The Challenge of being a highly Sensitive synesthete
“Too much self-disclosure!”, some may say. Why would someone share so much, when this disclosure could damage the perception of who they are? In a world where projecting the right image is everything, in a world where being normal and well-adjusted is the difference between having a “good” life and not. A world where it seems that what people think of you, is more important than who you really are. I ask myself… is it really? Should I force myself to be who I’m not in order to make others feel comfortable? Is it fair to who I was created to be?
“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.”Psalm 139:14 NLT
I write because I’ve finally granted myself the freedom to be me! My journey into self-discovery has been actively ongoing for the last 20 years. What I’ve learnt during that time is that everybody is different. However, some of us are even more different than others. I’ve learnt that the differences which some of us experience greatly impact the way in which we experience the world. One of the differences I found that I have is called Synesthesia.
A couple of years ago, I participated in testing a possible mindfulness program for the project which I managed. During one of the sessions, the facilitator played some sounds as part of the mindfulness exercise. We listened with our eyes closed. The point of this exercise was to process the sound and train the mind to return to its mindful state.
During the time that my eyes were closed, I heard birds chirping, sirens, horns and a host of other sounds. Shockingly, in addition to hearing the sounds, I also “saw” the sounds as flashes of light and shapes in my field of vision. I also felt the sounds creeping through my face and on certain parts of my skin. What I realized on that day, was what I’d experienced all along. For me most types of sound waves produce interference. Some positive and some alarmingly negative. After the exercise, my mind wondered back to a documentary that I’d watched on Synesthesia. People with Synesthesia experience more than one sense in response to stimuli. Examples include Seeing sound, Tasting colours etc.
Excitedly, I shared this information with my husband and daughter. It made so much sense why I could literally feel music. Some sounds that emanate from certain types of music, cause me more than a stir. Over the years my poor husband has been limited by my reaction to certain types of music. On that day, I found that my daughter also experiences sounds. She said that she sees colours every time she hears a sound. While I experience sound in black and white, she experiences them in colour. It made so much sense. From the week she was born, every time she heard a loud sound she covered her ears. I found this so amazing, that as a newborn, she was able to react to sound by covering her ear. Like me she is highly sensitive. I’d previously learnt about Highly Sensitive People- HSP as a way to make sense of her experiences. My journey helped me realize that I too am HSP. At times, having synesthesia and being HSP are concurrent.
As for me, this new-found knowledge helped me to understand my lived experiences in a whole new way !!! It helped me realize that I am often overstimulated. Overstimulation for me can be displayed as crankiness. Overstimulation occurs along with anxiety for me. If I limit my stimulation, I can keep my anxiety levels low. If my anxiety levels are low, my existence is more serene and normalized.
Since my discovery of my experience of being a synesthete, I have become more aware of the effects of sounds in my field of vision, even with my eyes open. I also realize that I have “mirror-touch” synesthesia. This means that when someone is touched, if I’m looking, I can feel it too, usually at the perceived intensity which the actual touch is given.
It’s amazing to recognize that my lived experience is so vibrant. Being a Highly Sensitive Synesthete can be advantageous. I can understand the advantages in the context of the savannahs of Africa, or the jungles of South America. However, in modern society filled with so many sounds, so many pings, so many people, all moving at dizzying speeds… it is often a crippling attack on the senses. An overwhelming explosion of activity which causes much angst and suffering.
Over the years, I’ve learnt to create a virtual wall around myself. This wall helps me get stuff done. Part of what I do well, related to my interior design abilities, is shop for furnishings and general merchandise. My virtual wall has helped me do so, even in busy international malls. It’s like in that moment, in that section of time, in my little space, nothing else but the section of goods exists. This ability to hyper focus has come from a place of necessity to function. It also means that anyone with me ceases to exist. In this scenario, my husband is a champ of understanding. If I’m with a friend, I try to explain my manner, beforehand.
This virtual shield has served me well in the real world. It also is misinterpreted by people who don’t know me well. Perhaps some people experience me as uninterested, distant and cold. Not being able to give the affirmation and attention in the moment when I’m within my shield. Especially when it seems that others do so effortlessly. My family and friends, who know me well know that, when I give my attention, I truly do. Perhaps, I developed this shield as a child, to dull the experiences which affected me so much. Hmmm… I wonder?
It’s unsettling to note that I can only do one thing at a time, when multitasking is the order of the day. However, this has never stopped me from completing my job well, even though it takes a superhuman feat. What I’ve learnt is that these superhuman feats cost me greatly, resulting in physical symptoms of pain which radiates throughout my body. I also experience chronic fatigue which isn’t easily cured by sleep. So, I’m learning to be kind to myself and practice selfcare. I’m learning to listen to my mind and my body.
Every day that passes, I unravel a little more of how my traits and tendances have affected my experiences. Every day I’m learning to cope more successfully. I need to… I have to; not just for me, but for my daughter, who has struggled so much more than I ever have. If I can learn to live well, then I can help her do the same. I can help her learn to thrive in a world that is not built for the easily overstimulated Highly Sensitive Synesthete who experiences life in blaring ways.
I hope that my writing will help others who may experience the world in overstimulated ways or knows someone who does. Feel free to reach out and share.