Once a upon a time …
… a highly sensitive client was telling me how much they objected to the smell of their neighbour’s laundry detergent. The client called on the neighbour, requesting that their laundry be removed from the garden washing line.
Imagining the interaction – from the knock on the door, to a grudging response, followed by months of sullen curtain-twitching silence – I find myself giggling.
I am amused because I too am a high sensitive. The smell – and taste – of noxious laundry detergents, fabric softeners and uber-deoderants are almost unbearable. Nonetheless, I wondered how persuasive my client’s protest was with a ‘civilian’.
A you an introvert whose sensory faculties all line up on the Super Sensitive highway? Then, you may resonate with the notion of life being a trek through the landscape of ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch.
So, how to survive as a sensitive in an insensitive world? Walking on quickly whilst holding our noses, clamping our lips tight, and shielding eyes as necessary? What will provide the most effective protective membrane?
Protection for the highly sensitive …
An important tool for high sensitives is self recognition. (That is, self recognition without holding others to ransom with our sensitivity.) We’re all different despite advertisers’ wish to line us up in demographically organised queues. While we’re all individuals, most people prefer to congregate in groups. And to form those groups, they seek out ‘people like me’, bonding with their identified tribe for close companionship and social interaction.
Highly sensitive people are often at the other end of the scale from social animals. But it is still a spectrum. Some sensitive people are happy to socialise with others when they are in the mood. But they are equally content in their own company pursuing particular interests. For the most sensitive folk, being ‘out there’ can feel overwhelming.
The sensitive radar …
So how does sensitivity develop in the first place? Carl Jung tabled the idea of introvert and the extrovert personalities. He suggested that each of us has a tendency to look – either – within or outside ourselves for life support.
Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person considers sensitivity to be an inborn trait.
Having acute sensory awareness can mean hearing, seeing, noticing, and feeling things that other people don’t. But rather than classifying this as some kind of ‘woo woo’ super power, I lean towards Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ theory. She says that the sensory radar tends to move to super sensitive levels if a child experiences unreliable nurturing. Sensory awareness is heightened when there is a need to determine the source of possible danger.
So, is a tendency to be ‘sensitive’ – sometimes negatively perceived as ‘preciousness’ – inherited or learned … ‘Nature or Nurture’? With Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggesting that often, it is external challenges which sharpen sensory awareness, Alice Miller suggests that natural intelligence renders a sensitive individual more sensitive to their surroundings.
Growing up highly sensitive …
My sense of sensitivity is that it often suggests, forensically speaking, that a child was not treated as an individual. In such cases, the intelligence, preferences and gifts of the child are not acknowledged. Lacking a reliable reflection, the child may grow up without an true sense of their own feelings, needs and desires. This leads to the sense of distress, dissociation and despair that the sensitive and gifted often feel – the sadness of not being recognised. Alienation from the self is a key issue for the highly sensitive. Never mind smelly laundry detergents, loud muzak or jostling crowds.
A child of parents who are emotionally naive, unavailable or unstable will often learn to put their own needs and feelings aside. The child is tamed and trained to meet the needs of others. For people who struggle with self-esteem and self confidence, this is often how their familiar pattern of interacting begins.
If it was like this for you, you may benefit from interior work to connect to and reclaim your identity. It may help to begin this work with a counselor, coach or therapist. Whatever path you choose, ignore the world’s insensitivities while you work out what really matters for you. Once you have discovered your map and your route, then you can set out to interact with the world (if you choose).
• • •
When we don’t find our place in the world, we either learn to see ourself through the eyes of others or perhaps not see ourselves at all. This what begins our journey. If it feels like there is no space for you or if there is no support in your environment, consider whether you are being called to step out and find a different way. Your path may be to discover and learn new ways of living and expressing yourself … to grow … and then perhaps, to teach.
Some tips for the highly sensitive on the path of self discovery:
• Do things you like. If you don’t know what you like, then start experimenting.
• Learn how to be authentically sociable
• Look after your body
• Be mindful of your inner life
• Express yourself
• Try things you’ve never done before
• Arrange a celebration … and decide whether to invite anyone else …