Why HSPs Have Trouble With Controlling People

If you are alive, you have met controlling people.

Controlling people can drive anyone crazy, but If you are a highly sensitive person, you may find the effect of controlling very difficult to live with.

Controlling people can certainly have that effect on me.

Controlling people will probably not understand why their behavior is problematic for you, the HSP.

Each HSP, however, needs to understand that controlling people can be very bad for their health.

Why Do People Control?

Most people only want to be happy. Many believe that controlling themselves and others is a method to achieve the desired result of happiness.

Some of the reasons people try to control others include:

  • they have low amounts of trust possible because of negative experiences
  • they think they are more competent
  • they have deep-seated prejudices about right and wrong
  • they have been taught fear
  • they perceive themselves as better and/or more “normal” than others 

Controlling people sometimes assume that others want and need what they want and need. Although we all have needs and desires in common, over-generalizing about other people is a mistake that controlling people often make.

Controlling people often treat others as an extension of their needs and desires. In extreme cases, the person is narcissistic in demanding that they be catered to.

So one reason that controlling people control is to get their needs met.

The Hidden Agenda Of Controlling People

It is fairly easy to recognize that controlling people are trying to get their needs met as we have discussed.

Controlling behavior also has a social function: to maintain their comfort level which they do by enforcing social norms and conforming behavior.

One thing I have noticed about controlling people is that they often have a wall around them. You can detect it in interacting with them. They are often guarded and measured.because deep down they are afraid. Protecting themselves from that fear can be their hidden agenda.

So if there is a conflict between a controlling person’s comfort zone and another person, the comfort zone will likely win out.

The Comfort Zone Dilemna

The controlling comfort zones of other people can be hard for the highly sensitive person to handle for several reasons:

  • we are naturally loathed to hurt others. We can feel bad when we upset someone’s comfort zone when we had no intention of doing harm. Such negative reactions over time can cause us to pull back, and doubt ourselves. We can see ourselves in an unnecessarily negative light.
  • we are sensitive to nuances which means that what we perceive to be a constructive course of action may interfere with someone else’s comfort zone. We can take on and internalize the conflict blaming ourselves and as a result cause ourselves a lot of emotional pain.
  • we are naturally creative which means our strategies may be way out of the box for our colleagues and friends. We can have a lot of difficulties navigating our creative differences with others.
  • we can be very farsighted in a shortsighted world. Our long sightedness may step on the comfort zone of people who seek short term rewards.

All of the wonderful qualities of highly sensitive people can make their relationships difficult because an HSPs talents can often lead to unwelcome change.

So what to do about this?

Letting Possibilities Guide Us

Handling fear – our fear or the fear of others  – is an important skill to master.

When we are dealing with controlling people, we can use our natural empathy to help others reduce their fear:

  • we can demonstrate the benefits of an action
  • we can offer proof
  • we can demonstrate that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain if that is the case
  • e can take the risks out of the closet, put them on the table and create a positive perception about how they can be handled.

Sometimes we can make the case for  moving out of our comfort zones. When the possibilities are attractive enough and the risks well handled, successful forward movement is possible.

What about those situations when you are not able to create enthusiasm for new possibilities?

Let Compassion Be Your Guide

There are many situations where an individual or an group is not interested in change and you have to honor their decision. Sometimes when an individual is controlling in favor of their comfort zone, they are respecting their own limits, and that is a healthy decision to make.

I think it is dangerous to assume what someone else needs or should do. Many of us require healing. The demands of healing may preclude creative activities. Or perhaps an individual simply has too much on their plate. That happens frequently as well.

It is important to honor where someone is and treat it with respect even if you do not agree and think they are wrong. You cannot force change and you might be doing harm in pushing too much. Very controlling people may have made a decision in favor of a less creative lifestyle in order to respect their personal needs.

Whenever we encourage a controlling person to let go of fear and try something new, we need to be promoting joy and wellness. We need to be supporting the agenda of our higher selves and the higher self of the other person. That may mean that we need to back off.

Highly sensitive people are lucky that their natural empathy can help them find compassionate relationship choices that can help a controlling person feel heard and loved. That is a great way to reduce fear, and helps others engage more with life.

What is a great gift to offer others!

Masking Our Intuitive Sensitivity

 

It’s two days before Halloween as my wife and I head to our favorite Italian restaurant in the city.  Entering the foyer of the restaurant, I notice a message written on the chalkboard listing the night’s specials. In addition to mussels with plenty of garlic and Venetian zuppa de peoci soup, a psychic is also on the menu tonight. “This should be good”, I tell my wife as we walk through the dimly lit dining room to a booth along the far wall.

I had recognized the psychic’s name written on the chalkboard; a local woman named Carol well-known in the area for her accurate readings on a local radio show. Our antipasto has just been served as the night’s entertainment begins. Sitting on a stool in the front of the room, I notice as Carol politely refuses an appetizer brought over by the owner stating that she doesn’t eat before reading for people.

Noticing the owner’s surprise she explains that the food will make her sleepy and affect her energy. It was an awkward moment; the food in this restaurant was some of the best in the area and I don’t think the owner ever had one of his dishes refused especially when he decides to serve it to her personally. But she stayed true to herself; not letting social pressures distract her from the job at hand. Taking note of her behavior, I was pleased to see her actions embrace her identity.

Our main course was served as Carol began to walk around the room, stopping at each table. Since we were sitting over by a far wall, we had pretty well finished our meal by the time she arrived. Talking to my wife first, she addressed some health and career concerns my wife had before turning to me and studying my face for a moment. “You do some really good work with people” she commented; “But in public, you keep that side of yourself so hidden; why is that?”

Still studying my face, she raised her eyebrows urging me to say something. There wasn’t much I could say; the fact that she knew that I always kept my intuitive sensitivity hidden around strangers without having ever met me was a testament to her psychic sensitivity. Perhaps, in response to my startled expression, she gave me kind smile and moved on to the next table. Watching her walk away, I knew without a doubt that she had just shown me how I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

Still studying my face, she raised her eyebrows urging me to say something. There wasn’t much I could say; the fact that she knew that I always kept my intuitive sensitivity hidden around strangers without having ever met me was a testament to her psychic and intuitive sensitivity. Perhaps, in response to my startled expression, she gave me kind smile and moved on to the next table. Watching her walk away, I knew without a doubt that she had just shown me how I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

Being Comfortable In Your Own Skin

For highly sensitive people, it is very easy for us to feel the emotions and unspoken attitudes of those around us.  During our interactions with others, if our intuitive sensitivity prompts a negative reaction from them, we are painfully aware of it. And, if over time this pattern repeats on an ongoing basis, we can become very hesitant to show our sensitivity at all.

In my own life, as a child raised in a household where I was taught that men didn’t cry or show much emotion, I could feel my father’s disapproval whenever I got too emotional. There was always that unspoken judgment hanging in the air between us. Being that I could sense the emotions of the people around me very easily, this mindset created a conflict with my sensitivity when I was growing up. Funerals were especially difficult where I would feel overwhelmed by the mourner’s emotional energy circulating within the room. Taught that crying in public was taboo, I would fight my sensitivity to keep my emotions in check.

Now sitting in a restaurant many years later, I found it ironic that right around Halloween when it is tradition to don a mask in order to elicit a specific response from those around you, I realized that I had been following that pattern most of my life; hiding my sensitivity behind a mask of acceptable social behavior.

Learning To Accept Our Intuitive Sensitivity

To be comfortable in our own skin means we have to be accepting and nurturing to the gifts our sensitivity bestows us in the face of a culture where being highly sensitive with intuitive sensitivity may not generate a favorable response. The key here is to stay focused on our values; following our values keeps us authentic which in turn allows us to acknowledge, and work with the gift of our sensitivity.

Living A Meaningful Life

In his Extraordinary Living Program, author Stephen Cope points out that in order to live a meaningful life requires we not only work with our gift but acknowledge the sacrifice which often accompanies it. For Highly Sensitive People, working with the gift of our sensitivity may require us to sacrifice the emotional need to fit in by not attracting unwanted attention. I find it interesting that Cope also states that most gifts are borne from a background of suffering at some level. Like myself, the majority of highly sensitive people I have met raised in dysfunctional family’s dealing with alcoholism or addiction issues also battle the “Don’t ask / Don’t tell”  syndrome of putting up a false front  in order to not attract attention to your family. Learned at an early age, we blend into our environments like a chameleon in order to avoid the predatory eye of judgment.

The Gift And Its Sacrifice

For the highly sensitive it’s not always easy. Recently, I spent an afternoon hiking with a friend who was grieving the death of a family member. Although I didn’t feel it at the time, the energy of her shared grief affected me on an emotional and physical level. Days later feeling moody and morose, I decided to take an early morning jog alone along the Mohawk River rather than meet up later that morning with my running partners Linda and Shelley. I simply did not have the energy to pretend that everything was OK with me and didn’t want my mood to bring them down.

However, in response to my text declining participation in our usual Sunday run along the river, I was surprised when both texted me back stating they would be on their way shortly and would meet me by my car. Shelley was the first to arrive. A highly sensitive person herself, as she got out of the car she immediately sensed my emotional state. As I spoke about my hike with our mutual friend earlier that week and its effect on my emotions, I saw her eyes tear up a bit as she went to hug me. My stammered apology wasn’t necessary. Shelley knew of my sensitivity and saw it hiding behind the mask of self-reliance I was trying to present.  “You need us right now” was all she would say.

Race, Culture and HSPs: "Black People Don’t Do Therapy"

 

I am no doubt an HSP. I’ve read Elaine Aron’s wonderful and eye-opening books, I’ve taken the quizzes in the workbooks and I’ve been greatly helped by much of the advice given on HSP websites and by knowing that I’m not alone. And like very many HSPs I’ve suffered bouts of depression and very high anxiety, the type that requires professional help. Yet there’s still this nagging feeling I always have, one I have to constantly temper, that my sensitivity and the symptoms it causes are just my “weaknesses,” and that I have to work hard to not let my weaknesses show. Now I know this is just negative self-talk, which any white person who is also HSP can relate to, but my feelings and self-talk are largely influenced racially and culturally as is true for many black people.

Black People And Sensitivity

Admitting to and showing great sensitivity is a no-no in my (Black American) culture.  Being “tough” and not “letting it ‘get’ to me” are what I was always encouraged and at times, demanded to do. I can still remember my dad screaming at me, “You got a WEAKNESS!” when I was about 12-years-old and being picked on at school. My mother would threaten to hit me if I ever cried. And since we customarily “take over” for our parents as adults and end up treating ourselves just as well or as badly as they did, I got to the point in my late 30s where I couldn’t leave the house without having a four-alarm panic attack and the bravest thing I could do was seek treatment. I could no longer function in that anxious, unbalanced state. All that “not letting it show” made me physically, and severely psychologically and emotionally sick. So even though seeking help put me in a category that is downright scary to contemplate (according to a recent Al Jazeera America special report, black people are half as likely to seek treatment for anxiety, depression or any other mental health-related issue as Whites), I had to save my sanity and my life. I weighed 112 pounds. I needed help. I was sick.

Black People And Therapy

According to a paper published by the National Institutes of Health in 2008, many people of color who end up seeking treatment stated that it was the need to get well that triumphed over the opinions of the family and community when it came to seeking treatment, and often at the crisis stage.

112 pounds! Panic attacks! Hello?!??

Jinneh Dyson, now senior manager of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, VA, had debilitating depression while at college in Texas and rejected the idea of therapy for years. Loved ones would say, “That’s going to make you crazy. You’ve just got to pray and have faith,” recalled Dyson, who is Black and the daughter of a Baptist minister. “They said, ‘That’s the way of the white man, poisoning you.'”

But guess what? I’m not religious. And I’m intelligent enough to know that neither God nor prayer can stop a serious panic attack. Therefore, I, like Ms. Dyson, sought treatment.

The statistics are pretty scary:

  • African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites;
  • Non-Hispanic Whites are more than twice as likely to receive antidepressant prescription treatment as are Non-Hispanic Blacks;
  • A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233%, as compared to 120% of Non-Hispanic Whites.

Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many other stress-related illnesses also affect Black Americans more adversely. This is no accident.  Therefore, it must be discussed and taken into account that all the anxiety and overstimulation affecting our community, and in particular those of us with highly sensitive natures, are large factors in these adverse medical outcomes, and can be addressed lovingly and effectively through good therapy.

Of course, race and culture weren’t the only factors in my getting sick. There was the job I lost, there was losing my sister, and losing the romantic relationship I was in at around the same time; there was even my lack of understanding about how important it is to my HSP nature to eat healthy, organic food and exercise regularly. Yet, I wasn’t thinking about those things when I opened the door to this new therapy center. I was thinking about connecting with someone of my culture, who speaks my cultural “language” and regularly uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in her practice, which I’ve been wanting to try (it’s the “doer” in me), to help patients with social anxiety, so that I don’t feel like such an alien in my brown skin anymore.

Trust And The Highly Sensitive Person

Because we are all vulnerable, trust is one of the most important issues for human beings and especially for highly sensitive people who have a lot of awareness from all of the energy they take in.

What Is Trust?

According to the Free Dictionary, trust has many different faces. It is:

  • about individual behavior and character as in the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence.
  • about expectations: confident expectation of something or confidence in the certainty of future payment for property or goods received
  • about beliefs: one upon which a person relies: God is my trust.
  • about keeping confidences: being entrusted with information, or valuables of some kind
  • about position: the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed: a position of trust.
  • a position in which trust is necessary and assumed: the fiduciary relationship of trustee or the legal structure that protects property of some kind.
  • commercial organizations set up to create monopolies (now illegal).
Trust, therefore, serves many functions:
  • it is an act of friendship. When we consider the needs of others we are acting to create social trust through friendship.
  • it means we can be accepted and heard. Trust is a vote for the good in ourselves, others and life. When we see and believe in the good we are more open to ourselves and others.
  • trust helps us develop confidence in ourselves. When we learn we develop skills and as a result are able to believe in ourselves. When we discover that we can learn one skill, we know that we can learn another skill and so our confidence grows.
  • it is social glue that makes it easier for people to work and live together
  • it can promote prosperity when institutions and businesses are trustworthy because it means people feel comfortable making investments in their communities.

Trust is the foundation of all healthy people, relationships and cultures. Without it no one can really thrive. So why is it such a challenge and even a problem?

Challenges To Trust

The lists above about trust also help us understand why trust can be a challenge:

  • expectations and trust are highly correlated. When expectations are not met people lose trust.
  • beliefs and trust are highly correlated. When people subscribe to the same beliefs there tends to be trust between them.
  • similarity creates trust because we have some confidence about what to expect. It is the basis of conformity and the feelings of safety that come with it. It also means that being different can call up feelings of distrust.

All of these things, expectations, beliefs and conformity are ways to create experiences that give people a feeling of safety. They are not intrinsically “bad” or “wrong”; however in a world that is ever changing and where diversity is reality they can be maladaptive and create problems.

How Trust Can Create Distrust

All social systems create values and goals. They are generally fixed and are like marching orders for everyone. When people conform they feel successful and are appreciated. When they do not they feel like failures and can be marginalized.

What happens when conditions change? It may seem obvious that when conditions change people change with them but that is not always the case and if some adapt and others do not that can be a source of friction. Here is an example.

If you are living in a place where people make a living growing olives and over time the climate conditions make olive growing difficult then you need to find a new occupation. If your family has an olive farm then that might be difficult since there is a huge investment in making olives. Some member of the family will want to find ways to continue with olive farming, others may want to switch crops and others may leave to do something else.

In this case olive farming has been the social and economic family glue. It is what everyone knows and trusts. Change over which no one had any control has destabilized what was a comfortable life. Some will feel that those who do not continue with olive farming are abandoning their family. Those that change may feel held back by those who are invested in maintaining the olive farming business.

The trust in the land, the farming business, the skills that everyone had to work in olive farming, and the ability to depend on each other has been eroded.

Trust when it is attached to a fixed idea is going to be challenged when conditions change. It does not matter what the situation is – change is inevitable as is the requirement that we adapt.

Trust And The Highly Sensitive Person

Highly sensitive people pick up on all of the energy around them and that includes all the discord and trust issues that are expressing themselves in the energy around them. In addition because they are outsiders, they often feel the distrust of people who live from a different set of values or identity. Trust issues, however, are great food for thought. They are like the loose thread on a sweater that if we pull it we can discover a whole lot of things about ourselves and others.

We all want to feel safe. There is nothing wrong with that. However what do we do when the price of that safety is too high? Do we give up too much of ourselves for a safety that is a fiction? Do we give even if we cannot afford to? What do we do when in order to be trusted by someone or a group we have to make huge sacrifices of ourselves?

Where do you draw the line? I would love to hear your strategies and answers.

 

Identity And Thoughts: Changing The Cultural Narrative For Highly Sensitive People

Do your thoughts drive you crazy?

Do you ruminate a lot and feel that you are going around in circles?

Do you think that your thoughts control you?

What Are Our Thoughts?

Our thoughts are mental pictures that we create.  They often seem automatic and out-of-control. They are a natural consequence of our interaction with daily life and are your way of processing and dealing with what is happening around you and to you.

Our thoughts are our mind’s desire to take care of us. They also are a way of our dealing with the unknown and unknowable. Our thoughts support our assumed identities and try to identify our place in the world. They help us to belong.

Unfortunately, our thoughts often seem to be running our lives.

Why Are Our Thoughts So Painful?

For many thoughts can be very painful because through our thoughts we determine here we stand in life. Our thoughts are essentially left brained operating in a linear way and aligned with the manifested world. They are mathematical and materialistic.

If we identify with our left brained thoughts then we are only looking at a small part of reality and not necessarily what is true.

One of the reasons thoughts can be painful is because they attempt to place us in an identity that works in a world that often has preconceived ideas about who we are and should be.

Our Thoughts And The Cultural Narrative

Our thoughts can be a lot of things. They can be about personal aspects of our lives as well as the public aspects. Sometimes they have a short term focus. Sometimes not.

Most often they seem to be a way of interpreting and dealing with the cultural narrative around us. The problem with continually engaging in this way is that the cultural narrative usually has a life of its own. For highly sensitive people, the cultural narrative is usually about non-HSP life and lifestyles so it is basically not about them.

We can, therefore, feel left out and our thoughts do not necessarily help us with that.

However, we are not here to serve a social structure. We are here to become our best self. Sometimes the social structure and our evolution are at odds and we are not suppose to fit in.

Reclaiming Your Narrative

It is important to have a sense of yourself separate from the narrative around you.

Narratives about life are just stories as the research on human evolution in Spiral Dynamics show. Narratives are the social structure created to support and justify a particular cultural embodiment. They change when we need to change. They are not sacred. One person’s narrative is not necessarily another person’s narrative.

Narratives are not necessarily the TRUTH.

When you try to be a part of the cultural narrative and take your identity from it, you may be creating problems for yourself.

Identifying with the cultural narrative works for many non-HSPs since the narrative usually reflects them.  It may feel wrong that they can be so comfortable in the cultural narrative when as a highly sensitive person you feel like an outsider.

For that reason, you have to identify a narrative for yourself or your thoughts will be dominated by ideas related to a narrative that doesn’t suit you and only causes you mental frustration.

Creating Your Own Narrative

Highly sensitive people need to create their own narrative.

We need to separate ourselves from the dominant narrative. To do so we need to make some mental adjustments:

  • see the existing cultural narrative as changing rather than fixed.
  • align your narrative with the evolutionary process going on around you. That way you support improvements in life and are not simply fighting the existing cultural narrative.
  • notice how your narrative can be helpful to others as a way to help you maintain your ability to connect with others.

When you take back your narrative, you can eliminate a lot of the thoughts you have about your place in the existing system and let your thoughts now serve where you are going and what you are becoming.

It is a great way to stop ruminating and start creating the life you deserve.

The Loneliness Problem

 

If we took a survey of HSPs, how many would say they are lonely?  Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Being alone and enjoying it come from our full engagement with life.  Loneliness is something else.

Loneliness often feels like we have been graded and found wanting.  It feels like a suffocating prison to which we do not hold the key. When we experience loneliness, we often experience it as a form of rejection. Sometimes it feels like we are in a different place from everyone else, and so we feel the loneliness of our difference. Our inability to find or share common ground can give rise to feelings of loneliness.

Being a highly sensitive person inevitably invites lonely feelings just because of who we are.  Because we perceive and experience differently, we are often at a disadvantage in our relationships. On an interpersonal basis sharing differences in perception and experience is not so difficult.  The greater difficulty comes from not really sharing the language of the competitive culture; our basis for interpersonal exchange is not there. The sensitivities and values difference that come from holistic perceptions and living from energetic experience are hard to integrate into an us vs. them culture.

Highly sensitive people have much to give in a world that often does not want what we have to offer. Our hearts are so big but they are often big by themselves. It can feel like you are out on a limb in a world that wants to chop it down at any moment. Very risky! Yet you cannot do otherwise because you would then be betraying yourself.  So you, therefore, carry the torch even if no one can see it, even when you feel foolish, hoping that at some point the world will stop long enough to see that there is no them and that then you will not be lonely anymore.

Social Habits And Sensitive People: The Four Tendencies

Once in a while, we come across concepts that are game changers for us as HSPs. This month, I would like to share something that has helped me in my own journey as an artistic HSP and might help you too. It comes from the work of New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, The Four Tendencies, one of several books she has written on happiness and habits.

Have you ever felt that you are hyper-aware of others’ expectations as an HSP and that it is easy for you to fulfill these outer expectations but somehow very difficult to fulfill your own inner expectations? While this can stem from many different and complex reasons (such as people pleasing), those reasons are not the whole story. It turns out that people have an innate, hardwired tendency that determines how they respond to different kinds of expectations. Learning about these can help us answer that frustrating question: Why am I so good at meeting other people’s expectations but not so good at fulfilling my own?

The Four Tendencies

In her latest book The Four Tendencies, Rubin talks about how different people respond differently to expectations. The seed of the book came in a conversation that Gretchen Rubin had with a friend. Rubin says:

“As I bit into my cheeseburger and my friend picked at her salad, she made a comment that would occupy my mind for years. In an offhand way, she mentioned, “I want to get myself in the habit of running, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then she added, in a crucial observation, “When I was on the high school track team, I never missed track practice, so why can’t I go running now?”

“Why?” I echoed.

“Well, you know, it’s so hard to make time for ourselves.”

“Hmmm,” I said.”

Rubin and her friend then started talking about other things, but even after they’d said goodbye, she couldn’t stop thinking about their exchange. Why was it that it had been easy for her friend to go running in the past but that wasn’t the case anymore? Was it her age, her motivation, her family situation or something else?

Explorations About Social Habits

Although her friend had assumed that everyone had “trouble making time for themselves,” that wasn’t true for Rubin. She did not have any trouble making time for herself. So, what was the difference between them? Rubin would spend the next few years trying to answer this question.

This search led to Rubin asking some preliminary questions to readers of her website. She found, weirdly enough, that groups of people answered the same question in 4 identical ways, almost down to the words they were using. To the simple question of “How do you feel about New Year resolution?” a subset of people gave this almost identical answer: “I’ll keep a resolution if it’s useful, but I won’t start on New Year’s Day, because January 1 is an arbitrary date.” Rubin was intrigued by the use of this specific word because the arbitrariness of the January 1 date had never bothered her. But so many people gave the same answer; what did they have in common?

In a similar way, another group answered: “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore because I never manage to keep them—I never make time for myself.”

Another group said: “I never make resolutions because I don’t like to bind myself.”

It was after a lot of this give and take on her blog and people naturally dividing themselves up into 4 distinct groups that Rubin had her eureka moment. She had found the key! The underlying question was: “How do you respond to expectations?” Answering this question led to her book, The Four Tendencies.

Expectations And The Four Tendencies

In fact, we all face two kinds of expectations: inner and outer. An inner expectation is something we place on ourselves, like a New Year’s resolution, while an outer expectation is something like a work deadline. Depending on how you respond to these expectations, Rubin found that people fell into one of these four types or four tendencies:

  1. Upholders respond to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
  2. Questioners question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they respond only to inner expectations
  3. Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  4. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Guess where I fell on this framework? I was an Obliger. If something was imposed from the outside, like a work deadline, I usually met it. But for years, I could not figure out why I wasn’t able to do enough on the side (like some people I knew were able to do), to switch careers or work on my writing. It turns out that Obligers need outer accountability. So, if you have an inner expectation, you have to, in a sense, turn it into an outer expectation and then, you will likely complete it.

Looking back, I saw that I had only written consistently and been most productive when I had been part of writing workshops. Here, I was expected to write, and I did. But left on my own, time would trickle down and I wouldn’t get to doing something that I, personally, wanted to do. Instead, I was getting caught up in other people’s agendas and running around helping (or unhealthily rescuing) first this person and then another.

It was after I let myself practice this concept (instead of thinking that I “should” be able to motivate myself on my own (something that Upholders, for example, find easy to do), that I finally got a writing coach. This turned out to be one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time. I have written more, more consistently than I have ever before in my life. I have applied for a writing grant that took months of work. For the first time in my life, I have felt that I am finally on my path.

What it took was re-framing something basic about me. This is similar to the kind of re-framing we often have to do as HSPs. An Obliger wrote something to Gretchen Rubin that I resonate with:

“As a TV writer, I’ve struggled miserably with my inability to stick to any kind of personal deadline, yet I’ve always been a dutiful employee who submits scripts on time to my boss. I’ve given this tendency many names: laziness, being irresponsible, being a child in grown-up clothes, and many terms that wouldn’t get past your spam filter. By giving me a new name—Obliger—you’ve given me a way to accept myself. I can put the self-loathing aside and concentrate on devising clever ways to trick myself into doing stuff. It’s already made me more productive, but more importantly, it’s made me much happier.”  

Are You An Obliger?

Of course, as an HSP, you might not fall into the Obliger category. But considering that it is the largest category (Rubin’s study found that 41% of the sample were Obligers), I think there are many HSPs who are also Obligers. Maybe you, like me, have gone for years meeting other people’s expectations, and then suddenly, everything becomes all too much and you say a big No. Obligers are often prone to burnout and at certain points in their lives, to what Rubin calls Obliger rebellion. Suddenly, or so it seems to other people, we have had enough and we won’t take anymore. Then, we walk out, literally or metaphorically. So, learning about how we are wired and how to make that work for us can be crucial in keeping our resentment stores down.

Also, understanding the different categories can help us understand the people around us. For example: Although Upholders and Obligers both want to meet outer expectations, Obligers are much more prone to burnout because Upholders also hold themselves to their inner expectations. Upholders might also be dismissive of other tendencies who need different things than they do. Rebels (only 17% in the sample, with the fewest members) resist expectations and can get into all kinds of tussles with people who expect them to comply with outer expectations (like Upholders). A Questioner child who has to be given a reason to do every little thing might be trying for a parent who is an Upholder or Obliger. But getting a whole picture and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each type might help us relate better to different people. It can also give us a perspective on how different social contexts might work or not work for a particular type. Rubin gives an example of how a Questioner might be highly valued in a place like Silicon Valley but get into trouble in a place like North Korea. A Rebel, if they become a rebel without a cause, might just be highly annoying. But rebels are also the ones who question existing systems and can help bring about change. As always, the context as well as the other qualities of that person matter.

Like me, you might have several “ahas”  if you read The Four Tendencies and come to see that we often see the people around us as very similar to ourselves. Sometimes, we think that they should be motivated by the same things as ourselves. We think that what works for us is what works for them. But that’s not true. Like Rubin tells us in this and other books, often diametrically different things are the keys to different people’s happiness and success. The question is: What specifically works for you as an individual? What is your own nature?

This is, of course, a bare-bones portrait of Rubin’s four tendencies. But like me, maybe figuring out your own tendency might provide as an essential missing piece for you as an HSP and help you in your own journey.   

The Othering Of The Highly Sensitive Person

The highly sensitive person is different.

Being different means that they often live in the shadows.

I thought about this today when I was reading an article about feminism in Great Britain, written by Anna Ford, a respected British journalist.

What struck me about the article was her wonderful description about the marginalisation of women, an endlessly repeating story that she has experienced her whole life.

The wonderful qualities that women bring to the table are mostly devalued.

Isn’t that also true of highly sensitive people?

The Marginalization Of The Highly Sensitive Person

Marginalization is an interesting and recurring experience for many people.

It manifests in the process of othering.

Othering is nasty.

It is a way of relating to someone as if they really do not have the same right to be here on the planet, that in being different there is something wrong with them.

Are there any HSPs who haven’t had that experience?

As a highly sensitive person, I have been othered my whole life.

Othering can be subtle or overt.

It is often patronizing or condescending.

When being othered you are often invisible.

What Is Othering?

According to Advanced Apes:

the othering process is the human tendency to believe that the group (race, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, country, sexual orientation, species etc.) that they are a part of is inherently the ‘right’ way to be human.  As a consequence of this, people who other consciously, or subconsciously, believe that anyone who is not apart of their group is a threat, an enemy or a liability that must be converted to conform immediately to the norms and standards of their group, subjugated permanently, or eradicated completely…

The phenomenon of othering has its roots in our evolutionary history.  We know from primatological studies that group solidarity is exceptionally important in all of the African apes.  Knowing who is, and who isn’t a member of your group is exceptionally important for reasons intimately connected to survival.  And basic evolution theory states that any behaviour or trait that confers a survival advantage will be selected for; and the stronger the survival advantage, the stronger it will be selected for.  In the case of ‘othering’ behaviour, it probably became an extremely valuable behaviour that would have become permanently fixed within our lineage millions of years ago.  Whenever territory, food, and mates were scarce (which would have been frequently, and in most cases permanently), intra-species competition would have been strong and othering behaviour would have been selected for.  Forming a group can allow you to align yourself with other individuals altruistically to maximize your own (and everyone else in the groups) ability to acquire territory, food and mating opportunities.

The Experience Of Othering For The Highly Sensitive Person

Many highly sensitive people are very uncomfortable socially. They experience themselves as different and unwelcome in the world.

They may also be subject to bullying, taunts and social rejection.

Highly sensitive people are in the minority in the world since only 15-20% of the world’s population is highly sensitive.

Their different biology means that they do not share the interest in competitiveness and aggression that unites the non-HSP population.

HSPs offer wisdom, perspective, compassion and empathy to those around them, but those traits are not as valued as competitive skills.

As a result, many highly sensitive people, experience themselves being excluded, treated with condescension and even blamed for their different nature.

When we are othered, we are treated as not normal, and not right. People around us including our families often try to change us into a “normal” person, someone who is right by their standard of normalcy.

They are wrong to do so.

There is nothing wrong with the highly sensitive person. HSPs are simply different.

 

 

 

HSPs And The Struggle With Body Image

Growing up highly sensitive can have its disadvantages, for sure. You already know that, and it’s different for each and every HSP. There’s a lot of crossover between us, but we each get to have our very own unique experience. It’s such a journey, right?

What I want to talk to you about today is what I would consider one of the more common “crossover” themes that we experience as HSPs: poor body image.

More specifically—working on perfecting your body.

Self Acceptance And Body Image

As an HSP, I have a strong tendency to want to be in control. This way I am not so overwhelmed. A certain degree of control is healthy and good. The control I’m talking about today is when the control goes to a place where we are sacrificing health to be perfect.

I’m talking about those of us who feel we need to be a different weight to fit in. I’m talking about the ones who feel like they are struggling on a daily basis with loving their bodies, just as they are.

Years ago, before I knew anything about my HSP trait, I was always trying to “get better.” Somehow I landed on using my body image as a way to improve myself. I could not see what was right with me. When I looked in the mirror I focused on every ounce that needed improvement: the scars on my face, the cellulite on my thighs, the bloat in my belly. I set out on a journey to get better quick—because once I got to that magical place surely I would feel less overwhelmed.

I truly felt like people were fixated on my every flaw, just as I was. I believed my thoughts (a dangerous habit for HSPs) and even got into the habit of creating other people’s thoughts for them. My thoughts were so loud, I felt that other people could hear them and were saying things like, “Yes,” in agreement, “you need to lose a few pounds.”

I often joked around that when I grew up I wanted to be somebody. I lived life from that place of not having enough and not being enough. Happiness was surely on the other side of having attained firmer thighs and a flatter tummy – the elusive perfect body image.

So in the midst of working out and trying to control my every bite with food, tirelessly creating my “perfect body” so that I could finally feel free in my own skin and love myself, my therapist at the time had other ideas. She burst right through my perfect bubble when she said something to me that stung hard.

“Maybe you’re supposed to be a different size.”

Um, excuse me?

“Maybe you’re supposed to be a different size.”

Speechless.

How dare she! Couldn’t she see that my body wasn’t perfect yet? Did she not see how hard I was working?

“Maybe you’re supposed to be a different size.”

It stayed with me like an echo. I couldn’t shake it.

And she wasn’t talking about a smaller size.

Reframing My Body Image

At the time, I was nowhere close to being overweight. But the thing was—I had never (ever!) considered gaining weight. Why would I do that? It went against everything I had ever learned. I needed to control my weight, right? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do so that I can feel good about myself?

I felt so found out. Did I need to gain weight? It didn’t matter. I was put face to face with a new possibility, which was exactly where I needed to be. Somebody saw me, really saw me, and let me know about something new. The rest was up to me to figure out.

We are saturated with images—daily. We see how we are “supposed” to look, what we are “supposed” to eat, how we are “supposed” to be. The message is seemingly simple: if we succeed—if we become more and more “perfect”—we are granted access to happiness, feeling amazing in our bodies, and feeling loved by everyone around us.

Let me tell you—that is one hard path for anyone to follow, especially if you are an HSP. So why would you want to? It leads to more suffering and more overwhelm. The very things we already often have plenty of in our lives.

Of course, I didn’t get what my therapist said right away. I just took offense to it. I internalized it as I do with most everything and eventually came out on the other side having finally heard what I needed to hear. The message that came through for me was that I get to love myself NOW. In this body. And that I get to love myself in the future—at whatever size body I become.

Somewhere in between now and the future is some “bettering” myself, sure. But the self love can start right now. There’s no need to wait for my thighs to become “bikini ready” (they’re ready NOW when I put on my bathing suit, thanks!)

What do you think? Do you struggle with body image and how do you deal? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Life as an Emotional Empath

Last year, I went to India after two years of living here in the United States. This is the first time that I have stayed anywhere other than in India, and this shift of living in a new country has also shifted my perspective in many ways.

One of these is the way in which I understand my sensitivity.

Learning To Live In A New Country

Here, in the States, I live in a suburb in the heart of Silicon Valley, where I sometimes find the quiet too much and then think nostalgically about India. There, I lived in the heart of New Delhi, India’s capital, where the noise and the bustle were often too much for me.  

This time during my stay in my parents’ home in Delhi, I notice things about my sensitivity that I never had before. I am no longer submerged in my environment. I have a different experience to compare it with.

A day here starts with the ringing of the bell. My parents are part of India’s educated and fortunate upper-middle class. Like millions of other such households, the machinery of the house runs with the help of several pairs of hands. All through the morning, the bell rings as the daily packet of milk is delivered, the neighborhood dhobi (washerman) comes to pick up more clothes for ironing, and a lady comes in to clean the house. Such help is unthinkable in other places in the world, but here in India, for many middle-class households, this is the norm.

What is also normal are power outages that can last for hours (where people who can afford it switch to generators or inverters), no automatic hot water, and long lines for everything you can think of. Every day, so many different lives touch our own little lives, and there is little of the efficiency of America.

I interact with more people here in a day than I have for weeks before in America.

And it is normal that I would. After all, Delhi is the second most populous city in the world, with an estimated population of more than 25 million people. It contains more people within its sprawling, sweeping boundaries than cities like Shanghai, Mexico City and Sao Paulo.

In a city like this, you are part of an overwhelming sea of people. When you go outside, your senses are inundated by every kind of stimulation possible. There are people getting into your space constantly, taking the local metro is a mini-battle, and traffic jams can last for hours.

To say the least, it is a challenging place for a sensitive person.

And what if you are a sensitive person who also absorbs other people’s feelings?

This time in Delhi, I notice the mini-interactions and transactions I have with people throughout the day. I feel their curiosity, frustration and worry jumping out at me. My boundaries are permeable, not very solid. I get overwhelmed in crowds. I just want to stay inside.

It’s not just because of the sensory stimulation, which is part of it too, but the overload from all the emotions that I can feel and experience as if they are my own.

It’s no wonder that at different times in my life, I have coped in unhealthy ways. I have avoided people. I have avoided things. I have felt buffeted by other people’s emotions, so it seems like my center is not inside me, but somewhere outside.

Even now, when I walk into a room, I am most aware of what everyone else is feeling, and not really aware of what is it that I feel.  It’s no wonder that people who have this emotional sensitivity find it debilitating at times.

It makes us feel engulfed in certain relationships. It means we need a lot of time alone. It means that we hate going out in crowded places where we have no personal space and where everyone’s energy seems to be knocking us out.  

The Struggles And Soul Gifts Of An Emotional Empath

I read something recently on Anna Sayce’s’ blog (Anna works as a teacher of intuitive development) that put the challenge of being an empath in a way that connected some dots for me. For all people, Anna says, there is a close link between our struggles and our soul gifts.

This is what Anna says about empaths: “On the upside, these people were born with the ability to experience what life is like for another person. They make great mediators because they can see two sides of a story and can switch their point of view easily. They are the ones who are good at caring for and looking out for others. But they can sometimes have so much compassion and understanding that they might not always look out for their own interests sufficiently. Or they might be easy to exploit. They may fail to care of themselves while taking care of everyone around them. Most often, they may feel like their sensitivity is a burden.”

Strangely, for me knowing and accepting that the gift comes with the challenge is a bit of a relief. Maybe, things were hard because it is a struggle to figure out how to move from getting swept up in a storm of feelings to moving through them.

Becoming A Skilled Empath

As I have started exploring ways to become a “skilled” empath, I am walking the same path that maybe you are on as well. I am picking up ideas and turning them over, and seeing which ones work for me.

If you are an empath, you might have found (like I did) that one thing that is often mentioned online is shielding or protecting yourself so that you don’t pick up other people’s stuff. To do this, you can visualize yourself wrapped up in pink or white light, and that is supposed to help you stay protected.

While I know people I respect who do this, this exercise has never resonated with me because the subtext seems to be that we need to “protect” ourselves from something out there. That only encourages a feeling of distrust in the world.

It seems to say that I am weak and that I need constant protection.

Still, I do believe in the power of visualization. If you feel drawn to it, this might be a good beginning exercise. I think what might work here is simply the directing of intention. Even though we don’t often do this, where we choose to focus is where our energy goes.

As an empath, we are hyper-aware of others, so intentionally pulling back focus to ourselves in any way helps us feel more in touch with ourselves.

For me, the important idea here is directing our attention to our own experience. Thinking “What do I feel?”  and checking in with ourselves instead of getting swamped by the other person’s feelings is one way to stay inside our own skin.

Also, anything that helps us stay present – in our bodies and out of our minds – is helpful. One exercise that I like is by Sonia Choquette who says that when we want to come back to the present moment, it can be as simple as looking around us and saying aloud (not in our heads, but out loud) everything we see around us for four or five minutes.

So, I can look around and say that I am in a room with a framed photograph of a leaf, a bamboo that seems to be growing too big for its pot, and a half-eaten chocolate Yan-Yan box. Paying attention to the things around me helps me get out of my thinking and feeling state. It helps me notice where I am.

It can be as simple as that.   

The Importance For An Empath Of Accepting Emotions

Maybe, part of learning to use our empathic gifts is also about accepting that we do feel deeply, and letting ourselves feel whatever it is that we do feel.

A lot of sensitive people cry very easily.

Of course, there are many injunctions and prohibitions against crying publicly. But even privately, we often have very little permission to cry. We feel that we might upset someone who feels responsible for us and takes it personally. We think that we are already emotional people. We don’t want to spiral into over-emotionality.

But something that Dr. Judith Orloff says about the healing benefits of tears might give us some permission and some insight. In her book, Emotional Freedom, she discusses how tears help us. They protectively lubricate our eyes, remove irritants, reduce stress hormones, and contain antibodies that fight pathogenic microbes.

In fact, our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous and emotional. Reflex tears allow our eyes to clear out irritants produced by smoke or exhaust. Continuous tears are produced regularly and contain a chemical called “lysozyme” that functions as an anti-bacterial and protects our eyes from infection.

And emotional tears have their own specific health benefits.

Dr Orloff talks about the biochemist Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis who discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, while emotional tears also contain stress hormones that the body wants to discard. Other studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural “feel-good hormones.”

You have probably also had the experience where you felt better after crying. For an empath, it was not a spiral downwards or identifying yourself as a victim. It felt like a relief as pent-up feelings flowed out. You were left feeling lighter, at ease.

Stemming the flow of such tears would just mean that your emotions are getting backed up. There is no way for them to be transformed. There is no way for them to be released.

As sensitive people, we have to let go of the beliefs that are projected on to us. Crying does not mean that we are weak. The weakness comes when we don’t do something about the things that bother us, the things that bring us to tears.

Being out of touch with feelings is not a strength. It just means we have low self-awareness. It makes us brittle. It makes us weak.

I should know. As a person who feels a lot, I have dealt with my ability to feel others’ feelings in every way possible. At different times, I have been different people. I have turned towards people, and away from them. I have helped people, and have numbed out and turned towards myself. I have pushed feelings down, and I have also let them push me.

In the end, I think that doing what I can, little by little — engaging with the challenge, fighting with the monsters — may one day help bring the whole gift to light. On your journey as an empath, I hope you find that too, and that you go on digging till you have unearthed your treasure.