I have always been fascinated by psychology and in particular personality, and what makes people react differently to situations, events, each other. This deep interest has perhaps been born out of my acute awareness as a child that I was different from most of my friends. I was a quiet, sensitive and perhaps slightly serious child, and as an adult I became aware that these were words often associated with being an introvert (and this is often not seen as a positive thing). But whilst that resonated with me (and I absolutely identify as an introvert, including the negative connotatons), it never fully explained why I never quite felt that I ‘fitted in’ .
It wasn’t until I hit my 40s, as a parent of small child who was extremely sensitive and dare I say ‘difficult’, that I discovered the work of Elaine Aron. My son had all the characteristics she describes of Highly Sensitive Children. The penny dropped, the light-bulb pinged on, and I recognised that I too was probably a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). This was when everything fell into place.
Since then I have been on a magical mystery tour of self-awareness and acceptance, and I now have a much greater understanding and appreciation of what the mass of ‘spaghetti’ in my head represents.
This blog is my way of finally untangling that spaghetti….and sharing my journey.
I have recently been pondering the difference between what we mean when we talk about ‘empathy’ someone who is ‘empathetic’ and the term ‘empath’. All these terms are often used when the subject of the High Sensitivity trait comes up, and I think it is helpful to understand the concepts as a means of being able to unpick a main contributory source of our overflowing buckets, what it means for us and how to deal with them.
Empathy is a tool that we humans deploy when we are connecting with someone on an emotional level. We usually think of it in response to someone sharing a difficult situation they have faced or are facing, and it is how we show that we truly understand what they are going through, as a means of providing them with emotional support. It is different from Sympathy, which is ‘feeling sorry’ for someone, but without the understanding ‘in their shoes’ and compassion that comes from empathy. (if you want to see a great explanation of the difference check out the RSA Short of the Brené Brown talk on the subject).
Empathy serves an evolutionary function, it is one of the primary means by which we are able to connect with and relate to others in our social group, and as such it also works for positive feelings too, when we experience the joy or excitement that someone is feeling.
Scientifically we are now able to show what happens in our brain when we are displaying and experiencing empathy, and it is to do with things called ‘mirror-neurons’. What neuroscience has discovered is that these particular neurons activate in the same way when we undertake an action, or experience a feeling, as when we see someone else doing that same action or experiencing that feeling. It is therefore thought to be the process behind empathy. It’s also seen as an explanation for one of the key features of autism, i.e. insufficient mirror-neurons causing less empathy.
Someone who is empathetic, or empathic, is simply someone who is showing empathy in a situation. HSPs are naturally rich in empathy, and there is some evidence to show that their brains may have more mirror neurons than the average person, and also that they are more responsive.
Being an ‘empath’, though, seems to be something a little more than this and although I’m not sure I can buy the ‘paranormal’ or ‘spiritual, intuitive super-power’ definition of empaths – I do believe that some people experience empathy at a much deeper level.
People who are empaths identify with feelings of overwhelm in response to other people’s emotions, especially negative ones, which are extremely energy depleting for them, in way that doesn’t seem to be the case for the vast majority of people. It is also likely that if you are an introvert ‘empath’ that this overload will happen more quickly, especially in a room full of people, because your introversion also causes overwhelm in that situation.
For me, then, being an Empath it is perhaps best described as a more ‘intense’ experience of empathy such that the emotional connection dial is turned on full, meaning that we are much more receptive to the emotional cues than others.
This is wholly consistent with the general knowledge we have of the HSP brain, and it makes absolute sense to me that if your nervous system is more highly attuned to environmental cues, we are as likely to more readily pick up on emotional cues, as we are to notice other subtleties. Because only a minority of people are wired this way, and even fewer, perhaps, are consciously aware, this ability to ‘intuit’ and to empathise so deeply, is often seen by others as a bit of a mystical superpower – a sixth sense.
I believe, though, that many HSPs are natural ‘empaths’ and I also believe that it is a significant cause of overwhelm and energy drain for many HSPs, particularly if they are unaware that they are acting as an emotional sponge, and/or if they have not developed the skills to be able to discern what is ‘theirs’ from what they are absorbing from others. We are more prone than others, I believe, to be deeply affected by emotional contagion.
People commonly catch other people’s feelings when in groups, and it is believed that this ability to synchronize moods with others is crucial for good relationships. HSPs experience this, like so many other things, so much more intensely, and whilst it therefore makes them natural listeners and counsellors for others, it also means that they are more likely to experience emotional overwhelm, and even burn-out. It’s therefore a key skill for HSPs to be able to out in place measures to help prevent and manage this so that they can empty their bucket and look after their own needs, and those of others.
These are my Top Tips:
Set yourself boundaries so you know what level of ‘negativity’ you are able to and want to cope with, and there are two distinct scenarios for me.
Firstly, there are times when people who you care about, who are important to you, go through a difficult time, and this inevitably will be charged with negative emotions. If we want to be there for them we have to sometimes accept that we may experience deep drain from our contact with them, but for the greater good we have to ‘live’ with that. But in this case, we need to give ourselves permission to actively seek more opportunity to unload our bucket so that we can continue to be there for that person. This could be by ensuing that we have more nourishing time, whatever that looks like to us, to compensate. It may mean withdrawing from others whose needs are not so great at this time. Whatever it takes you need to do it, to help ensure that that the relationship is maintained.
Secondly, there are other times when you are faced with people who just seem to be constantly exuding negativity: there is no particular issue they are struggling with, they just seem to want or need to snipe and gripe and to be unkind, uncharitable and snide, they also tend to be self-absorbed and manipulative, trying to manoeuvre others to get their own way, using emotional blackmail to try to get what they want. In other words, they are ‘toxic’. Empaths/HSPs are natural deposits for such people, because of our natural empathy and listening skills, and because we dislike being unkind and rejecting others. However, what I have learned is that the only result of allowing such people to connect with your deep empathy is that your reserves get thoroughly drained, and you come away from every interaction with that person feeling so full of negativity, that your needs have been completely stamped all over, and that there is no reciprocity in the relationship. In this case the only real option is to distance yourself. This may be possible by reducing the amount of contact you have with the person or changing the nature of the contact, alongside actively seeking to find counterbalancing nourishing activities to allow you to empty your bucket and to offset the negativity.
Sometimes, though, that is not enough, and there can come a time when you feel that the only option is to cut all contact with that person. That is not always easy, especially if the person is someone who has close proximity to you because of family, friend or work connections. If all else has failed, and being mindful of the ramifications, you may need to just give yourself permission to cut contact, perhaps for a period of time, despite the difficulties you know it will cause. Making the break may be the lesser of two ‘evils’.
Make sure you create protected down-time to enable you to empty your bucket. Find the things that work for you and work hard to incorporate that into your day and your week, and when you have been depleted more than normal, try even harder! Cancel things if you need to, lock yourself in the bathroom, put headphones on!
Practice deploying your emotion shield
When you have been interacting with someone and you are feeling drained, or low, or whether your mood has changed for seemingly no identifiable reason: take the time to reflect on whether what you are feeling is ‘yours’ or whether you have soaked it up from the other person. Sometimes it can be a case of leaving the room temporarily to take-stock. The more you can do this, the more aware you become of the process happening, and the more able you will become to put up your protective shield to prevent your emotions becoming saturated by someone else’s. Also, when the interaction has finished, try to consciously think about letting go of all of the emotions that are not yours – give yourself permission to stop feeling for someone else, you are not responsible for their emotions!
One of the most tangible things about being Highly Sensitive, and that is the most visible to others, is the extent to which you FEEL everything. Whether that be the prickly seat or the sumptuous velvet cushion you are sitting on; the throbbing in your ears from the whining siren in the distance or the glorious surround-sound of the dawn chorus mixed with the trickle of the stream; the discomfort from that label in the back of your t-shirt or the fabulous feeling of the soft-down duvet you are snuggled into; the glare from the array of lights on the hight street at night or the spectacular sunset on the horizon; or the tears – of overwhelm, or of joy.
On the plus side it is what makes HSPs able to see the world in true dolby surround sound and technicolour, with smellivision, and true emotional engagement. It is what underpins their deep empathy for others and the living world, and is what allows them to appreciate art, beauty, the written word, a kind deed, to a level that is not experienced by others. It is also this intensity of ‘feeling’ that tends to be noticed by others, most particularly when it is response to overwhelm or discomfort.
The sensory ‘feelings’ of discomfort and ‘too much’ are generally easier to identify by us and for others to identify with. But when it comes to emotions this can be much more tricky. I have had a week this week full of ‘feelings’ (of the emotional kind) and it has highlighted one of the big challenges that feelings present for the HSP, which is that often the feelings we feel, are not even our own.
The ‘E’ in DOES stands for Empathy and Emotional Reactivity: HSPs are hard wired to connect with how other people are feeling, and they do so more reflexively and more intensely than others. They deep processing of ‘information’ includes the processing of emotions.
This is great in terms of our capacity to provide that empathic response to others, and it is a natural skill, which makes HSPs very intuitive, some would say possessing a ‘6th sense’. It’s what makes many HSPs great at and attracted to roles in life requiring emotional support or providing counsel.
However, it comes at a price, which is that it adds to our bucket of spaghetti.
If, as an HSP, we are conscious that we are adding to our bucket with all this emotional stuff , perhaps simply because we are aware of our innate sensitivity and we are actively engaging in empathy, or because we are recognising that our bucket is getting full, we can make provision for emptying our bucket. And whilst this may not always be possible, exactly when we need it, we know there is an end in sight!
BUT, things are not always that obvious or straightforward, because as HSPs we are often empaths, which means that we can ‘absorb’ the emotional energy of others, without necessarily realising that we have done so. If you have found your mood suddenly changing, without being able to wholly pinpoint why, it could well be that you have reflexively, subconsciouslty, picked up on what someone else is feeling, and taken it on as your own feeling. This happened to me this week and contributed to the many ‘feelings’ I was contending with. Something happened to my son at school this week which was very unjust and insensitive and unreasonable. I had a very emotional response: a mix of upset, anger, rage, affrontery, humilation, victimisation, sadness, injustice, lack of voice, disappointment, shock, confusion – amongst many other things.
I knew, because I have learnt, that some of those feelings were emotions that were actually my son’s and in order for me to appropriately deal with and respond to the situation, I first of all needed to distill the facts, from my feelings, from his feelings. Until I could do this, I couldn’t fully understand my feelings on what had happened, I couldn’t determine the proportionate response, and nor could I adequately support my son’s needs. I needed to be able to empathise, whilst also trying to take a step back to be able to manage my own emotions As it happens, I still feel most of those things, but I am able to recognise which are ‘my’ reactions, and which are the feelings that are actually my son’s and which are what I am seeking to address with the school.
Top-Tip No. 1 – Learn to identify what’s yours!
Practicing that sifting of what is my ‘stuff’ and what belongs to others is one of the things that has really helped me in being able to understand and manage my emotions as a HSP, and to support my son as a HSC. There is no magic wand to gaining that understanding, it is essentially a case of actively reflecting on what you are feeling and what is happening, and digging deep to get to the root of what is you, and practice is how you do that as you begin to learn to trust your instincts. There is one trick though, if you find yourself in a situation where your mood inexplicably changes, and I find this at home when my husband may be grouchy, short-tempered and intolereant after a stressful day at work, and I find myself responding in the same way, even though I had been fine before: I have now learnt to move away to give me physical distance from him and his emotions, and this usually gives me the space to recognise that the rising levels of anxiety I am feeling, are his, not mine and I can try to push them away from me so that my behaviour reflects how I’m feeling, not how he’s feeling. You can do a similar thing if it happens at work; leave the room and pop to the loo for 5 minutes – if your mood rapidly reverts to what it was before, chances are you had picked up on someone else’s. (Sometimes too it can be a geat thing, if you are picking up on someone’s joy and excitement about something, hang onto that feeling!!).
Top-Tip No. 2 – Choose your Battles
The time spent dealing with all of those emotions was draining, distracting and actually left me unable to focus on much else for a couple of days: and this also lead me to reflect on the difficulty HSPs can have with ‘letting things go’.
As an HSP ‘letting it go’ can be really hard, and it is something that we need to learn to get better at. I have found that whilst essentially it amounts to the same thing, ‘Choose your battles’ is somehow easier for me to relate to (perhaps because letting-go implies severing any connection with something, whereas choosing your battles doesn’t necessarily mean you have ‘forgotten’ about it or are ‘ignoring’ it, it just means you are choosing not to use up your valuable energy in dealing with something: a thought to explore another time…).
I take much more time these days to choose my battles, and to allow some things to ‘go’ because I can’t spend valuable energy on everything that I feel intensely about, because that truly would be everything . I have realised that life really is too short, and my bucket just isn’t big enough!
In this case, having sifted and considered the situation, this is one of those battles that I need to fight: it is important for my son, it is about something that is a true injustice and not something that deserves to be ‘let go’ without further discussion or a different resolution.
So I give myself permission to vent and rant about this, and to acknowledge and accept that until I have worked through this issue, I may not be so well able to take on other things; whether that be a different emotional issue, or focusing on the market research I’m doing at the moment for my business, or developing the business content – I can’t do it all, there’s too much spaghetti in there and I need to dish some up first!
Top Tip No.3 – Give Yourself Permission to Feel it Your Way
This is another thing I have got better at and I recommend you try it! Give yourself permission to lean into someting that is really upsetting or grating on you, that really matters to you: allow yourself to go deep, unapologetically, to truly feel just how angry and irritated you are about it, and to grant yourself the space to work it through, and to fight for the outcome you feel is right. Not only will this give you strength to channel your sensitivity into getting a more positive result in the end, it will actually in the long run enable you to let other things go, because you will know that when it really matters you then have the reserves and the energy to give something your full attention, and to set the boundaries to your integrity.
Can you relate? I’d love to hear your experiences.
Last week, in the early hours of the morning, my head full of spaghetti was cooking up a veritable ragù: a myriad of things were churning through my brain, coating all the spaghetti in there, when a supremely clear thought popped into my head that piqued my curiosity.
It was “I don’t want to be defined by my HSP-ness”.
In truth I can’t recall the exact catalyst of the thought. But I do recall the strength of feeling that went with it, and that it was essentially a product of various frustrations: the feelings of overwhelm from the festive season; difficulty sleeping because of noise and cold; emotional overwhelm from absorbing general family stress; the mad tangle of spaghetti that was jostling for attention in my brain, related to the mass of ideas I have for what my working life is going to look like this year. And I think I just wanted to a) have a day when I could switch it all off, and b) feel that I was more than just this mess of spaghetti, emotions and sensitivity.
I have been reflecting on this ever since, wondering what prompted that thought to surface and pondering the implicit message that seemed to be indicating that I was, on some level, resisting my innate temperament, despite all this talk of acknowledging and accepting your trait being key to everything!
(Incidentally, I have also been laughing at the irony of being HSP and being kept awake by thoughts about being HSP (how very HSP!)).
For me it is an interesting thought to reflect upon, because being HS is absolutely core to who I am. It is instrumental in shaping how my environment affects me (due to my heightened sensory and emotional responsiveness and alertness), and how I relate to the world (I’m a deep thinker, I reflect and question). So, as a product of these, I am very aware that some of my most innate needs are absolutely and unequivocally determined by my HSP nature.
However, I am not ‘only’ an HSP. I am also an introvert. I have certain life experiences and interests. I enjoy things that many people who are not HSP also enjoy, and I share values with both HSP and non HSP alike, and so on and so forth. And I want these aspects of who I am to share equal space with my HSP-ness, because I am a product of ALL of these things, not just one (albeit a significant one). They all influence the way my HSP-ness shows up in my life just as my HSP-ness shapes these other aspects. I am a complicated product of the interplay between all of these things, and many more besides.
I feel that sometimes, because being an HSP means that we are so much more affected by our environments than non-HSPs, and that in the modern Western World this is often in a negative way, the other things that make us who we are are forgotten, by both others and by ourselves. It can also mean that when we start to ’embrace’ our HS nature, we can place so much emphasis on this, that we lose sight of the fact that we are more than this (and that sometimes our behaviour is not a product of our HSP-ness alone, but of something else, or a combination of things!). It’s a bit like the fact that I am a woman. It significantly shapes my experience of the world, and makes me fundamentally very different from a man. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t share things in common with men, and nor does it mean that I the same as all other women. Nor does it mean that where I live, or the colour of my skin, or my education or anything else doesn’t also matter.
We can also be drawn into a feeling that in discovering our HSP nature, and how it explains ‘that feeling we have always had of not quite being the same as the vast majority of people around us’, we should be rejoicing and relishing all the wonderful things that this means (the depth of joy we can experience, the appreciation have for beauty, nature and the sheer wonder of our world, the creativity and ‘different’, deep thinking we bring that shed insightful and often important light on the world, our capacity for empathy). And all these things are true, and they are vital to acknowledge and share. But….discovering that you are HSP with all the wondrous things it means, is not all sweetness and roses. It can be really challenging, and there are times, (those times when I am feeling so overwhelmed, so laden with the emotions of others, the troubles of the world, the disrupted sleep…) when I do look with envy upon those who do not experience life with such intensity.
Because it IS exhausting…
…And yes, there are times when I DO NOT LIKE being HSP (there, I said it!).
Does this mean I don’t accept my Highly Sensitive Nature? I don’t think so.
To Accept is not the same as To Like
The first and most important lesson I have learnt about acceptance is that acceptance of something does not mean having to like everything about it. It simply means that we are being honest with ourselves about it; we see and own the truth of it, the good and the bad bits. Whether we ‘like’ it, or not.
Yet I often feel that talk about ’embracing’ life as an HSP life comes with an expectation that we must learn to love our entire HSP nature – all of it. I love some of it, most of the time. Sometimes I find it frustrating. There are times when I am so exhausted by it that I wish I could switch it off. And I think it is important that we are ‘allowed’ to be honest about that – otherwise we are not truly accepting what it means.
We are not Hermits
It is also important to remember that we have to operate in the wider world, which may mean that we can’t take the hours of down-time and solitude that we feel we really need to recuperate from a busy trip; instead we have to find a way to make it work in 10 minutes! Or, we can become so caught up with own need for space, reflection, ‘nourishment’ that we overlook the fact that we are inadvertently restricting the ability of those around us to take the time and nourishment they need. In short, it can make us a little selfish. And whilst a little selfishness can be a good/necessary thing, sometimes, (especially if we are heading for a full-on bucket overload), we just need to be truthful with ourselves about just how much ‘me’ time we actually need to be able to function effectively, versus what we might ideally like to be at our ‘absolute best’.
So, what I have realised is that my desire not to be defined by my HSP-ness is not a rejection of my core nature, nor is it me denying my true nature. It is actually about me wanting to put my HSP-ness into context. To say, YES, I am HSP and this means that I am more easily overwhelmed, and that as a consequence I will actively seek to manage my environment, where I can, to minimise its negative impact . BUT it is not ALL I am. And it is not the be-all and end-all of everything. I can recognise that it will not always be possible for me to have my ‘ideal’ space or time, that sometimes I may need to just accept that it’s someone else’s turn and today I drew the short straw. But I’ll cope (with the caveat that you can’t do this too often, or the overwhelm will become permanent, and then it will be a problem. This is especially true if you are a Highly Sensitive parent, with a Highly Sensitive Child.).
The Nub of HSP Acceptance
For me, then, accepting what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person is not the same as always having to like being HSP. It is facing with truth and honesty what it means to exist authentically in the real world as a ‘human antenna’, as ‘the canary in the coal mine’ or the ‘rose in the vinyard’, “warts and all”.
For sure, there are some wonderful things about being HSP, and we should absolutely embrace those things, and shout about them from the rooftops so everyone knows it’s not all bad! (more about the great and the good another time). And these things are easy to accept.
But we also have to accept the things about being HSP that are more difficult to like. The discomfort, the hurt feelings, the irritability and grumpiness, the feeling of being misunderstood, of being seen as ‘too’ sensitive, ‘too’ intense, of thinking too much, of never being able to switch off, of having a head full of spaghetti!
The First Rule of Acceptance
First and foremost, accepting your HSP-ness is about facing wholeheartedlyyour truth of what it means to be HSP in the world. It is about accepting that overwhelm will be as inevitable to your being as your deep thinking, and that you will always have a head full of thoughts, feelings, reflections and imaginings; that you will always find scratchy labels (or seams in socks, or the smell of beetroot, or the noise of an electric toothbrush, whatever your ‘thing’ is) irritating to your very core.
Your job in accepting your HSP-ness is not to deny these things, or to seek to find ways of changing your nature so you don’t experience them – because that’s not possible.
Your job is to learn to understand what it means for you, and how to more comfortably live with your sensitivity so that you are positively thriving, not just surviving. It is to find ways of preventing, avoiding and minimising those things that cause you discomfort or overwhelm, learning to recognise when overwhelm is looming and what strategies work for you to cope and empty your bucket when you do face the inevitable overwhelm (and it is inevitable!). It is about recognising that you must have the grace to ‘give-way’ to others needs, sometimes, for their benefit, even though it may not be the ‘right’ thing for you in that moment: to accept ‘good enough’ not ‘perfect’ conditions. It is about leaning into the depth, joy, creativity and connection with others too.
This is where the hard work of understanding what this actually means for you begins. That’s complicated and is contemplation for another day!
In the meantime, what do think about acceptance? Have you accepted your HSP nature, and what does that mean for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
My father was a philosopher, by which I mean he was inherently curious about life’s meaning – both as a scholar and as a teacher.
Everyday he sought greater understanding about the meaning of life, and he felt it was such an important thing that he devoted his life (after a career change) to teaching others the importance too. To achieve greater depth of knowledge and understanding he was passionate about the importance of education: not ‘teaching’ per se, but true education: facilitating and enabling others to question and learn for themselves, not as a ‘discipline’ but as a way of being. He was a Humanist and an existentialist, a deep thinker and an activist, and had very strong values of justice and fairness, both personally and at societal level. His passion in this regard lead to active involvement in activities to promote both educational and social change.
It was not such big questions that seemed to trouble him the most though. Throughout his life, which was cut short at the age of 58, the biggest issue he seemed to grapple with was not “life, the universe and everything”, or even “why are we here?”. It was his own sense of self. He consistently felt like an outsider, that he never truly belonged. He was a perfectionist, forever dissatisfied with his achievements and capabilities. He regularly berated himself for his shortcomings. He suffered from anxiety and depression, carrying deep feelings of inadequacy.
To those who knew him well he was frequently experienced as ‘difficult’. He was challenging, often very deliberately so, particularly in debate, relishing the deconstruction of ideas, concepts and beliefs in the search for truth. He was at times both overwhelmingly kind and generous, and remarkably self-absorbed and selfish. He laughed hard, especially at the farcical. He was extremely clever, argumentative, insightful, principled. He held strong beliefs (of the non-religious kind) which could mean that he was opinionated too. He cared, and about the things he cared he was a passionate and loyal supporter. He was ’emotional’ – he cried, often: in sadness and in joy, and he shouted (a lot) usually driven by frustration, most often with himself.
He loved Jazz – once saying that if you couldn’t feel the music of jazz in your bones you can’t consider yourself alive. He found small-talk (tittle-tattle) dull. He detested ‘fancy’ flavoured food (he loved spicy food, but anything too herby or aromatic was too much for him). He had an intense sensitivity to noise. He liked only comfortable clothes, but he wanted the to look what he considered stylish too, and once he found clothes that worked, he bought more of the same. He was highly intolerant of interruption, thoughtlessness and ignorance. Though he was highly curious and interested in people and in life, he rarely read fiction. To me, he was a bit of an enigma, and whilst most of my friends thought he was cool (if a little odd, perhaps because he was so different from their parents), for me, he was a difficult dad to have.
With the realisation that my son was highly sensitive, and that in fact so was I, came the moment that illuminated the heart of my father and which totally and fundamentally changed my perception of him . The very things that encapsulated the “difficult enigma” that was my father, that reflected the frustration and contradictions of being with the person he was, and being the person he was, were suddenly all crystal clear when viewed through the lens of the Highly Sensitive Person.
When you don’t know about the trait, being HSP and being around HSPs can be confusing, frustrating and unpredictable. But as soon as you do know about it, the apparent contradictions and with them, the confusion, disappear, and whilst it can still be frustrating and unpredictable, it makes sense.
So, to my dad: I wish you were still here so I could share this with you. It is something I could have taught you and I think you would have been intrigued, fascinated and enlightened. We could have spent hours digging deep into this one and connecting; exploring how it affected you growing up in a working class mining community; being the first to go to grammar school, the first to go to University; how it explained your desire to move from engineering to philosophy; how it drove your energy and enthusiasm for fairness, equality and open access to all, your empathy, kindness and generosity (and at times distinct lack of it too), and all those overflowing buckets! Most of all, though, I wish that I could share this with you so that you could know this, and thereby find some peace with yourself, through understanding that you were normal and that it was truly OK to be you.
Dedicated to all HSPs who are finding their path to understanding, and to all those who never had the chance and whose lives would have been all the better for knowing.
Having been overwhelmed over the past few weeks with illness (mine and other people’s) stress (mine and other people’s!) and a growing feeling of ‘busy’ – (hence the silence on the blog front), I have been thinking a lot about Overwhelm and that all too familiar feeling for an HSP of ‘Too Much’! This isn’t strictly a post about my journey as an introvert HSP, but it is a post about a very specific time of of year that offers way too much ‘too much’!!.
Let’s face it, unless you completely shut yourself away and hibernate (and there are many times I wish I was a hibernating mammal!!) you will be exposed to ‘Too Much’ of pretty much everything in the run up to our festive season! Everywhere is busy, everywhere is bright and loud, people are ‘heightening the happy’ to entice you to buy stuff, to eat stuff, to participate at school christmas fairs, to shout, cheer and boo at the panto, and to make your house look ‘merry and bright’ – all of which just fills our bucket so quickly. ‘Tis also a season for ‘getting together’ with EVERYONE, so the pressure to socialise is enormous, added to which there are fewer places to retreat for peace and calm, so for introverts, and especially HSP introverts it can be particularly difficult.
But this is where it gets so confusing, right? Because most of the things I’ve talked about above are what give the magic to Christmas, it’s not all bad, so why do we still feel so drained? Here’s the thing. Overwhelm can as much come from too much of a good thing, as it can from the not so great stuff. Christmas time for me is a time full of mayhem, and too much social stuff, yes, but it is also full of absolute magic, and both the magic and the mayhem can play havoc with us HSPs if we are not careful.
So, without further ado – how do we ensure that we survive the mayhem and enjoy as much of the magic as possible, without tumbling into such severe over-stimulation that we crash and burn before the Big Day? For me, the key thing is to get through the season mindfully.
Be very mindful of Boundaries. Be clear with yourself that if you go to everything you are invited to, and spend every day at the Christmas Market, you WILL get overwhelmed. Don’t be pressured into attending every christmas party, or every christmas drink, even when people call you a party-pooper!! Make it an active policy to say ‘No’ to some things. I try to limit the number of social engagements in a week to no more than 2 or 3, especially if they with more than just a few people. This may even include declining an invite to something ordinarily you would enjoy, you just need to acknowledge the cumulative effect. I also follow Elaine Aron’s advice to avoid any explanations about why I’m not going along, it is enough to politely decline, and to just say it doesn’t work for you. If you do go to lots of things, make it a conscious choice to do so, and make conscious plans for ‘down-time’ to empty your bucket
Be mindful about who you spend time with and be proactive: if there are people you want/need to see, suggest dates, times and places so you can choose quieter venues and times. So have a morning coffee rather than lunch or dinner, and choose the little tea shop tucked away from the main street, rather than the big-chain coffee shop in midst of all the hustle and bustle.
Be Mindful about the timing of when you go to places: Christmas markets, department stores, garden centres, Santa’s Grottos, high streets with Christmas lights, are all really magical places to visit at Christmas, and I love browsing round them and soaking up the beauty and sparkle, but they are also places I quickly become overstimulated. So I NEVER go at weekends and seek out the quiet times. I choose to visit them either early in the morning, or later in the afternoon when the crowds are fewer. I always consciously time-limit myself. I always ensure that I have identified a quiet corner/escape route so if it gets too much I don’t have to waste time working out where I need to go to recharge, I just follow my recovery plan!
Be Mindful with the magic! Too much of a good thing can be just as overwhelming and there are numerous magical things going on over christmas to tempt you. But remember that we don’t have to ‘participate’ directly in everything to feel the magic – one of the wonderful things about the HSP brain is that your imagination and capacity for joy in even the smallest of beautiful things allows you to fully experience the magic and the joy in more subtle and less draining ways: by watching your favourite festive film, a walk in nature on a frosty morning, listening to carols or your favourite christmas songs, getting stuck into some christmas crafts, planning a fairytale christmas eve for little ones, snuggling in front of the fire with a hot chocolate and spending quality time with loved ones. Do these things mindfully, really letting your appreciation, gratitude and joy soak in, and you will experience the magic without the drain and overwhelm of being ‘out there’ with the crowds.
Try these tips over the coming week and see if they allow you to relish the magic and minimise the impact of the mayhem – let me know how you get on, and share any hints and tips of your own!
The past few weeks have been for me the epitome of one of the most tangible characteristics of being highly sensitive, which is to say that I have had a brain-bucket overflowing with the unruly spaghetti things of life (teenagers, relationship difficulties, work uncertainty, Christmas is coming and everywhere is busy, full of bling and noise, it’s approaching that time of year when my dad died, when my husbands’ dad died, it’s cold, it’s dark, everyone else is a bit miserable, the news is gloomy etc etc.).
In short I have been feeling a trifle overwhelmed -hence the gap in blog posts!.
It has also been a period when the significance of botanical references in relation to HSPs has been illuminated for me, not least because I have been marvelling at the state of the Orchids in my front room.
I am talking about the theory of innate temperament differences that has been described by Boyce and Ellis in terms of Dandelions and Orchids.
For anyone who is unaware, it starts with understanding one of the things that has been discovered about the different outcomes seen in highly sensitive children, outcomes that are highly dependent upon childhood environments. And for HSPs, as someone told me very early in my journey of discovery, “it is all about environment”.
Dandelions and Orchids.
There are those who, like Dandelions, can thrive in pretty much any environment, no matter what is thrown at it. A dandelion seeds readily, it pops up in all types of soil and conditions, and its’ hardiness and quality doesn’t differ hugely. It always blooms with its’ attractively bright yellow mane, and subsequently produces a seed-head that is so wonderful it entices you to help it propagate by blowing the seeds into the wind! It is also highly resistant to attempts to make it suffer – that is, it is considered as a weed because of its’ profligacy and stubborn refusal to tame itself! Most of the population are Dandelions (around 80%).
Orchids, on the other hand, will only truly thrive and show you their stunning blooms if they have the right conditions. They won’t necessarily die if they have the wrong conditions, but you won’t get to see them in their true glory with those spectacularly delicate and beautiful flowers. But the fact that they need the ‘right’ conditions, doesn’t mean that they are difficult to keep, it just means you need to find what works for them, and stick to it. Orchids are the 20% who are Highly Sensitive.
This distinction has been very apparent to me with my own Orchids, which I have had for many years, and which have been surviving fine in my dining room, but which have failed to flower for years. In fact, they have failed to flower since I brought them home and their initial blooms faded. I thought I was looking after them well: they were placed in good light but protected from both direct sun and extremes of temperature (so I thought) in the window of an East facing room . But they just didn’t seem to be thriving. A few months ago I decided to move them, just to see if it would make a difference, not holding out much hope. So since then, they have been in the window of my West facing front room.
The difference has been staggering. I have not done anything different in terms of my care of the plants – I have watered them in the same way (which is very little) and that is all. But since I have moved them they have not stopped flowering, and the flowering began almost instantaneously following the move.
For me, this was proof that environment is everything to the Orchid. One simple change made the difference between two living plants that weren’t doing a whole lot, and which certainly were not showing their true potential, and two plants that have been glowing with beauty and really showing off their flowers. The first lot of blooms, which lasted months, have finally faded. I have trimmed those away, and the next lot are already budding and waiting to burst into life. This is despite the relative neglect they have from me, and that they both really need to be re-potted.
For me this demonstrates life as an HSP. Environment is everything.
It’s all about Environment
We can be seen as difficult, because we can’t thrive just anywhere, and it can take some effort to identify what the right environment is, and to make it happen. But, if you get it right, life is actually a whole lot easier. I see this with me, my husband and my son. If we are feeling in a good place, we can be incredibly easy to be around, and ask for little but give a lot. But if we’re not, we can be incredibly irritable, stupendously stubborn, intransigent and spoiling for a fight.
In short, if our needs aren’t met, we’re not always that nice to be around, but if they are, we are hugely supportive, thoughtful, caring, loyal, appreciative, and joyful beings.
And I see this too in my own Orchid Child. He has always been extremely easy in many, many ways. Polite, kind, concerned to do the right thing, never in trouble at school, always keen to follow the rules, deeply fascinated by things that interest him, a pleasure to be with. But if he feels criticised, he becomes the Tasmanian Devil, if he is continually placed in situations that force him to be in the spotlight, or to speak up when he doesn’t feel safe, or to always put every-one else’s needs before his own, or which he sees as unfair, he wilts and becomes highly anxious or he becomes unbelievably stubborn and resists every attempt to compromise.
Nature and Nurture: Vulnerability or Strength
But it actually runs even deeper than the here and now. How well we as HSPs cope when things are not going well for us depends to a huge extent on how well supported we were as children, whether our environment growing up was ‘good enough’, because this determines whether we build true strength and resilience, or whether we become fragile and vulnerable to the vagaries of life.
For many years it had been assumed that to have traits of the type described by HS was a vulnerability in terms of children being more likely to experience emotional difficulties (delinquency, anxiety, depression) in later years (as adolescents and adults). Hence for many years it was seen as necessary to try to ‘treat’ anyone who showed these traits, to ‘fix’ them in order to reduce that vulnerability.
The Orchid/Dandelion theory stems from work that has shown that having the trait of HS can indeed be a vulnerability IF our upbringing was not supportive and IF our childhood environments were not good enough – especially in terms of maternal care. BUT this IF is an important one. Because IF we are luck enough to have had good enough environments and support, we are actually likely to be MORE resilient to such difficulties.
This has been termed Differential Susceptibility (Pluess and Belsky) and also Biological Sensitivity to Context (Boyce and Ellis). It was Boyce and Ellis who first used the term Orchids and Dandelions in this context.
So the Orchid and Dandelion distinction is important not just to enable us to understand how we can make our lives easier day to day as adults, but also in how we ensure as adults that we create the right environments for our HS children. This can be challenging if you are HS and dealing with your own overwhelm (as has been the case for me this week), but we know that nature has given the highly sensitive temperament, how it is nurtured determines whether it is a strength or a vulnerability.
Creating the right Environment
If we are Orchids, we know we have to work hard to create the environments in which we know we thrive, and to adapt to or reject those we know don’t. We need to develop coping strategies for those occasions when we are in ‘unfriendly’ environments, because we know it will happen – we are in the minority and the modern world is a busy, noisy, bright, at times smelly, and sometimes brutal place – and if we are to be part of it we need to learn how to deal with it and to create resilience and develop the capacity to be mindful with our own emotions.
So how do we do that?… I’m still working on it, and sometimes it is hard work, really hard, because most of these things don’t come easily to me. But so far I’ finding the following strategies to be helpful:-
Setting clear boundaries: It’s Ok to say ‘No’ and it OK, in fact it’s vital, to set out what is OK and what’s not OK for you.
Dealing with Perfectionism: the bain of many HSPs’ lives and if you are like this, you will pass this onto others, so it is important to challenge your perfectionist tendencies.
Exercising self-compassion: recognising that you are human too, and that your needs are as important as anyone else’s.
Make Time & Space for You: give yourself plenty of opportunity to empty that bucket, especially if you have people who are dependent upon you and who need you to be at your best.
Clear Values: If we are clear about our values, what is truly important to us, and live and make decisions according to those values, we will feel stronger.
Own your story & Heal Old Wounds: be honest with yourself about things that you need to confront, be open and curious, and be prepared to challenge your own assumptions about yourself. Be brave. ‘Healing old Wounds’ comes from Elaine Aron herself, but she’s right. Often it is these longstanding stories we have constructed that lead to our perfectionism, shame and other fears that stop us from leaning into our truth. If we don’t acknowledge our truth and own our story, it stops us from truly embracing our HS needs, and it also then stops us from being able to be truly present for others, to be able to provide support to them from a place of strength and resilience.
Own your emotions (but no-one else’s): As HSPs we can take on the emotions of others, often without even realising it. Developing the skill to recognise what is yours, and what is not, is life changing, as is developing the associated capacity to step away from taking responsibility for other peoples emotions and behaviour. Another thing we HSPs are too willing to do, often in attempts to keep the peace and avoid conflict.
Learn to ‘Let it Go’: Rumination is a complicated product of our deep thinking & seeing so many options and permutations of a situation; of our perfectionist tendencies & fear of making mistakes, or of upsetting someone, or our sense of injustice, of being treated unfairly or unkindly. And because we have brains that never switch off we are experts at it. But it adds to our overwhelm. We need to learn to disengage from our analysis of everything, all the time, and because it doesn’t come naturally, we need to find ways of enabling us to do it – the next strategy is one of the best ways, in my opinion.
Practicing Mindfulness, being in the moment – especially in nature: taking time to recognise, acknowledge and appreciate the here and now, and to enjoy just ‘being’. We are human beings, and for HSPs time to just ‘BE’ is so, so important to our wellbeing. It aids recuperation from the overload of our senses, it helps us to ‘let go and it helps us to appreciate better some of the things we have in our lives, ‘.
Learning to integrate these things into your life requires effort, and sometimes the capacity to shut out the noise from others feels like a mountain that is too hard to climb. Over the coming weeks, I’ll explore each one in more detail, but in the meantime, I’m off to unload my bucket a bit more so I can refill it again over the weekend when I meet up with family!
When I became a parent I didn’t know about the trait of High Sensitivity. I certainly didn’t know that I was a Highly Sensitive Person. But I wish that I had known because it would have changed my experience as a parent. It would have explained and validated all those ‘gut feelings’ I had about things, and why I seemed to find being a mum so much more difficult than all the other new mum’s around me.
During the first 6 months after my child (who is a HSC) was born, my Health Visitor was convinced I was suffering from Post Natal Depression, because I was so ‘flat’. I knew I wasn’t depressed, I just felt permanently and utterly exhausted, both physically (mainly from lack of sleep), and so very much emotionally. The first year or two for me is a haze of complete exhaustion and total overwhelm – emotionally, physically and mentally. This only got worse when I went back to work to a job that was in itself emotionally and psychologically demanding. I was in a constant state of feeling that I was running on empty and felt totally burnt-out. Consequently I was irritable to be around, and I felt I had nothing left in my tank when I got home from work for my family, or to give to my job.
I gradually came to realise that lack of ‘down time’ together with the constant worry and guilt about whether I was getting it ‘right’ as a parent and the perpetual blaming of myself for the fact that I just seemed to be finding it so much more difficult than other people (and therefore that there must be something wrong with me!), were the main issues. But I still couldn’t understand why this was. Then, 5 years on, I read Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Child book, which lead to me reading her book The Highly Sensitive Person, and everything suddenly made sense. From there-on, things got a little easier, because I understood myself better.
It has still taken me some time, though, to really get to the root of what it was I really needed all those years ago, and what I continue to need.
By far the biggest lesson I have learned is Self Acceptance.
Accepting that I am Highly Sensitive means that I can not only understand and appreciate how parenting is likely to lead to over-stimulation, intense feelings & emotions (and, resulting from all of this, irritability and short-temper more often than I’d like to admit), but also it enables me to openly recognise and acknowledge where these feelings and emotions come from. It gives me permission to stop blaming myself for how I’m feeling. It also enables me to put in place appropriate prevention and coping strategies. Moreover, I can now see the great advantages my sensitivity has to my parenting.
It’s still a work in progress, and there is some way to go, but having this Self-Acceptance gave me the courage (with the support of my husband who thankfully ‘gets it’) to leave a job in a career that just wasn’t working for me when I had the additional demands of a young child, and which meant it no longer worked for us as a family. This has not been without is sacrifices, but I believe it has created a path that will lead to a better ending. Self-Acceptance has given me more confidence to set realistic boundaries for myself, saying ‘No’ more often to ‘non-essential’ demands on my time, and to say ‘Yes’ more often to things that re-charge and replenish me. It allows me to feel OK about seeking total silence sometimes (many people find it odd that I rarely put the radio or music on in the car) and it has prompted me to be more open to asking for help, because I know I need to, even though it doesn’t come naturally.
I am also just beginning to appreciate that my High Sensitivity is what allows me, among other things, to connect deeply with my HSC; to be able to recognise when things are not ‘right’, when others may miss the signs; to share imaginary worlds through books; to have deep conversations and to instil in my HSC the wonder and importance of nature as I share my love and appreciation of its beauty and fragility.
As I continue on my journey of discovery I’d love to hear your stories too, so please get in touch!