Do you find yourself bored in situations most people find tolerable? Is your sense of boredom so profound as to be physically painful? Does your boredom propel you forward just to stay ahead of it? It is well known that boredom susceptibility is a key aspect of sensation seeking, but what is less well-known is how boredom plays out in the lives of highly sensiitve people, or people with the personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
Highly sensitive people may find themselves in a state of boredom but be able to retreat into their own deep minds and so tolerate what to others might seem intolerable. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, described how the people who were most able to withstand deprivation in the Nazi concentration camps in WW2 where he was imprisoned, were the people who had the ability to reteat into their own minds. Solitude may be the least preferable thing to many people who lack the ability to “entertain themselves,” but for many HSPs solitude may be a welcome respite from an overstimulating world full of irritating noises, irritating people, or other stimulation that surely wears down one’s daily energy. Solitude (and quiet) may seem incredibly boring to many people but we need to look at how our society has changed in recent decades to deemphasize having and cultivating an inner life in favor of external stimulation all of the time. From smart phones to tablets to streaming movies and television everywhere all the time, there seems to be little reason to even think we humans have an inner life. Yet, having an inner life where one is able to freely reflect on one’s life, brainstorm new ideas, and simply rest the mind are even more essential today than in the past (for the above reasons).
For the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person there is a dual dichotomy here: we simultaneously embody deep-mindedness where retreat into an inner world is possible (sometimes preferable), yet we desperately seek to avoid boredom! Boredom has been described as one of the most significant issues for HSS/HSPs in all of my research. And whereas the HSP may be content enough to withdraw into their thoughts in a boring situation the HSS/HSP might find it physically painful if the boredom is especially prevalent. Physically painful you might ask? How can boredom be experienced in one’s body? Boredom may represent a feeling of being restrained or confined with a commiserate need to “escape” or mitigate the buildup of these energetic feelings in the body. In the article below, sensation seekers are described as more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors or potentially harmful experiences like drug taking or alcohol use to sort of fill in the blank times. This is certainly a possibility but for the HSS/HSP the sensitive part is likely to object to non-conscientious behavior or unethical indulgences that may negatively stimulate the person.
The contradictions inherent in the high sensation seeking highly sensiitve person are many and we often experience competing “pulls” from both sides of ourselves. One side may well wish to seek out new experiences just for the sake of doing it, while the rother would be happier to read a book quietly. Too often, the sensation seeking wins out and overhwelms the sensitive part resulting in emotional burnout. The risk of burnout is high for HSS/HSPs and represents an aspect of embodying both traits that goes underserved by many. Just as we need to experience novelty, new experiences, even thrills at times, we also need quiet, time to think and recharge, and time to reflect, listen, and absorb. In order to realize our potential in both traits we need to honor and respect both traits and the needs of both in ways that prevent one from becoming overwhelmed or ignored.
It is also up to each of us to find appropriate ways to develop deep self-awareness of both traits and how they impact our lives and the lives of those around us. It certainly can be confusing for those in our lives who are not highly sensitive to understand or appreciate why we need to withdraw from an energetic situation, why we prefer the quiet corner in the restaurant, or why we feel irritated at certain smells, noises or textures. Noticing things more has its downside! Understanding how to explain that to someone without the trait can be difficult and I suggest you don’t need to. You have certain needs and preferences and the people in your life will either accept that you pay attention to those needs or they won’t. It is also likely that you spend more time trying to understand other people’s behaviors than they ever spent on yours. Factor in sensation seeking and it is quite a different picture.
People are far more likley to understand and accept sensation seeking as “normal” because our culture seems to be built on it! They’ll have no problem at all if you want to thrill-seek or go to a party. They will also not raise an eyebrow if you indulge your disinhibition and do something you’ve never done before; it’s in the culture and is almost an expectation (especially if you are a male). How sensation plays out for us may be somewhat different because we also embody sensitivity, which may hold us back from taking too much risk or engaging in clearly dangerous or illegal activities. In that sense, we have a secret “advisor” always counseling us to “think it over first.” Whether we listen to our inner advisor is variable. Perhaps some people simply have not had their actions result in sufficient consequences to learn to value its advice. In time you will…
Boredom represents an extremely powerful force in the lives of HSS/HSPs that constantly threatens us with feeling tension in our bodies. It’s an unpleasant feeling and though at times we may be perfectly comfortable with our sensitive side’s ability to live inside our own minds, at other times it impels us to leave a job, leave a relationship, or swap up our environments. Boredom susceptibility, according to Dr. Marvin Zuckerman (originator of the sensation seeking trait) is the aspect of the trait that remains with us into old age. That may not be what we wish to hear but it is imperative that we develop a familiarity and willingess to have an inner world we can retreat to at times because there will be circumstances and situations where we must overrule our sensation seeking to achieve a goal, to manage people, or to complete a task. In that regard, the need to institute a self-care practice as a lifelong endeavor is crucial to our success, happiness, and well-being. Being able to be present with a feeling without necessarily taking action on it requires that we practice, practice, practice. Fortunately (or unfortunately) boredom is ever-present so our chances to practice may be many.
In a world that has devalued the inner life we have an opportunity to demonstrate intentional consciousness in the way we deal with our boredom. If we escape to the world of external stimulation solely we downplay the worth and value of a whole other half of ourselves. Mastering the challenge of boredom is not easy, nor will we always react in the same way, indeed, we should acknowledge that we will likely react differently in varying situations. Overall, on average, we should seek to master our own impulses and drives so we can realize our full potential and value in the world.
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.