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by Carmina Masoliver

Hannah Jane Walker is the author of The Power of Feeling Sensitive in a World that Doesn’t, which was released earlier this year. I know Hannah as a poet and theatre maker who created a show about being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). The term, coined by psychologist Elaine Aron, refers to people who score highly on sensory-processing sensitivity. This often appears as increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli, and a complex inner life. As a fellow HSP, I contacted Hannah to interview her about the book and being an HSP.

Carmina Masoliver – I loved your show ‘Highly Sensitive’ and so I was really excited about your book on sensitivity. When did you decide that this was also going to be a book and how did the process differ from your other work?

Hannah Jane Walker – The book partly came out of trying to find the right form for the subject matter. I realised that there was a lot of research, and a book felt like the right format for that. A show asks for a different kind of entertainment and different kind of immediacy. I always make work that starts with a question, not just engaging on a surface level. Caroline Bird [British poet and playwright] has this whole thing that with a poem, you’ve got to run past the finish line. For me, writing the book was a bit like that, it was a process of going like, ‘I could just have this gentle chat over here. But actually, I want to have this other conversation’.

CM – I’ve been working (or more not working) on a show about quietness and introversion and shyness, which started from a prompt about projected identities. And sensitivity inevitably comes into it as well. But where do you think sensitivity sits in how we identify? How much of it is part of who we are, and how much is how people see us?

HJW – That’s a really good question, because when you strip sensitivity down, it just means bodily sensation and mental insights. People can have those in different degrees and different proportions. But I think we as a society put so much projected crap on it, that it becomes thought of as a really negative thing and it’s actually used as an insult. I think there’s a really interesting relationship between shyness and sensitivity, because there obviously is one. Hesitation, too, can read as shyness, but actually someone could be quite bold internally. Dr Elaine Aaron, who coined the term in the 1990s, found that slightly more people were likely to be introverted and express behaviour as shyness, and so I think shyness is one of the really visible ways that we can see sensitivity. But there’s a lot of people who are out there who are very, very sensitive, but we may not see them – they’re quiet during meetings, or stepping out of a party, or hesitating before contributing in a meeting. 

CM – Myself being someone who’s highly sensitive, I feel like I’ve gone through life feeling very different from others and I was wondering how being sensitive distinguishes from kind of other neurodivergence such as Autism, that may feature sensitivity, and whether it’s a kind of neurodivergence in itself. As you say in the book title, it’s something that the majority of the world aren’t. 

HJW – It’s a really contested area, as neurodivergence is increasing, isn’t it? It’s a really fluid, really quickly changing area of medical and interpersonal development. And there are those who believe that being highly sensitive is part of being neurodivergent, but, as with everything, there’s really contradicting views on that. And I think more people are looking at neurodivergence and questioning why the word disorder is associated with it, why it’s viewed as a negative difference. It’s a difference. It’s a different way of thinking. I’ve had that most of my life too, and I’m really sorry that you have too, because it’s hard. I find I have to remind myself of this on a daily basis. I spent a long time being like, ‘I don’t know what I’m for. I have to stop being, have to stop being like me.’ Because that’s what the world seems to be asking. 

I think it’s about getting a better story about value and use of sensitivity, what it can offer.

CM – I had a friend that once said it’s important to respond with curiosity rather than with judgement, when reacting a certain way in an emotional moment, which often happens because of how society views sensitivity. How do you think society can become more accepting of sensitivity, understanding the downside and the difficulties of the trait and also having compassion and understanding some of the positive aspects of being sensitive?

HJW – There’s always going to be some people who say: ‘No. Bigger, better, more toughness is the success of the world.’ This was why I tried really hard to emphasise the use and value of sensitivity. If you have defined yourself by the normalised values of toughness for most of your life, hearing this other view can feel like a real threat to your identity. So, I think it’s about getting a better story about value and use of sensitivity, what it can offer.

Professor David Deming, one of the people interviewed in the book, said that as technology does more and more for us, the jobs which are manual tasks are going to be taken over more and more by technology. One of the growth sectors predicted for the future is the care sector – so the skill of care and empathy is going to become more and more useful to us. The skill of care is going to need to be quantified in some way, which on one level, is really reductive, isn’t it? But also, I think it changes the story about the value of sensitivity because if we’ve got people who are good at it, proven to be good at it and we can financially reward them for being good at it, that starts to filter down into society, doesn’t it? My book changes the story about who and what has value.

Another key element of  improving the image of sensitivity is the fact that it’s been useful to us throughout like 95% of our lived human history on the planet. The system we live in now, the capitalist system, it does not see value in sensitivity. But we haven’t always been living in the system, we’ve been living in like many other forms of societies. There are skills which are inside us as a species, which are older than the society we’re living in now. Sensitivity is one of them: it has bigger, broader value to us than we can see right now. 

CM – I’ve also noticed, personally, that there are also people in my life who have sometimes called me overly sensitive, but it’s actually more of a kind of judgement on that part of themselves as well. Your book, among other media, is opening up conversations about the virtues of sensitivity as well as its challenges, which are important. I’ve been concerned about what is “professional” when it comes to sensitivity. Do you have any thoughts on sensitivity in the workplace, and whether it differs in different work environments as well? For example, I’m not really a very corporate person, but I know people who work in the corporate world for whom being so sensitive isn’t possible.

HJW – Quite a lot of the time there are people in those corporate worlds who are highly sensitive, but they’ve learned a language and adapted themselves to fit that corporate world because they recognise that that’s the language and culture of it. Sometimes they’re the enforcers, because they’ve had to fight for that skill at the cost of something in themselves. I certainly think all workplaces stand to benefit from understanding that they have differences in intelligence types and that what that brings to the table is different skills – maybe there are some slightly different behaviours that come along with that, but those don’t need to be stigmatised.

I think that the real challenge here lies in coping and equipping yourself with skills that you need to be able to manage being in the world when you are sensitive. I hate that because the onus is on the individual to have to learn those skills. And then part of me believes the world should change. But it has to be a two-way negotiation. It’s really expensive to lose staff and to recruit new staff; it’s one of the main costs for organisations, so if we want healthier organisations, a good team needs to be made up of diverse intelligent types. 

CM – It’s really important to have that awareness of yourself, but also the ability to communicate it with others. I’ve often found it difficult to know what I need in the moment in order to make things better. For example, I may need to leave the room, but it’s difficult to know that’s something you need.

HJW – It comes back to that thing you said earlier about investigating why you respond in a certain way during emotional moments. I work with an artist and wellbeing therapist, a brilliant lady called Louise Platt. And she always says: ‘Be curious about why something is, rather than shaming it.’ Sometimes for me, it’s as simple as leaving the building that I’m in. I have a really different physical response. If I get really distressed about something, if I leave my office and just go for a five-minute walk, or if I leave my house, I feel very differently within a few minutes. If I remove myself from the environment, I can come back in again in a different state of mind.

CM – I’ve taken part in a few different support and therapy groups. I wondered if there was a support group for HSP, and what you thought of that kind of concept?

HJW – There are quite a few support groups. There’s the UK Centre for National Sensitivity, UK Highly Sensitive People, the East region, the International, the European, but there’s all kinds of platforms out there. It’s personally not for me for all kinds of reasons, but I think it can be really valuable to people.

It’s hard to see how people are thinking and feeling, what the interactions are there. It’s like two clouds coming together and my brain is struggling to turn from one task to the other.

CM – You talk in the book about the pull between wanting to meet people at events and wanting to be alone and replenish. I really related to this, and I feel like often others can’t understand how I can seem to be comfortable speaking on stage, but struggle with the networking aspects of events. I feel more comfortable speaking when I have an invitation to do so that comes with having a microphone. Your book made me question whether I am shy, or if it’s just a part of a projected identity and mislabelling from childhood. 

HJW – What I find really difficult when I get off stage, for example, is the contrast between being over here on stage and doing that job, and then getting off stage and suddenly facing a lot more of a person when you’re one to one or in a small group. It’s hard to see how people are thinking and feeling, what the interactions are there. It’s like two clouds coming together and my brain is struggling to turn from one task to the other. I find the switching between the two seamlessly, very, very hard.

CM – I think as well as being sensitive, there are no rules in terms of behaviour for me. I don’t know how I’m going to be in any particular environment, especially when somewhere completely new. You don’t know who’s there. I might one day be one way, and then another day be another.

HJW – I really struggle with people I know in the audience. At the book launch, there were two lovely ex-bosses there that I’m still friends with but I was also quite weird with them. I think when I was chatting to them afterwards, one of them was like, ‘Are you alright?’ And I was thinking, you know, I am, but what I need to do right now is to not be here, having these conversations, but I felt very grateful and humbled by the fact that they were there and were there to support me. So I was torn between giving myself what I need, or staying there and being engaged and I sometimes find myself in that trap. And I usually will walk away with a migraine. I came down with that massive cold where I literally couldn’t get out of bed; I didn’t listen in the right way as to what was needed for my body and mind in a certain situation, now I am paying the price of that over here in a much bigger way. Sure, I might have gotten a cold anyway, but maybe it wouldn’t have completely taken me up.

CM – Yeah. I always feel the same about the physical impact. And when lots of people I know are in the audience, I find that overwhelming. And I guess that’s why, you know, in the kind of work we do, it’s common to step off stage into the audience, but in other situations, you might have the green room and have that time to yourself. 

HJW – Yes, absolutely. It’s funny because I had to ask for that for my daughter the other day. Somebody was really pressuring her to be super engaged in all these social events, and I said: ‘Look, what she needs, is what she tells me she needs. She loves to socialise, but there are moments where she just needs a lot of downtime.’ I’m much better with this since I became a parent, because I can see that she needs those things. And I will set those boundaries to protect her, but also it’s a good reminder to do it for myself too. 

The Power of Feeling Sensitive in a World that Doesn’t by Hannah Jane Walker is published by Octopus.

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