In current times, it has to be said that things for HSPs are showing potential for improvement. More people know about the trait’s existence, some of those understand what this trait actually is in genetic or scientific terms and some understand it in bigger than scientific terms, of how we fit into the expression and purpose of the larger tribe of man. And yet ….
Sometimes, we are struggling, despite our knowledge and education on the topic, to actually express our highly sensitive nature in our normal, everyday lives. It’s often when I see those HSPs who are exhausted, or constantly stressed, or with unhealed wounds, that I wonder what is going on – they know the facts of who they are, yet are failing to truly thrive thus far. But that’s not all – a lot of these HSPs out there are successful, going to work, building businesses, gaining respect and recognition for their gifts, fulfilling parental roles and so on, but even so, I don’t think the majority, in their heart of hearts, could say they feel perfectly well or perfectly aligned to their natural needs and activities, even now. I wonder why this is? When a perfectly healthy HSP, with a good job, lovely family and nice life-style chooses to come and see me for mentoring, about ‘managing life more effectively’, it makes me stop and think – what exactly is making these HSPs think that they need more of anything in their lives right now? And when they say ‘managing more effectively’, what does that mean, really? Is this their way of saying they are unhappy?
I’m in a privileged position of having met, in my lifetime, hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful HSPs. In my twenty years as a therapist, I met many, often presenting with anxiety, low mood, sometimes addictions, who at the same time as needing to be somewhere where they could be understood and supported, were leading some quite astonishingly successful lives, or at the very least, lives that most people would love to have (looking from the outside, anyway). Later, as I moved slowly into specialising in education of professionals about our trait, and providing more varied spaces and settings for HSPs to get support and to meet each other, I began to realise that this was about more than educating with information about the HSP trait (information is power after all) – it’s actually about an internal war against external culture. This is a very interesting topic, since studies have shown that HSPs are less influenced by cultural systems than others (I suspect in part due to their deeper processing, in particular, the processing of their value system) [Aron A. et al. (2010)].
So, what is happening, that makes apparently-empowered HSPs, struggle so hard to find a sense of true wellness or peace? Is it simply that they are expressing the typical experience of the minority in a majority-dominated environment? Certainly, living non-HSP lifestyles can be precarious for HSPs due to over-stimulation, lack of down time (and the extravert imperative that might not suit the 70% of introverted HSPs). There is also the pressure to adapt to the way the other 80% live their daily life, plus the pressure to meet the mile-stones of life that feel normal to the non-HSP, at a time that feels right for them, but maybe not HSPs. In theory, if we are aware of these pressures, why is it so hard to get a real sense of wellbeing and make choices that benefit us and help us to live an authentic HSP life?
By the time you get this far in this article, you are probably thinking, ‘yes, Barbara, that’s exactly what it is like, I read Elaine Aron’s book cover to cover, I studied articles about my trait, I’ve made quite a few changes in my life already, so why is it? Why don’t I feel ‘right’ yet?’.
Well, that’s a great question and although I don’t claim to have the answer, I do think it’s worth sharing some thoughts I am having about this, to see what others think. My over-arching and general heading for my ideas on this is ‘we are still not doing enough to be our real selves.’ Yes, by all means, eat healthily, it will help. Go to bed an hour earlier, it will help. Choose your friends or partner more wisely, it will help. Reduce your work hours a little, it will help. Visit nature more often, it will help. But is that it? We may not realise it, but that is the kind of thing that helps non-HSPs – they benefit greatly from ‘little’ changes like that. But us, highly sensitive people, is that really enough? I really wonder if we are being brave and clear enough about what really is an authentic way of living for a highly sensitive person.
Is there a little voice in your mind now, saying ‘What? You can’t really expect that HSPs just pick up and seek a life of solitude and creativity, surely? What about everything they have built their foundation on? What about the mortgage? What about the people in my life? What about my friends? What about money?’.
Well, no, I wasn’t thinking every HSP should throw their hands up and vacate the modern world and leave everyone they love, so you can breathe a little easier – certainly not all HSPs are the same and neither are their needs. But – I am saying that there is a possibility that we are ‘tweaking’ our lives a little here and there at the edges and hoping that this will be enough. Clearly, if we are still not feeling ‘right’, its not enough, is it? I imagine that might sound like bad news… at least initially. You see, one of the most pressing issues that all of us have when we say we want to make changes, is that we want to make changes whilst not really making changes – its human nature, not just HSP nature. And we as HSPs do it just as much as anyone. In reality, we need to get a grip on the process of real change – or forever feel like somehow some kind of mark is being missed. Don’t know if that makes sense to you? Let me give you an (anonymised) example of the way these things often go for HSPs:
A number of years ago, a talented young man in his twenties came to see me. He knew what high sensitivity was and was relieved to have found out about it. It made sense of his life as a teenager, feeling out of sorts, anxious, not sure he fitted in. It made sense of the ‘kind of breakdown’ he had suffered in the first year of his degree. At the time, he had gotten through it. His life had been one of doing the right thing, making his parents proud, getting an education and going to the big city to be the success that everyone could see he would be. Well, that was fine for the first two or three years at work in London. Then breakdown number two arrived. His was a typical HSP breakdown – anxiety and constant activity, followed by exhaustion, depression, work-phobia and getting signed off by the doctor for a number of months and taking mild anti-depressants/anti-anxiety meds (which were helping a bit).
We talked about HSP life-style, the pressure to socialise in his job, the number of hours he was working, the need for downtime, good food and suitable friendships. Also, what type of work and work environment did he need? At this stage there was no partner, no children, so options were fairly flexible. So, as the weeks went on, much resting and re-framing, this HSP began to recover, to make plans to go back to work, a little more on his own terms.
The focus was mostly around work, this was the remit I was given and the one he worked to – and that is where I think things were ‘not enough’. The fact was, this lovely HSP needed a life transplant, not a different way of working. Ultimately, two years further down the line, with now a lovely fiancée and so much ‘going for him’, the inevitable collapse happened again, despite adjustments to his work schedule and social life. At what stage, I wonder, should both he and I have been thinking about what was the real extent of his natural, authentic need as an HSP in terms of his home and work environment? Needless to say, after a couple more years of not feeling well, he finally decided that a space in the country as opposed to the city was probably the best place for him, along with part time, but reasonably paid work. His fiancée decided that the countryside and a quieter life wasn’t for her and they parted company soon after he moved to a peaceful haven. Her leaving was one of the ‘inevitable losses’ that often take place when we make changes in our lives that really matter – sometimes we lose people, friends, fiancées – sometimes we lose ideas, plans, money, hobbies or work options. I imagine at this moment, you are thinking with horror that it’s all too much. But wait…..
Looking at him now, ten years on, I see a man with a loving partner who also enjoys and needs the peace of the countryside (in her own, more extroverted way), two little children with parents who have time and energy for them. Yes, he is not the high-flying city-guy that he set out to be, but I think he is happy. What’s more, his job actually entails helping families move out of the city to find homes in the countryside – a job he is well suited to both as an HSP who can intuit the complex needs of his clients and whose own history of growth and development provides a wonderful education that underpins his craft. Would he say, if you asked him, that he misses the old life? I don’t know. I imagine perhaps there might be some things he misses – the fast car and the kudos that big bucks brings, perhaps – the external version of success. But overall, I like to think he feels he made changes that bring him closer to who he is – and as a result, closer to who and what he loves.
So, what am I saying after all the above? I guess I’m saying, take a good look at your life over the last few years and check if there are any unmet needs that you really could do with attending to. Think about whether you are dallying at the edges of changes rather than taking yourself seriously.
Above all, don’t wait for permission to be yourself – or if you do need permission, be your own best advocate and weigh up your choices with fairness, kindness, patience, intuition and truth as your guides. Learn to differentiate between what ‘looks’ like you being happy and successful and what ‘feels’ like it. Enjoy the process and good luck .
Founder and Director
National Centre for High Sensitivity CIC