Rethinking Service: How We Get Lost In Sensitivity To Nuance

As a sensitive person, I am like to be of service and, in my experience, most sensitive people are the same way. Service is a wonderful thing. It enriches our lives and the lives of others. For sensitive people, being of service has pitfalls, however,  because of our capacity for sensitivity to nuance and therefore the complexity in the world around us.

Is It Pleasing Or Service?

Sensitive people are often called people pleasers. We have a combination of attributes which together predispose us to want to be constructive and helpful in our actions. Sensitivity to nuance shows us a lot of information that others might not be aware of. That increased awareness is something that we may want to share with others because:

  • We may see possibilities that others miss.
  • Being empathetic we hate to see others in pain especially when we are aware of possibilities that others may not see.
  • We see a world in pain and do not want to add to it
  • It feels good to see others around us happy and to contribute to that happiness.

Having a different awareness gives rise to a number of questions;

  • What do we do, keep our awareness to ourselves?
  • Do we share what we see even if it is unwelcome?
  • Do we risk our relationships over our awareness?
  • When is our awareness constructive and when is it actually counterproductive to share?
  • Where does our responsibility lie and how do we identify where it ends and another person’s responsibility begins?

These are important questions that sensitive people often grapple with, myself included.


There is a relationship between awareness and responsibility. However, in order to have true responsibility, there is one thing that is absolutely essential. You have to be receptive to the realities you are dealing with before you identify your role and what you need to do and then act on it. Receptivity is an important first step in assuming responsibility.

Receptivity is a complex subject. There can be many reasons why someone is not receptive to information:

  • timing
  • overload and the inability to handle more information or work
  • illness
  • fear

These are some of many reasons why someone might evade information. However, these are mostly personal reasons someone might not be interested in receiving information. Are there less personal ones?

It May Not Be Personal

As a sensitive person, it is much more difficult to evade information since our nervous systems are usually open for business listening for every nuance around us. Furthermore, sensitive people respond differently to information and are not as oriented to the cultural clues in their environments.

Culture plays an important role in what information people consider relevant and important. Culture acts a filtering device for human attention. If what we see and would like to share with others is outside of the cultural priorities of the times, then other people may not be receptive to hearing what we have to say and it is not because they are trying to be irresponsible; they may simply see responsibility in a certain way as defined by the priorities of their culture. If my culture makes it a priority for me to be involved with the social scene, for instance, I will make it a priority and I might among other things, spend a lot of time going out and being on social media. Survival is the first priority and cultures define the requirements for survival under their systems. If you come to me with different priorities based on what you see as necessary then we will likely disagree about what we need to be focusing on.

Cultural expectations play a significant role in setting the receptivity of individuals. This is one of the reasons many sensitive people suffer disconnects with people who are non-sensitive.

So How Do We Connect?

The quick answer is that sometimes we can and other times we cannot.

What is most useful is to be able to identify when to get involved in a situation and when not to. It is very easy in the spirit of goodwill to get involved in a situation where we have little or no chance of making a difference and then beat ourselves up when we were unsuccessful in achieving a positive outcome.

There are many cultures all with different priorities and objectives. If you look at what is happening around you with your sensitive and empathetic eyes you may not see the cultural aspect of what is happening and may inadvertently get involved in a problem or situation where the individuals are not receptive to what you offer because the framework for their perceptions is fixed in a particular cultural construct. This does not mean that you are dealing with irresponsible or harmful people, it simply means that the solutions that people may be receptive to are limited by their culture’s system. As a sensitive person who is very creative, I have found that my creativity is not always welcome when working with people living in some cultural systems.

Understanding the cultural frameworks that shape people’s priorities has helped me to detach from many situations where receptivity to new ideas is low. When we are able to do so we can identify those individuals and situations which are hospitable and constructive for us and which ones are likely to drain us. Learning frameworks has made it much easier for me to identify when something is not mine and I have an easier time discerning where I belong a world of diverse cultures. I now offer that information in my frameworks program which you can learn more about here.  I hope you give it a look.



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.   

Tips For The Urban HSP

I am an urban HSP.  I sometimes think I must be truly nuts to be living in New York City, a place that seems like the very embodiment of the word “overstimulation.”

Crowded, loud, bright and always on, it can be a nightmare for the senses of an urban HSP.

If you let it.

I’ve lived here for nearly 15 years now, and I’ve found ways to make it work. (I have a bit of a dream writing job, and this is one of the only places I can really do it, which is why I don’t leave, in case you’re wondering. Also, nearly everyone I love is here, which adds weight to the case for sticking around when you are an urban HSP.)

 Attitude For An Urban HSP

I think the lessons I’ve learned as an urban HSP can be helpful for all, particularly those who might be living in other, smaller urban environments. I think you have to start by just seeing city life slightly differently than many. Here, I think there’s often a default attitude of, “Only in New York! Gotta love it!” when, for example, you’re on a crowded train at 9 a.m. and all of a sudden there’s a mariachi band furiously playing, mere inches away from your face.


You actually don’t have to love it. (I suspect very few people love it, but I applaud their generally optimistic ability to pretend that they do.)

So here are a few of the survival tips I’ve come up with to make being an NYC urban HSP work for me.

Protect Your Hearing

1) Get good headphones, and don’t be afraid to use them.
I’ve always been shocked that so many people are willing to put up with the crappy white headphones that come with an Apple product. They make my ears sore after only a few minutes of listening, and they don’t fit well enough to filter out ambient noise (nor do they stop everyone around you from hearing your music, one of my big pet peeves about public transportation these days: if you’re not wearing headphones yourself, you are more often than not subjected to the contents of someone else’s).

No, I’m talking about getting some of those little rubbery ear buds, or, if you’re loaded, a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones (they’re on my wish list). A little of your own curated music can radically change a walk through a chaotic city street, a subway car filled with yammering people and blaring conductor announcements, or a store where four overly cheerful salespeople come up to you within the span of a minute and say, “How ARE you today? Can I help you find anything?” Just point sheepishly to your headphones, as if they are surgically implanted in your head and totally beyond your control, and move away.

2) If you’ve got a smartphone, get a white noise app.
Music is good in many situations, but I find that when I need to really concentrate on reading or writing something, it’s too distracting. My white noise app is the best thing about my iPhone by far. Mine lets me create my own mixes of soothing sounds: beach waves crashing and light rain! Tree frogs and oscillating fan! Or just plain old white noise. Actually, brown noise, which is softer than white noise. Check it out, you’ll see what I mean. Any of these will instantly reduce my HSP stress by half. It’s also genius for hotel rooms while traveling (more on this in my upcoming sleep tips post).

Protect Your Boundaries

3) Make subway rides work for you. As Elaine Aron might put it, use your boundaries. Don’t worry about everyone else’s feelings so much. My instinct is generally to try to make other people feel good, so I’m not all that comfortable saying no or shutting things down even when I really need a break from human beings (which is pretty often).

But I’ve found that in order to stay sane, you have to just power through that instinct and be a little protective of yourself. For example: when riding on the train, someone sits down next to me eating an egg sandwich. She seems perfectly nice otherwise and part of me doesn’t want her to feel like a leper if I get up and move. But you know what? An egg sandwich smells disgusting, and it’s ruining the precious half-hour of down time I have in the morning. So I’m gone.

Ditto someone who’s having a loud, laughing cell phone conversation next to me. Or twitching just slightly oddly in a way that suggests they might be a bit off. Or wearing pungent perfume. Just get up and move. You’ll feel so much better when you do.

Similarly, when I’m leaving work and someone tries to catch me and take the train with me, I generally come up with a reason to split off (“I have to make a call first,” or “I have to run an errand”). I find that when my subway ride gets diverted into chitchat or small talk, I tend to reach my destination feeling depleted and annoyed, which reduces my ability to be present for whatever my next activity was. So I just find non-mean ways of getting out of the shared subway ride.

It’s best for everyone.

The Challenge Of Smelly Air

4) Get an air filter
One of my least favorite things about New York is the smells. And I’m not even talking about the stereotypical pee and garbage aromas, which tend, in my experience, to be a bit overstated. No, it’s the cooking smells that really do me in.

Apartment building living just inevitably comes with having to share the air with other people who like different food than you, and if you’re an HSP, those odors can feel like a punch in the face. Someone down the hall from me must, I think, own a deep fryer, because nearly every night it smells like Popeye’s in the hallway. This is not OK. This smell makes me deeply sad. But I can deal with it, because I have a pretty decent air filter going in my apartment’s entryway. It also just offers some psychological support, knowing I have a little mechanical sentry between me and the olfactory chaos going on outside my door. (In a pinch, I find that a Yankee Candle also works pretty well. Who knew? But it’s nothing compared to an air filter.)

Bottom line, just because you live surrounded by other people doesn’t mean you have to feel violated by their ill-advised culinary choices.

Create Your Own Lifestyle As An Urban HSP

5) Get a dog
In a way, this might seem odd advice, because a dog does come with its own set of stressors: they cost money, they require lots of attention, they may wake you up barking at absolutely nothing in the middle of the night. But if you get a good one, they can also offer a brilliantly convenient excuse for getting out of things and living a lower-key life than you might otherwise be expected to do as a city-dweller.

Everyone in your office going out for happy hour, and you’re sort of expected to go, even though the thought of being stuck in a noisy bar making small talk makes you want to bang your head against a wall? Don’t sweat it, you have to go home and walk the dog. Sorry! Additionally, your dog will ensure that you must go on multiple rambles around the neighborhood daily, which is a practice that’s highly beneficial for soothing the HSP’s system. Which brings me to my next tip.

6) Live near a park
It doesn’t have to be Central Park (or your city’s version of Central Park). But if you have someplace you can get to reasonably easily where you can be among trees instead of human beings, that’s going to increase your quality of life a whole lot. (As well as your dog’s.) Go regularly. Go every day. Take deep breaths and always know, when you’re in the midst of the urban circus, that this will always be here waiting for you. Don’t live near a park? Make it a habit to walk through one on your way to work, if you can. Get off the train a few stops early and incorporate a park walk into your commute.

7) Get plants
Plants! It’s like having a mini park in your apartment.

8) When all else fails, Xanax.
Just kidding. (Not really.)

The Illusion Of Answers

Recently I disappointed someone who was seeking answers from me. It raised an interesting introspection for me about the idea of answers and I think it bears discussing.

Why Seek Answers?

I remember when I was quite young – perhaps 6 – being at dinner with my family. At the time my brothers had small cars made of plastic with the name of a brand or model printed on the back although the plastic cars were all the same except for random changes in color. I was expected to stand at one end of the room and when my father held up the small toy at the other end of the room I was expected to say what make or model the car was. I usually guessed correctly – so much so that it became a form of entertainment for visitors to our house.

I remember being terrified of the whole exercise because I was only guessing and I really did not know the answer. However, it was just one example of many instances where being right and mirroring “rightness” so often is more important than being present and living our truth.

Living From Answers

When we live from answers we have a predefined objective and an expectation. That may seem to make sense but there is an inherent problem with it:

No two people, moments or contexts are the same.

So when we attempt to obtain an objective or expectation we are essentially using force on people, places and situations. Not only is it disempowering for us but it is for others as well because no one can know 100% what someone else wants or needs.

Living from answers gives us feelings of control and temporary feelings of security and even pleasure but we give up our power and adaptability which is a lot to give up.

Answers And Choices Are Different

Answers and choices are not the same thing. Living from answers means imposing a predetermined idea on the present. Making a choice is always living in the present within the realities of individuals, contexts and possibilities.

Choices are a living thing. Answers are not.

Choices are about the unfolding of life and answers are about living from the past.

Choices let us offer our gifts to the moment; answers cause us to hide in favor of what is accepted by others.

Choices let us contribute, answers force us to please.

The Peril Of Fixed Goals

Fixed goals and objectives do not allow for course corrections, new information, and better solutions. They may have negative consequences and be inefficient. But we follow them anyway.

It is a curious thing but we seem to have a psychology around not changing that is very strong that prevent us from embracing alternatives. Ideas like:

  • nobody likes a quitter
  • persevere
  • never give up on your dreams
  • when the going get tough, the tough get going

are ideas that cause us to stay the course.

The Price Of Loyalty

These ideas about quitting and perseverance are ideas that value loyalty over intelligence and creativity. We are taught to be loyal to certain ideas, ways of being and identities. We are expected to “make life work” by adhering to rules and roles whether they work for us or not. So what is really being valued is loyalty. Is that the most important value? Where does it stack up against health and quality of life?

Living from answers means living from a loyalty of some kind. Often the loyalty is unquestioned and so we do not understand why with the best of intentions something does not work out for us.

So loosen up the conformity without needed to be rebellious for rebellion’s sake. Give what you can to each moment. Give up answers and ask what each moment needs and you will be more on target more of the time.


No Need To Rush: The Special Gift Of Slow

I have always been expected to operate at lightening speed.

And it has never worked for me.

I need to process…and process…and process…

I LOVE to process.

It is my idea of a good time!

What’s The Rush!

I have never understood the need to rush. In my experience, the easiest way to have problems is to rush.

However, from a very young age, I have noticed that people around me were aways in a rush for something. A rush to judgment, to get something, be somewhere or do something.

I always felt “wrong” because it always seemed so silly to me.

It also seemed to me that something terribly important was missing.

Is Anybody Home?

I felt alone in all of the rushing. Rushing felt so escapist, and I did not understand what everyone was trying to escape? I felt stupid for not really wanting to join in.

Escaping was not compelling to me. It did not attract me and still doesn’t.

All of the rushing and escaping feels sad.

It feels like we are afraid to take a chance.

It feels like we are here but no one is home.

Speed Can Be Dangerous

In school, we are rewarded for getting answers not for asking questions. So often we continue that pattern in our daily lives.

Not to have an answer os a failing, a way of losing a competitive battle for survival, a risk we are afraid of.

But answers are not necessarily simple and they can only evolve by engaging with a set of circumstances or conditions. It is through that process that answers come.

When we fail to honor the process of engagement and deliberation we are plagued with the kind of ideological substitute for problem-solving that plagues our society right now. We have packaged answers that fail to solve anything while the real problems seeking our attention remain ignored.

And so we run around each one of us with our bandaids unable to really solve our problems.

No wonder so many people feel frustrated and depressed.

They have every reason to.

Slow Is About Respect

When you approach anything in a slow careful manner you are paying a very basic kind of respect. You are paying attention to people, place and things. You are paying attention to process. You pay attention to current reality as a starting point for moving forward. You give everything the attention it deserves.

Slow is about paying attention. Fast is about escaping.

That is true both in our work and in our relationships.

I am sure how you have experienced the awful feeling when someone rushes you because they do not want to be bothered.

I am sure you have also experienced what it is like when someone takes the time to talk with you.

The rushed experience closes you down; the slower, more thoughtful interaction opens you up.

Does The World Belong To The Takers?

When people rush as their primary way of relating, all interactions become superficial and transactional. Speed does not really allow for anything else.

So when we slow down, we open the door to more give and take which is a more satisfactory arrangement for everyone, in reality. We also honor each other and the value in each other when we slow down. We honor each person’s uniqueness, gifts, and limits as part of the whole.

We can then give ourselves the opportunity to be with what is instead of demanding that everyone be something else to meet our demands and requirements.

Life Is Not Just A Shopping Trip

Too often we relate to each other as consumers looking for something pleasurable from others.

Pleasure is great but seeking or demanding it as a constant in our lives keeps us in the role of shoppers rather than creators. As a result we miss out on ourselves as much as everyone else.

Slowing down gives us not only our time back but also our friendship and respect.

It gives a more natural place in the universe. It lets us be both more humble and more creative at the same time.

Slow is a gentle place.

Slow lets us open up more.

It frees us from our demands and lets us join into the world rather than bearing down on it oppressively with our need for continual self-indulgence.

Slow lets us be human and humane.

Slow gives us a much-needed break and everyone else, too.

It is worth embracing.

Are You A Sensitive INFP ?

In our memories, some experiences from our childhood stand out in stark relief. Something about them made an impression on us. Something about them was charged with a feeling that we then carry into our lives, consciously or unconsciously.

A Sensitive INFP And Not Fitting In

For me, one such experience was in fifth grade in school in what was then called Bombay. It affected the way I thought of myself, and a fragment of that experience has remained with me through the passing years. It happened at the lovely Convent school for girls that I had just started attending after my family had moved from a different city. For around three years, from the fifth to the seventh grade, we had a needlework class. From the beginning, I hated needlework. I couldn’t figure it out. There were some people in the class who just got their assignments done by a parent. But although I hated it, I was a quite conscientious child and thought that was wrong. So, I tried to do it all by myself. More than once, as the school year progressed, the teacher was irritated with me and couldn’t understand why I didn’t get such simple things.

Then, one day, we were given an assignment to cross-stitch a printed pattern. It was on one of those cloth/canvas pieces with quite big holes, unlike the finer linen people use to make it easier for children. As usual, the teacher gave us instructions, and we began. I struggled and struggled, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do. Mustering up my courage, I approached the teacher.

This time, she asked another girl, who seemed to be doing really well, to guide me. We sat down, and this girl started showing me what I was supposed to do. She showed me once. I didn’t get it. So, she showed me again. You are supposed to pull the thread out from this hole, and then put it into this one. I didn’t get it, yet again.

I was getting more and more flustered. Tears started crawling up. She was looking at me as if I couldn’t even get this one little thing as if I was dumb. But there were so many holes. They were shimmering and merging because of the tears I was so desperately trying to hold back. As the minutes passed and I still couldn’t understand, I started panicking.

What did she mean? It was possible to take the thread and put it back in so many different holes. There were so many holes. This was so hard. Why couldn’t I do anything right?

After what seemed like an eternity but was probably 15-20 minutes, my struggle and the class got over. I don’t remember how I completed that assignment, what I did later on. But I had learned something about myself, about my helplessness at not being able to do things right.

A Sensitive INFP Learns A Negative Self-Message

For years afterward, whenever I looked at some cross-stitched fabric painting in someone’s house, I had a nagging feeling that I was dumb, that I was stupid. How could I not figure out such simple things?

At that time, as a child, I didn’t think that my overwhelm, not being guided by the teacher and not feeling understood had contributed to my panicking, to my not learning. Like things do with sensitive children, the experience sunk a little deeper than such experiences do for others.

I also did not understand something else, something very important about me.

It’s only in the last few years, in my mid-30s, as I have learned more about being a sensitive INFP and thought back that I have had this small, but significant realization. I am a sensitive INFP, and as an INFP, I could see countless possibilities in that little piece of cloth. That was the way I saw the world. The truth is that it really is possible to take a thread, and pull it out from a not-approved, unconventional hole and make countless patterns (possibly also a mess, but still! ) on a piece of fabric. That is the very nature of creativity. It sees connections and inter-relationships between things. It is open to possibilities. There is no set way.

Especially as a child, with no preconceived notions of what a proper cross-stitch looked like, I was in a wide open field. When I started having the problem I was having, I wish someone had listened and seen that the way my brain worked was not the way their mind worked.

Looking back at that vulnerable little child, I wish someone could have told her, “You are not stupid. In fact, you are very creative. You see things in a different way.”

Sensitive INFPs Are Creative

A sensitive INFP is considered one of the most creative types of people . If you are a sensitive INFP  creative, it’s very likely that school did not offer you an ideal environment. We have all heard that schools can kill creativity, but it’s important to see what that really means. It means someone made an assessment about your being, a part of your soul that might actually be the very thing that makes you unique, makes you stand out.

Without realizing this or at least working to realize that this might have happened, we might keep on coming up against feeling again and again, that we don’t measure up. But what’s really wrong is that we haven’t looked at the faulty belief which is causing that “on the outside, looking in” feeling.  

From the HSPs I know and from what seems to be the case in online forums, it seems like a significant percentage of HSPs are either a sensitive INFP or INFJ. As two of the least common personality types, it’s no wonder that we can often end up feeling different and less than. We are often not mirrored back, often not understood. It’s up to us, then, to peel back the layers of our beliefs, unlearn the “right” way of doing things, and discover our own unique style, our own way.

Of course, this is not a problem that just a sensitive INFP faces. I think INTJs, another personality type that is less common, face similar (but different) problems of not being easily understood. Anything that makes you a minority in your social context, whether it is your personality type, your sexual orientation, or your cultural background is what makes you different and is what might make you misunderstood.

But maybe as adults, we can see that we are the only ones with the map to our own inner worlds. We can define ourselves, instead of accepting other people’s hasty assessments of who we are or making hasty judgments ourselves.

The Special Value Of The Outsider

Outsiders have been shunned by many societies for a long time. They have a special value for their cultures that is often unrecognized and overlooked.

Outsiders are the guardians of authenticity.

Outsiders And Authenticity

Outsiders live on the edge in a way which provides them with a particular vantage point on life. They tend to have one foot in the conventional world and one foot outside of it. They stay in the world in order to earn a living but are usually not part of the striving energy of the culture. They are usually interesting people.

Outsiders live at the intersection of form and space but their hearts are in space; the place where all creativity and authenticity are possible. There is a reason for this.

Much of human life is sculpted by the social and economic structures that have been created by prior generations and they serve us in many ways. As much as they provide us with support to make life work, they are usually rigid. So they have the downside of being inflexible and not responsive to the needs of an ever changing world.

Inevitably they become burdensome and restrictive. When social structures are unrelentingly inflexible, they invite rebellion and sometimes revolution.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Outsiders have the ability to be the eyes for much needed adaptability and flexibility for existing social structures.

What The Outsider Sees

The outsider notices the disconnects, the holes, the places where existing social and economic structure does not meet the present. In essence it notices when culture is out of step with reality or the truth. Another way of looking at it is that societal structures tend not to have their feet on the ground much the way the head of a corporation does not have the experience of the people in the field or the factory. They tend to be too removed often intentionally so.

Outsiders are interested in discovering what is true as part of their path. It is not a rigid ideological idea of truth. You know – TRUTH.

When outsiders seek the truth they are interested in what is real. What is real is never fixed which is the opposite of the fixed cultural structures that we live with. What is real is ever changing, as is the breath and what we breathe in and out. Each moment is a specific place with its own conditions, constraints, and requirements. Societal structures do not deal well with them and as a result, often fail. Outsiders are often curious about what is happening and why from their unique vantage point. This makes them great detectives as well as observers. They then can provide the rest of the world with their observations to the benefit of all. They have the potential to help fixed structures be more flexible and responsive to ever-changing conditions.

HSPs As Valuable Outsiders

Highly sensitive people usually think of themselves as outsiders. They also, by virtue of their natures, have a lot of insight about what is going on around them. They have the ability because of their nuanced perceptions to notice the disconnects, gaps and other ways in which existing structures fail to meet reality in an appropriate way.

Nuance is the home of highly sensitive people. You can only notice it if you are open to it. By virtue of their open nervous systems, highly sensitive people have a special window on the every changing nature or reality. They have the potential to offer this precious knowledge to the world.

It’s just a matter of connecting the worlds of HSPs and non-HSPs, outsider and insiders.

The Mistake Of Identity


Identity is an anchor in most of our lives.

It is usually derived from a combination of our own experiences, our family and school feedback and our culture.

Identities can feel wonderful if we have positive feedback or it can feel like a ball and chain if we do not.

The more important question is, “Is it real?”

What Is Identity Anyway?

I have always thought that identity was a little bit strange. OK, a lot strange.

Why do I even need one?

Here are some ways that Merriam-Webster defines identity as

: who someone is : the name of a person

: the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others

:  sameness of essential or generic character in different instances

:  sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing :  oneness

:  the distinguishing character or personality of an individual :individuality

:  the relation established by psychological identification

Of course, identity – and we mean social identity – is largely based on what we can see. If someone spends time by themselves we call them antisocial. If someone is lively, we often call them fun. This means that we define the identities of others in terms of what we experience, want and need.  So we often define others in relation to ourselves which invalidates them as someone unique and on their own journey. Therefore, identity can be an exploitive construct. Ask any disenfranchised person and group!

How Identity Gets Us In Trouble

Identity gets us in trouble with others in a number of ways:

  • it causes us to think we know something when we do not. Being able to identity a koala in a picture does not mean that I know anything about koalas.
  • it causes us to think that we have the lay of the land, the map of reality. When we define others and groups even nations as “good “and “bad” we may think we are dealing with reality but actually we are not. We are working from an interpretation.
  • when we put someone into a box of identity and they object we may feel justified in our negative reaction but we are not. Everyone has a right to be who they are and everyone is more than their social identity.
  • when we treat someone as if they are there to serve our agenda and they object, who has the problem?
  • when we ascribe negative attributes to those who disagree are we right? Sometimes, but sometimes we are also missing something and need to be open to that possibility.

Identity also gets us in trouble with ourselves:

  • we may believe that our social identity, whether it is family, peer based or national is really us.
  • we may compare our inner nature to our social feedback and think that there is something wrong with us.
  • we may start to believe that we have an obligation to be what others want us to be.
  • we may start to shrink ourselves so that others will be comfortable with us and then stop liking ourselves.
  • we may stop believing in ourselves.
  • we may receive feedback as a report card on ourselves that has nothing to do really with who we are.
  • we may stop listening to our intuitive, whole self and deny it the voice it needs.

Taking Back Your Identity

Our real identity is nothing more than the inner part of us that does not change throughout our lives. It is the part of us that is universal and yet also seems particular and specific to us at the same time. It is the part of us that people often love even though we are usually taught to keep it hidden.

Although we have to live in the human world we nonetheless need to be true to ourselves. Taking the messages we have received and examining them, discarding the one’s that are wrong or do not fit us is the first step to reclaiming our best selves. It is a step worth taking.

Workplace Bullying: A Survival Guide

Unfortunately, difficult economic conditions can increase the negative behaviors that people will tolerate in order to keep their jobs. If you ever find yourself the target of workplace bullying, it is important to have strategies to safeguard your emotional and physical well-being.

If You Experience Workplace Bullying

If you are being bullied at work:

  • Don’t deny the problem. It is important to recognize when you are being bullied and to take steps to protect yourself.
  • Don’t blame yourself. Workplace bullying is usually about control and rarely has anything to do with you personally.
  • Get help.
    • Check your company’s policy. Are there any guidelines or protocols that address workplace bullying? Is there a resource person that you can talk to about the situation?
    • Contact your employee assistance group, if one is available. These groups are confidential and may be able to advise you. As an added bonus, your request for assistance can help document your experience of being bullied.
    • Reach out to family, friends, and/or a professional counselor.
  • Create a paper trail of the bully’s “bad behavior” and your “good behavior”. For example, if you receive a threatening phone call from the bully. Don’t call the bully back and subject yourself to further abuse. Instead, respond to the call via email, reiterating the bully’s threats and formulating your own professional response. If the bully ignores your work-related requests, send an email indicating that you haven’t received a response and copy others.
  • If you choose to confront the bully’s bad behavior, always do it in writing. State your concerns in an email, and keep it professional. Indicate that you are raising your concerns in an effort to work better together.
  • Exercise caution when confiding in your co-workers. Be careful about saying things to others that you don’t want to get back to the bully. The last thing you want to do is provide evidence against yourself. Also, some co-workers won’t want to be put in the middle, in which case you should respect their wishes and seek support elsewhere.
  • Be impeccable. Keep your performance level high, and play strictly by the rules. This is often the best defense against someone who is trying to sabotage your success.
  • Maintain a cheerful and positive attitude, even if you have to fake it. While this will be very difficult to do, it will show the bully that his or her campaign is not having the desired effect, which is sometimes the best revenge. (One caution though, some bullies may respond by escalating their campaigns.)
  • Do not lose your temper. Always behave in a professional manner, regardless of how the bully is behaving. Not only will feel better about yourself, but it will also prevent the bully from gathering ammunition against you.
  • Be proactive. Bullying behaviors are repetitive and often predictable. Do your best to anticipate the bully’s behavior, and have an action plan ready. Try to stay one step ahead of the bully.
  • Take care of yourself. Relish your downtime. Relax, and do things you enjoy. Consult your healthcare provider if you are experiencing signs of stress or other medical issues.
  • Update your resume, and keep your eye out for other jobs. It is empowering to know that you have other choices and that you don’t need to tolerate a hostile work environment. You should also realize that many workplace bullying situations can never be satisfactorily resolved. It’s best to be prepared for all possible outcomes.

How To Report Bullying

If you decide to report the bullying:

  • Keep a written diary that details the nature of the bullying (e.g. dates, times, places, what was said or done, and who was present).
  • Maintain copies of harassing/bullying paper trails, such as emails, and save threatening voice messages. You should also hold on to copies of documents that contradict the bully’s accusations against you (e.g. time sheets, audit reports, etc.)
  • Keep a list of people you think may have observed the bullying. Find out if any of those people would be willing to speak on your behalf.
  • Make a list of all the efforts you made to work the situation out (e.g. emails, phone calls, requests for help from HR or Employee Assistance)
  • If you are experiencing serious health problems as a result of the bullying, get a documentation from your doctor.
  • Report the behavior to an appropriate person or department, such as Human Resources or your Union Representative. Be prepared to present your case and back it up with plenty of documentation and evidence.

Don’t be a victim. Take a proactive stance to protect yourself. Use this situation to motivate yourself to find a better situation and environment.

Note: This article was first published in Cliff Harwin’s newsletter.

How The Path Of Creativity Can Help HSPs

I enjoy creativity but as someone who is basically an artiste in the broadest sense, I am often stopped in my tracks by my fear of making mistakes. My very roots seem to be dipped in this feeling, and I have often made myself small by refusing to give myself enough space to explore.

Even if you don’t consider yourself creative (maybe just the word “artiste” made you cringe), the fear of making mistakes probably stops you from living a full, artful life. It stops you from doing things expansively, trying something new, and feeling at home when you don’t do things right the first time around.

Creativity requires living larger. Many of us find our being shrinking in size as the shadow of this fear looms large.

Perfectionism And Shame Kill Creativity

Just like you, I am learning to let go of perfectionism and attempting to live in my creativity.  I am beginning to learn some things that I hope will seep right into me one day, just as deep as the fear had once gone.

What we think of as a mistake is a starting point: When we start off doing something, we are not very good. Or, maybe, we are talented but not as good as we ultimately want to be. Keeping things pristine and empty because we want to make only the best thing or the best decision leads us nowhere.

We all know this intellectually, but we don’t know it in our bones. What we do know almost physically is the intense reaction we have when we make a mistake.

Some old part of us comes calling. It says: “You can’t do anything right.” It says: “You are a mistake” even though you have just attempted something you don’t know very much about.

If you are at this point, you are coming face to face with a belief that you are uprooting. You are beginning to unfreeze. That’s hard work, and you deserve credit for even trying.

As I try to let go of my fear, I find myself face to face with my belief that if I don’t do things “correctly,” I am not good or lovable. There is shame involved in that belief.

What’s stopping us are unconscious fears that speak to our very human need for love and belonging. We can trace their origins back to the past. We can work at bringing them to light and changing them. It’s okay to go slow as you begin this process. It’s okay if you don’t make great progress right away.

You are attempting to plant your being in more fertile soil.

Embrace Play

“Childlike” things that energize us are useful things : All creative acts are playful and exploratory. They can be fun and silly, imaginative and inventive. That threatens the part of us that is attached to the idea of what an “adult” looks like. We forget that a real adult would be someone who gives their free child room to play. We forget that there is a difference between childish and child-like.

I have been struggling with this. As a writer, sometimes, words become less than living for me. It’s when I have spent too much time in my head with abstractions, with thoughts that hiss and curl. And so, lately, I have started doing things that use my other senses.

It has happened organically. Researching intuition, I found myself getting attracted to images and pictures. They felt immediate and truer than words. Then, I chanced upon adult coloring books, and I let myself buy one. It’s a book on coloring Mandalas by Jim Gogarty. Mandalas are circular designs that signify the wholeness of being, and that symbolism as well as the pictures appealed to me.

So, I set out to color, intuitively picking out whatever color appealed to me and filling it in. I let my feelings guide me, and it turned out to be a surprisingly heart-nourishing activity. My mind (like the mind of many HSPs, I suspect) often hooks on to a thought and then chases it the way a dog goes after a bone. This rumination — obsessive thinking about something even though it doesn’t help at all — is a part of my adaptation. It’s the way it has been for me for a long-time.

What was surprising was that as soon as I started coloring, the rush of thoughts stopped. It wasn’t so much that my mind was “empty” but that there was a presence, a fullness that was engaged with what I was doing right then. I was in the flow.

I think that our minds need something to hook onto, something to grasp at. When we are too much with our thoughts, as sometimes sensitive people are prone to being, we are swept up in their current.

Consciously choosing a hook for our attention gives shape to the energies that we sometimes get overloaded with. Instead of becoming self-defeating, this nervous energy can now have a channel to flow into.

It can as easily be creative as it has sometimes been destructive in the past, when we didn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, coloring is just an example. I picked it up because I love colors and pictures. You might love some other flow-state activity. Here, in the Silicon Valley, I know many engineers who love to play with Legos. The same part of them that drives their adult work — the pull to build something, connect parts to build a bigger system — also fuels their adult play.

Play is energy-giving, regenerative. Without it, where would our work be?

For me, coloring has led to drawing mandalas by hand and trying watercolor painting. It’s helping me fill up my sensory well, a place to draw on for my writing. It’s helping me round out the rough edges that develop inside me when I am too much in my mind.

And it shows me, in a real way, that I can give myself what I need. That’s something we need to learn as sensitive people. We sometimes feel caught in one-sided friendships or relationships where we find that we are giving too much of ourselves away and not receiving what we need.

Maybe, one way to receive is by re-directing some of our energy to what we love and find nourishment in the presence that creativity brings.

But we can’t even choose to do this if we are stuck wanting to appear a certain way. When we can let go of our limited notions of what we permit ourselves to do, we find that we have enough inner resources that help renew and invigorate us.

The Mind Blocks Creativity

The intellect can be a great danger to creativity: Many of us have a skewed relationship with our creativity. We value thinking and the intellect over stepping into discovery and experimentation. Something that I read recently by the wonderful writer Ray Bradbury gives us a new way of thinking about experiencing and thinking.

Bradbury tells us that “thinking is to be a corrective in our life — it’s not supposed to be a center of our life.” That’s a radical statement for someone like me, someone who over-thinks a lot.

If thinking is not the center, what is?

Bradbury says: “Living is supposed to be the center of our life, being is supposed to be the center — with correctives around, which hold us like the skin holds our blood and flesh in. But our skin is not a way of life — the way of living is the blood pumping through our veins, the ability to sense and to feel and to know. And the intellect doesn’t help you very much there — you should get on with the business of living.”

We should get on with the business of living. That’s a pointer for people like me who have been seared at some point and now carry their mistrust into everything that happens. Thinking becomes our way to try and control things, even before they happen.

But as Bradbury tells us, thinking is not living. If we have made it our primary mode of moving, then we are deadening our lives.

We are here to experience things, discover things, make things.

Of course, we need to think as well. But the thinking we need is not a defense mechanism, but a membrane that holds all of our experiences together. Then, we don’t use it to rationalize or talk ourselves out of doing things. We use it to assess our direction and course correct, when needed.

As I try to put this into action, I find that I am getting excited about things again. I am stepping out of the limits that I had drawn for myself. I am sighing with relief as I let myself wander and figure out things.

I am trying things on for size.

Nothing needs to be perfect. Nothing needs to turn out right. I am discovering and making things up as I go along.

This way feels more fluid, and I want to expand on it and continue doing it.

I want to feel the freedom of not being weighed down by my own perfect standards or those of others. I want the freedom to do more, be more, discover more. I want to find out what all shapes I can take and how I can stop stifling my own being.

And what about you?

What would stepping away from the need to do things perfectly do in your life? Would it help you become lighter and more joyous? Would it help you attempt something your heart is yearning to do? Would it help you pull in more things that make life worth living?

I hope you find yourself taking your next imperfect step and finding that that too can be part of your wonderful, glorious dance.