The botany of spaghetti heads!

brain-954823_640The 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.

dandelion-2295441_640There 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%).

orchid-2952074_640Orchids, 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.

My Orchids

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.

orchid-4780_640

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!

What’s your experience as an Orchid?

My First, Second and Third HSP ‘A-Ha!’ Moments (and yes there have been many)

ballet shoesOne of my earliest memories is of the day I went with my mum to visit a local dance school to have a look at what was on offer, so I could decide whether I wanted to do Ballet or Tap-dance.   While decision-making can be a slow process for us HSPs (and I have numerous memories of the impatience of other people as I struggled to choose which sandwich or ice cream I wanted, or which colour pen I should use), this time the decision was instant.  I loved the elegance, gracefulness and quiet calm of Ballet, but was taken aback and totally overwhelmed by the onslaught of noise that hit my senses when we opened the door to the Tap class.  It sounded to me like the contents of the biggest cutlery draw was being hurled down from the sky, and I just wanted to hide – it was all “Too Much”.

Too Much and Not Enough

This experience is one of so many that reflect a general trend in my life for seeking a gentle, quiet path.  Instinctively I’ve always wanted to keep stimulation to a level that was ‘comfortable’,  shying away from and shutting out things that felt ‘too much’.

But this  often leave me feeling like I didn’t quite belong to the world everyone else did: I felt at-odds with my friends in a way I couldn’t explain and at times that I was perceived as a ‘party pooper’ and a bit serious and even ‘boring because I was so intense and ‘needy”.  I felt that my family found my sensitivity ‘too much’ too – the exasperation at how much hard work it can be to deal with the big emotions was apparent, the rolled eyes when I got upset about something ‘trivial’ and the disappointment I sensed sometimes that I wasn’t more talkative and ‘go getting’.   As I got older my awareness of how different I felt grew.  At school I was drawn to more solitary pursuits rather than team games, I found being around people all day quite draining, and although I would join in with the social life of being a teenager and a young adult, I frequently just didn’t ‘get it’ in the way that most of my friends did, I didn’t seem to crave it in the same way.  And people found me intense, because I could talk for hours about the meaning of life, lying awake staring at the stars into the early hours of the morning.

Once I left home, became a student, and then started work, I found a similar pattern of being around people and the constant ‘demand’ for socialising, and living in a shared house, leaving me feeling exhausted – and I used to just push through it, ignoring the cries from my mind and body to slow down.  My teenage and young adult years were a period of burning the candle at both ends.  Of working hard, and playing hard.  To keep up with everyone else I was throwing myself into institutional life, shared living, frequent socialising – and it took its’ toll.  It was constant effort and resulted in glandular fever, repeated tonsillitis, colds and flu and of feeling permanently exhausted.

I felt that everything was ‘Too Much’ and that I was ‘Not Enough’.

This pattern is a familiar one for me, and despite being an educated psychologist with an interest in personality, and experiencing near total burn-out a number of years previously, it wasn’t until I become that I came across Elaine Aron’s work, and the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

Being a parent as an HSP is tricky.  It’s even trickier when you also have children who are HSP – so much so that I will devote a specific post to the topic.  But it was this that ultimately lead to my first A-HA moment.

My First AHA moment

light bulbAfter months and years of sleepless nights (and days), a baby that was colicky and extremely alert (ALL the time), a toddler that was fussy about seams in socks, who was immensely stubborn, acutely ‘shy’ and also very demanding of physical contact – in ways that the children of my friends were just not – I googled these things after a particularly exhausting and desperate day.

I don’t remember if it was the top result, but it was certainly in the top 3 – up popped “HSPerson.com” and The Highly Sensitive Child.  As I read, the world became a different place.  Anyone who has been through this will totally understand when I say that the following is what went through my mind:

  • instant resonance and recognition
  • relief that it was a real  ‘thing’
  • excitement that it was not just a ‘thing’ but that it was normal 
  • Affirmation – of your gut instincts that knew there was nothing ‘wrong’ with your child, even when people were hinting that maybe they were autistic (because of the ‘difficult’ behaviour)
  • hope – that there was a way of moving forward

The switch had been flicked and the light-bulb pinged on.  This was my first A-ha moment.   It was very quickly followed by my second.

My Second ‘Aha’ Moment

light bulb

In the moments after I had gone through the HSC questionnaire, my busy-brain was doing its’ thing, and nudging me to take a look at the HSP questionnaire – because the realisation was dawning that whilst what I had just read was a game-changer for my understanding of my son, it could just as easily have been referring to me.  And sure enough, I ticked all but 2 of the boxes on the HSP questionnaire.  At this point my neurons were firing all over the place and I was gabbling away to my husband, getting him to do it too.  And yes, my husband is also HSP (more material for another post!!)!!  This was my second AHA moment.

But it was my third A-ha moment that has probably been the most important.

My Third AHA moment

light bulbWhen you discover the HS trait as an HSP it is a game-changer.  It explains everything, it normalises everything, and almost overnight in your mind you switch from being an outsider, a misfit, a oddity who is somehow ‘wrong’ to someone who is part of a ‘club’ of people, who all experience very similar things.  And as with any group who have felt marginalised, to have a ‘tribe’ and to have feelings of belonging is huge.  It creates a euphoric feeling.

BUT – what I realised over the coming weeks, months and years is that finding out that you are HSP, whilst it is incredible, amazing, life-changing,  is only the beginning of a journey.  Because once you realise you are HSP after a life of not knowing it, you have to learn to understand what that really means to you, and how you need to change your perspectives about yourself and how you live your life.  However self-aware you may have thought you were, you will need to engage in deeper and more reflective practice to really get to grips with what it means to live and to thrive in the modern world with this trait – especially if you are also an introvert.

My first true epiphany occurred about 3 years ago, some 5 years after my first aha moment, and it is only now that I really feel that I truly understand what it means for me (and I’m still learning).

When was your moment of clarity? I’d love you to comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introvert and Highly Sensitive

flower-179004_640I 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.