Why Life Overwhelms Some People and Not Others

woman on a dock

I often compare myself to my best friend. I don’t compare our appearance, our children, our incomes, or our homes. No, I compare our resilience, our response to stress, and our approach to life.

I always knew she and I were different, but I couldn’t explain why. Years ago, I concluded that she just handles life much better than I do. 

At the time, it made sense. I am high-strung and she is easy-going. I’m self-conscious and she is confident. I am easily rattled. She is unstoppable.

We’ve been friends for over 20 years, but we still can’t relate to what makes the other tick. She doesn’t understand what I mean when I talk about being overwhelmed by life, and I don’t understand how she juggles spin classes, church volunteering, running a business from home, and raising two kids under five.

Put me in the kitchen with a couple pots on the stove, an open laptop on the counter, my husband watching TV, and my kids running laps around the house, and watch me have a meltdown.

Then I observe my friend who’s never rattled by anything.

How is she not bothered by that noise, I wonder? How can she handle her kids climbing on her like that? Shouldn’t her mind be spinning out of control right now?

“Just don’t think about it,” she says when I can’t let something go. Oh, how I wish for the ability to decide what to think about! And how I envy those who can!

Seriously, what’s wrong with me?

Why am I so weak, so dramatic, so high-strung?

Why does life overwhelm me?

And why do so many thoughts and feelings swirl in my head constantly?

I wasted a lot of time in my life trying to answer those questions.

For years I tried to accept that I’m just an anxious, depressed, neurotic person, but those words never seemed fully accurate. They only explain one overwhelming side of life: the painful, sad, frustrating, scary side.

They don’t explain the other side—the exciting, joyful, compassionate, beautiful side—which I find equally overwhelming (in a good way, but it’s still tiring).

Over the years, I learned not to talk about it because most people don’t seem to understand. They act confused when I need to leave a chaotic situation. They wonder why I zone out in a room with more than a few people in it. And they act concerned if I admit that, yes, I am overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings most of the time.

It’s a challenge I’ve lived with my whole life—feeling misunderstood. Knowing I’m different, but not knowing why. And constantly wondering, What’s wrong with me?

About a year ago, I met a new friend and we connected immediately. Right away I thought, this is someone who gets me. I can tell her about the craziest thoughts that pop in my head and she never gives me the side-eye. She just nods and laughs, “I know. I know. Me too.”

During our second conversation, she described herself as a highly sensitive person. I didn’t ask her to back up and explain, but I went home and asked Google.

My search led me to this website where a quick self-assessment ended decades of self-doubt. 

I printed the page and brought it to my husband as if I held a winning lottery ticket.

“Look at this! Do you understand what this means? It means all those things I’ve always believed about myself, none of them is true. I’m not crazy or dramatic! And I’m not a bad mom! I’m a ‘highly sensitive person.’ It’s a real thing! That means there’s nothing wrong with me at all.”

That day I learned that I belong to a group (roughly 15-20% of the population) whose brains are wired differently compared to everyone else.

We feel different because we are different.

Our extra-sensitive nervous systems allow us to pick up on subtle details that others often miss. We are highly observant and we have uncanny intuition.

But because nothing gets by us, we’re easily overstimulated. Our brains don’t filter thoughts and sensations the way others’ do, which is why others can tune out distractions or choose what to think about, and we often can’t.

We feel every (good and bad) emotion so intensely that the events of a seemingly normal day exhaust us. Not only that—we feel other people’s (good and bad) emotions so intensely that too much exposure to conversation, news, and social media exhaust us too.

That’s why we find today’s fast-paced, constantly connected culture so draining; why we feel overwhelmed in situations that others seem to navigate with ease; and why the world—in its inability to experience life with our intensity—often labels us dramatic.

In some ways, high sensitivity presents quite a challenge. In a world structured by and for more robust and resilient people, we often feel left behind, lonely, and inferior. Many of us also have an over-active stress response, which predisposes us to depression, anxiety, and health issues.

But high sensitivity isn’t all bad. We feel more intense fear, but we also feel more intense joy. The painful side of life hits us much harder, but the precious moments lift us much higher. And we may feel lonely among those who don’t understand, but there’s no deeper connection in the world than the one among those who do.

If you identify with any of this, I encourage you to visit the website and take the self-assessment. When I learned about this trait and the many strengths that come with it, my self-esteem improved tremendously.

It also changed my marriage, my parenting, and helped me understand why I often struggle to connect with people on a deeper level (and why I instantly connect with my fellow HSP’s).

Even if you’re not a highly sensitive person, you may love someone who is. Maybe it’s someone you struggle to connect with, or someone who strikes you as over-sensitive or dramatic. Knowing about this trait and understanding the experiences of those who possess it can transform your relationships.

If you do happen to be among those 2 out of 10 people who have the high sensitivity trait, you will find comfort in the realization that there are millions of people just like you in this big, loud world. You will find freedom in exploring, understanding, and nurturing this side of yourself. And you will find a bit of the peace you’ve been searching for when you finally believe that there’s actually nothing wrong with you after all.

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  1. This is so helpful, Lisa. I remember you and Kelsey talking about this and since then I’ve discovered I have a highly sensitive child. It just helps me have so much more patience and compassion as well as know how to help him when he gets worked up. I recently read “Quiet” by Susan Cain and that helped too (you have to read it if you haven’t yet!). I hope more people recognize there’s nothing wrong with varying degrees of introversion and high sensitivity – these qualities help keep humanity balanced and beautiful.

    PS welcome back!

  2. Lees, are you getting any of my messages?! I keep texting you with no answer… did you ditch your phone number from 1998?

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