Whenever I meet someone who has or has had an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or atypical eating disorders, I wonder if they are a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP). This term was coined by Elaine N. Aron, author of — you guessed it — The Highly Sensitive Person. I read this book a few months ago after being curious about it for decades. It confirmed my suspicion that I am an HSP and helped me see how well I navigate our non HSP-dominated world. That’s right, only 20% of the population has the HSP trait, according to Aron. It’s easy for us HSPs to compare ourselves to non-HSPs and think we are defective. Not so! I speak more about this later in the post.
While I try to avoid labels of any kind lest they become a self-fulfilling prophecy, I believe the HSP label may actually provide relief and freedom for those who claim it, especially those recovering from eating disorders. After all for those suffering from bulimia and other eating disorders, accepting oneself, one’s feelings and needs is often very challenging. It was for me!
While coaching I see clients automatically invalidating their feelings and berating themselves for having strong reactions. It can sound like this, “I don’t know why this even bothers me! I’m like a 5 year old!” or “I should be able to attend the event — it shouldn’t make me so tired — what is my problem?” (Statements are created as examples)
What would happen if instead they valued their impressions/feelings and learned how to work with their nervous system activation (feeling stimulated/stressed by new/different people and events). Could their sensitivity be transformed into an asset? And could this healthier orientation towards themselves lessen urges to restrict, binge, etc.?
I believe so because of my own experience and those I’ve helped. My mentors’ unconditional acceptance taught me to accept my sensitivity and learn to work with it. Eating disorder behaviors lost their appeal. I gained mastery in “regulating” myself and most importantly, I stopped being ashamed of who I am. For instance, I am a “crier”. Yes, when I get overly tired or if something happens suddenly and makes me angry, I cry. It happens quickly. While growing up this was severely frowned upon so I never learned that it’s okay or how to ground myself. Now I just let it happen! No. Big. Deal. Feelings come up and discharge. The world keeps spinning! I ground myself and function well. The best part is the self-acceptance and lack of self-judgment. That’s true freedom — when we can love ourselves fully, as we are.
Let’s look at another HSP ability: noticing and sensitively processing subtle stimuli. For example, if I see someone frowning, I begin wondering what’s going on for them. Let’s imagine I also notice their shirt is missing a couple of buttons and they’re speaking quickly. I will automatically start weaving a narrative or I may intuitively “know” their narrative. This can exhaust me if I’m not careful. Imagine me in a shopping mall noticing and responding to people, window displays and food court aromas! Fortunately I have learned how to manage this aspect of my sensitivity and protect myself from overload. Watch for another post with specific tools and strategies.
You may be wondering if you have the HSP trait and if/how it is impacting your eating disorder recovery. Do you relate to any of these HSP characteristics…strong intuition, spiritually connected (not necessarily religious), naturally hold sacred space, deeply moved by the arts/ music and conscientious? Here are a few more; sensitive processing of subtle stimuli, being affected by others’ moods, notice potential threats, easily startled, sensitive to bright lights/
strong smells/sirens, need time away from stimulating environments/people/sounds, stressed when pushed to do too much too soon.
If you do relate, it may be beneficial to read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. In it Aron advocates for healing childhood wounds that often occur in homes where there’s not enough attunement between parent and child, perhaps due to the parent’s own mental health or addiction issues. Aron provides “reframing” exercises which, in my opionion, are best worked on with a therapist. I also enjoy Aron’s suggestions for handling overarousal/activation in social situations. Perhaps these are helpful for eating disorder sufferers who also struggle with social anxiety: “1) Remember that overarousal is not necessarily fear 2) Find other HSPs to talk to, one-on-one 3) Use your arousal-reducing skills 4) Develop a good “persona” and consciously use it 5) Explain your trait to others”1
Aron’s practical guidance for HSPs is research-based and very reassuring. Whether you suffer from anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder or atypical eating disorders, and think you may have the HSP trait, you can learn to make it work for you. It’s something we discuss and work with in my Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching. My mission is to help you truly accept and appreciate yourself. In doing so, you will put your eating disorder out of a job. Schedule your complimentary call today by clicking here.
1 Elaine N. Aron, Ph. D. The Highly Sensitive Person (New York: Broadway Books p. 95).