Image taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/max31055/43275863902 and is by Chiara Salvati
My Mom came of age in an era of sex, drugs, peace, love, and of course…rock and roll. Living life to the fullest…burning the candle at both ends…going nowhere fast…these were the mantras I grew up with (whether they were spoken mantras or not). My entry into her life didn’t curb that. She was no helicopter mom who was going to shield her daughter from the rough chaos that life could dish out. Instead, she chose the path of letting me see everything in full view. The beauty. The love. The fury. The fear. The heartbreak. The redemption.
Theoretically…this should have been a problem for me. My highly sensitive nervous system should have hated it. Elaine Aron, in her research, found that highly sensitive people who are raised in stable homes tend to have better than average immune systems and tend to be highly resilient. In toxic or unstable homes, however, they are more prone to anxiety, depression and chronic illness. My home was by no means a toxic one. But I don’t think I would have called it “stable.”
And I suppose in some ways, it was a problem. I grew up without the common markers of stability. I moved, on average, once a year every year. Even when I had a home base, I still found myself ping-ponging between my Mom’s home to my Dad’s home to my Nana’s home. My mom made friends easily with people from all walks of life. She was also in love with being in love. As a result, I was exposed to a wide variety of people. Some were rugged in appearance, but classy enough to outshine the most dapper of gentleman. Some were outwardly put together, but get them behind closed doors and you realize YIKES! Mayday! Abort! Abort! Movement and change were my constants. And I did struggle with things like insomnia, anxiety and even a bit of depression at certain points in my life. Perhaps I wouldn’t have if life had been more predictable? I’m not sure.
BUT…there was another side to all this. My mom was unapologetic about the way she lived her life. When she needed space, she would turn the ringer off, retreat into her bedroom and disappear for however long it took for her to feel human again. If she wanted to move, she was going to move. If she wanted to date, she was going to date. If she was unhappy in her present circumstances, she CHANGED those circumstances. “Life is short” she would tell me. “Don’t waste it.” And I think, perhaps, because she lived her life the way she wanted to…it made it easier for her to encourage ME to live my life the way I wanted to.
My Dad, meanwhile, knew how to draw out my playful and affectionate nature. If there was one person who could pull me out of my serious thoughts, it was him. We didn’t have long and deep conversations. But we didn’t need them. We had an entire conversation with a hug. He said he loved me every time it was his turn to move his chess piece. He said he loved me every time he made me laugh. When I was sick enough to have to go to the hospital, it was he who was called upon to take me. My Mom was responsible for my care 99 percent of the time. But if I needed to go to the hospital? Nope! “Ken” she would say “I’m tagging you in on this one.” He worked hard. He saved. He drank wine. He kept things simple. And he could charm ANYONE.
And, of course, there was my Nana. My Mom’s Mom. I spent almost as much time with her as a kid as I did with my Mom. Nana, in many ways, is my Mom’s compliment. They are both independent. Both capable women. But my Nana understood the power and beauty of being constant. Willing to sacrifice. Willing to stand still. Where my mom was mercurial and wild…my Nana was stable, and maybe even a little domestic. She had a reservoir of patience. And while it may be true that I moved quite a bit with my Mom…Nana’s house always stayed where it was. And something about that gave me the sense that I had a home base…even if I didn’t always live there in the classic sense of the word.
I was a sensitive kid. Everyone knew it. But no one ever made me feel odd about it. I was also introverted. I enjoyed spending long periods of time alone. I was never made to feel strange about that, either. No one dragged me to sports tryouts. No one pushed or prodded me into becoming something other than myself. And when I spoke, they listened. My questions and thoughts and reflections were held with care. I was made to believe that the way I saw the world was fascinating…and that my emotional landscape was lovely. The message I received from my people was quite simply “you’re perfectly you. And that’s perfect to me.”
Maybe that’s why, despite the challenges I have had in being more sensitive to stimulus and (let’s face it) generally an odd bird…I also have learned how to love what it means to experience the world the way I do.
This is the upside to being an HSP…
And this is the purpose of this entry. To discuss the very real rewards of what it means to be a highly sensitive person. I typically spend a lot of time talking about how to manage being an HSP. I thought it might be worth taking a moment to CELEBRATE it as well.
To start with…My body doesn’t do “standard” sensations. At least I don’t think so. I can’t remember the last time that I was ever bored. I can be entertained by the carnival of my own thoughts. Or by simply watching clouds drift by in the sky above me. Or by watching a bird sing. Or…dare I say it? By watching grass grow. I don’t know whether that’s a residual side-effect of growing up in a world where I was loved with relative ease and I therefore found it easy to love the world around me…or if it’s just because my quirky nervous system is built to appreciate small things because the big ones are WAY more than is necessary.
I also find it pretty easy to adapt (both socially and physically). When your life goes through a lot of twists and turns, you learn how to adapt. Quickly. You learn the subtle nuances in expression from people around you. As I mentioned earlier, I was exposed to a wide variety of different individuals all my life. I learned not to judge a book too closely by its cover. At least read the back of the damn thing! I learned that if you speak to a person long enough, 99.99 percent of the time, you can find something to relate to. You can find a point of commonality. You can even find something to appreciate about him/her. And as for my environment….I learned how to be resourceful. No matter how seemingly “bad” things were, most of the time I had everything I needed. Assumptions about what I “needed” to have were perpetually challenged until at some point, I realized that so long as I had shelter from the elements, food in my belly, and someone to connect to…everything else was just frosting.
I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish…
Adaptability and gratitude are lovely. But they still aren’t getting to the crux of what delights me about being an HSP. What really excites me is our capacity to experience absolute delirious JOY.
My Mom and I both loved the movie Meet Joe Black. Who could help but adore Anthony Hopkins? The man oozes class no matter the role he plays. And my Mom’s favorite scene is the one where Anthony Hopkins as Bill Parish is speaking with his beloved daughter about her lackluster boyfriend. He says…
” I want you to get swept away. I want you to levitate. I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish. Be deliriously happy. Or at least leave yourself open to be. I know it’s a cornball thing but love is passion, obsession, someone you can’t live without. If you don’t start with that, what are you going to end up with? I say fall head over heels. Find someone you can love like crazy and who’ll love you the same way back. And how do you find him? Forget your head and listen to your heart. I’m not hearing any heart. Run the risk, if you get hurt, you’ll come back. Because the truth is there is no sense living your life without this. To make the journey and not fall deeply in love well – you haven’t lived life at all. You have to try. Because if you haven’t tried, you haven’t lived. Stay open. Who knows…lightening could strike.”
On more than one occasion, my mom has recited these lines to me. Often during moments in my life when it seemed I was on a path guiding me away from my true self. Sometimes she would recite it when I was in an ill-fitted relationship. Sometimes when I was losing hope and worrying that leaving whatever relationship I had left behind wasn’t the right decision after all. Always, she would recite it as a way of saying “honey…life is so much bigger than this one tiny moment. Don’t settle!”
And Then Life Happens…
This brings me to today…
In the business of my life in the last year, I had almost forgotten about this. Between life transitions (personal and professional) and the general challenge of adulting…it was easy to slide into rote work. But recently, I started dating again. I have started going out and socializing for no other reason than because I have the bandwidth to do it and I WANT to. And I have watched myself slide into and out of crushes. I have watched myself get excited by a text or a call from someone I’m crazy about. It’s lovely. Especially for a highly sensitive person like myself. If you think the average person gets “addicted to love” and bamboozled by infatuation…you should see what goes on in the mind of a highly sensitive person. Think Luney Tunes meets Animaniacs.
But those sensations, intoxicating though they most certainly are, aren’t what dug up Anthony Hopkins’ line and pushed it into the front burner of my thoughts. Instead, it was a moment I spent alone. Well….Remi (my dog) and Sasha (my cat) were there to witness it, I suppose. But no human companions.
I walked into the master bedroom in my home. The home I lived in when my Mom was happily married to a wonderful man who had the audacity to get cancer and leave us behind. The home my Mom rented out and had been saving as a kind of inheritance to me. The home I moved into recently with the high hopes of sharing it with my soon-to-be husband. The home I am now occupying primarily by myself now that the relationship has unraveled.
The master bedroom is empty now. I’m renting it out as I have NO business living in a four-bedroom house by myself. It’s financially unsustainable and logistically silly. But the emptiness doesn’t make me sad. Empty spaces always make me feel a little more at-ease. I don’t like clutter. Empty rooms have potential.
With music blasting in my earphones and no one to see my embarrassing dance moves I started to spin in circles. I used to do that all the time as a kid. I would stare at my outstretched hand (that way, I never got dizzy). I loved the experience of watching as the world around me faded to a blur. It made everything a little less solid. It made my problems a little less…problematic. So…feeling giddy from the sense of new possibility and complete spaciousness…I instinctively did the same thing.
I remember thinking how perfect a metaphor it was. In life, if we only focus on the external things we want (I want a car, I want to boyfriend, I want a house, I want a new job…I want…I want…I want) we can get lost. Dizzy. We can make ourselves unstable in our constant grasping for something out there to satisfy what’s in here. But if we focus, instead, on finding satisfaction within ourselves…focus on what’s in here we have a better shot at staying on our own two feet. Balanced. Capable.
A few days later, I shared this with one of the most insightful people (not to mention profound healers) that I know. He smiled and said “Do you know that spinning is a spiritual practice for the Sufi’s? They are called Dervishes…”
I couldn’t help but smile…
Because, in that moment, I realized somehow in my bumbling and stumbling in life, I had managed to capture a small bit of what my Mom has always wanted me to have. The ability to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish.
I didn’t need a man to do it (although I do adore the sensation of falling in love, I admit). Instead, I had figured out how to dance like a dervish simply because I love the sensation of being in my own skin.
This is the gift of being an HSP
Research shows that highly sensitive people tend to be challenged in romantic relationships. There are a number of theories that try to explain the why of it. How could it be that a cohort of people who are generally sensitive to the needs of others could stumble so awkwardly in the romance department? They seem BUILT to be lovers! Maybe it’s because they have too high expectations. Maybe its because they over-analyze their relationships and ponder the romance right out of it. Maybe they key into the weaknesses in a relationship too easily, and allow those weaknesses to overshadow the strengths. Maybe romantic relationships take too much out of highly sensitive people. It’s difficult to balance my needs with his needs with the relationships’ needs.
But in light of this more recent experience, I’m starting to wonder…
Maybe the “problem” isn’t a problem at all. Maybe highly sensitive people are built to experience joy so easily that they discover faster than most that they don’t need a romance to feel whole. Maybe they aren’t ending relationships unnecessarily or prematurely. Maybe they are just better at allowing relationship to end when they need to. Maybe they are faster to understand that if the relationship isn’t serving both parties, the kindest thing they can do is gracefully bow out of the dance and move on.
Because if you have ever seen a dancing dervish, you will know they never dance with partners. They don’t need a partner. They are their own private solar system.
But Don’t HSP Get Lonely?
I don’t mean to sound as though highly sensitive people don’t need love, relationships and community with other people. Of course they do. It’s why I started this article by talking about the people who raised me. My life, in the material sense, was sheer chaos. But I was LOVED. I still am. Unabashedly. Unselfconsciously. Consistently.
I’m not trying to say “oh we are just way too cool for other people.” Not at all. I don’t know what I would do without the people who have loved and supported me in my life. I can’t imagine not being the one my loved ones call upon when they need support. It’s absolutely beautiful.
But what I AM saying is that we are gifted with the potential to appreciate all life has to offer us in an intense and profoundly robust way. Sure…we get more irritated by loud noise, talking heads, obnoxious social norms that don’t make sense, bad marketing and empty relationships. But we ALSO get more of a high from a warm gesture, a powerful song, a line from a movie, a moment of silence, a spin on a makeshift dance floor.
So if there is one thing I would like to invite you to consider it is this: remember that while life can be overwhelming and frustrating…it can be exactly that amount of exhilarating and gratifying. You might dislike that others can take on more stimulating experiences without getting wiped out while you often can’t in exactly the same way. But remember, too that you don’t NEED them as others do. You need only tap into the moment and get curious, and you may find yourself delighted by the mysteries of a snow cone.
What are things YOU like about being a highly sensitive person? What are the strengths you harbor because of that sensitivity?