Setting down my gym bag in preparation to “shake and shimmy, baby”, “get my strut on” and “shake what my mama [obviously forgot to] gave me” in Zumba the other day, I noticed one of the floor fans in the studio was turned in my direction. So I did what I usually do when that happens and bumped it with my foot, angling it away from me. No biggie.
But as I walked back to my place to ask Allison how she was going to shake her thang when we worked all our thangs to maximum soreness on the weight floor the previous day (wow, that came out sounding way worse than I intended), I felt it.
Looking back at the fan, I saw it was pointing directly at me again. The pretty Latina woman standing next to me (who, incidentally, is so amazing at Zumba that she makes me feel like a kindergartner doing the Maypole dance while holding scissors) smiled at me as her hair billowed in the artificial wind.
I smiled back, trying not to grit my teeth and look like a psycho. Okay, I told myself. It’s okay. You can deal with this. It’s just a fan. Just ignore it. You’ve worked out with fans before. You can do this. Stop clenching your jaw! You look psycho! STOP LOOKING PSYCHO! No, no that smile makes it WORSE. You look like you want to eat her liver while dressed in a dinner jacket of her skin! Quick, do a handstand or pee your pants or something to distract everyone from what a nutjob you are!!
I tried to take my own advice but during the warm up all I could think about was that stupid fan. So as soon as the instructor gave us a water break, I went up to my bag and pretended to look for my water bottle (which is non-existent since I basically don’t drink water when I’m working out. I know I’m working on it!) and bumped the fan 20 degrees to the left again.
The woman was not fooled by my subterfuge. As soon as I stood up she gave me an angry face and made the universal hand sign for “Turn my wind machine back on before I lose my Beyonce and get all Brittney on your hiney!” (In case you’re curious, it looks very close to the hand sign for “stop asking me for marshmallows before dinner while I’m talking on the phone”.) I grudgingly turned the fan back towards her, and consequently me.
I made it through 30 seconds of cumbia-ing before giving up and forcing Allison to switch places with me by doing a do-si-do. (To Pitbull. It was every bit as awkward as it sounds.) But finally I was safe from the evil breeze! My skin and I could safely relax and I could merengue to my heart’s content. Which lasted about 20 seconds since I suck at the merengue. I thought all was well and good until I saw Zumba Beyonce glaring at me in the mirror. It occurred to me that she thought we were having a fight, an aerobic smackdown if you will. (Which in Zumba absolutely must manifest as the Sharks vs Jets scene out of West Side Story or there is nothing right in the world.) Sigh. How do I explain to her that I hadn’t tango-ed away from her because I was mad or angry or jealous or one of those ultra territorial aerobicizers?? The truth is, it had nothing to do with her: I moved because I cannot stand fans.
Fans are my kryptonite.
I hate the feel of wind on my skin. I hate a breeze in my face. I hate feeling air whipping through my hair. I get head to toe goosebumps no matter what the temperature. Outdoor wind is bad enough but fans are the worst. Because fans are incessant. Once one is aimed at you, it will not leave you alone until you are a bleary-eyed dried-out husk in Spandex (think Courtney Love at an ACE convention). And this is a huge issue for me because in fitness sweaty people are all about their ventilation systems. Myself, I’d rather be sweltering hot and pouring sweat than have to endure a “cooling” breeze. But I’m definitely the minority in this situation and because I know I’m the weirdo, I generally try and be as polite and low drama about it as I can muster. Which is why during the next water break I marched myself over to Zumba Beyonce and apologized for messing with the fan and told her it was just one of my many charming quirks. She smiled and said it was no problem.
Except for me it still was. My real problem with fans – and with anything incessantly stimulating like background music at restaurants, blinking lights at amusement parks, my children’s chirpy voices or Amanda Bynes’ Twitter feed – is that I can’t tune it out. CAN’T. For whatever reason, I was born without whatever gene it is that makes it possible to listen to a conversation at a piano bar. I can’t not feel the breeze of the fan. I can’t not hear the droning whir. I can’t not see the spinning blades. I cannot tune it out. And it’s not just physical stuff. I’m overly sensitive to other people’s feelings, to my own moods, even to people on TV. (It’s why I can’t watch horror movies or do haunted houses – even though I know they’re fake, I have such a visceral reaction to other people’s suffering that I will feel sick about it for weeks after.) I have a very hard time tuning anything out, at least for very long.
It’s because I am, as they call us now, an HSP or “highly sensitive person.” I first discovered the term a couple of years ago when my sister sent me an article about it saying “huh, this sounds exactly like you!” From there I went on to read “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Dr. Elaine Aron which turned out to be a game changer for me. Up until that point I always knew I was weird but I never knew there was a name for my weird! For as long as I’ve been able to express it, I’ve been telling people that I feel like I’m walking around with my skin on the wrong way out. And now I know why. I also know that I’m not alone as Aron points out that about 1 in 20 people qualify as an HSP.
In her book, she offers a quiz (you know how I love me a good self quiz!) to see where on the scale of sensitivity you fall. When I took it, I scored on every item except one. (If you’re curious, it’s the one about being very sensitive to pain. Surprisingly I have a pretty high pain tolerance.) I was off the charts HSP. But the funny part was as I was reading through the questions I kept thinking “You mean other people don’t feel this way? How can they not be bothered by this stuff?!” I was worried that it was one of those “horoscope” quizzes that is so vague that it will end up being true for everyone. I remedied this by forcing every person I came into contact with that weekend to take the test. (I even followed my dad around his kitchen while he was doing the dishes, asking him the questions and jotting down the answers for him.) The results? While a couple people scored in the mid ranges, no one came even close to touching my score. My husband only checked 3 out of the 27 questions.
Scientific proof, folks: I am a freak.
At first I was depressed about this – I’m doomed to always hate surprise parties and wear sweatshirts in 70-degree weather! – but as I continued to read her book I began to feel strangely liberated. First, Aron points out that while being “overly sensitive” is generally perceived as a negative trait in our sensory overloaded society, it actually has a lot of benefits and good qualities too. She refers to it as her secret superpower. I’ve always wanted a superpower! Second, it became immediately apparent that this is so important for me to understand because I have two kids that are definitely HSPs. Son #2 and Jelly Bean, in case you are wondering. (Sorry for the genetic payload kiddos! Just call me Enola Gay.)
I have spent a good portion of my life being told that I am “too sensitive”, feeling bad that things bother me so much, and trying super duper hard to compensate for my sensitivities and pretend I’m just like everyone else. And the effort of trying to look like a rational human being is, frankly, exhausting. Especially when I’m already super stressed out (like, oh, now). It also doesn’t work. People know I’m off. My friends can sense that I’m bugged about something. And all too often people assume the reason for my strangeness has something to do with them, that I don’t like them, which makes me sad. It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s that I don’t like me!
I’ve spent so much of my life trying to pretend to be okay when I’m not, trying to figure out why I’m upset when others aren’t. Consequently I’ve developed some pretty decent coping mechanisms. Yogic breathing has been a Godsend. Doing repetitive things like crossword puzzles, piano playing or crocheting helps a lot. Taking a daily break to my refuge. (My bedroom: it’s all white. Walls, comforter, pillows, curtains, everything. No pictures. No tchotchkes. No decorations. No music. No TV. No overhead lighting. Definitely no fans. I find it immensely soothing.) Those are the good things. I also have some strange coping tools, most notably that when I don’t know how I “should” be reacting to a situation I will look around the room and find someone “normal” and then copy their behavior. Yes, I know how creepy that sounds. It kind of works. (At least until they notice me aping them and I have to pretend I’m doing a Mime Experiment, JK y’all!) Then there are the bad things. Excessive exercise, my eating disorders, and my perfectionism are all, I believe, part of how I deal with feeling overwhelmed all the time. Must! Control! Everything!
As a kid, being an HSP was agony for me (oh the buzzing of the fluorescent lights!!) but thankfully as a grown-up I have a lot of control over my own environment which mitigates a lot of the discomfort. So once I identified my son as having a similar temperament, I set about teaching him all my “tricks” for appearing comfortable in a world that makes you feel anything but. I felt like a good mom. I felt like I could help him succeed in all the many ways I failed growing up. In fact, if he listened really well maybe I could teach him enough so that people would never know how sensitive he really is!
And that would be a shame, Aron says. She points out that always forcing yourself to change, to be something you’re not, takes a huge toll on you. (And she’s right, it does. Hello lifetime of self loathing!) She says, and I can’t even tell you how wonderful it felt to read this, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with being super sensitive. In fact, there’s a lot right with it. You have to learn to fine tune it, not hide it. And while you can’t force the world to bend to your whims – nor should you, compromise is the WD-40 of life – you don’t need to be ashamed of having those whims. It made me realize that perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching my son how to “overcome” his sensitive nature but rather giving him a good example of how to embrace it. How to laugh at himself. How to explain himself. How to take care of what he needs for himself, by himself.
I’m just not sure how to do that yet. So in the meantime I’m going to keep turning off fans. My apologies.
Any of you HSPs? Did you take the quiz? I’m super interested in what you guys score! Do you have a quirk that makes you feel like a freak a lot? How do you deal? Anyone else ever get into an “aerobics fight”??