The Highly Sensitive Personality Type (HSP)

HSPs and introverts are easily mistaken for each other. However, the terms are not interchangeable. An HSP’s nervous differs significantly from that of a non-HSP. We perceive and take in more stimuli than our non-HSP counterparts. For this reason, we are more easily overwhelmed than non-HSPs. HSPs are often unfairly perceived as ‘slow’ or ‘weak.’ The volume of information being processed is larger and therefore takes more time.

I remember once feeling deeply hurt by a cavalier comment from an adult who hardly knew me. “Oh, she needs to increase her stamina,” in response to a statement that I had felt cold at night. What did she know? It was a new place, the temperature setting was different from what I was had been used to and the sleepwear I had brought was woefully inadequate. At the time, I will confess to feeling deeply offended and insulted. Being ‘hardy’ or ‘rough-and-tumble’ is so easily perceived as a virtue to which everyone must aspire. Not so.

Being able to think deeply about complex concepts, to see an issue from multiple angles, to listen intently and pick up on non-verbal cues in a conversation instead of simply responding to the words being said, to perceive and detect subtle nuances in works of art, literature, and music, to see both the forest and the trees, i.e. to perceive the bigger picture and the smaller details – these are gifts! Having an exquisitely heightened sense of perception also means being more susceptible and reactive to negative stimuli, such as prolonged exposure to loud noises, extreme temperatures, unpleasant odors, large crowds, violence, gore and conflict (even if is fictional).

An acquaintance once commented in response to my penchant for avoiding violent movies that she ‘didn’t feel sorry for those people. They were just actors who made a lot of money.’ It hurt when my significant other supported her view while looking askance at mine. Because my extraordinary capacity for empathy (which enables me to feel others’ pain even when I know it isn’t real) was a gift I brought to the relationship and not something to be derided.

Sometimes , parents hurt us without meaning to. Food was a major bone of contention (no pun intended!) in my early years and continues to be a thorn in my side today. I could never consume it at a speed and amount to satisfy anybody (by which I mean, my mom). Mealtimes became experiences to be dreaded. It was nightmarish to be confronted by a vast plate of food, knowing full well that you could only tolerate a few bites or spoonfuls before it became overwhelming. Wondering when the adults would finally tire of waiting and allow you to leave. Because the only alternative was throwing up. To this day, even the memory of certain foods (such as garlic) automatically activate my gag reflex, even though the dreaded item is nowhere to be found! The HSP palate has a lower tolerance threshold than a non-HSP’s. This is not right or wrong. It just is.

Compelling one to be like the other doesn’t do either person any favors and frequently destroys the relationship. I remember one “fr-enemy” (portmanteau of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy,’ first heard via Charlotte on “Sex and the City”) attempting to educate me on the virtues of consuming leftover pizza. Suffice to say, there is nothing left over from that so-called ‘friendship.’ I also recall a colleague talking to me about food power struggles with her young daughter. “Eat it anyway,” she would say when her daughter complained that she didn’t like something. “Because you’re not always going to get your way,” she explained to me. No, but one would hope that as an adult, you would have enough personal autonomy, disposable income and culinary skills (particularly essential now!) to plan your own meals and select your own portion choices.

The biological need for food also interrupts the writing process, the morning burst of energy and the delicious crackling interplay of ideas. I am never at my best after lunch and it takes a while for inspiration to strike again. I love writing at night as I am doing now. I am far less likely to be interrupted by biological and social needs. As Kate Reddy stated in the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson, “I like the night. More time in it than day. Why waste it asleep?”

So, what am I? An extroverted HSP? An ambivert (equally introverted and extroverted) HSP? I continue to figure it out. Like all of us, I am a work in progress.

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Triple Threat | Introvert

I learned from Susan Cain that not all shy people are introverts and not all introverts are shy. This explained why some quiet people with whom I initially felt kinship turned out to be totally unlike me. I felt no resonance or connection with them. They were quite (!) happy in their own worlds and did not need me or anyone else at all. They were completely confident in themselves (a quality I envied) and the world’s validation (or lack thereof) was a matter of complete indifference to them. I meet many people like this in software development and also in other fields such as music, where these individuals are ‘wedded to their art,’ and thus feel little or no need for interpersonal connection. They don’t smile or engage in the small talk that buffers society and breaks the ice when two or more strangers share space.

Perhaps I used to be like this when I was younger. Perhaps I came across this way without realizing it. I don’t know. I only know that I am not like this now. Experiencing this reaction from others makes me feel lonely. I yearn for a friendly work environment and playful atmosphere.

My sudden need for connection makes me wonder whether I am truly an introvert. There is a third, less-explored aspect of my personality: the Highly Sensitive Personality type (HSPs). Dr. Elaine Alron explores this in her book of the same name (recommended to me by the lovely Kathryn Nielsen.

More on HSPs tomorrow.

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Triple Threat | Shyness

Until recently, I had viewed myself as a triple threat. Shy girl. Introvert. Highly Sensitive Personality. And lesser known … the Chatterbox.

When I was very young, perhaps around five, I was a full-fledged legitimate chatterbox. My parents could not get a word in edgewise. I would read house numbers, street names and make up stories about things we saw on our walks. They listened patiently, bless their hearts.

As I aged, I became very quiet. It was almost as if I had retreated into myself. This was around the time I developed myopia, which I now see as my way of retreating from an over-whelming world. It was hereditary in my case. When the diagnosis was confirmed, my parents were very disappointed. They gave vent to their dismay. When you are very young, you think the world revolves around you. This was more pronounced in my case because I was an only child. The flip side of this self-focus is that you tend to personalize things and make every negative occurrence your fault. At the time, it felt like my parents were disappointed in me. I had let them down by having myopia. Despite eye exercises and similar methods of arresting this development, we could never get rid of it. It continued to grow. As did my negativity and self-judgment.

It wasn’t until I attended Susan Cain’s GHC 16 lecture on “Quiet” (faithfully recapped in Parts 1-7 of my blog) that I understood the difference between shyness and introversion. Shyness is the fear of social judgment. I certainly had that. Introversion is the preference for spending time alone over spending time with others. I remember trying to convince my mom about my need for “uninterrupted time,” which she laughed off as an impossible luxury. I am glad to have it now so that I can compose these blog posts. I find that I am more composed after I have composed (and no, I don’t mean music).

As someone who was (and is) naturally soft-spoken, I was continually exhorted to “Sing louder!” (in music class) and “Speak up! We can’t hear you!” in school and social settings. Apart from this aspect, I liked school because it was not considered a sin to be quiet. On the contrary, it was laudable.

Being quiet became my second cross to bear, the first being myopia. Well-meaning adults and the peers who imitated them unwittingly brought about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I was earnestly encouraged and vocally commanded to speak up or sing louder, the more I retreated inward and the more frightened, silent and stubborn I became. This strengthened my resolve to avoid ‘putting myself out there.’ People eventually gave up. Parents did not have that option and continued to alternately coax and scold.

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Solitude vs. Loneliness

Oh, I’m so lonely. I feel like I have no friends.” These two thoughts have recently been permeating my mental consciousness. The second one is not literally true. I do have friends. In fact, I am blessed with a rare number of kindred spirits in my life – Mary Jane, Joyce, Martha, Barbara, Kathryn, Sri, Suzanne and Fran. They have all become very dear to my heart. Yet, I feel empty sometimes.

Is it due to the global pandemic, Coronavirus? I’ve been keeping my movements restricted in ways that just make sense. I drive to work and avoid the cafeteria. This would seem to be the obvious answer. Yet, it is not.

I am lonely, not for people, but for purpose. I yearn for that purpose which will enrich my soul and bring meaning, not just to my existence but also to that of others’. We are all connected. It is when we deny this connection and try to pretend it doesn’t exist that we feel lonely.

Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is in solitude where we are least alone.” I find that solitude quenches my longing. When I am in that quiet place where I can hear the sound of my own thoughts, my inner voice, the deeper, restless yearnings of my heart … I am no longer lonely. When I transfer this understanding to pen and paper, I feel blissfully content. In case I haven’t figured it out yet, I like to write. Words are the friends I’m missing.

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Windowless Room

I’m trapped in a windowless room,

So trapped in a windowless room,

I scream and I shout,

Can’t find my way out.

I’m trapped in a windowless room.

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One Year Anniversary

Today is a special day.  It is one year since the day I first shared my story in the Cy-Fair Writers’ Meetup.  I remember entering the room hesitantly but also feeling a sense of eagerness to share my work for the first time.  It was a case of happy serendipity that I saw this meetup on the bulletin board of library events.

Barbara was the first person I met.  She was warm and welcoming.  I am happy to say that we continue to encourage each other’s creativity.  The key takeaway from my first meeting with Barbara was that when you enter a new place and are feeling timid or hesitant about sharing your work (as many fledgling authors are), a warm and welcoming individual can make all the difference and help you feel like you made the right decision.  I try to do that for new writers who arrive now, as a manner of “paying it forward.”

Writers’ pieces were read in the order of arrival.  I had arrived early in order to go first and get the spotlight off me because I am shy!  But I wanted to share my work. 

Audrey was sitting across from me.  I asked her if she would do the honors of reading aloud.  My entry was a YA piece and her tone and manner fit the bill perfectly.  When we went around the table, people were respectful and dispensed positive feedback first, which made me feel good.  I was also more open and receptive to their constructive criticism as a result.  Martha, who is my good friend now, suggested that for one sentence, I need not list all the different types of genre.  My initial reaction was, “Oh no!  I can’t take those words out!  They are so dear to my heart.”  But when I got home and was in front of my computer, I thought, “Well, maybe I can give her suggestion a try.  I mean, I can always put the words back.”  When I attempted her recommendation, I was surprised to discover that “it sounds better this way.”  This experience has had a lasting impact on the way I edit my prose and review the prose of others.

I still have the original copies with written feedback from my first and subsequent meetings.  It is a good reminder of the creative process to review those early attempts and witness how far my work and I have come.

When I read the guidelines for Cy-Fair Writers – 7 pages, double-spaced, with line numbering.  Bring copies for everybody so that you can get their feedback in writing – I was intrigued and considered sharing my work, just to see how people reacted.  One item in the description that was especially helpful was the following:

HELPFUL TIP:  To do line numbering in Microsoft Word, go to Format > Document > Layout > Line Numbers.  Click “Add line numbering” and “Continuous”.

It may sound like a trivial item but the clearly laid out instructions resonated with the Software Quality Professional part of me!  I have written many a defect report with similar instructions.  Developers like it when issues are clearly explained, minimizing the need for back-and-forth clarification.   

Fledgling authors and artists will actively look for reasons (even minor ones) to avoid sharing their work.  In this case, if I hadn’t been able to figure out the line numbering in the space of a few minutes (and then proceeded to worry about whether this was, in fact, what the group was expecting), I might have succumbed to stage fright and skipped the meeting.  I would have missed out on several positive outcomes as a result:

  • I’ve developed close friendships with three attendees from the first meeting
  • Through these friendships, I’ve nurtured the inner strength to continue writing, even in the face of abrasive criticism
  • I’ve attended a second writers’ meetup and discovered friends with whom I now exchange letters
    One of these pen pals is a former French teacher and our correspondence has helped me keep the French portion of my Canadian education and upbringing alive
  • I’ve founded my own Writers’ Group
  • I release a weekly podcast
  • I feel happier and more fulfilled.  My work now brings me joy.
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Farewell, Kevin Frankish

On June 1st 2018, Kevin Frankish retired from a long and prestigious career at Breakfast Television and City Pulse News.  He will forever be an icon of my childhood and adolescence in 1990s Mississauga.  My parents and I had just moved to Canada and we started watching Breakfast Television.  My dad would gesture at Kevin and say, “This is the kind of diction and command of the English language to which you should aspire.”  Despite this parental injunction, I liked watching Kevin on BT because he had a personal and approachable manner.  He was not intimidating to a ten-year-old newcomer to Canada.  Peter Jennings delivered “grown-up news” but Kevin Frankish felt home-like.  I remember eating Shreddies for breakfast while hearing Kevin deliver the news before hurrying off to the school bus stop.

One particular BT episode stands out in my memory.  Kevin had brought his three-year-old daughter, Brianna, to work.  She was wearing a blue-and-white dress and Kevin gave her the BT microphone so she could lisp daintily, “This is Brianna Frankish reporting for Breakfast Television.”  It was a very sweet moment.  I liked it when the staff displayed these little pockets of family life; it made them seem like real people, not just anchormen and women who made a living out of the news.  It was once said of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt (when they were married) that fans found Brad intimidating because they only saw him on the silver screen.  The same fans would not hesitate to approach Jennifer to say how much they loved her because “she was in their living room every weeknight.”  It was a similar phenomenon with the staff on BT because they felt real and made an appearance in our living rooms every weekday morning.

In recent years, Melanie Ng covered a story about students being rude to the Peel District School Board Twitter account when they did not get the snow days they were anticipating.  It reminded me of how as a student, I would eagerly watch Breakfast Television in the hopes of Kevin announcing that all Peel District schools were closed for a snow day.  Sometimes they were and I would exclaim in relief that I could finish my book report.  Sometimes they weren’t and while I was disappointed, I never once thought of getting angry with Kevin!  I knew it wasn’t his fault!  On Twitter, people tend to forget that there is a human being at the other end of the tweets.  With BT, the staff delivering the news bulletins had a face, name, voice, family and heart.  And so we treated them as such.

Some Kevin Frankish moments that stuck with me are:

  • When he expressed frustration that his kids didn’t thank him enough but then asked himself, “How often did I thank my dad for all the things he did?” Kevin concluded that the goal of parenting is not to be thanked (although that is nice!) but to get your kids to pay it forward.  I thought that was a very compassionate, poignant and touching reflection on the human experience.
  • When Kevin read out the final medal tally for the Vancouver Olympics and commended the U.S. on winning the most medals, “but not as many golds as us!”
  • There was a 1990s episode where Kevin’s wife, Beth, was a guest on BT. She was asked how she handles a household of four children when her husband has a demanding job that gets him up early and home late.  “The news never sleeps!”  While I don’t remember all of Beth’s reply, I do remember her saying happily that she gets flowers every week.  Amidst the chaos, hectic schedules and heavy workload, it was clear that those flowers from Kevin meant a lot to her.

My parents and I enjoyed the BT episodes featuring trips to Muskoka (a favorite family vacation spot!), the EdgeWalk on the CN tower and the annual Christmas parties.  However, the everyday episodes where Kevin bantered with Frank, Dina, Melanie, Winston and all the rest and where they shared funny family moments will remain my favorites.

Kevin did not prepare a script for his final farewell because he felt that it should come from the heart.  This reminded me of my dad’s early exhortations that “manifestations of affection must come from within the heart!”  Kevin’s farewell was very touching.  He faced the camera with his wife, Beth, on one side and his co-host, Dina, on the other.  “The two women in my life!”  He said that, “It’s been an honour.  It’s been a privilege.  Many of you would come up on the streets of Toronto just to say hello.  I hope you won’t stop doing that.  This is a family here” … he indicated the crew as well as the on-air staff … “Be good to one another.  That’s really what it’s all about.”

I recollected my dad becoming emotional at his retirement party as well.  Somewhere along the line, your workplace becomes your second family, if you’re lucky, which I think my parents, Kevin and I were.

We wish Kevin Frankish and the Frankish family well as they commence the next chapter of their lives.

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Unpacking Your Unconscious Bias to Advance Your Career

This immensely useful workshop took place on Day 3 of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Camilla Heinzmann and Kelly Watson of Orange Grove Consulting were our energetic, engaging and impactful presenters.  Camilla started by emphatically stating, “We want you to take things away you can immediately use!”

She discussed our unconscious bias and how it provides an instantaneous way for making decisions.  Unfortunately for women, most of these decisions are detrimental to our career.  She illustrated this with a riddle, cautioning us not to share the answer if we already knew it.  “Let the rest of the group have a chance to think it through!

A man and his son are in a car accident.  The man is pronounced dead on the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital.  The surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child!  This is my son!”  How is this possible?

*answer at end of post

The brain ingests an astounding 11 million pieces of information per day.  It processes about 40 million.  This is due to the filtering process that unconscious bias creates.  Filtering is necessary for our survival because there is simply too much stimuli in the world.

Camilla shared an experiment.  A panel was presented with the bios of 2 candidates.  The credentials and experience were identical.  One candidate was male and the other was female.  The gender-diverse panel unanimously preferred the male candidate because he was “likeable” and “confident”, whereas the female candidate was “unlikeable”, even “cocky”.

When we recognize our unconscious bias, we are capable of doing something about it.

The stereotype threat usually occurs when we are multi-tasking.  We have stuff going on in our head as well as in front of us.  A racing mind can lead to increased blood pressure, and short-term memory loss.  Brain scans reveal that women’s brains are active in different regions than male brains.  This heightens performance anxiety and leads to rumination and over-effort.

This is often completely unconscious.  Claude Steele and Howard Ross conducted a study where men and women were given a test.  When women encountered a question they couldn’t answer, they became distracted by the mental chatter in their brains.  “A question I can’t do!  Ack!“.  This unhelpfully activated other memories of when they had difficulty on tests.  Camilla also recommended the book The Orange Line (presenter Kelly Watson is one of the authors).  This book outlines how women can effectively navigate work and home.

We can change what we think the rules of engagement are.  When female professional progress is stalled, there are 3 key factors:

  1. Career Ambivalence
  2. Role Disconnect
  3. Unconscious Bias

Women have an unconscious belief that their work and home life are in continual conflict.  They see it as a cold either-or dichotomy:  The Career Ideal vs. the Woman Ideal This creates a fundamental disconnect.  What do we believe constitutes the Ideal Woman?

  1. She does it all
  2. She looks good
  3. She’s nice

Men have a somewhat different view of the Ideal Woman, as I learned in the short story The Ideal by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  You can find it in the collection At The Altar.

After a group exercise, Camilla humorously declared, “I can tell by the talking that you’re ready for the next part.”  Kelly explained that women are not actually bad at negotiating; we just don’t want to when it’s for us.  We will gladly (and effectively!) negotiate for other people.

Kelly shared a personal anecdote where she became the youngest VP at her company at 35.  She was instantly demanding perfect performance from herself, comparing herself to the 55-year-old VP who had just retired.  Her manager asked her why she was being so hard on herself.  When she explained that she wanted to be like the VP who had just left, her manager said, “Yeah, but give yourself 20 years, girl!

Kelly explained how women often obssess and agonize over emails they have sent.  “I’d like to retract that email.  It had a typo in it.”  Kelly asked us if this was a good use of our time.  The answer was a resounding no!

In the book Women Don’t Ask, it is estimated that women leave an astounding $1 million on the table, due to a failure to negotiate.

Camilla said, “Let’s get down to the why.  What’s at the core?”

Kelly discussed various anecdotes, all of which resonated strongly with the audience.  These are all real-life quotes from bona fide women whom Kelly has personally counseled:

  • A woman said that when her child arrived at daycare without a sweater, the daycare staff phoned her at work, even though it was her husband who did the drop-off
  • He’s a man and he’s a provider…”
  • Somehow, we have a gene for cleaning the house!
  • “The guys are awesome at feigning incompetence to get out of work!” (tremendous laughter from the audience at Kelly’s spot-on delivery of this quote)
  • One woman spent hours each night helping her teenager with his homework:
    • as a result, she was exhausted at work the next day
    • the boy’s father felt no such compulsion to help with homework
    • despite the fact that he was, by profession, a high school teacher!
  • One woman would not place a car seat in her husband’s car because “he drives too fast

Kelly related a personal anecdote that was actually extremely upsetting.  She and her husband once worked at the same company.  She was the senior manager.  They were both promoted and given the same salary.  When Kelly questioned this decision, she was told, “It’s a package deal.”  The audience gasped in disbelief and dismay.  Kelly persisted, “But I’m the senior employee.”  She was told, “Now you’re just being selfish.”  Just hearing this anecdote felt both unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Kelly explained, “We (women) are supposed to be selfless.  In other words, find your passion!  And do it for free!”  This is humorously illustrated in the Pajama Diaries comic strip by Terri Libenson.

While these anecdotes were humorous, they also felt depressing and discouraging.  Camilla and Kelly encouraged us by stating, “You get to choose whether or not these are true.”

In Part 2, we’ll discuss a model for change.

*riddle solution:  The surgeon is the boy’s mother.

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Managing Your Moods at Work

This session was presented by Beth Budwig, Mamta Suri and Harika Adivikolanu of Workday.  Harika is a new graduate.  The number of young speakers at GHC 17 is incredible!

80% of people feel stressed at work.  25% of people feel angry.  10% of people are afraid of experiencing violence at a co-worker’s hands.  Audible gasps resonated from the audience as these statistics were revealed.

The goal is to use more of our rational brain and recognize that:

  • Other people are not under our control!
  • We can only control our self and our responses

Beth was certain that the way she interacted with her boss and her boss’s boss “almost certainly cost her my job“.  The audience murmured in sympathy and admiration for her candor.  Beth saw a doctor to handle her job loss, the stress she felt over it and her interpersonal skills.  Beth amused us by showing us a slide of an orange cat in a white lab coat with the nametag Dr. Morris.  She assured us that her real doctor did not look like this!

The doctor prescribed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is based on Cognitive Mindfulness.  The word dialectical refers to holding 2 opposite truths in mind, such as:

  • I’m fine the way I am
  • I am ready and willing to change

It is essentially about emotional regulation.  Beth shared her website:  Tools for Managing Your Moods.  She joked that her JavaScript skills are not that great and she doesn’t look at the back-end so therefore, “Your data is perfectly safe.  No one will know your answers except you and your cache“.  When the audience responded with laughter, she said, “Wow, I didn’t expect that to get a laugh.  But given the audience …”  There are certain in-jokes at GHC 17 and Nora Denzel makes most of them!

Beth described a lunch hour walk with a colleague.  The colleague spent most of the walk complaining about what was preventing her from being effective at work.  Beth reframed this by asking her colleague, “Who do you admire?”  The colleague mentioned various staff members.  Beth then surprised her colleague by asking, “In what areas could they improve?”  Beth’s colleague was surprised to discover that there are areas in which we can all improve!  In other words, we’re all human.


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Retaining High Tech Women Once They’re in the Door – Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Karen emphasizes the importance of “Role Models – people I know who inspire me.”  20 years ago, Karen was considered a “mystic” and a “heretic” for speaking with customers to define the user experience.  Today, this practice is the norm.  Karen identified Supreme Court Justice Ruth Brader Ginsburg (RBG) as one of her role models.  Karen discussed role models in general:  they typically have a “zillion” children, are VP of their company and travel incessantly.  Karen has news for us:  hearing about these majestic role models doesn’t help women feel better!  Amen to that!  I remember the heroine of Allison Pearson’s novel “I Don’t Know How She Does It:  Life of Working Mother Kate Reddy” muse on this concept after reading an article about a similar “role model”.  “Name:  Elizabeth Quick.  Sister to Hannah Haste and Isabel Imperative, presumably.  Don’t these women realize how their accomplishments can be used as a stick to beat other women?” Kate wondered (speaking metaphorically, of course!).

Karen reviewed the advice generally given to women aspiring to senior leadership positions:

  • “Here’s a mentor” (Well, what if they don’t click?)
  • “Go network” (How?)

Women need local role models,” Karen stated.  “Have you been in your work over a year?” I have been in the workplace for 12 years now.  “Then you are a local role model.  Every decision you make, how you manager your home life … you are a walking, living, breathing role model for everyone a little less experienced.

This statement certainly gave us pause for thought.  Although I’m an active mentore in the American Women in Math Association, I had not thought of myself as a role model.  After this, when I hear the media bemoaning the lack of female role models in technology, I will think, “I am one and so are the other 14,999 GHC 2016 attendees!”

Karen showed us a picture of a baby carriage.  The slide read, “Nonjudgmental flexibility is the whole story for business“.  “This is really the easiest problem to solve,” Karen said.  She explained that parenting is forever.  “I still call my mom and my kids still call me.”  SHe also explained that juggling kids and work is not a distinguishing characteristic of our indecustry and re-iterated the earlier statement that women may say they left for their kids but the survey framework has uncovered entirely different underlying reasons.

“Self-confidence is a dependent variable,” Karen stated.  80% of survey resondents agreed with the statment, “Criticism is a necessary part of my job”.  50% agreed with the statement, ”


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