Sunday, February 16, 2003

HSPs and Attachment Style

In both the original "Highly Sensitive Person" book and the subsequent Workbook, Elaine Aron talks about how we learn our "attachment style" in childhood, and it tends to reflect in our adult relationships... and will continue to do so unless we do some serious personal growth work to break the cycle (if it is toxic).

At my roots, I have a "mixed attachment style"-- which Elaine Aron actually told me is "a plus"-- so I suppose it is all in how you frame it. I know that "preoccupied" represents what I learned from my parents (perhaps with a dash of "fearful avoidant" thrown in)-- this was the result of growing up with two people who were far to busy tending to their own agenda to deal with a kid. Which is not to say that I was "lacking" in anything, except "emotional nourishment." My folks travelled extensively, and even when they were home, they were very busy being "glamorous." My father was a Narcissist who didn't even like children; my mother was a co-dependent social climber, alternately drowning her sorrows with prescription drugs and alcohol, and seeking the emotional intimacy her husband couldn't give her, from her child.

But whenever my parents were away, I was in the company of a loving and supportive elderly aunt with whom I experienced a "secure" attachment style. It was completely OK for me to "be me," sensitivity and all. As such, I know how both sides of the fence "feel," and that evidently makes me "wiser," somehow. Intellectually, I can grasp that-- I know what "healthy love" feels like.

That doesn't mean that I have made smart choices, however. On some strange "compartmentalized" level, I seem to have had "secure" relationships with friends, but something quite different with "love partners," probably helped along by the fact that each time I have "attached" has also coincided with periods of my life where I had chronically low self-esteem. So I "chose" people who had not the slightest ability to fill my emotional needs-- except in the context of me being an "unhealthy" person, playing the insecure-avoidant-fearful script learned from my parents. But then I would start to work on myself, only to wake up and wonder "what am I DOING here?" and "How did I GET here?"

A thing I came face-to-face with a few months ago was that I have never been "single, available and looking" at those times of my life when I was the most "together" and mentally stable, feeling good about who I was (poor relationships, notwithstanding)-- my relationships have all started in periods of deep distress, darkness and confusion, when I was feeling "not worthy" and trying to "earn approval."

And what kind of person do you think might find that attractive? Sorry, no prizes for getting the right answer....

Most of the above is "past tense," however. These days I am pretty close to having worked into a state of mind where I am capable of recognizing and choosing a "secure" attachment style-- but I am still in a relationship that was originally based on my having a "preoccupied style," so how that's going to play out, I don't know.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

HSPs and Interacting with "The Other Gender"

Someone wrote to me with a question-- actually gleaned from reading Elaine Aron's "HSP Workbook"-- which went: "Why do HSPs feel especially uneasy around the other gender?"

Whoa! Hold the phone! I read this, and it struck me as a horrendously incorrect generalization. At least for me. I am not "uneasy" around the other gender-- in fact, I am more uneasy around my own gender. 90% of my friends are (and have historically been) women-- and that's a conscious choice, based on the fact that I simply get along better with women.

Of course, what I just wrote was pure "reaction" to that question-- now I need to actually think about the deeper implications of the question...

OK. So now that my blood pressure has found a normal level again.... I realized, as I read, that I have fairly thoroughly divorced myself from cultural stereotypes. Which is not to say that I am not conscious of them, nor that I don't see the truth in them, nor that I don't see a certain "value" (from the standpoint of understanding) in many of them. Maybe it's just something that comes with age-- I distinctly remember feeling much more frustrated-- and even angry-- when I would try to deal with the difference between how I felt-- inside-- and how I felt "forced" to act in my efforts to "fit in." Now I am far more comfortable with just letting the world think whatever it wants to. Elaine uses the word "unmanly" (w.r.t. HS Men) a number of times in her books-- and I can't remember the last time I thought of myself in those terms.... early 30's perhaps?

Most of us have discovered the HSP-trait fairly recently, at least relative to our overall lives. For me, it was maybe 5 years ago-- for many, it has been even more recent. Given our median age (most people start self-inquiry no sooner than their early 30's) , that represents just a small fragment of our lives. Knowing that we're HSPs helps us explain stuff. But most of all, it helps us "come to terms" with ourselves. Perhaps to "make peace" with ourselves. It offers us a "name" for something we've been aware of for a long time. However, it is really just one piece of a much greater puzzle.

When I found Elaine's book, it was eyeopening. But I had already been through the process of making peace with the idea that I was a "strange outsider," on account of a different "trait" called "giftedness." Independently of Elaine Aron, researchers have long known that as many as 70% of gifted adults are introverts, and display high/hyper sensitivity, and can be deeply empathic. Giftedness is a nebulous thing, and I won't go into definitions-- I just wanted to share three points. (1) When I found out I was an HSP, I was already at peace with being part of a "weird minority" (to the tune of less than 1% of the population), a minority that had "high sensitivity" as a core trait, and (2) The reason I say I "confuse myself" is that I can read the HSP book and feel a connection-- yet I am not genuinely sure where/if "being an HSP" ends and "being gifted" begins. I'm not sure it's relevant even. (3) I am (very likely) something people refer to as an "Indigo." Whereas many are familiar with this term in the context of children, Indigo Adults-- especially of my age-- are quite rare. And where all Indigos's are almost certainly HSPs, not all HSPs are Indigos. But I'm just being conscious of the fact that I may be attributing things to HSP-ism that nothing to DO with HSP-ism.

I don't like the terms "gifted" and "IQ," by the way. Every time I use them (in the context of myself) it feels like I am bragging, and I hate that. But denying it is a bit like pretending you're not 6'6"-- when you are 6'6"..... and it makes as little sense as "faking" not being an HSP.

I have wandered way off my original line of thinking, however.

Elaine Aron-- when talking about the "unease" HSPs often feel around the other gender-- likes to attribute it to a form of "Love Shyness." Love-shyness.... I relate, but I don't. I am not love-shy; I am highly at ease. However, now comes some of the stuff I don't often talk about-- and I find it difficult to talk about.

To me, it feels more like my "methodology" with the opposite gender has been wrong-- or at least misinterpreted. Or has resulted in the "wrong" kind of connection. Maybe that's my "failure." I always try to get to know someone "inside" first-- and once there's a well-established "connection," then intimacy (physical and otherwise) can come into the picture. Now, many women say they actually want this from men. But this is perhaps where a dose of "sexism" comes into the mix....

Bear with me-- this is going to be a gross generality. In the greater context of "all men," where "all men" try to "cop a feel" on the first date (if they are interested in their date, that is) I surmise that perhaps my approach is interpreted as "not interested" in "that" sort of way. Leaving me (historically) in a strange world where I have "non-sexual relationships with sexual women" and "sexual relationships with NON-sexual women." Phrased a little differently... I have managed to "marry" the women I should have been purely platonic friends with, and been "just friends" with the women I could have had a "physical love" relationship with, as well as an intellectual/emotional relationship. And I am inclined to think that Sensitivity has had a direct influence on this outcome in my life.

And to get back to the original question, perhaps the "outside view" of this could be seen as "unease" around the other gender.

I'll conclude this with a sort of "side-bar comment." Very closely related to this concept of love-shyness, some years ago I was part of a study group at Georgia State University where a couple of psychology professors were studying a phenomenon called "Involuntary Celibacy." (Desiring intimacy, but not having any-- whether you're in a relationship, or not) It's noteworthy that "InCel's" and "MarCel's" (married, and involuntarily celibate) were also likely to come from unhappy childhoods, and to be sensitive/highly sensitive. What Elaine fails to mention about the love-shy trait is that people thus afflicted are probably (just a strong hunch) also far more likely to suffer from depression, diseases and mental illness. I believe human beings crave connection, and a lack of connection negatively impacts our health-- both mentally and physically.

Saturday, February 01, 2003

HSPs and the problem of "Soft Boundaries"

HSPs often seem to have issues with poor personal boundaries. Whether that's a result of the trait, itself, or not being taught the right skills in childhood I don't know. I hear many HSPs struggle with it, and I have certainly been through my own struggle.

I believe "boundaries" can be a place where people-- and especially we HSPs and people of a helpful compassionate nature-- easily can end up in "razor's edge" situations. Where does "supportive" end, and "healthy boundaries" begin? I had to learn boundaries from the ground up (At great expense, my therapist thanks me!) because I was raised in a family where having boundaries of any sort was viewed as "inconsiderate."

One of the things I had to learn in setting boundaries was not merely to be willing to clearly state my needs, but also to not "overlay" myself on other people. I had to learn how to be "sorry" without being "causally responsible." Indeed, I was sorry when my girlfriend hit her shin on the park bench-- but I was also not responsible for it. I didn't put the bench down in her way, and I didn't force her to go to the park, against her will. In fact, I was 3 miles away. Although until I was about 32, I made myself responsible for EVERYthing-- maybe I "could" have "made her" not go to the park, had I "known" that there was going to be a bench. As HSPs, and empaths, I think it's easy to take on the troubles of the world-- but there's a big difference between being "supportive of" and "responsible for" someone else's distress. A "boundary" we must learn, as part of not getting overwhelmed. I continue to struggle with it.....

The other thing I had to learn, was how to use the word "no." Again, my childhood/youth model was that saying "no" to someone's request was both self-centered and rude. When I was a young adult, this turned me into an unhealthy person who could only say "no" as part of a final explosion of pent-up rage and frustration. It took me a very long time to learn that "no" is better used as a tool to not reach the "point of explosion," in the first place. Corny as it might sound, I had to practice saying "no" to myself, in the mirror. Eventually I did learn to pose the internal question "Do I want to do this, or am I just feeling obligated?" The biggest problem with not being able to say "no" is that you quickly lose your humanity-- you end up becoming a "human DOING," rather than a "human BEING."

For me, the most difficult thing hasn't really been learning to say "no," or developing healthy boundaries. I has been dealing with the environmental effect of change-- how to deal with other people's reactions. After all, you have friends/acquaintances who are used to a particular paradigm for your behavior-- and suddenly you become like a "different person." Very confusing. And it also has a way of "flushing out" and bringing into question (usuary) relationships that were originally formed on a less than healthy basis.

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