How we carefully craft our own cage
Wouldn’t it have been good to have known what we now know about our high sensitivity, and to choose an authentic life from the beginning? I guess that younger generations might have some chance of that since information about high sensitivity, what it is, what it isn’t and what it’s for, will be better understood and supported. For those few who have always had the encouragement both as children and adults to follow their authentic sensitive desires, this is already a reality and a success story. But for a significant number of HSPs, life has been, and continues to be, very difficult. Highly sensitive people in particular often comment that whilst others seem to float along, enjoying life, managing full time jobs, children, home life, hobbies, extended families and a social life with ease, HSPs often feel that, in comparison, they are dragging themselves through life. They report a constant struggle for the quiet gentleness of deep and fulfilling sleep, for truly connected friendships and relationships, meaningful work experiences and will experience a fairly constant sense of agitation, exhaustion, restlessness or entrapment of the soul.
How can it be that we have such a hard time? To all intents and purposes, we have a brain that can be highly creative and empathic, our nervous system responds so deeply to what goes on around us that it gives us the capability to notice and meet the needs of others with such detailed awareness, but when it comes to ourselves, what goes wrong?
It’s hard to pinpoint where this begins, but if we start at the genetic level, it’s clear that we are programmed to respond strongly to our environment. That environment includes the culture we grow up in. One of the first things that happens is that we are influenced by the constructs, values and goals of the dominant (non-HSP) culture. Even if we wonder, as children, about the point of these goals, the constant repetition of what we ‘must’ do, ‘must obtain’ gradually convinces us that others know best, that as young people, we need to ignore our instinctive knowing and follow the majority plan. Grownups who do their life differently than the majority might often be pointed to by significant people in our home or school life as ‘weird’, ‘failing’ or ‘weak’. Even when we notice others finding fulfilment differently, we can sense that it’s not a good idea to join them, know them or follow them. This means we can end up feeling quite lonely - being aware we don’t really experience the fulfilment that the majority seem to, but also disconnected from those with whom we might find some kind of bond. We conform to survive. This is how the trap starts.
Then what happens? Once we have been persuaded that the dominant culture is probably right, we start to get ‘comparison-itis’. We compare everything about ourselves - our wants, our needs, our goals - with what we see the majority pursuing. So off we go - we ‘work hard’ in school because we have to show we are qualified (for something), we choose topics of study that the majority judge to be relevant. Thus, education can be quite a conflicting experience. We follow the majority through a curriculum that might not entirely meet our needs (and probably not our authentic goals) - and we do this full time, often exhausted but trying to hide it. Afterward, limping to an acceptable level of education, we go out into the world of work where we chase full-time work that is often paced at a faster rate than we can realistically manage and strive towards values that don’t always sit well with us. But again we ‘get on with it’, hiding from others that even as we progress ‘up the ladder’, we are still not happy. The trouble is, we are not sure what will make us happy! All we know is we have to keep ‘doing stuff’ and ‘getting stuff’ and it’s exhausting.
If we continue in this vein, without knowledge of our trait and without role models who are living authentically, what then? We might find friends and a partner who are part of the dominant culture in terms of goals and values. Dominant-culture life is working well for them, so we promise to our partner and ourselves that we will give them the best on offer from that culture. We continue to work super-hard to get what they want and where they want to go. We unconsciously influence our children that they should have the best, they can’t possibly have anything less and we do this in the most well-meaning way, hoping that they will fare better than us in the world. Further into the rat race we all go, even more exhausted, less and less fulfilled, yet we can’t do anything else because we don’t know how to get that fulfilment any other way. We respond to the needs and desires of others like our life depends on it. Like me, need me, value me, make my life feel worthwhile because I can’t seem to do that for myself.
But just imagine that we do, at some point, after providing all these things for others and not for ourselves, see a chink of light? Perhaps we read about how things could be different, or through ill health or circumstance end up with a lengthy time to re-evaluate our lives - then we might begin to have some insight into our true identity and an idea of what an authentic sensitive life might be.
This is when we become aware of the cage we have built for ourselves. We start to see a different way forward, but it doesn’t feel comfortable leaving our familiar path. We begin to suffer from a huge dread of ‘disappointing others’. How can we tell our spouse we want to downsize so we can work fewer hours to have more quality of life? How can we tell the children, that we have led to value all that money or education can buy, that it’s time to accept less, or something different, or find another way? That fear of disappointing and potential loss looms darkly ahead. Our empathic capability turns against us as we feel their disappointment like it’s our own, even before we have raised the topic with them. The cage becomes a bit clearer and starker. Then the next experience arises: we don’t want to disappoint ourselves At least if we carried on doing all the things that don’t make us happy, the dominant majority will look at us and approve – we feel like, on some level, that we are a success. Even though we have to wear a mask every day, somehow, that can seem better than leaving the majority path and risking the temporary loneliness of difference. Of course, disappointment brings with it the process of grief for the life we thought we would have, the future we believed was the right one - in order to find a new path we need to let this go - so we then wrestle with the powerful emotions of regret and grief. Grief for all the suffering we have put ourselves through, grief for the loss of the old goals and expectations that we promised ourselves would one day deliver happiness. We have to grieve before we can move on toward genuine contentment.
And finally, the last hurdle - confusion about our legacy. If doing all that I’ve previously done, if owning all this stuff, if giving my partner or child all the things he/she wants isn’t going to make me happy and ultimately going to feed my soul, what legacy exactly do I want to leave? How can I live and what will I leave behind that I will feel is authentic and meaningful in terms of my legacy here as a highly sensitive person?
This is where a full evaluation takes place. We have to search for areas of our life so far that have met with our authentic self. This might be that even though we have been wearing a mask, we have still managed to instill some values in our children that feel genuine. Perhaps we did manage one hobby through which we revealed our true self, or had one friendship where we were able to be fully seen, truly vulnerable and known as the authentic sensitive person we are. Maybe we were able to make even a small part of our work life meet our need for meaningful work.
Finally, we might be ready to look at how we can even gradually bring more and more into our lives that truly represents who we are and what we value. We develop the ability to speak, give ourselves permission to change our mind, share our true beliefs and feelings about what we want from life. Slowly the cage door opens and we step through it, sometimes with loved ones following us, sometimes to meet new friends and family on the outside.
For those of us who feel the need to “get off highway 101” (J Strickland), in search of your most fulfilling life, know that you are not alone and that once on the path, you will find others who are walking the same way and have pieces of the map to your destination. You will have so much to offer in return, as your authentic Self.
Good luck with your journey, whatever map you choose to follow 🙂
Are you highly sensitive?
'Sensory Processing Sensivity' has been researched over many years by Elaine Aron, author of 'The Highly Sensitive Person' (click here to buy this book). Take the self-test at hsperson to see if you are experiencing life as an HSP; Elaine also has a very informative collection of articles on her website (also see 'Comfort Zone').
Barbara has been working with HSPs in a therapeutic setting for over 20 years and has developed knowledge and techniques for helping HSPs to transform their way of experiencing themselves from surviving to thriving. She founded the National Centre for High Sensitivity in 2010, you can view it here..
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL WORKSHOPS, AND TRAINING FOR PROFESSIONALS
TRAINING WORKSHOPS FOR PROFESSIONALS ON SENSORY PROCESSING SENSITIVITY
I offer workshops on high sensitivity for professionals from a variety of fields, parents and managers of HSPs - If you would like to have a workshop in your area, do contact me with any ideas of venues and interested colleagues so that I can create a workshop for you.
Here is a brief interview with Dr Elaine Aron, where she describes some of the joys and challenges that HSPs face - these are among issues discussed on the Introductory Workshops : )
ELAINE ARON ON SENSITIVITY
PERSONAL ASSESSMENT FOR HSPs
If you are new to the concept of High Sensitivity, consider spending some time with me here for a personal assessment. I will help you to make an assessment of: Your physical health, sleep, nutrition and fitness; Your lifestyle, career choices and interests; Your emotional health, relationships and wellbeing. You will come away with some advice, tips and inspiration, plus a better idea of how High Sensitivity fits with a better future for yourself and the important people in your life. Call or email to book some time. Please take into consideration that most HSPs function best in daylight hours, so a daytime appointment is advised where possible. My usual working hours are weekdays, 10am to 4pm and I work from two venues, one in Andover, Hampshire, the other in Pendeen, Cornwall.