The No-nonsense HSP
A thirty minute video discussing HSP purpose, common distractions to the development of authenticity in HSPs and how over-adaptation to dominant culture ideals can slow down progress. A video that will encourage you to consider how you show up and how you fit into the bigger picture.
What are we waiting for?
Sometimes, when I listen to highly sensitive people, people who often have gifts and skills that mark them out as exceptional in their field of work, I still get a feeling that they are waiting for something. It’s a feeling like we are sitting in a waiting room somewhere, while the big show is carrying on without them.
To all intents and purposes, these beautiful, sensitive people are doing well. They have full-on careers, they have recognition for their abilities, they have created families, friendships, run households, have interests and hobbies, they have the trappings of success. They are ‘doing well’.
So, why are they sitting in front of me, exasperated, exhausted and – waiting? Are they lost? What is it they might be hoping I can show them, that might mend or map something that they cannot quite put into words? With all our gifts, our depth of processing, our compassion, our understanding, how is it that even highly sensitive people who seem to have it all – still turn up and remain in a waiting room with no name? How does this happen?
In the waiting room, there is a lot of apparently. Apparently normal. Apparently successful. Apparently loved. Apparently fulfilled. Apparently …
I visit this waiting room sometimes, and sometimes, one or more occupants leave with me, in search of that something that will make sense of the feeling of something left undone or a blooming that has yet to happen or a treasure map or purpose that has been hidden for too long.
But you know what disturbs me the most about this waiting room? It’s that while there is a lot of focus understandably on those highly sensitive people who are ‘failing to launch’, those who are working through anxiety, depression, healing past wounds, making friends with their difference, working out what high sensitivity even is – this particular waiting room continues to grow full of thousands of HSPs, who no-one even knows are lost. No-one knows they are lost because their life looks like it has all the things that we are told are required for a happy life. What we have not done perhaps, is look at the map they were given to follow, to check if it really takes them where they need to be – as fully-formed highly sensitive people.
So, they turn up in this waiting room, not even sure how they got there, looking for an answer - while in the meantime, the show goes on outside, in a world where no-one even realizes some of the main characters are missing.
HSPs paying attention
One of the things that HSPs seem to be genetically programmed to do is to pay close attention. We have huge depth of processing available to us and we use that depth to be aware of subtleties - part of this awareness of subtleties results in paying close attention to things that others often miss and a deep appreciation of beauty in all its forms.
This ability can have wonderfully positive outcomes as we notice fine scents, tastes, the subtle tides of emotions and energies in a room, small kindnesses, tiny changes in the weather, temperature and finding patterns in things that others just don’t notice. We become aware of things that the majority do not. If we put this awareness to good use, it can be useful to us and to others.
But what about when that ability of paying attention can be far from positive? At first, it might seem that there can only be positives from this, but like most things, this gift of paying attention can be a double-edged sword. Perhaps an example might help us to understand how this happens. Let’s imagine a child at school. They happily skip to school, noticing the smell of autumn, the birds gathering in groups overhead, holding a parents hand, chattering away about all sorts of things that they notice. We don’t mind them noticing all these things, things of beauty, and we share with them our own pleasure in noticing. But then, once at school in the playground, the child hears some other kids saying mean things about her/him. She pays attention. She feels sad, she processes what they say very deeply. To her, this thing she is noticing has as much significance to her state of being as the smell of yellow and red leaves accumulating on the ground. The continued processing of those words could potentially have a profound affect on her. Paying attention is leading to suffering. Later, her good-enough parent might share a conversation with her about what kinds of things we should keep inside and return to, and what we should let go and stop paying attention to. They might discuss the context of what she hears and think about the limitations that other children may have in terms of understanding others’ feelings. In this way, we mediate her genetic trait of noticing, of processing deeply and of creating meaning with every interaction with the world - and we help her to take an experience or wound from where it has lodged inside and put it back outside where it belongs, allowing the necessary healing to take place.
And this is the thing many of us wrestle with, even as adults - we might understand that genetically we are programmed to notice more, to process deeply and to make meaning - but we are not always so gifted at knowing what to let go after we have paid attention. We hear or experience something unkind aimed at us and then hold on to that thing, paying even more attention, processing it even more deeply, making meaning (that can sometimes be inaccurate). This could be a habit learnt in childhood or it could be something more recent that has impacted us as sensitive beings. Who is there to help us to know when and how to let go of something that does not need to be held within our consciousness any longer?
If letting go of negative messages is something that we find we wrestle with more than most, then perhaps talking to friends or others might help, especially talking with those who truly know us and who seem to manage to sift messages more effectively. If what we hold on to is causing us a lot of suffering, perhaps a few sessions with an HSP-friendly therapist might help. I say HSP-friendly, because they will know why you hold on to these things - they already know that paying attention is not a weakness, it’s one of the HSP strengths, so they will not teach you to ignore your valuable intuition :)
Learning to let go of what is not useful is part of the work of clearing and opening up our capacity for depth of processing to its fullest and most positive uses: long-term planning, sensing what is needed, creative development, nurturing, teaching, ethical thought, timely warnings, astute analysis, the experience of awe and joy and much more. Reading books by people who fully understand the advantages and gifts of high sensitivity to the world is essential if we are to consolidate that inner space in service both to ourselves and others. For example, Elaine N Aron on high sensitivity, Brene Brown on healing wounds and acceptance, and there are many others who are able to see HSPs and their depth in the context of the bigger picture, not as ‘sad’ people recovering from wounds, but talented, imaginative, and emotional leaders of integrity.
I often think the inner life of an HSP is like a garden - take care of your inner garden with pleasure and joy, caring for the little seedlings of your personhood as much as the mature shrubs. Don’t crowd it with the ’weeds’ of unsolicited or unkind opinions of you. Some of your Self needs full sun, being open to all, some needs the shade and to be left undisturbed. Above all, don’t let invasive weeds from outside, or seasonal plants overshadow your natural, perennial beauty.
Next time you find yourself noticing or paying attention, ask yourself what are you paying attention to and is this serving me or my fellow man? Leave room in your consciousness for the full you to grow and develop.
The potential of the mature sensitive person - thoughts
The potential of the Mature HSP
I can still remember, after more than twenty years, the profound impact that Elaine Aron’s first book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ had on me. That reframe of what I thought of as a lonely struggle with what was, in my training, unhelpfully termed neuroticism, turned into the enriching experience of getting to know and integrating ‘what is right with high sensitivity’, and understanding the strength and wonderful experience that being authentically sensitive can give us.
I was already working as a therapist, supervisor, group worker and client services manager then. My first response to the book was “Hey, I recognize those clients, this makes so much sense”. These clients were different, they were deep, caring, they felt everything so strongly, they were often exhausted and overwrought, they worked hard in therapy, things affected them more than others, they thought everything was their fault. They cried more (even when something ‘good’ had happened), often felt that, deep down, there was something really wrong with them and thought that they were failing, even though they had often achieved well in various ways.
It took a while for me to realize that I was also a highly sensitive person. I was a very bright child, curious, communicative, imaginative, independent-minded, empathic, yet with a strong need for loving attention and acceptance from those close to me. After a childhood of learning to hide my strong responses and needs, of messages to be ‘less dramatic’, of keeping my deep and sometimes spiritual thoughts to myself so as not to worry others, I had become a quiet, mysterious person. I was secretly looking for answers, trying not to show that I was deeply unhappy and still looking for love and acceptance. I had a wonderfully rich inner world, I was a bookworm, I was musical, but I had also been conditioned to replace the authentic self I was trying to become for a robotic version of myself that, over time, learned to fit in at all costs believing that if I were less of a bother to others the love and acceptance I longed for would come.
It is hardly surprising, that in seeking to understand myself and perhaps find a way to be happy, I began to study the human mind. This led to twenty years of supporting and encouraging others to know themselves, to see their positive attributes, and eventually discovering something rather important about myself, via the work I had chosen to do with others – I discovered I was highly sensitive, there was a purpose waiting for me to fulfill and there was nothing wrong with that!
Once I had found Elaine Aron’s book, I read as much as I could on the topic of sensitivity. I discovered that HSPs make up about 20% of the population, there are about the same number of men as women, 70% are introverts and we arrive in the world already highly sensitive. We are different in that we are more responsive to our environment and have more activity in the reward centers of our brain. Part of our high level of sensitivity is in response to lower levels of serotonin – (this is not necessarily bad news, it just means we are more quickly affected by everything, making us more responsive). Over the years, as scientific research progressed, I began to recognize how very important it is for sensitive humans (and over 100 other species), to fulfill their genetic, evolutionary role within their family, their community, their tribe and even further afield. Elaine Aron describes our genetic significance as being the ‘priestly advisors’, those who maintain tribal wisdom, who innately think before acting. For me, it’s those who are ‘signallers’, we ‘know’ things and work things out ahead of time – a useful evolutionary strategy that gives us (and those 100+ species) another chance at survival. It began to dawn on me that without enough fully empowered and functioning highly sensitive people, our world was less safe, less whole, with a large piece of wisdom missing – and here is the point of the article I am writing right now – there are still too many sensitive people ‘missing’ from places of influence in their families, communities and their tribe.
How could this happen – how could how could almost 1.6 billion HSPs, those with sensory processing sensitivity, go ‘missing’ from their communities and a world that needs them? Well, we have lived in a society for the last few hundred years where decisions and goals of the other 80% have dominated our way of life. Strategies that help the majority to grow and develop are not necessarily what bring out the best in us as HSPs and it has not been easy to find information that helps us to see our trait in a positive perspective. To see the effect of the cultural pressures, we only have to look at the proliferation of HSP websites, social media pages and so on, to see that there are still a lot of HSPs out there who are struggling and have not yet read or assimilated Elaine Aron’s book; the freedom that her book gives us to reframe our natural trait is not getting a chance to do its work. There is still a lot of confusion out there about what sensitivity is – often tests and quizzes tend to give the impression that we are faulty somehow, that if we don’t have trouble with boundaries or spend a lot of time feeing anxious, we might not be ‘real’ HSPs. This makes it hard to recognize what a fully integrated, functioning, authentic HSP might look like and they most certainly won’t be circulating in those circles if having multiple problems is a prerequisite for recognition. This is the place where I’m focusing my attention for now - there are those of us who have not only read the book but have realized that we can drop the anxieties we might have about not fitting in and instead can pursue a more authentic, whole and healthy life.
I found a list of empowered HSP qualities compiled by Jacquelyn Strickland very useful as something to aim for (acknowledging of course that every day, all of us will struggle to maintain success in each category – its an ongoing project):
Has a strong spiritual life and sense of being worthy.
Proactive - taking time to figure out things ahead of time
Resourceful in reaching out, finding answers and asking for what you need
Trusts their instincts and intuition to grow and change
Has knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the trait
Takes the initiative to act vs. react
Is good at setting boundaries
Is good as identifying, accepting and expressing needs
Is good at recognizing strengths in self and others
Has done the therapeutic work of healing from past wounds & trauma
Perseveres at finding a unique way "to fit" in the world in a meaningful way
Does cognitive work to prevent the downward spiral into negative thought patterns
Feels in control even in the midst of chaos
Promotes the trait as a positive
Honors and recognizes their 'priestly advisor' gifts
Can say 'no' without apology, anger, guilt, resentment or defensiveness
Strives to find and follow a passion
Is responsive to "light" and "truth" as in 'numinous'
Strives to be authentic, whole and in integrity as much as possible, and knows when to protect one’s authenticity when necessary
Is at peace, rest, centered in love (not necessarily with another person,) but 'love' as a way of being.
Has developed and practiced coping skills such as meditation, boundary setting, getting enough sleep;
Respects, honors - and sometimes acts - on their strong emotional reactions to disturbing events
Trusts in the beauty of their feelings and needs
In terms of potential, however, our own lives are only half of the story. There are millions of knowledgeable, fully-functioning, gifted HSPs out there who have yet to realize that their voices are needed in the bigger scheme of things. There is so much more to do, there is a far greater purpose to living authentically with your sensitivity than learning self-care strategies or understanding why you startle more easily than others - it involves empowerment and the benign use of power. The benign use of power involves the ability to initiate constructive change for the betterment of self and society. Benign use of power is a very particular skill that requires practice, understanding, higher order processing, the ability to see short and longer-term consequences and moral responsibility – how many people do we know that we can trust to wield power this thoughtfully?
When we look at the way in which being genetically highly sensitive provides an important second strategy for doing life, for maintaining survival of the species as a whole, we assume that this matters mainly to the individual sensitive people and those closest to them. But this is just not true – on a larger scale, it is not enough that we do our individual lives differently, we also have a purpose in influencing others, both HSPs and non-HSPs, to think differently about how we all live, what risks we take, how we improve not only our own lives, but those of our family, community and yes, our planetary eco-system.
Elaine Aron talks about how all HSPs are creative in one way or another, yet we can often overlook this strength. Despite our maturity, we find we have painted ourselves into a corner where we stay in unproductive workplaces or systems rather than leave to develop new ways of working.
As mature HSPs, should we keep trying to fit in, or do we lead by leaving the old behind and standing on our values as we look towards the future? There is a trend at present to offer employees the chance to work four days a week instead of five (on the same pay; studies have shown that people who work in this way produce just as much, take less sick leave, are more dedicated and better parents). I wonder if these initiatives were brought about by mature HSPs using their innate wisdom. Finally, perhaps, HSPs are beginning to demonstrate that quality of life really does matter for everyone and that HSP-friendly adjustments actually help the other 80% too.
The opportunity to work from home more has come about almost by accident in the last two years, many HSPs out there have felt like their prayers have been answered. Yet before this, the idea of change, the idea of new and creative ways of working was slow to have an influence on the archaic system of working that has been forced on most of us for so long. Yet instinctively, we knew as HSPs that a choice to work differently would reap rewards for all. Whilst some (including perhaps HSP extroverts) will miss the workplace bustle and interaction, the fact that people could actually have a choice about how long they spend in the office and how much time they spend at home, is a breakthrough that could not come too soon for a small but significant minority. However, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it hadn’t taken a global tragedy to bring about these creative and common sense ideas and options? If mature HSPs were leading, or at least participating in areas of influence, industries and workplaces could benefit from their ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems.
So, what can we do to play our part? Well, first, we must find a way to break out of jail ourselves before we can become advocates for those who are left behind. We can seek to emulate the qualities of empowerment as listed above. We can do this in quiet ways, if that is our style, but it’s important to recognise that, alongside sensitivity, many HSPs have natural leadership abilities. We have a voice, its ok to use it! It’s ok, even important, to talk about an idea, even if others don’t at the time seem to get it – this is a characteristic experience of evolutionary or visionary thinking, not necessarily a sign that we are ‘getting it wrong’. Even when we have grown as HSPs and have found a way to live our lives more authentically, it’s still possible that we have not yet reached the place of real maturity and vision that is natural for our trait, so it might be a bit scary to think about voicing some of the ideas that have until now remained safe inside our minds or perhaps been dismissed the first time we spoke out.
Finding a way to maintain our growth towards maturity and contentment as an HSP is very important, and let’s not forget that sometimes a sense of unhappiness can be masking our frustration that we are yet to truly connect with our higher purpose or role in the ‘bigger picture’. Feeling unhappy can be a trigger for growth. Jacquelyn Strickland at her HSP Gathering Retreats (co-founded with Elaine Aron), often talks about the ‘spiritual journey of the highly sensitive person’. It looks different from the journey of the other 80% and that’s because it’s designed to be different. What can we do to maintain our progress to live as authentic HSPs, to explore that journey more, to fulfill our purpose on behalf of the human tribe, to step forward among our peers and help to lead the way? What support do we need to do that? What does our progress look like? What are the rewards when we succeed? Profound questions, which need people like us to consider and address.
Well, these are all things to think about if we wish to be a fully mature, no-nonsense HSP – how will you begin your journey and how will your mature, gifted, authentic, wise and whole life look in the future?
HSP events and trainings
For a list of upcoming events, please click this link UPCOMING EVENTS. :). Our calendar of events runs all year round, but we usually take a break for the summer, July and August.
Difficult times - thoughts on peace, war and responsibility
In these difficult times, as an HSP (highly sensitive person), I try to use my best power - my deep processing. With so much going on in the world, so much distress, it is important that I both allow my distress to be felt and expressed but also then to think about my feelings and look for wisdom in the embers of the emotional fire. Something I have found myself thinking about a lot is how warfare comes about. My conclusion thus far is that whatever conflict we see out there, it starts with a sense of entitlement. Often driven by men raised in a culture of popular ‘masculine’ expectation, who have somehow confused their own sense of toxic personal entitlement with political entitlement. Their entitlement has often led to a lack among those they hold power over, (family, colleagues, nations) creating shortages or imbalance of resources, both physical and emotional in the system that they dominate and creating a dependency that just encourages more of the same. They take the same tools to war that they take into their homes, in their offices, in their back-room sports.
Having worked in years past in the field of domestic violence, one of the things I learned was that domestic violence is a product of attitude, an attitude towards more vulnerable groups (in this case usually women or children) and an attitude towards self-knowledge (unwillingness to be taught, to grow, to share power or to be wrong). In Russia in recent years, it has not gone unnoticed that there has been a change in the laws around domestic violence to make it even more difficult for women to reach out for help and protection or to see their abusers prosecuted. The abusers are protected by the law and the daily battle in the home is continuing to be brought to those most unable to fight for themselves. It is not therefore a long shot to make the connection between that law and the way in which a totalitarian state like Russia makes decisions increasingly that adversely affect not only another country with a democratically elected leader who has a right to speak for his people, but also all Russians, who without their prior consent have been forced into a war that no-one wants, with young soldiers dying for something that they did not sign up for, or learning through that process the hard way, how to be a (toxic) man. The prevailing attitude is that the leader can never be wrong and anyone around him trembles if they have a need to disagree.
But what can we do to prevent any of this? As usual, as an HSP I remember that longer-term thinking and planning often creates the permanent solution, but so often it’s the path that mankind is too impatient to take. How do these war-mongering men get to the point where they think it’s ok to take such child-like, impulsive bullying into the adult world? At what point are we are we able to subdue or retrain these toxic attitudes and behaviours in order to prevent those qualities playing out in the larger arena?
I guess I’m thinking that systems and families like this continue or develop when those with influence fail to look at the longer term picture and take responsibility. It is not a coincidence, I feel, that the Ukrainian leader has a background as a comedian and yet has somehow galvanised some of the most noble and courageous solidarity amongst his own people and the people of the wider world. Comedians are well known for speaking truth to power, for causing us all to contemplate our human weaknesses, our mistakes, in a non-judgemental way - we recognise through comedy what links us all as fragile, imperfect human beings. When we laugh, we show each other our hearts, we don’t feel shamed and we take in the wisdom with less resistance. This is benign leadership and something that so many of us can develop in our smaller spheres of influence.
In a book on diplomacy that I read some years ago, I learnt that the true art of diplomacy is being interested in helping others to feel safe and at peace in our company. By doing this, the aim of diplomacy is achieved - people speak their truth, knowing that their concerns and opinions will be heard and taken into account, they do not feel threatened and this allows feelings of generosity to flourish - those listening learn more about others in this process and this improves their ability to work alongside their fellow humans to achieve mutual goals. Recently I saw a post on Facebook that quoted “boundaries help me to love you whilst also loving myself” - this reminded me that our obsession with geographical boundaries and wanting to surmount, move or remove them is not really the point, even though arguments about them can bring about wars. We can have these boundaries without seeing their presence as a threat in fact they help us to love and protect each other whilst also loving and protecting ourselves.
In conclusion, where does this leave us now? I guess there are some questions we can ask ourselves:
- At what point do I voice my concern when I see toxic entitlement?
- Is there really a place anywhere, in the home, in schools, at work when toxic entitlement should go unchallenged?
- What role do women play in how this toxicity develops?
- Where are the strong, loving men who can teach younger generations to cherish gentleness, benign strength, peace, sharing and unity?
- How do I demonstrate the opposite of entitlement and promote the qualities of diplomacy?
- How do I encourage or praise acceptance and tolerance when I see it?
- How do I use graceful boundaries?
- What can I do each day to maintain peace and love in my own life, so that at the very least, I do not add more to the burden of toxicity that the world is bending under at the moment?
- Is there an area of growth, assertiveness, acceptance, tolerance or self-knowledge that I need to address in order to achieve authenticity and to have more to offer?
Perhaps you may have some ideas that you would like to share on this topic?
Take care, all of you and I hope that good and beautiful things will continue for you, whatever troubles you encounter along the way. Take heart that your sensitive strength is a life-line in troubled times - not only to you, but to all those around you 🙏🏼.