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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