A highly sensitive person: My story
I have received so many messages from people following my interview with Russell Brand where I talked about being highly sensitive. It seems so many of you are too!
‘You’re just too sensitive for your own good.’
‘You’ve really got to toughen up.’
‘Stop being such a cry baby.’
I heard this said a lot to me when I was growing up. It always made me feel like there was something very weak and inadequate about me. I was convinced that I had a fatal flaw and that I had to hide it as best I could. I believed there was something wrong about me.
One memory stands out in particular. I must have been about nine years old at the time and I was on the bus to school. I was feeling very pleased with myself because I had finally mustered up the courage to climb up and get a seat upstairs, but I didn’t have just any seat, I had the front seat. It felt wonderful seeing the world from such a height. I felt invincible. Then in an instance my elation and sense of freedom turned to trauma as a bird smacked into the window and then slid down the window under the wheels of the bus.
A couple of boys sitting in the seat next to me found the whole thing very exciting, but the violent end of that bird seemed to penetrate far into my being. Tears filled my eyes and the laughter and chatter of the boys was intolerable. I heard one of them say that the bird was probably stuck to the wheels of the bus going around and around. Another said that it was probably wandering around beside the road with its head on back to front. The rest of the journey to school was pure torment for me as seeing my distress the boys took great delight in discussing every gruesome possibility. Fighting back tears I couldn’t concentrate at school for thinking about what might have happened to the bird.
After school on the way home I sat downstairs on the bus hardly daring to look out of the window, but unable to stop myself. When the bus got close to the spot where the bird had hit the window I looked out and saw it lying in a heap of red feathers on the side of the road. It was like an arrow to my heart. Tears drenched my face. For the next few days, weeks even, I could not tear my thoughts away from the suffering and lonely death of that bird. For the next year I never rode on the upper deck of a bus again.
This incident wasn’t an isolated one. At school I was often teased for crying or overreacting to things. If I didn’t understand something the teacher was trying to tell me, my eyes would well up. If friends didn’t want to play with me I would blubber. I would over analyse everything that was said to me. Small wonder really that I didn’t have many friends as a child. It must have been like walking on egg shells for them. At night my mum would hold me in her arms as I sobbed out my hurt feelings. She would tell me over and over again that I needed to stop taking everything so personally. She tried to teach me simple calming meditation exercises, like imagining a protective bubble around me, but nothing worked. I couldn’t distance myself from anyone or everything.
Not surprisingly given my nervous disposition fitting in was an issue when I was growing up in the loud and colourful 1970s. I was painfully shy. I remember many an excruciating school lunchtime clutching my plastic blue tray and wondering if anyone would let me sit by them. I remember many a painful P.E session when team leaders picked everyone but me for their team. I remember many an anxious lesson sitting on a table by myself and many a fearful playtime hiding away from the fun.
My family’s alternative lifestyle didn’t help matters much when it came to fitting in. You see, I grew up in a family of psychics and spiritualists and nobody really understood what all that was about. Also mum earned her living as a psychic counsellor which basically meant that we had very little money and lived a gypsy like lifestyle, forever on the move. We never seemed to settle in one place long enough to call it home, so even if I did start making a friend or two soon it was time for us to move and I had to start all over again. And then things took another turn for the worse when my parents separated. I’d never had a close relationship with my father, but when he left us a part of me felt even more rejected and isolated.
As a teenager my sensitivity just deepened. Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells and crowds had now become exhausting and overwhelming ordeals for me. I also developed an intense craving for solitude. Time alone to regroup after any kind of stimulation was as essential for me as food and drink. Like a character in a Jane Austen period I needed periods of reflection and withdrawal. Hardest of all to deal with, though, was my habit of breaking into spontaneous tears and my tendency to run away from situations that made me feel exposed. To give just one of many examples I could give. I remember being at the dentist’s surgery once for a check up. I must have been about fifteen at the time. I was thirsty and went to the water fountain for a drink. I grabbed a cup and just as I did my name was called out. Stressed, I pulled the water lever down without putting the cup in position and water splashed all over the floor. Everybody in the surgery was looking at me and I was mortified. Tears stinging my eyes I could only think of one thing, leaving instantly. I grabbed my bag and ran out immediately missing my appointment.
Being sensitive to large numbers of people life at a huge and underperforming comprehensive girls’ school was pure torture for me, so I left as soon as I could at the age of sixteen with a very poor set of qualifications. It’s not that I was lazy, unable or didn’t want to learn, I just couldn’t concentrate in class. There was always so much noise and distraction. My end of term school report was dismal. My school had clearly given up on me and didn’t see much future ahead. I still wanted to learn though so I got a weekend job as a care assistant in an old people’s home to help mum with the finances and carried on with my A level education at home via a correspondence course.
You might think this was a bizarre lifestyle choice for a young girl, and plenty of people told me I was being ridiculous and would need therapy sooner or later, but it worked for me. The nursing home was quiet, and now dad and mum had separated and my brother was at college, life at home with mum was very quiet and conducive to studying. So, for the next two years apart from mum, and a handful of elderly residents, I didn’t really have much to do with anyone. My teenage years were unusual to say the least.
And all that quiet time paid off because much to my surprise – and the shock of my former school teachers – I gained the necessary results for a place at Cambridge University, reading Theology and English. Sure, there were jubilations but as time wore on my anxieties returned. How was I ever going to fit in? Although I loved being a university student, it was obvious very early on that I was never going to belong there either. I just didn’t have the financial background or social connections and ‘know how’ to keep up with the privately educated and in those days male dominated ‘elite’ I found myself thrown together with. In short, I was once again the complete outsider, the square peg in a round hole.
At times, I felt like the university’s social experiment. I remember often locking myself in my room, terrified of going into the magnificent dining hall. It was just too overwhelming and I didn’t feel I had any right to be there. Instead I would sit in my room with a packet of crisps and a bottle of water, only venturing out when I had lectures or tutorials to attend. I didn’t join in with university social life at all. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. It was simply that I didn’t know how. I remembered all those times at junior school the other children had called me weird. I had taken all their taunting personally and deep down was convinced that nobody liked me. I would never belong in. I was the social outcast. I kept this up for three years, failing even to attend my graduation. I got my degree but I was the invisible student.
With such low levels of confidence I was woefully ill equipped to deal with life in the real world. I was an accident waiting to happen and made some terrible career and relationship choices when I left university. Instead of using my degree to get job satisfaction my low self-esteem stopped me applying for jobs that suited me. Instead of going out with men who treated me as an equal, I went out with men who used and abused me because I didn’t think I deserved any better. This nomadic, confused and rather sad existence went on for several years. Sometimes it really did feel as if I couldn’t cope with everyday life. My best and only friend was my mum, which meant that the pain of losing her to cancer when I was in my mid twenties was unbearable. My life was broken and my heart was broken.
I could go on and on with anecdotes like this. I always hoped that one day – when I was a real grown up – I would leave my hypersensitivity behind along with my childhood. I would grow out of my shyness and sensitivity. However, by my late twenties, I still didn’t feel confident or have any sense of belonging with the world around me. Getting older did bring some improvements. I started to gather a few friends around me for one thing. I typically found myself in the role of listener and it suited me fine. My willingness to hear what others had to say, and not interrupt with my own life story, my ability to adapt myself to whatever the situation required and to be as pleasing and as helpful as I possibly could for others was a ‘winning formula.’ I just didn’t talk about myself. A lot of people liked me for that and it wasn’t all one way traffic, I liked the way giving to and helping others made me feel.
Another small step in the right direction was that I gradually began to understand myself better. With my deep reactions to feelings, nature, art and music and a strong need for personal freedom I realised that an office bound job wasn’t for me. I started work as a freelance journalist and writer and discovered a work satisfaction I have never known before. I also discovered a passion for informing, teaching and healing others through my writing. However, despite this drive to help others I still felt different from other people, as if I was from an alien planet. I wrote articles and books about leading a healthy, happy life, but there I was struggling with weight issues, relationship issues and low self-esteem. I was a cliché of the wounded healer.
So, I guess you could say I limped along and found ways to disguise my hypersensitivity and feelings of inadequacy. My angels must have been looking out for me, though, because against all odds I did somehow manage to land on my feet and eventually find a good man. I was also blessed with two beautiful children. There were bouts of post natal depression after the birth of both my children, but I never fell completely into the darkness and the deep and very real love I had for my children always helped me keep my head above water.
Indeed, it wasn’t when my children were babies that I felt at my most vulnerable. I was in my mid thirties and my young children were ready to spend time outside of the home mixing with other kids. Once again my anxieties and fears made this normal rite of passage a time of great anxiety, but mercifully for me and my children my angels showed me a positive way forward. Unaware at the time that heaven was helping me, I was at a crossroads in my life where I would learn the important lesson of ‘letting go,’ and accepting and embracing who I was. Along the way, I also finally discovered a deep and lasting sense of belonging and purpose. And here’s how it happened.
When I first had to leave my children at day care a part of me withered and died. After so many months of being joined at the hip I had to try to rebuild my life again. I always knew the day would come but it came all too quickly. I had felt safe at home alone with my children, venturing outside into the world again seemed terrifying. At home I had done all I could to ensure family life was quiet and ordered. I was inseparable from them, sensing their every need. However, when the nursery deadline loomed on the horizon I turned to jelly. All that love, attention, energy and time, I had poured into my children and now I had to hand him over to someone else.
To make matters worse my son was quite a clingy child, anxious and tearful when I even left the room. How was I going to send him to school? On the first day a nursery nurse told me not to do any long goodbyes and simply head out the door. I did as I was told and retreated hastily, but then I heard the familiar wailing of my son. I rushed back inside and saw him being whisked away by a very capable looking nursery nurse. The manager on duty said he would soon settle and if there were any problems she would give me a call.
I went back to my car and started weeping hysterically. My head was all over the place. Instead of using the time productively I just sat in the nursery car park. I had to be near my children. After half an hour I called the nursery to see how things were going. I was told that my son was still crying but not as violently and my daughter was sleeping. The girl on the phone was so matter of fact in her description it really got to me. Didn’t she understand what I was going through?
For the next three hours I sat in the nursery car park. There was no other place I felt I could be. I clutched my mobile in my hand, willing it to ring so I could go in and pick up my kids. The call didn’t come and so I waited and waited. Eventually it was midday and I went back inside. My children were brought out to me and immediately I sensed how unsettled they felt. My son rushed up to me and grabbed me so strongly that I almost toppled over. My daughter was handed to me and I noticed that she had food stains around her mouth.
Later that evening I couldn’t bring myself to tell my husband about sitting in the car park nursery for three hours. It sounded so pathetic. I did, however, tell him that I thought the standard of care at the nursery was poor and I was going to find another one. I didn’t feel good about this as there was nothing wrong with the nursery, but I needed an excuse. I just wasn’t ready to let my children go yet. So, for the next year or so I hired au pairs to come and sit with my children in my house while I worked. It wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t get much work done at all, but it did enable me to at least take on some jobs and gradually start earning again.
Time flew by quickly and before long my son was due to start school. Having felt so alienated at school myself, you can imagine how I felt about sending my son there. I wanted to home educate him but my husband put his foot down and said that wasn’t going to happen. Unlike me, he had fond memories of his school days and he believed it was time for me to start letting go.
Letting go sounds so easy, but like many things in my life what should have been easy was once again incredibly hard. I cried my heart out when I waved goodbye to him at the school gates. I didn’t even make it to the car. The other mums gathered around me concerned and it was the oddest sensation for me as I was usually the one doing the comforting, the listening. Looking back, I think all of them felt like me in some way. They were just better at hiding it than I was.
Eventually, I dried my eyes and tried unsuccessfully to get on with my day. When it was time for pick up I arrived a good half an hour early. Finally, the school bell rang and the children bustled out of the building. I stood anxiously on tip toes craning my neck to see my son, but he didn’t come out with the kids I thought were in his class. Once again my heart started racing. This was my worse possible fear. Something terrible had happened to my son.
Panicking, I ran into the school and started shouting his name. There wasn’t any answer. I went outside again and there he was. He was sitting on the floor with another boy staring intently at the ground. Sweating profusely, I rushed to him and grabbed him but he struggled to get away as he was eager to get back to his game. The other boy’s mum came over to me and told me that my son and her son had come out of school together with one mission – to find ants. She apologised for not seeking me out sooner, but they seemed to be having so much fun. I took a few steps back to compose myself and fan my hot cheeks with my hands.
At that moment an older lady – I assumed she was the grandmother of my son’s new friend because she looked so much like his mother – came over to me and gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘It’s not that he doesn’t want to be with you. He was just having fun with his new friend.’
Something about this woman, her warm and gentle manner, calmed me down instantly. I smiled at her and told her it was his first real time away from home and it was difficult for me. She smiled and, although I may not have her exact words right because, bear with me, I’m working from memories here, she said something along the lines of: ‘I’m going to tell you something I told my daughter when she felt sad taking her children to school. Children are loaned to us for eighteen years so we can help them learn to fly. Being a parent is all about letting go of them gently. It begins with the cutting of the umbilical cord, the end of breastfeeding, their first steps and with each passing year we lose just a little bit more. From the moment they are born our job as mothers is to teach them little by little to fly on their own, because we are the way they learn to be successful, independent, and fulfilled. However, even though they may fly far away from you, you can always be connected to them through love. This new connection can last for eternity when you understand that your child is always part of you and here with you.’
There are moments in your life when you know you are hearing something deeply profound and significant and this was one of those moments. I turned around to look at my son and as I did he looked up and smiled happily at me before returning to his ant hunting game. I turned back to talk to the woman again, but she was gone.
By now the other boy’s mother came over and I asked her where her mother had gone. She gave me the oddest look and told me her mother had passed on just a few months ago. Her eyes reddened as she explained how happy this first day of school would have made her mother and how sad it was that she wasn’t here to see it. Without hesitating, I told this woman about my conversation with the woman that I thought had been her mother because of the resemblance. When I had finished she stared at me for several moments and told me that she recalled her mother giving her the exact same advice about children being on loan to us from heaven, when her eldest child first started school two years ago and she was feeling anxious and unsettled.
It was a remarkable moment for us both. And for me it was the beginning of a much more confident and fulfilling phase of my life as a mother. This doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped worrying about my children – feeling guilty and worried is second nature to every mother whatever age her children are – but bit by bit I have understood the importance of letting go. I realised that keeping my children so close to me was a suffocating kind of love and I want to give them the best kind of love – the love that gives them wings. I don’t want them growing up feeling insecure, helpless and vulnerable, and the best way to help them grow in confidence, self-belief and independence is to let them know I trust them and believe they can cope without me. I have learned to accept that they don’t belong to me. Just as that lady at the gates told me, like everything wonderful in our lives, they are gift.
Do I think that the grandmother I spoke to at the gates was an angel? In the seven years since my kids have been attending that school I have never seen her again so she could well have been, but it could also have been remarkable coincidence; a wise lady passing by who saw my distress and offered her words of wisdom at just the right time. Either way that lady was a message sent from heaven to me because she had such a positive impact on my life and the lives of my children. I can truthfully say that from that day forward I was a more contented mum. I was also a happier and more fulfilled person in general. I’m jumping ahead of myself here, so let me rewind and explain.
As you’ve seen, feeling isolated and different because of my anxieties and fears felt like a heavy curse, but after learning to cope with my separation anxiety concerning my children, I was finally able to fully immerse myself in my writing while they were at school. Before my head hadn’t really been in the right place and I couldn’t concentrate for worry, but now it didn’t feel like a betrayal of my children giving over a part of myself to my work.
With renewed enthusiasm and passion I put my pen, or should I say keyboard, where my heart was and made the decision to do something with all the angel stories I had gathered over the years as a paranormal writer and researcher. The material was so personal and so life transforming that in my mind’s eye I could clearly see these stories gathered together in book form and it was time to stop hesitating and start doing something about it. My experience at the school gate – and the very real possibility that I had encountered something paranormal – felt like yet another prod from the world of spirit. It was time for me to make a commitment. Looking back on my life, I had had other remarkable encounters and experiences like this and, in an increasingly sceptical and material world, I needed to emerge from my hiding place and finally come clean about my encounters with, and belief in, the world of spirit.
Although today I openly write about angels I need to point out that seven or so years ago this wasn’t yet the case. I was still in the process of establishing myself as a writer and most of my books where in the field of health, education, and popular psychology. I was also working on a number of fairly heavyweight academic style encyclopaedias. Until then I had always felt that to retain the respect of the academic community that had nurtured my inquisitive mind, I had to be low key and objective about my devotion to the world of spirit. To be honest, I think a part of me was embarrassed about my spiritualist upbringing, so desperate was I to belong and fit in. However, after my school gate angel encounter, as I like to call it, all that changed. I finally stopped trying to fit in and found the courage to stand by my beliefs. I was losing my objectivity, and standing out rather than blending in, but I was gaining a sense of purpose and meaning.
Taken in isolation I could perhaps have dismissed as coincidence, or explained away logically, certain extraordinary things that had happened to me in my life, but not when I began to put them all together and started to look at the bigger picture. For example, when my son was eight months old, did an angel appear in the guise of a ten year old boy who saved him from falling down some stone steps and then miraculously disappeared after? After the birth of my daughter did a series of divine signs and a lucid dream rescue me from the darkness of postal depression? After the death of my father did he visit me in spirit and heal the wounds between us?
There had been so many incidences in my life when the veil between this world and the next seemed to vanish. And now I could at last see, with a clarity I had never known before, that all along my angels had been speaking to me, just not in the way I had expected. They had always been around protecting and guiding me. I just hadn’t been ready to hear their voices, or see them for what they really were.
In the next few years as I began to write up my experiences and gather angel stories from others and eventually turn them into bestselling books, further stunning coincidences, lucid and profound dreams and other miraculous encounters continued to occur, as if to reinforce to me the reality of angels and spirits and their very real presence in my life and the lives of others. In the process, I also unearthed another astonishing and life changing truth, something I had also not been able to recognise before. As people got in touch with me to send in their stories and talk about their experiences and beliefs, it dawned on me that many of them displayed similar personality traits to mine.
Many of them told me that were also highly sensitive and attuned to the feelings of others or the environment they were in. They abhorred violence in any form and felt a deep connection with beauty, nature and animals. For some, just reading distressing newspaper reports, or watching them on the TV, was enough to plunge them into the depths of despair, so deep was their empathy for the suffering of others. Many felt they had a passion for healing, helping or teaching others even though in their own lives they often struggled with self-esteem or relationship challenges, weight issues and the like, and didn’t know how to translate this passion into a reality. Some talked about being miserable at school and always feeling different, as if dropped off from another planet.
The great majority didn’t claim to be psychic, or even to have had a full blown angel sighting complete with wings and halo, but they still believed that what they had experienced in their lives was extraordinary. They believed in something but they didn’t know what that something was. Reading these wonderful people’s stories and insights was like looking into my own heart, my own soul. I wasn’t alone at all. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged. I was coming home.
I started to do some of my own research and along the way stumbled across – or perhaps I was guided to – a term I hadn’t come across before – the ‘highly sensitive person.’ The so called highly sensitive person is someone whose nervous system is so acutely attuned to the environment they are in, or the people they are with, that they process information very deeply and are easily upset by insensitivity or violence of any kind. Loud noises, crowds, busy streets, stress and even powerful aromas can provide too much stimulation. The incidence of stress and depression is higher than normal among such people because they are easily overwhelmed by the world around them, often tending to shut down or withdraw. Then they wonder what is wrong with them, why they can’t get on with everyday routines and challenges like everyone else.
Curious to learn more because of the strong sense of familiarity I was experiencing, I found out that as many as one in five people could test positive for innate sensitiveness. This innate sensitivity has been well researched and the term Highly Sensitive Person was first coined in 1996 by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D, who believed it was actually a genetic trait. In times past, people with high degrees of sensitivity to the world around them and within them may have found themselves in the position of shaman, healer or counsellor mediating conflicts or bridging the gap between this world and the next. However, in today’s increasingly secular world the appreciation of people with high levels of sensitivity has all but disappeared. In fact, they may often be considered odd, anti-social or out of it. Many are constantly told that they are too sensitive, that they need to get thicker skin or come out of themselves, or worse still, that something is just wrong with them.
The more I read about the highly sensitive personality, the more I began to recognise many of my own struggles and experiences, along with the struggles, insights and stories of the people writing to me.
Digging deeper I also discovered that psychologists believe highly sensitive people can’t change their natures, and shouldn’t have too. There are many amazing traits that come with being sensitive including a high degree of imagination and creativity, a love of peace and calm, as well as empathy and compassion for people and animals, an intuitive approach to life and an idealistic view of just how beautiful the world could be. Most significantly, though, sensitive natured people tend to have a deep connection or fascination with the spirit world. They may not always be able to articulate it, but they have a strong belief that a spiritual force is at work in their lives. Indeed for the highly sensitive it could be said that developing spiritually is essential for their fulfilment and happiness.
How I wished I had had access to this kind of insight and information before. How it would have helped me deal with my sensitivity and feelings of alienation when I was growing up. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone, and that what I had been regarding as my weaknesses could be turned into my greatest strength, was incredibly reassuring and comforting.
And this is when I had a light bulb moment. Realising it was crucially important for sensitive people to develop spiritually, because if they didn’t they could get easily hurt and disillusioned, I made it my mission to gather angel stories and share them with as wide a readership as I can. I didn’t want anyone to feel as isolated and out of touch as I did. All those people sending me their stories and searching for deeper meaning in their lives, they were the angels calling my name.
With ever increasing numbers of people believing in angels – either because they have personal experience of them or because they are in tune with the message of peace, love, beauty and hope angels bring – it is my sincere hope that there will be a wider acceptance of those with a more sensitive nature. Instead of trying to change, or berating themselves for being too shy or sensitive or spiritually inclined in a material world, after reading my books these people will know they are not alone, and hopefully this knowledge will help them find the confidence to appreciate and develop their unique traits, instead of trying to deny or repress them.
In a world fraught with violence, noise, chaos and increasing pressure to do everything faster and to have more and more material possessions, I believe sensitive souls are needed by society more than ever. Indeed, their stories and experiences point the way forward for everyone, inspiring others to also look within and discover the spiritual forces behind their lives.
In short, you – and your desire for a more magical, loving and peaceful world where angels and spirits can be seen, felt and heard – are needed now more than ever. You may wonder how I can say this about you. How can I tell that you have a sensitive soul, or that there is an aspiring angel inside you? I can tell because somehow you found me and my story. Quite amazing when you think of the millions of other people, podcasts, books, e-books, magazines, newspapers, and so on you could be reading out there. I am in no doubt that either the angels around you, or the aspiring angel inside you guided you towards it. You were meant to be here.