Update: Life in New York City as a Highly Sensitive Person

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Acting very cool in my empty NYC apartment the day I moved in (yes, this picture shows nearly all of it)

I’m not going to lie, the last five months have been rough. I moved to New York City in January because the school I felt best fit my career aspirations is located on Manhattan. But I knew from the moment I submitted my tuition deposit that this would be a challenging transition.

One of the biggest advantages to my life with the Park Service was the peace. I never lived in a place with reliable internet or cell phone access and never splurged for cable or satellite TV. I read constantly, I explored on the weekends, and I listened to tons of talk radio. I had a lot of time to be introspective. I knew when I graduated college in 2010 that I was feeling unhappy about something. At that time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on just where this discontent was coming from, but I was able to narrow it down to the place. So I decided that I wanted to get out of Boston, and my emotional health shifted massively when I arrived at Canyonlands that summer. For the most part I remained in an absurdly happy state of mind throughout my tenure out west. Aware of this change, I started to wonder why. And so I read.

Eventually I came across the book Quiet, by Susan Cain. Nearly every word in those pages spoke to me – loudly. I quickly embraced the label of introvert, and suspected that this way of being had something to do with my easy happiness in the west and my struggles back in the cities of the east coast. But there was another label introduced in that book that really caught my attention. This was where I first learned of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) – and the more I learned, the more I identified with this state. IMG_20150119_010950 A simple google search is a great place to start if you’re curious about the traits of HSPs, and Susan Cain’s book Quiet is also very enlightening. In fact, Dr. Elaine Aron – one of the key researchers and advocates for HSPs – has commented that Quiet actually more accurately describes HSPs than introverts. In any case, the reason I began this post by describing a little bit about my discovery of this trait is to give you, single reader, a bit more background into just why this move has been so difficult for me. It’s not the transition in itself – I have moved many, many times during my transient life these past five years. It’s the place. I have found New York City to be very, very difficult. The noises and bright lights are incredibly intrusive and abrasive to me. If there are many conversations going on around me, I have trouble focusing on the one I am meant to be engaged in. I hear them all. IMG_20150227_115552 The social situation is a special challenge for me. With so many people around all the time, I am constantly running into familiar faces. But my coping mechanism to deal with the constant stimulation of my senses is to draw inside myself, and at that point I am so wrapped up in my own thoughts I don’t even recognize the person attempting a wave. I understand why that doesn’t feel good to the person trying to reach out to me, but I often become flustered when I’m suddenly drawn out of my head and into the busy world around me. I think this sometimes comes off as disinterest or even just plain strange, and I’m having a lot of trouble juggling the physical stimulants I seem to be constantly surrounded by with the social expectations of those around me. That combined with my January start (no fun bonding orientation activities for me!), has left my social life as more or less a bust. It’s hard to make real human connections in class, and it’s scary to reach out to basic strangers. A brief browse through Facebook informs me that I actually do know many people in this city, but even so I find myself locking the door behind me when I come home at the end of the day, exhausted by the noises, sights, and smells of the urban landscape and the fast-moving nature of the people who inhabit it. I know establishing a community here would help me adapt, but it’s hard to foster relationships when my environment leaves me so drained. IMG_20150228_095047 It’s funny, because in a lot of ways Nicaragua should have been a much more abrasive place than New York for me. And it was abrasive. This HSP status played a big role in my uncomfortable interactions with certain large cultural differences. But because of my Latin upbringing, it was also very familiar. Before I ever stepped foot on Nicaraguan soil I had already developed coping mechanisms for a lot of the situations I encountered there. While New York is not entirely unfamiliar to me – I spent a summer internship here in college and have visited many, many times – this is the first time I’m really having to deal with living in this environment. It’s one thing to experience discomfort for a summer (especially since at the time, I had no idea where it stemmed from), but the long-term nature of this experience necessitates I put some thought into healthier ways to interact with my environment now. IMG_20150129_083036 And I’m getting there. Spring has helped significantly. This winter was absolutely horrendous, and gave me no incentive to pursue my usual release in these situations – exploring in search of beauty. If only I could see NYC as a massive labyrinth of canyons or mountain peaks, surely I could find the beauty that I know exists here. Now that the weather has warmed, this is becoming easier. There are days, I have to admit, when this strange island reveals its magic to me. It’s just a matter of working up the nerve to face it.

Now that I’ve survived my first semester, I’ve resolved to do just that. I hope to spend my scarce free time this summer not cooped up in my apartment hiding in the way I have been all winter long, but out enjoying some of the adventures this city has to offer. This is a place I used to love to visit, and it’s time to reconnect with the wonder I once had for this myriad of skyscrapers and brownstones and parks and underground tunnels. Then maybe I can grow more comfortable with my time here –  loud noises, bright lights, fast walkers and all. IMG_20150119_011202

That being said, I could use a push every now and again. If you live in (or have lived in) NYC and have a favorite spot to recharge – please let me know! Even better if it’s accessible by public transport and on a grad student’s budget!

15 thoughts on “Update: Life in New York City as a Highly Sensitive Person

  1. WELL! That explains a lot, M. I am very glad you have connected the dots and discovered this about yourself; sometimes labels are unbelievably helpful, especially when they come from self-insight. I only discovered that my HSP-ness had a name in my fifth decade, so you’re off to a good start. Subscribe to Aron’s newsletter and you’ll be amazed each month at the new things you’re learning about yourself. When you find a place to settle, choose one that meshes with your soul. Let’s talk sometime — I’ve more to write but dashing to work. Hug!

  2. I relate to this post so much. Quiet is a great book and I totally connect to being HSP as well. And let me tell you, city living is TOUGH. I felt the same exact overstimulation in Shanghai, which is NYC on steroids, and like you I had to hide in my apartment for days on end to regroup. What helped was 1. finding one close friend who I could connect with on a close level and 2. listening to music when walking down the street or taking public transport. It’s a way to control your environment and helped me a lot, maybe it could help you ;-). Love you!

    1. You know, it’s funny. Since writing this post I’ve discovered that a handful of very good friends also considered themselves HSP and I never knew. Though I’m not surprised to be sharing this trait with you! I will try the music tips, and hopefully now that we are on the same continent again we might actually run into each other one of these days!

  3. I just moved to Chicago to work at Northwestern University to build my career. I have been there only one month and I am feeling TERRIBLE. Would love to talk and share support and strategies with others. If I can’t feel better soon, I can’t stay! Thanks!

    1. I think it takes time to adjust to a place as an HSP. Eventually, I developed some coping mechanisms that helped me – namely seeking out green spaces, listening to music while traveling around the city, and making sure my apartment was a comfortable place to relax and spend time in. Connecting with other people and allowing them to support me also really helped. Ultimately though, I always knew I would be leaving New York, so I just had to come up with short-term solutions to get me through. Big city life isn’t sustainable for all of us. That’s not to say YOU can’t do it! But my choice was to find a place better suited to my needs.

  4. I discovered that I’m an HSP after relocating to Chicago for a school/work. I worked in PR, in an open office environment. A large part of my job was writing. I found myself constantly drained and searching for secluded spaces to write, and just to collect my thoughts. I tried the earbuds, but they still didn’t block out the noise in my work environment. It eventually became too much for me and I quit my job and moved back home. Hindsight is 20/20, but I would recommend we HSPs consider the cultural landscape and office environment before relocating. These factors can make all the difference in the world. As I write this, I’m working a temporary job, at the front desk, but it’s pretty low-key. Hoping for another position that better uses my skills and fits my HSP-ness to come along soon.

  5. Question: do HSPs also tend to be paranoid about what others think of them? I’m struggling with this as well…

    1. Definitely, definitely agree with your statement about considering office environments. It makes such a huge difference in your quality of life not to be in conflict with your work environment. And I can’t speak for others, but I’m DEFINITELY paranoid of what others think of me! I do think there’s something about being more sensitive that spurs this…

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