The First Rule of Acceptance: Ragù for HSP Spaghetti

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Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

It started with The “Thought of the Day”…

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.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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…

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…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 wholeheartedly your 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.

A Head Full of Spaghetti – (My Highly Sensitive Brain)

spaghetti-2619327_1280My head is full of spaghetti – pretty much all of the time.

A head full of spaghetti is all about the feeling that you have a super busy brain, whirring away, constantly trying to make sense of things, reflecting on things, finding connections between things, thinking (deeply) about things, and trying to navigate through the complex tangle of thoughts and feelings that crop up throughout the day as we go about our business.

It was not until quite recently  (embarrassingly late in life) that I realised that this was not true of everyone.  In fact, it’s not true of most people.

Whilst it is true that most people will experience this spaghetti feeling sometimes, perhaps when they are uncharacteristically busy, or they’ve had an unusual amount of emotional ‘stuff’ going on (and often in the middle of the night),  for some of us this is what it is like ALL THE TIME.  And it doesn’t even have to be in response to anything particularly unusual or extreme, although this creates an even bigger tangle, it is simply how our brains operate. All day. Every day.

People like me have Highly Sensitive brains.  We are wired to notice more subtlety in our environments and to process that information more deeply.  We are likened to human antennae, picking up on, and reacting to the subtle signs that others miss.

It was Dr. Elaine Aron who identified that about 20% of us experience the world in this more attuned way, and she uses the term the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) to describe someone who displays the characteristics (more on this in a dedicated post).

Oh, and I am also an Introvert.

This blog is all about life as an introvert and a highly sensitive person, and the journey to understanding, self-acceptance and beyond. It is about what it means to be HSP and introvert. It is about how to be authentic and thrive, with a head full of spaghetti!