The Highly Sensitive Person and Creativity
by Lisa A. Riley
In my own personal experience, as well as in my practice, I have encountered a connection between highly sensitive people and their own creative impulses. This characteristic does not discriminate between painter, actor, or musician—they all appear to have one thing in common: they experience the world differently than the average individual. Creatives often feel and perceive more intensely, dramatically, and with a wildly vivid color palate to draw from, which can only be described as looking at the world through a much larger lens. Without a substantial filtration system firmly in place to screen out most of the busy noise, these people tend to receive a far greater amount of stimuli directly into their psyches. As a result, they frequently become more attuned to subtle details in their environment, to the people they deal with, and especially to their own internal process.
Creatives might find themselves more easily overwhelmed, and often live chaotic lives, affecting not only personal relationships, but also their own productivity. Over-stimulation can sometimes manifest further into anxiety or depression, bogging down their ability to cope with every day stressors or life’s challenges.
Pearl Buck, an American novelist living in China, and who received a Noble and a Pulitzer, best describes the highly sensitive person by saying, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them…a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”
According to psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, 20% of the population has this innate quality. I would even take that figure one step further and suggest that a large percentage of highly sensitive people would fall into the category of creative minds.
Although this is something many artists report struggling with, I don’t believe a high sensitivity to the world should necessarily be viewed in a negative light, but rather as a divine gift. For without this quality, their art, script, music or performance might lack a necessary element capable of touching an audience deeply. This might then bring up an important question: Do people create in an attempt to process, and survive, a condition that overwhelms them?
Pearl Buck also mentions, “Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off…They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.”
Along with the process of creating, there is perhaps the opportunity to exorcise out the thing that has accumulated and taken hold internally. Once externalized, a highly sensitive person can finally make sense of the chaos, opening space toward escaping the overwhelming world they battle every day.
The work I do with clients is primarily focused on mapping out, and gaining, a deeper understanding of how an individual process the world. Together we develop a plan towards building coping mechanisms required to better maintain a healthy equilibrium. The key is to embrace this sensitivity with compassion and free from judgment of any kind. By then reframing it as a gift, rather than as an obstacle, people immediately grant themselves permission to be who they are freely and without encumbrances.
Putting together a “survival list,” so to speak, consisting of ways to channel overwhelming sensitivity can often serve as a means to cope. Serving as something like a first-aid kit for the highly sensitive person, the survival list can consist of your choice of art. That might include long walks, yoga, spending time quietly alone or with a friend, journal writing, or maybe even meditation. When the creative person has something to fall back on, this can empower him/her in better managing high sensitivity as oppose to feeling debilitated by it. Rather, they productively move forward and continue to focus their efforts into achieving the healthiest and most balanced life possible.
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