I gazed out the window of the brownstone, wondering how many weekends I had spent alone.
At twenty-six, I was living in Baltimore, my third floor apartment looking over trees on what used to be a block of regal homes. Today, the end of Bolton Street has regained some of its stature, but twenty-two years ago when I lived there, some of its charm had faded.
Living on that third floor in the middle of the block, I felt like I was fading, too. And if I faded completely? No one would even notice.
Back then, in 1996, I had no idea what a highly sensitive person (HSP) was. In fact, Elaine Aaron’s research on the subject wouldn’t be published until a year later. But boy, I could’ve used her book during that lonely year.
After spending countless months reading every other book I could find (literature, poetry, philosophy), studying self-help articles (before Google searches) and watching Woody Allen movies (when those were just moody, witty studies in neurosis and gloom picked up at my neighborhood video rental shop), all I knew for sure was that I wasn’t like other people.
Loneliness always pushes you into the void – there is just you, and the wide, yawning darkness. And then there is “everyone else,” all the “other people” who you convince yourself are not lonely, have never been lonely, and have no understanding of true loneliness. In my mind, everyone else walked around in their skin like they belonged in the world, like they relished being a part of it. Everything in that world seemed so very simple.
But I walked around feeling like I was moving through deep, dark water.
One day, I watched a woman walk down the street ahead of me. She laughed easily, her long brown coat swinging rhythmically above her workday sneakers, a spicy takeout lunch in one hand. A spare thread hanging from her coattail caught my eye, some dog hair across her shoulders, and a black scuff on one sneaker, and suddenly I felt a stab of longing.
This woman’s story – the heels she had stowed under her desk somewhere, the old dog she left at home, the spicy lunch a treat she rarely afforded herself, the coat her only warm one – unfolded in front of me. The laugh, directed at her companion in a suit, felt knowing, intimate. But he was walking ahead of her slightly. She had to hurry to keep up. A wave of sadness washed over me. He’s leaving her, I realized. We walked one block together, and then the couple turned the corner.
I felt like I had read the entire story of their lives in one small block. And not only read it, but lived it, felt it down in my bones. I knew them on a deeper level than perhaps they knew themselves, or each other. And yet, they just walked on, unburdened. Lunch was just lunch, and they would go back to work. Simple.
As for me? The depth of the stories and the richness of the detail that flooded me left me in awe, fascinated, endlessly curious. But afterward, I would be exhausted. Exhausted, and still — sometimes even more than before — alone.
After wading through the deep water of those days, I would retreat to my apartment. I needed the peace and quiet.
Inside those rooms during long nights and weekends, I would read, write, watch movies, and recharge.
The deep water I moved through subsided at home, the hours uncomplicated, manageable. I could be unburdened there. Alone in this place felt more like home, and less like loneliness.
This line — between the loneliness that comes from feeling isolated and apart, and the “alone-ness” of sanctuary — felt like a very fine one, and perilous.
No matter how long I spent in each place, I feared it was too much. Too much time out in the world and I felt everything too much, felt too different. Too much time alone, too much sanctuary, and I risked becoming blank, depressed.
I spent my years in the city running from my loneliness and hiding in my alone-ness. I wasn’t very good at balance. I did become depressed, isolated. The world did become too much, especially when I stayed away from it for long periods of time.
Eventually I moved out of my brownstone on Bolton Street. I moved back to the small town where I grew up, started therapy soon after, and tried to understand how to find balance, how to manage the lonely.
That was twenty-three years ago.
In time, therapy helped me navigate my past, my overwhelming feelings and the anxieties they caused, my tendency to slip into depression.
But when I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aaron, all of the pieces of self-knowledge I had uncovered, the deep examination of self and my relationship to others began to form a more complete picture. I began to understand my loneliness, and my sensitivities. I even began to understand the wider purpose of an HSP’s sense of loneliness.
Here are some things I learned along the way:
Loneliness and being alone can be two different things.
Everyone feels lonely at some point in their lives. But most people want to run from that feeling, as fast and as far away as possible.
HSPs understand, in a way that few people do, that there can be a deep peace in being alone and being able to be alone. Being alone doesn’t have to equal loneliness. Often, being alone gives you time to process emotions, contemplate your path, recalibrate your life. Often, you connect to your deepest and truest self when you are alone.
We are never truly alone.
HSP’s are often overwhelmed because they “feel” the world on all levels (physically, emotionally, spiritually, and existentially). That kind of “feeling” — the wide breadth of emotion, and the depth of it, too — can be heavy at times. But HSP’s understand more than anyone that no connection is one-dimensional, or inconsequential.
Every interaction, every connection to another person or being creates meaning, and resonance. In physics, resonance is the principle that “when two frequencies are brought together, the lower will always rise to meet the higher.”
Whenever we connect — whether it’s with nature, with another person, with our deepest selves, or with a spiritual power — we create a greater meaning that resonates. Just as loneliness is multidimensional, so is connection. HSP’s bring this resonance into focus, and can help others find it, too.
We become our true selves in relationship.
Engaging in self-reflection forms the cornerstone of most therapies, and almost every self-help book.
Contemplation becomes necessary in every philosophy or religion. HSP’s are naturally reflective and contemplative and do find solace in these practices. But most HSP’s realize that hiding ourselves away can diminish us, whether we’re literally hiding ourselves away from the world, or hiding who we truly are from others.
The sense of curiosity and awe that comes from seeing the world in all its complexity energizes our spirit. Seeing another person in all their complexity allows us to investigate the deep layers of who we are as human beings.
Plumbing the depths of those complexities with someone else — whether in a friendship, or an intimate relationship — brings a deeper understanding of who we truly are, allows us to truly “see” the other, and fosters belief in a deeper connection to everything.
Non-HSP’s who aren’t used to seeing the layers of complexities in everything are often terrified by the path of deep relationship, of exposing their true selves. Yes, it’s overwhelming. And frightening. But it’s also rewarding, and meaningful.
HSP’s already have this deep knowledge, and access to the courage needed for deep relationship. Once we accept the gift of our trait, and trust our knowledge, of course.
All of this takes time, patience, and acceptance.
It took me many years (and many small steps) to come to a place of relative peace with who I am.
The feeling of overwhelming loneliness that flooded me often when I was in my twenties has subsided. Now, only occasional storms will cause that tide to rise. When it does, I can still feel completely alone, adrift, misunderstood, unloved. I remember that lonely girl on Bolton Street. Waves of sadness still knock me flat sometimes, even now. That is part of being human.
But as I have come to accept my HSP traits — as I have come to recognize that while deep knowing can be heavy (and sometimes exhausting to carry), being highly sensitive gives me access to things most people may never know — I can see them as gifts.
Understanding deep loneliness allows me to see the world differently, more deeply. Growing into that knowledge has made me feel much less alone, less lonely. After all, we all have gifts. And gifts are meant to be shared.
Have you struggled with loneliness and depression? Has learning about your HSP trait helped you navigate these feelings?