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?

Quiet Revolution: Time to Start Making Some Noise?

Normally when I think of feathers, I conjure up images like these….

Photo by Ray Hennessy and Photo by Jenelle Ball  both on Unsplash

Spitting Feathers…

But this week I was thrown into complete apoplexy and I was “spitting feathers” when I turned to the pages about personality in my recently purchased book “How to be Human. The Ultimate Guide to Your Amazing Existence”.   The book is a New Scientist book,  a popular science forum, so I wasn’t expecting detailed coverage of the finer nuances of personality theory.  I also had no expectation whatsoever of any reference at all to the Highly Sensitive Person (though it would have been nice).  But I was expecting something that was objective and largely evidence based.

I can only describe what I read as the worst form of stereotyping, bordering on parody, that I have seen on the subject for a long time and I needed to refer to my thesaurus of emotions to fully comprehend my visceral reaction to what I read.  If you want to look at the book it’s on page 18, but I replicate below the key features:

Extrovert  Introvert
Cheerful and radiate joy Seldom amused
At home in crowds and parties Loners
Friendly and Open Reserved
Always busy Happy to take things easy
Natural Leaders Followers
Lovers of Excitement Overawed by commotion

Added to which were some simple pictures to further illustrate the differences…(Extrovert: super smiley face, party popper, man conquering mountain, all in a bright, happy yellow…..Introvert: slightly concerned looking/mildly miserable looking face, lone man reading, lone man under a tree, all in a dark, slightly gloomy purple).

bull-46368_640Well, it my HS brain launched into full-on emotional response, I mean COME-ON New Scientist, I thought you were better than that?!  So my week has been spent constructing various responses to share through the appropriate channels in due course, starting here with the personal bit.

Words Really Do Matter

The strand of spaghetti that has come loose this week has been all about the negative language that so naturally seems to attach itself to the words “Introvert” and “Highly Sensitive” and which seem to paint the picture that all introverts and HSPs are either too much hard work (‘too’ sensitive, quiet, emotional, weepy, fussy, reserved) or just not that great to be around (humourless, loners, dull and boring).

Language is such an important part of how we gain an understanding of who we are and how we ‘fit’ into the bigger picture, and sadly this conceptualisation of  Introverts is ridiculously common, even though it’s not a true reflection of us at all (although I think sometimes we come to start believing it just because it’s said so often, that we begin to think surely it must be true?).  And anyone who’s an HSP will know that it’s even worse for the sensitive among us.  (If you haven’t seen the TED talk from Elena Herdieckerhoff  The Gentle Power of HSPs take a look, it sums up the issue beautifully).

So as a Highly Sensitive Introvert I have grown up constantly rubbing up against other people’s focus on the negative aspects of both traits, with little affirmation of the positive ones, and blimey that’s hard – especially when all that brain-spaghetti is reflecting, interpreting, ruminating, about this constant, sometimes subtle (more often as subtle as being whacked on the  head with a mallet like those ‘whack-a-mole’ games), feedback that how we are is somehow ‘wrong’.  But because we’re introverts, we don’t talk about it. And if you’re HSP as well, you are acutely aware of just how different people perceive you to be, so we don’t want to draw attention to it, so we don’t mention it.  We therefore remain un-blissfully unaware that actually there are quite a few other people who are feeling the same, even people we know, but who are also pretending that they’re not.

The ‘Story’ of Temperament

I recently watched a TED talk by Barry Schwartz called “The way we think about the world of work is broken”.  He argues it’s broken because so many of the systems used don’t actually sit very well with how human’s actually operate.  It drew many parallels for me with where we have ended up in terms of our skewed society, which is very one dimensional in terms of what we overtly value in a person.  It’s all about the stories that we make up.

The concept of Story is a big one (and I can feel a dedicated blog on this in the ether), but for now suffice to say that human nature is such that ‘story’ is a massive part of how we operate.  It’s how we create certainty in an uncertain world, and our brains like certainty.  The problem is that we create this certainty even if it’s not true (and this is a core part of any therapy – getting the root of false stories and changing it to better reflect the objective reality).

Schwartz highlights the issue of story for work and organisations, which is that unlike the technology of ‘things’ whereby if technology, or the design of something is bad, it ‘dies’.  With ideas, he argues,  they can perpetuate even if they’re not true.  He says “false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe they are true”, because if people believe they are true they construct systems around them that are consistent with this idea.  And because we are a highly adaptive species, we mould ourselves to fit, whether or not it’s good for us (us being ‘us’ as individuals, and also ‘us’ as a collective species).

For me this is precisely what has happened with temperament (and if you go along with Susan Cain’s argument in her book ‘Quiet’ it stems from the same place as much of what is wrong with modern workplaces too – i.e. Industrialisation).  Inadvertently, as the discipline of psychology has evolved, and the study of personality alongside it, there has been a merging of this industrialisation ‘story’ that the gregarious, outgoing, alpha male extrovert is the ‘ideal’ with the ‘story’ of abnormal psychology that the optimistic, ‘happy’, easy-going, talkative ‘extrovert’ (as opposed to the morose, solitary, fearful, depressive ‘not extrovert’) is the healthy, well adjusted place to be, to create a modern world story that to be well adjusted, you need to be an extrovert.  Over time, the constructs and taxonomies that have been used to understand our natures have simply resulted in self-serving and reinforcing those views, even though they are not really true, because everything is ‘framed” in an extrovert context.  The evolution of The Big 5 personality taxonomy, which has become the ‘go to’ framework for personality theorists since the 1970s, has perpetuated this ‘myth’ about introversion, because rather than being seen as a different underlying trait from extroversion, it has been used as a means of describing the ‘opposite’ of extroversion, the ‘low-scoring’ end of the Extroversion-Introversion continuum.

The same is true of High Sensitivity.  For decades having a more sensitive disposition was seen as a ‘vulnerability’, making you far more likely to ‘suffer’ mental ill-health and related social problems. Consequently therapies and other social ‘interventions’ were constructed on that basis.  And of course this created the story that if you have a highly sensitive nature you are inherently more fragile and ‘flaky’.

These perceptions are in significant part the result of the extrovert paradigm within which researchers were (and still are) operating, which contributed to the creation of labels such as ‘shy’, ‘fearful’ ‘hesitant’ ‘reserved’, ‘hyper-sensitive’, ‘anti-social’, ‘slow to warm-up’ ‘timid’ – all of which can be true of introverts and HSPs,  but which are not necessarily true, and which are certainly not the only defining features of being introvert or HSP, (and which some extroverts experience too, sometimes).  But when children are labelled in this way, they grow-up believing this to be true, because this is how the world talks about them and interacts with them. And so the story survives.

The Key of Neurosciencebrain-2773466_640

Neuroscience will be the key to helping us change these deeply embedded perceptions as it will give us a new language.  We already are able to demonstrate what HSPs and Introverts already intuitively know, which is that we are just wired differently.   And this different wiring simply means that we interact differently with the world around us and we think differently.  We also now know that being Highly Sensitive can be a disadvantage, but ONLY where the person has received poor parenting during childhood.  With the right conditions, being Highly Sensitive is actually a positive advantage – supporting the development of greater resilience and better outcomes in life (look out for future blog post on Orchids and Dandelions).

Time to start making some noise?

The world of personality psychology seems to be being slow to catch on though.  Since Susan Cain’s book and TED talk, which have been read and watched by millions of people, and which saw the ‘launch’ of the Quiet Revolution (which has, there is no doubt, lead to greater open debate, more writing on the subject, and the beginnings of change in workplaces), I have not noticed a commensurate change in the way in which personality research is framed or interpreted.  The Big 5 remains the mainstay and in its’ present usage does not allow for a way of viewing personality and temperament that accommodates these more recent findings.  It’s time for a step-change in the wider scientific community on the subject of understanding temperament in order that the language used to frame and interpret temperament is better reflective of the whole range of characteristics associate with a trait, not just a select few.  It’s time to start making some noise so those scientists start hearing!

How has language affected you? Do you think it’s time to shout louder? I’d love to hear your thoughts!