Some changes require a dramatic, decisive action, like quitting smoking or leaving a relationship for good. But small changes can bring big results, too. With your HSP sensitivity to subtlety, you are ideally suited to capitalize on small changes—but only if you stay in the right mindset.

In graduate school, I studied oboe performance with Ray Still, the legendary principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony. His musicianship inspired me. His playing during our lessons gave me goosebumps, and his recordings still do.

Mr. Still taught me the fine points of breathing, sound, and phrasing. But his most valuable advice went beyond oboe playing to encompass a philosophy of excellence. When you already possess a high level of mastery, improving even more is a challenge. Is it simply a matter of diligence? Certainly, there is some truth to this famous joke, attributed to everyone from Jascha Heifetz to a New York cabbie:

A pedestrian on 57th Street sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the artist replies wearily, “Practice.”

Yes, yes, we have to practice. But how, exactly? Mr. Still taught me how to perceive subtle problems and to appreciate small increments of improvement. From small changes, you can get big results.

Attention + small changes = improvement

As Mr. Still pointed out, when you are learning to play an instrument, you can make big improvements virtually overnight. But by the time you reach the professional level, your technical and musical skills are excellent.  You’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit. The only way to grow is to be able to notice subtle flaws— and equally subtle improvements.

In other words, you must learn how to take a tiny aspect of your playing and put it under a metaphorical microscope. Then you can hear an imperfection that was barely perceptible before. Even better, you can tell when you have fixed the problem.

Mr. Still went to great lengths to attune his ears to the subtlest aspects of his oboe playing. He recorded himself so frequently that he wore out two Sony Professional Walkmen in five years. He even fitted a baseball cap with flaps of cardboard to reflect his oboe sound more directly into his ears. (To get the effect, try talking with your hands cupped behind your ears.)

I wore out a Pro Walkman myself, recording my practicing. But only years later did I realize my improvements at the time weren’t just due to the tape recorder. My high sensitivity had also contributed to my success with his method.

What is HSP sensitivity to subtlety?

If you were born highly sensitive, you know you don’t have to fashion a Mickey Mouse hat in order to notice subtleties of sound. You are already attuned to a variety of subtleties in yourself and your environment, perhaps even maddeningly so. The good news is that you can use this heightened awareness to detect subtle issues as well as subtle signs of improvement.

Sensitivity to subtlety is one of the four key aspects of the HSP trait. (The other three are deep processing, a tendency toward overarousal, and emotional responsiveness or empathy.) Our sensitivity means we are keenly aware of subtle changes in ourselves and our surroundings. We notice emotions, facial cues, lighting, temperature, changes in the physical arrangement of our environment—and much more.

All this noticing, combined with our HSP deep processing, can leave us overaroused. But our sensitivity to subtlety is also a gift, because it allows us to perceive and capitalize on small increments of improvement. We are uniquely suited to apply Mr. Still’s philosophy.

Preparing yourself for the shock of “up close”

However, HSPs face a serious challenge when we apply our heightened awareness. Have you ever seen a video of yourself and cringed? I had to overcome this reaction myself in order to make videos for my website.  Using our sensory sensitivity in a deliberate, evaluative way can be brutal—if we let a critical part of us take over the job.

Let’s say I’m determined to let go of a chronic habit of judging other people. The first time I turn the beam of my subtle awareness on my judgments, I will discover just how pervasive they are. This will be painful. And it will be even worse if I minimize any modest changes I’m able to make by comparing them to the Everest of my judging habit.

On the other hand, I will never address my judging habit if I don’t start somewhere. To bridge this gap, I recommend setting a strong intent before using this microscope technique to magnify your shortcomings. Promise yourself to keep a keen eye out for self-critical thoughts, and if they pop up, stop and attend to them. This work has to be done from a place of Loving Adult Presence.  

Discover the power of feedback

I once worked for an arts organization that sent me for training in how to conduct nonprofit evaluations. I became an evaluations geek, learning all about questionnaires and focus groups. Most importantly, I learned about the evaluation cycle. The three steps are deceptively simple:

Step 1:  Take action 
Step 2:  Observe the results
Step 3:  Tweak 

Simple, indeed. But as you loop back again and again to take new action in Step 1, you discover how powerful this evaluation process is. As an oboist, I sold reeds for a living. Every day, I observed and recorded a dozen aspects of each reed, which allowed me to see the effects of tiny changes in my oboe reed-scraping techniques. (To see just how crazy I got with that, take a look at this photo of one of my record sheets.) As I kept making tiny changes, the reeds kept getting better and better.

If you combine this evaluation process with your HSP sensitivity to subtlety, you have a formidable self-care tool—one that empowers you to capitalize on even very small improvements. Let’s face it: as HSPs, we are in the business of self-evaluation. How else can we tell whether our self-care is working? But while I could measure and evaluate my oboe reeds using physical instruments, your criteria for success will necessarily be internal. As you tweak your lifestyle or work on internal healing or spiritual growth, you will observe how you feel and how you act as a result of the changes you are making.

Do you feel lighter, stronger, more energetic, more peaceful, or more joyful? Are your actions increasingly aligned with your values? These are the signs your action was in the right direction. You know it’s worth trying more of the same. If you feel more tired, stressed, anxious, or low, your action needs to be adjusted.

One caveat: sensitivity to subtlety + judgment = misery

We’ve seen that our attunement to subtlety can be a formidable strength. But please remind yourself that your sensitivity to subtlety depends on your arousal level. The more overaroused you get, the less effectively your subtle awareness will function.

With overarousal, your sensitivity to subtlety can simply go out the window, as mine did in a Kashmiri emporium during our trip to India last year. I completely lost my head. I was so horribly overaroused by the unwanted pressure of the shopkeepers that I hastily bought a painted elephant and a white shirt and fled.

Back in our hotel room, I looked at the shirt. I was astonished to see that the front pleats were crooked. The ties in back were so short you couldn’t possibly tie them. Frayed tufts of thread hung off the embroidered parts. I happen to be a meticulous seamstress. Yet in my overwhelmed state, I simply hadn’t seen the defects that were now so obvious to me.

On the other hand, in orchestra auditions, I experienced a horribly warped form of sensitivity to subtlety. Every sensation, sound, and sight became magnified. A bit of stiffness in my fingers felt like paralysis. A tiny flaw of intonation sounded grotesque to me. As you can tell from my language—words like “horribly” and “grotesque”—a scared, judgmental part of me had hijacked my subtle awareness.

It all comes down to being in Presence. If you can manage your inner critic and avoid harsh self-evaluation when you are overaroused, you can make the most of your sensitive ability to notice and build on small increments of improvement as you fashion a sustainably sensitive life.

Image: Thanks to Kaitlyn Wyenberg for another beautiful photo: