Sunday, December 28, 2014

HSPs and Finding Meaning in Life

It is a common refrain in the growing global HSP community that we desire to live life "authentically" and that we want our lives to "have meaning."

Regardless of whether these are HSP-specific desires or something all humans wrestle with, it's certainly true that we HSPs spend more time thinking about-- and discussing-- this topic. That only makes sense, given that "processing deeply" and the ability to introspect and live in our inner worlds are core attributes of being highly sensitive.

But what exactly is this "meaning" we seek?

And are these really questions we can ask collectively, and hope to find an answer to?  Or is "meaning" such an independent and individual thing that each person's "meaning" is unique to them, only? Well, one common thread among HSPs seems to be that many of the "societal" values and ambitions of our world do not offer meaning in the lives of a Highly Sensitive Person.

Over a decade ago, I wrote here on this blog about Giftedness, Existential Depression and Being an HSP. I am not sure that I have personally progressed all that much, but at least I have a somewhat better understanding of my own processes... including answering the question "What is the MEANING of meaning?"

Perhaps one of the more important things I have learned is that "meaning" doesn't have to be Big. I think many people-- myself included, previously-- frequently labor under the weight of believing that our lives don't "matter" and are not "meaningful" unless we're-- figuratively speaking-- "inventing the cure for cancer" or "ending world hunger."

In fact, I have started calling such thinking "The Cure for Cancer Syndrome" because people seem to literally feel immobilized-- and doubly depressed-- as a result of feeling like their contributions are "too small" to matter.

But meaning can be quite Small. And the issue isn't the "size" of the meaning, but embracing that meaning comes in many forms and sizes, and recognizing that the small ways in which we find-- and give-- meaning are all important. We don't have to "invent a cure for cancer."

In an ideal world, we would find meaning in everything we do, from our work to what occupies our free time. Alas, we don't often live in an ideal world, so we have to find our meaning where we can, while striving to make our overall lives feel more meaningful.

For a Highly Sensitive Person, meaning is often found through some form of creative expression-- art, performing, writing, teaching, helping, volunteering. Some argue that most of these endeavors don't make a real difference in the world... which I usually counter with the statement "SOMEone had to be Einstein's teacher..."

An example of how we can change the world in small ways can be illustrated by my recent experience with writing this blog: I started up again-- after a 16-month hiatus-- as a result of reading someone else's words; a fellow blogger. By simply sharing her enthusiasm, I recognized how much meaning came to my life as a result of writing these pages... and that the meaning was "there," regardless of whether the writing actually touched others.

Even though that is a tiny thing, who is to say it didn't have meaning? And that it didn't "matter?"

In addition, I recognized that I had thrown away the metaphorical "meaningfulness score sheet" by which I had been judging my own efforts in terms of external feedback, instead of my own inner direction. In most cases, the sense of meaning comes from within, not from the outside.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to change the external world, and to find meaning in doing so... but if we can only derive "value" and "meaning" as a result of others' opinions, we put ourselves in a perilous place where our happiness stands and falls based on others' words, rather than our own endeavors.

So here's the question of the moment: Do YOU have deeper meaning in your life? Where do you get your meaning from? Is it an inner process, or an outer process? Objectively, have you sometimes fallen into the trap of feeling like life has "no meaning," as a result of the "Cure for Cancer Syndrome?" Leave a comment!

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

HSPs and Resuming Abandoned Projects: HSP Notes Lives Again!

As human beings-- whether we're Highly Sensitive, or not-- we remain constant "works in progress."

Long term readers have probably noticed that "not much has been happening" on these pages, for quite a while. It's true. There's a long song-and-dance routine I could share with you to explain that, but the short version has two very simple parts:

Part one, I simply got "tired and bored with myself," when it came to writing, and so I stopped. In a sense, I followed my own advice to not keep doing things simply because "we're in the habit" and "other people expect us to."

Part two, I found myself mired down in a longer period in my existence where I seemed to feel perpetually overstimulated by the basic "demands of life."

Writing is basically a "diversion" for me, and one that has never paid for the light bill, rent or groceries. As such, it's a "luxury" in my life. When things are financially "tight" (as they have been for a couple of years, now) such diversions get cut from my personal "HSP energy budget." If it doesn't "pay the rent," it pretty much gets the ax.

That said, it isn't that I haven't had anything to "say," when it comes to "life as an HSP," but here's the fundamental shizzy: Just jotting down some quick ideas and insights in a "flow-of-consciousness" manner takes me less than 30 minutes. I type pretty fast, so the bones of a 1000-1500-word article easily flows out within a reasonable time frame. So what's the problem?

Taking that 1500-word article, fine tuning it, polishing it up, carefully considering it, adding pretty pictures and ruminating on (aka "processing deeply") whether or not it truly is "fit for public consumption" takes me hours, if not days to complete. And so, the underlying story is not that I have felt too exhausted "to write," but I have felt too exhausted "to publish." Because there's a huge difference between simply "writing" and actually "publishing," even when it comes to a simple blog like this.

Now, maybe that sounds mystifying, so I'll expand a bit. One of the fairly common attributes of being an HSP is a sort of "elevated sense of conscientiousness." On the whole, that's a good thing. The "problem" with it can be that it's also the breeding ground for a sort of perfectionism that can keep us stuck-- in my case, not wanting to just "throw things out there" when I didn't feel were "good enough." Maybe that's just a personal philosophy for living: If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well.

Short version: I've been writing, just not publishing.

Anyway, this morning I found myself trying to answer the 427th email asking me if "I had stopped blogging" and if I "no longer wrote about HSPs."

As I said, the truth of the matter is that I never stopped writing, I just stopped publishing. As I write these words, I have 50-some half-baked posts/articles sitting in my "drafts" folder, waiting to be "set free." Actually, most of them are about 90% written. As I looked at them-- before answering the email-- I came face to face with one of my "demons" that has always plagued me, especially in work contexts: The eternal "inner conflict" between "hating busy-work" (which includes prepping, editing and fine-tuning writing for publication) and "being intolerant of imperfection" (And "imperfection" is what happens when I don't take time to do the busy work.)

This tendency has haunted me across many aspects of life... I'm OK with doing the "creative work" and can be extremely prolific, but my "drive" to "bring it to market" (so to speak) is almost non-existent.

All this "churning of thoughts" came about because I have been working on an article (I also write for the "Consciousness and Metaphysics" press) about "not having enough time" to do the things we want to. My own lament is that I "don't have time to write." Well, that's actually a lie. I have plenty of "time to write." I just lack the inclination (and time) to "create finished work." And because of my perfectionistic tendencies, I refuse to let anyone (clients, editors, customers) have "half-assed garbage," even if they would be perfectly content with it. I have to be content with it.

But that's not even the whole truth. As HSPs one dilemma we often face is that the things we most want to do are not income producing, and we end up in a struggle to find balance between our "idealism" and "functional reality." Sure, I want to write, but I can't afford to write.

Anyway, the holidays are almost here, and the days have gotten very short, and I am spending less time outside... meaning that I (technically speaking) have more time to be in front of the computer-- aside from just purely working. Hereunder, taking on the somewhat daunting prospect of finishing and "releasing" the 40-something "mostly written" posts and articles currently sitting in the "drafts" folder here at HSP Notes.

I did have to ask myself the question "why bother?"

Why not just delete them all and "start from here?"

Consideration number one: I never set forth to try to write "self-help" or "advice" or general insight articles for HSPs. When I started this blog, it was just a place for me to keep my own musings about what life was like, when you are an HS male living in Texas-- as I was, back in 2002. Frankly I was both surprised-- and slightly amused-- when I started to get "readers." Almost 13 years later, I'm now surprised by how many of these "random musings" have been read by 10,000 or more people. That's both startling... and a little scary.

Getting back to "why bother," I feel that part of my Calling has always been to "share information." Not in a "connect 'A' to 'B'" sort of sense, but in simply sharing something that made my walk through life easier... and maybe someone else's life could become easier as a result of reading and thinking "I could do that!" That's really my only ulterior motive, here... and that's as true now as it has ever been.

Consideration number two: I have never liked "unfinished business." It hangs over me like a dark "psychic cloud." Hence the idea of just deleting everything from the "drafts" folder seems just "wrong." After all, those insights and thoughts did happen, right? And they might be useful. Besides, deleting them feels like an even greater "loss" of time than taking/making the time to finish them. On top of which I'll be the first to admit that I am a bit lazy, and odds are I'd start writing some of the same things I've already written... and that's just a waste of effort!

"So why so many ruminations on this?" you might be thinking.

In part, getting back to the roots of this blog: It was here for me to explore my thought processes and "think out loud" about life as a Highly Sensitive Person. And that's precisely what you're witnessing me do... share my thought process. We all have our way of learning... some learn best by have something that looks mostly like an "instruction manual." Others-- I count myself among them-- learn best through "experiencing through someone else's experience."

And truth be known? "Ruminating" and "processing deeply" (and sometimes "overthinking things!") is part of what we HSPs DO, in life. And I'm no different.

So, "stay tuned" for a series of "the lost articles" to come to light, in the course of the next few weeks!

In the meantime, here's the "question(s) of the week:" Do you tend to deliberately STOP projects when they become "too much" for you, or are you more likely to quietly "let them slide?" And when you decide to resume them, do you just "start where you left off" or do you tend to put a lot of effort into "getting organized" and trying to resume from a place where things are as smooth and "complete" feeling as when you stopped? Leave a comment! Start a discussion!

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Interpreting Reality: HSPs and Overcoming Our Negative Perceptions

There is a saying-- alas, I forget where it comes from-- that we should "not attribute to malice what can merely be attributed to ignorance."

It seems to me that we HSPs "do battle" extensively with the negative voices inside our heads. That is, we often bring suffering to ourselves because of how we choose to interpret what others say and think about us. For example, someone might say "You're very quiet!" and we immediately interpret what basically amounts to "just an observation" as something negative; as feeling judged; that our quietness is a flaw, of some kind. But if you pause and think about it-- especially if these words were spoken by a very talkative person-- we could turn that right around and say "You're very noisy!"

I will not deny that our culture-- especially here in the US-- has its share of prejudices against aspects of human character that fit many HSPs... but there's a limit. Often, people's observations about others are little more than that: Observations. Not "judgments," not "attempts to make us feel bad." In truth, we often do a far better job of making ourselves feel bad than anyone else can, because we set off a cloud of "swirling negative thoughts" in response to what someone else says.

Recently, I did an exercise at a workshop which involved examining words that had often been used to describe me during childhood and my youth... and which I could safely say had always "bothered" me. Central to the exercise was examining each descriptive word objectively and re-framing-- in a more positive light-- how these words described me (or not). Here's a list of some of the words I came up with:

Shy
Quiet
Polite
Aloof
Distant
Daydreaming
Cautious
Serious
Detached
Silent
Observant
Compliant
Fearful
Retiring

Then I started off by examining the term "shy," and looking at it objectively, as a way people might have seen me. Whereas I am not really interested in writing a long treatise on the deeper psychological meaning of each of these words, I'll run through a quick examination and re-stating of some of them.

Was I shy? Not really. I was just quiet. I had no actual social fear or hesitance around people-- I was just easily overstimulated by more than one person at a time, so I often kept to myself.

Was I quiet? Absolutely. Loudness literally hurt my ears; hurt me inside-- if one of my schoolmates set off firecrackers, it felt like I was being hit over the head with a baseball bat. A neighbor boy had one of those English policeman's whistles... when he blew it, it literally felt like my eardrums were being shredded. So I avoided making the noises that hurt.

Was I polite? Politeness meant I would not "stir up" people's energies, and thus not have to deal with subsequent "loudness," which I didn't like. Let's note that "polite" is typically a positive word, and when we assign a negative meaning to it, what we're actually doing is making an interpretation and judgment about someone else's tone of voice and delivery.

Was I aloof? That's a matter of perception. Objectively, what people perceive as "aloof" is generally related to an unwillingness to engage at their level. "Aloof" is a bit like soft-shoeing around the harsher term "arrogant." In a childhood context, let's say someone's idea of a good time is banging on metal trash cans with sticks... well, I would consider myself "not part of that" and back away... thereby perhaps appearing aloof. Was I "the opposite of bubbly and gregarious?" Yes, I was. But does it make me a "bad" person? Definitely not.

Distant? Daydreaming? Absolutely, on both counts. The external world felt incredibly rough and violent to me... my "inner landscapes" allowed me to create an alternate reality, in which things were just not as rough. It was a sanctuary, of sorts. I'll also add that "having a rich inner life" is one of the core attributes of high sensitivity. Nothing "bad" about that-- in fact these are little more than an unstructured offshoot of meditation, which is widely considered a positive an healing activity.

Cautious? Yes. Very cautious. One of the things I pause to remember about this is that HSPs process more deeply, and thus tend to be more capable of thinking through the consequences of an action taken, before taking the action. Compared to other children who acted purely from impulse, this would definitely come across as caution. If this seems unclear, let me offer an example: The non-HSP child says "Jumping off the roof looks like fun!" The thought process ends there; the child jumps without a second thought. The HSP child says "Jumping off the roof looks like it could be fun... but the pain of landing on those rocks would be worse than the fun of jumping, so I don't jump, or maybe I'll jump from somewhere else."

Serious? Yes, I believe I was. Most early pictures of me reveal a mostly somber demeanor. However, I'm not convinced this had much to do with being an HSP-- rather, it was a reflection of being raised in a family that frowned on "wild" or "childish" behavior, and expected children to behave like "little adults." Combine that with being a thorough introvert, and you end up with a little kid who just doesn't express very much.

Detached? I have considered this particular description at some length, and concluded that it was somewhat of a self-preservation mechanism. Detaching served me as a form of "non-engagement" that kept me from being in a constant state of overstimulation.

Silent? Yes, I was mostly silent. However, I will attribute this only in part to being an HSP, the other part being attributable to growing up in a family environment where "children might be seen, but should not be heard." I would also mention again that I was (and am) an introvert... and thus more of a listener than a talker.

Watching? That's an odd one. I've been told by many family members that I would just sit for hours and look at things, without necessarily trying to engage with them. From inside me, it felt like I was "filming" the world and storing it away for future reference. Just because something was "there" didn't mean I had to DO something with it.

Compliant? Absolutely. From everything I've been told, I was very rarely contentious... and mostly just did what I was told, without question. Of all the words on my list, this one is perhaps the one I struggled the most with, because compliance often meant that I allowed myself to be coerced into places and situations where I'd rather not be (or would get hurt), simply in service of keeping the peace and not upsetting those around me.

Fearful? Fear is one of the "inventory items" on my list of personal attributes I have worked the most on, in the course of a couple of decades of self-development. It's easy to get affronted and insulted when someone calls you fearful, but the truth is that I was fearful-- and governed by fear (some rational, some irrational) during the majority of my life. I think it is not uncommon for HSPs-- especially if they had difficult childhoods-- to start viewing the world through a lens of fear. After enough repetitions of "having an experience --> negative/painful outcome" it's only natural to become fearful or...

Retiring? Yes, I would often shy back from from many aspects of life. But in some ways, I have been able to reframe this characterization under the broader heading of "knowing my limits." Just how "bad" is it when I choose to not go to a loud concert because I know I will feel hugely overstimulated and my sensitive ears will hurt?

In the end, I found this particular exercise of "taking inventory" of descriptive words people have spoken about me during my life, that have-- and do-- "bother" me to be both productive and healing. As one of my spiritual Teachers once pointed out, our thoughts about something tend to be far worse than the actual "something," itself.

As HSPs, we can easily get "trapped" in the fact that something once "hurt us," without taking the time to have a deeper look and interpreting what happened. It is easy for us to focus on being hurt, rather than on the truth of the message that was shared with us. It is also easy for us to allow cultural labels to become our definition when it is actually WE who get to define ourselves.

Highly Sensitive Persons are a little bit different, and it does not serve us to obsess over "having stripes" when-- in fact-- we happen to be "zebras." Our task is to become the best zebras we can, not to try to become non-zebras!



What do YOU think? Do you have "descriptions" of you, made by other people in your past... that you feel hurt over, but perhaps have not truly examined? Do you have a list of "words" that bother you, as they apply (or not) to you? Have you taken the time to look deeper at whether they are actually TRUE... and whether that truth is even a BAD thing, in reality? Do share and leave a comment!

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

HSP Overstimulation... and the Benefits of Organization

As an HSP, one of the "issues" I often deal with is being mindful of-- which basically means "recognizing," before they happen-- the points of overwhelm in my life. These are like trigger points that arise as warning signs, before I get to a point of being in the middle of that thing we know as "HSP overstimulation."

That may sound simple enough, but there's a lot more to it than merely recognizing that if I get on a rollercoaster (metaphorical or real) I'm going to get overwhelmed and overstimulated. For the vast majority of us HSPs the "problem" seldom relates to the very obvious whack-over-the-head events of our lives, but to the subtle stress factors that quietly and pervasively poke at the edges of our consciousness, like Chinese water torture.

We all have different ways of approaching life, of course.

Some 17 years ago, I learned about this thing called "being a Highly Sensitive Person." Shortly thereafter, I started learning what I could do about that... not in the sense of trying to "fix" it, but to make life "work" for me, with only a minimum of disruption.

For me, being well organized has become one of my key tools in keeping the feeling that life is constantly overwhelming me down to a dull roar. I came to realize that dealing with the "layer of chaos" that tended to float around me-- as a result of not taking steps to be organized-- ate lots of physical, emotional and psychic bandwidth that I simply didn't have available to give. I realized that I often would get more stressed out "preparing to do" than "actually doing" a lot of things because they felt larger than they actually were because I'd not planned them out, in a functional manner. I was more overwhelmed by the idea than the reality of a situation.

Let me offer up a very simplistic metaphor.

We all have to "pay bills." That's just a given; that's just life.

In days gone by, that was a chaotic and stressful experience for me. It involved lots of "unknowns," all of which needlessly added to my stress level: First, I had to find all the bills, which I had put in an assortment of "safe places" around the apartment. Then I had to "hope" that I hadn't waited too long, so I would owe (needless) late fees. Then I had to hope that-- in fact-- I had been able to find all the bills. Before any of these points were reached, I also dealt with the daily worry of thinking "I really should pay bills, soon." Of course, then I had to hope that I actually had enough money to pay the bills... because I had no such thing as "a budget," and really no sense of how much I needed to be able to pay, each month; just a general sense that I made about "enough" to handle things, if nothing "had come up." Then I had to find last month's paid bills... because I couldn't always remember what had already been paid.

Now, actually paying bills is a pretty simple deal. In essence, it takes about an hour a month... and isn't particularly stressful, in and of itself.

What was causing me to get overstimulated and overwhelmed was what I came to think of as "The Cloud of Surrounding Chaos" associated with paying bills. Again, keep in mind that "paying bills" is merely a metaphor for so many things we have to deal with in daily life.

Getting back to "paying bills" effectively taking an hour a month... my real problem was that I was "creating" six hours of anxiety and overstimulation as a result of being poorly organized. As I look back over my life, poor organization caused my excessive stress in many areas-- my finances, how I ran my home business, my taxes, my writing, keeping track of my web sites...

Now, there are those who will read this and think to themselves "yeah, but it's just not in my nature to be organized!"

Well, yes and no. Part of my challenge has long been that I have ADHD, in addition to being an HSP... and that's not about "character" or "personality."

It IS also true that certain personality types (I happen to be an INFJ, per Myers-Briggs, so allegedly it's easier for me to organize) are not oriented towards being organized. That said, being organized (or not) is a choice not a personality trait. Saying things like "I can't" be organized is ultimately an excuse; a rationalization; a way of saying "I don't WANT to" or "I don't LIKE to" while wrapping this assertion in "packaging" that allows us to abdicate personal accountability for our choices, and instead shift it to "externals," like our personality type.

Trust me, you can (be organized), but it ultimately comes down to choosing whether or not the benefits gained (getting rid of the overwhelm and overstimulation of our personal "Clouds of Surrounding Chaos") outweigh "doing something you really don't like" (organizing) for a few hours or days to get rid of that cloud, for good.

Truth in disclosure: It has actually taken me years to get organized, and I am still working on it. This morning, I recognized that one of my "triggers" was being poked at... and I realized that I have no effective organizational system to help me keep up with the many groups, web sites and blogs I own and manage... and I was feeling overwhelmed at the mere thought of trying to figure what was "current" and what was not.

I will add here that it has also taken me years to get organized "my way." The point being that conventional time management systems did not work for me, so I created my own. And that's not an overnight process... and trying to make it happen faster than it can just adds a different way to overstimulate ourselves. However, my incidences of going into "full overwhelm" are far fewer than they used to be.

Finally, I am also not saying that you "must do this." What I am doing is inviting you to be mindful of, and awake to, your own life and what is going on in it. You may already be perfectly well organized-- for you. The invitation is to examine whether or not you are causing yourself stress and overwhelm as a result of the "structure" of your life, rather than the "content" of it.

As HSPs, we have only limited bandwidth to give to our lives before we get overstimulated. Thus, the saying "work SMARTER, not HARDER" is particularly applicable to us... and perhaps the single best way we can get just as much out of life as everyone else...



Talk Back! How organized are you? If you feel DIS-organized, can you look at this and recognize that it causes you overstimulation? Or do you just accept that you're not organized? Leave a comment!

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