HSP Living: The Perils of the "Us vs. Them" trap
Exciting times: "I'm a Highly Sensitive Person!"
Learning that you are-- in fact-- something called "a Highly Sensitive Person" can be a life-changing event for those who discover they have the trait.
In many cases, the sudden understanding that "I'm an HSP" means shedding years of living under a dark cloud called "there's something WRONG with me" and instead exploring the reality that there's nothing you need to "fix," just a lot of new things to learn and understand about yourself.
For some, the learning process might include some sadness or even outright anger-- maybe we spent years in therapy, trying to "treat" something that now turns out to not be a "treatable thing." We feel like we may have been "wasting our time." Maybe we feel like the world has "treated us badly" for no reason at all.
A few people are outright unhappy that they can't be "fixed"-- they want their sensitivity to be something "treatable."
Quick (and FREE!) Sensitivity Self-test
If you're not sure what is meant by a "Highly Sensitive Person," you might consider taking this free online sensitivity self-test on Dr. Elaine Aron's web site.
This article specifically talks about high sensitivity as Dr. Aron defines it; whereas there are other cultural and social interpretations of the concept, they are not covered here.
The book that started it all
I'm not much into "sales pitches," but if you think of yourself as "highly sensitive" and have NOT read this book, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Elaine Aron's landmark research into high sensitivity has changed the lives of millions of people, and her book tends to be FILLED with "Aha moments" for the HSPs who read it. It's the best ten bucks you'll ever spend. (Sales pitch over!)
Learning about, and making peace with, the HSP trait
Although learning about being a Highly Sensitive Person often offers people a great sense of relief, the learning process can sometimes turbulent and distressing.
It is not unusual for the process to be accompanied by a substantial dose of anger or frustration, as well. These feelings can have a number of sources.
Maybe we feel angry because we "didn't learn about this sooner."
Maybe we feel angry because our family of origin treated us badly and even mocked or laughed at the fact that we seemed "TOO sensitive," and then insisted it was "all in our head."
Maybe we feel angry because we spent years getting treatment for anxiety, shyness or some other "disorder," perhaps because we got the "you need HELP" vibe from those around us.
Maybe we feel angry because the "greater world" seems to be biased against "sensitivity," even when we are able to show or "prove" that it's something real, with a scientific basis.
Whatever our source of anger may be, it's definitely an "honest emotion" which we shouldn't deny, but we must remain mindful of our own inner states.
There's nothing wrong with anger, BUT...
There's nothing wrong with a little well-placed anger. Although many HSPs are "anger avoidant," anger can serve us as a catalyst for change; anger reminds us that something is not as we would like it to be.
Unfortunately, what often happens when we become a little angry and learn that we "are" something (such as "a Highly Sensitive Person") is that we also tend to focus on the notion that others "are not" that same something.
As a piece of simple awareness, there's also nothing wrong with that. Where problems arise is when we start to "blame" others for our predicaments and look for "reasons" why our lives are the way they are... in other people.
It starts innocently enough: we might think something like "If only non-HSPs understood how easily I get overstimulated by crowds!" I know I've had those kinds of thoughts, plenty of times!
And then we move onto "If only my mother-brother-lover-friend-associate did this-and-that my life would be so much easier!"
Again, there's nothing wrong with understanding our needs and setting healthy boundaries, but it can easily become a slippery slope into resentment, judgment and finger-pointing when we start to "require" others to behave in specific ways.
The "Blame Game"
Unfortunately, it's very easy-- even for "gentle spirited" HSPs-- to slip into their own version of the blame game. And it tends to center around "Us (the HSPs) vs. them (non-HSPs)" thinking.
We start seeing the world in terms of "HSPs" and "non-HSPs." Then we start looking at how our "difficulties" always seem to be related to something done by "non-HSPs."
Maybe we even start to blame them for our struggles, and start "demanding" that they behave differently-- either directly, or indirectly through passive-aggressive posturing.
We start using negative and exclusionary language: "Well, you just wouldn't understand, because you're not an HSP!" which is more likely to "build fences" between us, rather than "build bridges" of understanding.
In some cases, I have come across HSPs who have reached a point in which the "rest of the (non-HSP) world" is perceived as outright evil. Phrases like "If only other people were more like HSPs, we wouldn't have all these problems!" start showing up.
Whereas this kind of thinking may "feel good" for a moment, it is unfortunately more likely to add to our suffering and pain, than to create solutions and understanding.
As an HSP, have you found yourself engaging in "Us vs. Them" thinking?
Of Labels, and "Boxes," and things
So let's consider the concept of "being an HSP" for a moment. In the most basic interpretation, the term "Highly Sensitive Person" is a "label." No more, no less.
In essence, a label is like a road map. It tells us something about the territory we are moving through. But the map... is not THE territory, only a representation.
So it is with psychological labels. They are not our "identity," they are simply pieces of information. Sure, we may adopt a series of acronyms like "HSP, INFP, ADHD, PhD" and so forth but what we're really doing is describing ourselves.
But when we start to strongly self-identify with the labels, we might also run into some limitations. When we make "I'm an HSP" the cornerstone of our identity and not just a piece of information, we've put ourselves into a "box" of sorts-- it's not other people who are putting us in a box.
Suddenly, we are "in" the box and everyone else is "outside" the box. Maybe we allow some people who "think like us" to be "in" our box, with us, maybe not.
Ultimately, this presents a problem: For most HSPs, one of our great desires seems to be that we want to "be understood." But when we put ourselves into a very tightly defined "box" where we allow nobody else in, we effectively build fences and walls between us and the people we are claiming "don't understand us." But how are they ever going to understand us, if we keep excluding them from our "box?"
One of the world's most useful self-help books!
As an HSP, this is one of my favorite books-- even though it has no direct bearing on high sensitivity. However, because HSPs tend to engage extensively in introspection and self-study... having a "guidebook" is important. Martin Seligman is recognized by many as the "Father of Positive Psychology," and in this book he takes on the topic of REAL change... and what we CAN and can NOT change, about ourselves. Well worth a read, for HSPs and ALL who are interested in self-improvement.
Letting go of the Identification
It is not always easy to "let go" of being strongly identified with our labels. And for many of us, learning that we were Highly Sensitive Persons was hugely important. So we identified strongly with "I'm an HSP."
But it is important to let go, to some degree, in order to live emotionally healthy and fulfilling lives. And in order to fully "integrate" the trait into our lives, and live our lives in the world, rather than apart from it.
HSPs are beautiful, creative, innovative and often very powerful individuals. But in order to truly be that, we must learn to focus on making the most of ourselves, rather than putting all our energy into how "others" are different (or even "wrong") and how they need to do things, or adapt, or change in order for our lives to be better.
If you think about it... wanting "other people" to suddenly become sensitive is exactly the same as what we experience when someone says "You're just too sensitive. You need to get over that!" Only... in reverse.
Remember, we're not talking about behaviors here, we're talking about innate temperaments-- how people (ALL people) are hardwired from nature's side. Metaphorically speaking, a zebra has stripes. Blaming it for having stripes and expecting it to become a giraffe is a meaningless-- and doomed-- proposition!
Healthy use of the HSP "Label"
I am sometimes asked what a "healthy" HSP looks like. And what constitutes a "healthy" way to use the HSP label.
The question saddens me slightly... because of the inherent assumption that HSPs start off as "unhealthy," somehow. I can embrace the idea that we may start off as "misunderstood," but that's very different from "unhealthy." I suppose my hesitation comes from the feeling that it's just another way people (even well-meaning HSPs) interpret high sensitivity as an "illness" rather than a "trait."
After some 18 years of learning about and trying to understand all the nuances of being a Highly Sensitive Person, here's the simplest suggestion I can make:
For many years, I "defined" myself in terms of "being an HSP." Most of my thinking-- and my choices-- were heavily influenced and guided by the words "... because I'm an HSP."
A few years ago, I experienced a subtle shift in my internal philosophy for living. Central to that was a shift in my thinking, from everything being "... because I'm an HSP" to "I'm a human being who happens to be an HSP."
I've-- by no means-- turned my back on being an HSP, but instead of it being "the explanation and reason for EVERYthing" in my life, it has just become an integral part of who I am, as a person, living life. I am not trying to live my life "separate from" the rest of humanity, but as "part of" it-- I just happen to approach things a little differently, because I'm an HSP.
And maybe that's the best thing we can all strive for!
Help spread awareness of the HSP trait!
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Here's the the thing: The more people know about high sensitivity as an innate inborn trait (rather than assuming it's a "mental disturbance") the better off we ALL are.
So don't share this article for ME, share it for the benefit of the millions of HSPs who don't yet know they are highly sensitive... and who just need some "tiny trigger" to become aware that their lives aren't quite what they seem.
© 2014 Peter Messerschmidt