By Tamsin Robinson
What do you call a vegan with an aversion to supermarkets, horror movies and parties? No, this isn’t a joke with a witty punchline! The answer is a Highly Sensitive Vegan and I’m wondering if you’re one. I’m sure there are many.
I was 39 when a friend told me about a book by Elaine Aron called The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Just reading the description of the book was a defining moment in my life. I wasn’t so peculiar after all! And then reading the book enabled me to make sense of my first four decades on this planet. The relief I felt was intense.
I’d always felt that I didn’t quite fit in to life, I found it frustrating that I didn’t enjoy loud music and noisy gatherings when everyone else around me seemed to love them. I didn’t understand why I felt overwhelmed in some situations when other people were relaxed. Why did I crave time alone and feel the need to withdraw in order to recharge my energy? Why couldn’t I sleep well after a busy, tiring day?
The Highly Sensitive Person provides the answers to these questions and many more. Aron explains that one in every five people is born with a heightened sensitivity – they are often gifted with great intelligence, intuition and imagination but there are drawbacks too. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) can come across as aloof, shy or moody and suffer from low self-esteem because they find it hard to express themselves in a society dominated by excess and stress. We have a sensitive nervous system, are aware of subtleties in our surroundings, and are more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment. I realised that what had been labelled as shyness all my life was actually a sensitivity that the majority of others don’t understand.
Although Aron’s book is extensive, with case studies, exercises and advice, and it certainly changed my life, I feel there is a gaping hole in it. There is no mention of being sensitive to the suffering of animals. Of course, not every vegan is highly sensitive, as defined by this book, but I believe that HSPs are more likely to be vegan, simply because we’re more likely to feel empathy towards animals and be affected by their plight. I’m sure Elaine Aron is not vegetarian or vegan otherwise she would have mentioned it in the book. I have to admit to feeling disappointed about this! Aron commissioned a film a couple of years ago Sensitive – The Untold Story in which Alanis Morrissette (who I believe is a vegan) features heavily, and yet dietary choices are still not mentioned.
So here we are – adversely affected by noise, lighting and textures. Avoiding crowds, confrontations and chaos. Feeling overwhelmed, frazzled and yes, sometimes crazy. And hating seeing or causing suffering of any kind – to the point that we change our diet. Yet, and I know I’m not the only one, as an HSP we struggle to spread the word about veganism. I know non-HSP vegans who frequently talk about being vegan. They sidle up to strangers in the supermarket and question their choices, hassle friends and colleagues at every opportunity, bombard restaurants with vegan demands, attend placard-wielding demos and generally put it out there. Meanwhile HSP vegans quietly go about their business, not wanting making a fuss or draw attention to themselves but wishing there was some way to do more. Maybe we should feel that’s enough – just to know our choices are ultimately preventing suffering.
Social media has definitely helped vegan HSPs to share thoughts, beliefs and of course videos without having to directly face the baying crowd. It still doesn’t cut the mustard for me, I avoid social media as I know I’d be forever wondering and worrying if I’d offended someone, what do they think of me, how many friends have I lost with this latest post, image or quote? Why haven’t I got more “likes”? And I would definitely take any negative comment personally. HSPs tend to be deeply affected by other people’s moods and emotions and we often find ourselves thinking about our own thinking.
I even find my local vegetarian and vegan group meetings and meals can be too much for me. It’s where my husband and I met each other many years ago and it should feel great being surrounded by like-minded people. However, even the positivity of it can be overstimulating for me and I often returned home feeling overwhelmed and so now rarely attend. This acknowledgment by HSPs of how occasions make them feel is a combination of disappointment and acceptance but it helps us to either avoid uncomfortable events or manage them in a different way, for example by leaving early or arranging to stick by an understanding friend who helps to absorb and process the energy for you.
It’s not all challenging – there are plenty of plus points to being highly sensitive! HSPs tend to be deeply moved by the arts and notice and appreciate certain details that others may overlook. They often have creative hobbies themselves like painting, music, or writing which are complimented by their capacity to pay attention to every sensory detail. This power of observance, combined with a heightened intuition and emotional intelligence, means that an HSP is a good judge of character and can always tell if someone’s being genuine or not.
HSPs tend to be very in tune with other people’s discomfort, for example recognising when the lights should be dimmed or the music turned down. We are also highly conscientious people, Aron says, and likely to be considerate and exhibit good manners. Highly sensitive people are the first ones to notice details such as the new shoes that you’re wearing and because we’re so detail-orientated we notice mistakes much faster than others. We tend to be perfectionists and make excellent proof-readers. And of course, we have a wonderful empathy with our fellow beings on this wonderful planet.
One challenge Highly Sensitive Vegans are facing at the moment is the increase in choice of vegan products – we like to consider every detail before making a decision so to be faced with 6 ice cream flavours, or 3 cakes, or several choices on a menu can add pressure. We are not the quickest decision makers as we like to think about every possible consequence of a choice, yes even for an ice cream flavour. What a positive dilemma to have though. Exciting times!
There is no right or wrong, good or bad, it’s just how we are. HSPs must learn to celebrate our trait (quietly of course!) and embrace the positives that it offers. Meanwhile we tend to leave the proselytizing to others who enjoy attention, heated debates and making a difference. HSPs enjoy making a difference but in their own peaceful way.