experience a situation on my terms in an environment/situation that feels overwhelming. The "solution" to that is to seek solitude. "Quiet" will do, in the short run, as a temporary "reset button" till I can get away and truly find alone time.
What Happens During HSP Alone Time?
So what actually happens for an HSP, during "Alone Time?"
Most of us realize that we "recharge" and feel better... but why? What's actually going on?
In the simplest of ways, alone time allows us to have a "low stimulation" zone where we (usually) have control over the immediate environment. Whereas it may sound odd to a non-HSP, we are-- in essence-- doing the equivalent of "cooling down" after running a race.
Alone time allows our super-activated nervous systems to slow down again to a level that fits within our individual comfort zones, and we feel less frazzled.
It's important to keep in mind that HSPs are just as unique as everyone else. There is no set formula for how much alone time anyone needs-- we each have to experiment with that and find the level that best enables us to remain balanced.
Solitude-- an excellent book for HSPs
"Alone Time" vs. having a Solitary Nature
It is important to understand that HSP alone time is a tool we can use help ourselves stay balanced and emotionally healthy in a world that's often overstimulating.
This is quite different from simply being an introvert or a person who tends to be of a solitary nature.
I am definitely an introvert, and I tend to prefer solitude, regardless of whether or not I am getting close to feeling overstimulated. But my solitary leanings are a preference that's a part of my inherent temperament.
It's also important to remember that HSP Alone Time is equally important for introverted and extraverted HSPs. A good friend of mine is an extraverted HSP, but she needs her alone time just as much as I do.
So keep in mind that when we talk about HSP Alone Time, it's a choice and a self-help tool, not an issue of temperament. One of the easiest ways (for me) to distinguish is that taking deliberate alone time makes me feel balanced enough that I can go out and face the world again. That doesn't mean I necessarily want to (my solitary nature may say "no!"), just that I feel capable of it again.
HSP Alone Time: NOT a license to withdraw or avoid life!
With all this "alone" talk, I fell it's important to add a cautionary note:
Whereas "Alone Time" is a very important part of HSP wellness, it is important to remember that this is a tool in our psychological toolbox for staying balanced as highly sensitive people.
It is NOT intended to be used as a blanket rationalization for withdrawing from social or stressful situations, or avoiding participation in every activity that might overstimulate us.
Whereas we might feel we are "better off alone," truth is that very few human beings — HSPs or otherwise — genuinely thrive in perpetual solitude.
How Much Alone Time do we Need?
How much alone time any one of us needs varies a great deal.
I personally find that I feel best if I spend at least a couple of hours a day alone, in quiet contemplation. That doesn't always mean silence (I often listen to music) nor does it mean entirely alone (my kitten is often part of my alone time)--it just means I am making a deliberate point of taking "time out" for myself.
Of course, we don't always have the luxury of taking as much alone time as we ideally need. Sometime we just have to grab ten minutes here and ten minutes there. On occasion we have parties and family gatherings at our house-- and I find myself excusing myself and just laying down on the bed for five minutes to empty my head... often in the guise of needing to go to the bathroom. In hectic social situations, I find even such a short break can be remarkably refreshing.
There's no set formula for what to do-- my best recommendation is to experiment and find what works best for you.
Short Cycle vs. Long Cycle
In recent years-- in part thanks to being married to a fellow HSP-- I have come to understand that a highly sensitive person's needs for alone time can have different "cycles."
Many HSPs find themselves getting overstimulated and needing alone time after spending just a couple of hours (or maybe less?) in a crowded, noisy and overstimulating environment.
Others find themselves being just fine for weeks and then "crash hard." For example, they can go on a two-week trip that involves lots of travel and activities all the time and remain balanced, but by the end of it they need several days or a week to "come down."
Often, there is a direct relationship between the length of someone's "out cycle" and their "alone cycle."
Again, this is a very individual thing and my recommendation is that you take some time to observe yourself and the patterns in your life.
Thank you for reading!
Thank you for reading this article about High Sensitivity! I hope you found it useful and/or interesting.
Based on my own experience and those of other HSPs I have met, the best thing we can do for ourselves is LEARN as much as possible about our trait.
In addition to reading Dr. Elaine Aron's book, I also recommend reading other articles and web sites about High Sensitivity. I have written extensively about the trait; you can see a list of my other articles on my author page here; I also have a second page with more archived HSP articles.
The more we know, the better off we all are-- HSP and non-HSP alike. I also encourage you to share this to your facebook page, web site or other social media.
Thank you for your support!
© 2016 Peter Messerschmidt
How do you handle your alone time needs? DO you make a point of spending time alone? If so, how much? Leave a comment!
Camille Harris from SF Bay Area on August 30, 2018:
I recently realized, after many years of intense emotional shifts, that I too am an HSP. My mother and eldest sister are, too. I've thankfully been able to design my life so that I spend much of my time alone with my lovely dog (work from home, don't socialize much); non-HSPs can't understand why/how I "isolate" myself, but the world is far too stimulating most of the time.
I've never been quite this emotionally stable and am truly happy I discovered my HSP nature and was able to do something about it.
Cheers to you, fellow HSP :)