In Search of Identity: Bipolar and the Highly Sensitive Person
In two previous posts, we discussed the highly sensitive person (HSP), based on a 1997 book of that title by Elaine Aron. In brief: A good many of us are hyper-aware of our surroundings. There is a strong upside to this (such as our ability to think and feel deeper) but we also tend to get highly aroused and overwhelmed.
This tendency leads to behaviors that don’t exactly win popularity contests. On one hand, we become frazzled and may lose it. On the other, we may withdraw into our shell and isolate. In both cases, life becomes a struggle. We get marginalized, we turn into outsiders. Maybe we were outsiders from the moment of conception.
Yet, according to Dr Aron, there is a certain sweet spot, sufficiently aroused but not over-aroused, where we are on our game and can play to our strengths. Once we recognize who we are, with practice, we can adjust accordingly. We stay true to ourselves, but learn to fit in. Success breeds success. Life can be good.
If you detect a certain parallel to bipolar, you are not alone. Obviously, with our condition, there is an overlap between illness and personality, between state and trait. The connection between bipolar and HSP has not been explored, but that should not stop us from making our own intelligent guesses. After all, this is the story of our lives. From my memoir, Raccoons Respect My Piss But Watch out for Skunks:
It’s a very overwhelming world out there, very difficult to negotiate, and most of the time - very frankly - I don’t want to be in it. Certainly, I spent a good deal of my childhood wishing I was very far removed from it. I found refuge, instead, in my own inner world. Over time, I succeeded in tuning out just about the whole world around me.
If you’re like me, the story of your life includes an unhappy childhood and a vulnerability to stress. Environment meets genetic disposition. The personality we were born with gets a makeover. So do our neural circuits. We see this happening in bipolar. Dr Aron spends a good part of her book discussing the same issues with HSP.
So - imagine HSP superimposed with bipolar. In many cases the overlay is so perfect that it is virtually impossible to sort out illness from personality, state from trait. Nevertheless, the dots resolve into a strong sense of "me," for better and worse. We instantly recognize that unique character that is us, with so much to offer but who seems to break down for no apparent reason.
This appears especially true when our depressive tendencies align with our HSP. Assuming we are not caught in a killer depression, we identify with our contemplative nature and singular ability to perceive the world in ways other people cannot begin to imagine.
In this state, we tend to think before we act (or not act). This is an HSP hallmark. Dr Aron gives the example of two school kids walking into a classroom. The non-HSP kid displays no hesitation in taking her seat. The HSP kid, by contrast, notices a certain disturbance in the force - school bags where they shouldn’t be, angry-looking teacher, a certain kid with a funny look - and holds back.
Yes, we all know the feeling. But HSP-bipolar overlay also includes a stunning anomaly or two. Imagine entering the same classroom, this time wearing your bipolar hat. At a conference seven or eight years ago, Janice Papolos, co-author of The Bipolar Child, told her audience that a bipolar kid walking into a classroom is like Kramer barging into Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. He is disoriented, with no sense of what is going on in the room, and is likely to cause a disturbance.
Maybe we don’t act like Kramer as adults, but our tendency to mania and hypomania has a way of making us behave not strictly according to personality type. We tend to get reckless and impulsive, the very opposite of thinking before we act. We recall our dancing-on-tables moments (and worse) and start looking for a crack in the floor we can shrink into.
It’s crazy. We may feel very uncomfortable around people, then unexpectedly turn into the life of the party. We may be quiet by nature and deeply introspective, then - with no warning - start acting like complete jerks.
So which one of us is about to show up, our bipolar self or HSP self? Perhaps both turn up at once and stage a fight in our brains. Talk about an identity crisis. Who the hell are we? The good news is that the introspective side of our nature - whether bipolar or HSP - loves asking this sort of question. It’s as if we can’t help it. We are on a journey of self-discovery. Letâ�™s face it, we live for this kind of challenge. Enjoy …
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.