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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Highly Sensitive Expat

Being sensitive is not easy because you’re feeling more than others. For example, you will notice the beautiful smell of roses and it will make you happy, but you will also notice that there is a smoker 5 kilometres away and it will make you want to puke, so your reactions are stronger. You notice more and your senses are always in an alarm state.

But now imagine that you hate transitions and have to move to another country. Imagine that you’re sensitive to smells and sounds, but have to move to a country where noise and strong smells are the norm. Imagine you’re overwhelmed by crowds and find yourself in a place with a high density of inhabitants. Many sensitive people can eat only certain foods because of sensory preferences, sensitivities or allergies. But what if you’re moving somewhere where spicy food is common? But what if you find yourself in a culture where sensitivities are discouraged? Or, on the contrary what would happen if you were an outsider in your own country due to your sensitivity, but find yourself in a place where shyness and timidity are very valued? Would you feel accepted or have a hard time not being unique?  In short, imagine yourself becoming an expat with your unique sensitivities. How would that affect your life?

I am highly sensitive, too and every day is a struggle. My noise threshold is very low and unfortunately, that includes my children (crying, whining). I need tons of down time, tons of sleep (and I am not exaggerating when I say tons of sleep, just ask my husband). I spend my days in jeans and t-shirts because other clothes have parts that scratch, hurt or are just plain uncomfortable (in the annoying sense of uncomfortable, not the I- can- live- with- it- uncomfortable). I get sick when somebody smokes, when two people speak to me at the same time confuses me to no end. I can hear and recognize the song on the radio that nobody even notices is on.  Of course, this can be annoying, but it has an upside. I get extremely happy extremely quickly, just as I can get very sad because of small things.  I am also usually cautious and stop to pause before making decisions.On top of that, I am an expat.

I must say that I am very lucky that I’m living in the Netherlands. The house we found is rather quiet. We have daycare to give me my much needed downtime, but I can still be home with the children. There are no unpleasant smells (even though I often notice people smoking), and we changed the daycare schedule so that I can get my sleep.

The only thing about the Netherlands I had to get used to is that fact that the Dutch are extremely direct and they can often come across as rude and uncaring. Shyness is not a trait that is recognized here, and instead Dutch children are encouraged to be direct as well. A shy person is easily overlooked here (and even though you don’t have to be shy or an introvert to be sensitive, but most of us are both). However, I found that the Dutch are extremely helpful and caring, even though they don’t use many “kind words”. Also, somehow I find it liberating not having to learn all these polite words and phrases, which paradoxically made me more outspoken and comfortable (less words, so the threshold is lower).

In the almost 4 years I’ve been living here, I had to go outside, run errands, get formalities done, learn a new language and talk to strangers. I think it made me more comfortable because I know I can do this if I have to. In the Netherlands, I have the best of both worlds-enough quiet time and enough challenges. I love it.

I also find that in my case, being a highly sensitive parent is much more difficult than being a highly sensitive expat. Especially if you have children who are of different characters than you. For example I wouldn’t say that my eldest is non-sensitive, but she is an extrovert and loves people around her, while I can deal with and enjoy having people around me, but otherwise prefer one-on-one relationships. My little girl is highly sensitive to textures and sounds,- more like me. She is a sweet little girl and we get along perfectly, while my eldest is more difficult. Now I am curious to find out what my son is like.

What about you? Are you also a sensitive person who lives outside of his or her culture? How different is it? What bothers you the most? How do you deal with it? 

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  1. I refuse to believe that English is not your first language Olga!

    I don't think I categorise myself as highly sensitive, although strong perfume and cigarettes make me very ill and I don't do well at crowded parties with lots of talking, but love concerts. I never knew anything about Highly Sensitive People until you mentioned it to be honest!

  2. Thanks for your compliment! English isn't my first language, but it is the language I use the most for reading and writing (while my accent changes depending on who I'm talking to). I used to be called too sensitive or stupid because of my sensitivity. You can try reading the book and maybe you'll find that you fit the description after all- approximately 20% are highly sensitive!

  3. I would never have known that you are a highly sensitive person. I think that you cope remarkably well and I have a whole new level of respect for you and your accomplishments.

    1. Lynn, thanks for your kind words. I think I got better (not less sensitive, but more able to cope with that). I also think that as a child you deal with a lot os pressure that you don't have as an adult, and that helped as well. I have learned when things get too overwhelming. I have learned what to do, and I have learned to get out of my comfort zone a bit, at my own pace. Also, I felt very well and comfortable with you so that's why I was less bothered because I was having a great time!

  4. Wow, reading this post reminds me so much of my six year old daughter and gave me some new insight into her. So thanks for opening about about this! She is also highly sensitive- clothing especially drives her crazy but there are many other manifestations of this! She hates being touched with wet hands, touching her hair is like you are ripping her scalp, transitions are hard for her and she also needs lots of down time too. She is a homebody at heart....so many other things too!

    1. Stephanie, many of the things you described totally sound familiar to me! But I wouldn't change it for the world! Much of this blog comes directly from my sensitivity. And I wrote this post because I just read Elaine Arron's "The Highly Sensitive Child" and wanted to share what I ofund out about me. Good luck and lots of pleasure raising your daughter. She is a remarkable person!

  5. Well... you sound pretty neurotic to me. One thing is being sensible but your case is not normal. It must be hell being in your skin.

  6. I can totally empathise with you - I'm an English expat living in Holland too (just south of Zwolle).

    I find the subtle differences in culture very difficult, but I've learnt to deal with it by treating the whole living here experience by lowering my expectations. I used to get offended every time I'd offer a cup of tea and the guest would just say "yes", and not "yes please", but now I don't expect manners...so I'm never disappointed there!

    It's much harder now with children, as I need to integrate more as I think it's best for them. Very very difficult though...

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for commenting. Yes, the Dutch directness often comes across as rude. However, I found that if you ask for help, they will do their best to help. They always offer to carry my stroller into the tram and smile when they see me out with my children. I have found that they show politeness by actions, not words, which is some getting used to. If you anderstand the Dutch this way, you can see that they're very friendly, polite people!


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