The challenge of being authentic for someone who is neurodivergent is that privilege often gets in the way. There exists a whole spectrum of innate personality characteristics. Layered on that, we have culture, which sets the norms for what behavior is acceptable and what is not. To some extent, we must adapt our behavior to function well and survive. All of us depend on social systems for our survival and well-being. Yet, not all of us can adapt or it may be very difficult depending on emotional, physical and social factors.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity
I am going to talk specifically about Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). SPS is the scientific term for a Highly Sensitive Person. It is a form of neurodivergence, an innate personality difference, which I have. SPS means that people who have it are more sensitive to internal or external stimuli than most people. That includes all five senses, so loud noises, bright lights, pain or pressure, strong smells or tastes can all be over-stimulating.
Among other things, the positive side is that we notice subtleties in the environment more. We notice changes in facial expressions and patterns of behavior more than most people, so we can be more empathetic than most people.
On the other hand, because we also experience emotional states through our senses (as everyone does), our emotions are also more intense and harder to manage. When we express our emotions, such as joy, sadness, anger or any variation, we likely express it more intensely than most people.
How Sensory Processing Sensitivity Affects Social Interactions
So, let us talk about how that affects social interactions. Most people, during meaningful communication, like to be able to show how they feel. I certainly do, but when I do, most people do not like it. People, especially in American culture, do not like it because they think that people who express too much emotion are vulnerable and they think if they hang around me that they will also be vulnerable. And that may be true in some situations. Notice the emphasis on some.
Recently, I had an interaction in which I was talking with someone of significance to me. I was laughing because I realized this irony. People tend to think of me as weak, when in reality I withstand really difficult emotional situations all of the time. When I laughed too hard, in his opinion, he tried to stop me. Presumably, as in many similar situations with most people, the intensity of emotion made him uncomfortable.
This general reaction, I’m guessing, is about fear. Perhaps it is fear of being outside of the norm or the fear of vulnerability. It is to some extent fear on my behalf, but also fear by other individuals for themselves. Perhaps they fear they will be hurt by association. So our cultural underpinnings are based on pushing down the ‘weak,’ and fear of being ‘weak,’ where aggression is considered ‘strength.’
How Privilege Affects The Neurodivergent
These interactions have a tendency to result in me feeling like I am somehow, ‘wrong,’ or that I must hide my authentic self. But according to my values, aggression is weakness, fear is normal and assertiveness is strength. It has been a lifelong struggle, but I can be assertive. Assertiveness to me means learning to feel that my behavior is not ‘wrong,’ and expressing myself fully when it feels appropriate to me.
On the other hand, it is not wrong for someone else to feel uncomfortable or even to communicate that it is uncomfortable for them when I express my emotions. I believe it is, however, an imposition for someone to tell me not to express myself. It would be an imposition for me to tell someone else not to express themselves without explanation so I do not.
If a person could own their discomfort, then it would give me the choice to decide when and how much to express myself. Granted, most people do not want to admit to discomfort, because they also do not want to admit to vulnerability, and that is also understandable.
To me, having the choice of when and how much to express emotion is important and it is not an easy decision. First, I am not entirely sure how much I can control it. Second, while in some cases, it is harmful for me to express my emotions, it is also harmful for me to not feel comfortable expressing my emotions fully when it is important to me.
So, I ask for the choice as my right. I do not expect everyone to like me, or to even respect me, but I hope they can learn. And in the end, I choose to be close to people with whom I am able to express my authentic self.
For further resources for Highly Sensitive People, see Elaine Aron’s website, which provides up to date research and supports for people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity.