Thursday, May 13, 2010
HSPs and the Empathy, Caring and Avoidance Trap
Recently, I came across a discussion about HSPs, empathy, wanting to help and codependence. The point was made that—as HSPs—we have a deep sense of empathy, which makes it very easy (“natural” even) to “get into another person’s experience,” but that doing so often really is less about wanting to help, than about escaping from certain unaddressed issues of our own. And that the tendency to rush to help and enmesh ourselves (and “rescue”) in other people’s lives can really be quite unhealthy in the way it leads us to “forget” or “overlook” taking care of ourselves.
Based on meeting and spending time with many other HSPs... I feel that the above is true for many of us. I'm highly aware of it in others, as well as in myself. I believe that as healers, caregivers, nurturers, empaths and whatever else goes with the trait, we're naturally inclined to be very "other referencing." In extreme or "unhealthy" forms, we run the risk of becoming "self forgetting," as well.
I also believe there are many and varied reasons why we "go there," ranging from actual (conscious or UNconscious) fear of examining our own unaddressed issues, to enmeshment and codependence issues, to a sort of arrogance (Yes, I really DID just say "arrogance," about HSPs!) in which we assume we simply "know better" than others what's good for them. When I looked at this issue in myself, I realized it was all tied into old abandonment issues… by enmeshing myself in other people’s problems, I could make myself “indispensable,” and who’s going to abandon someone indispensable to them? Problem solved!
Not so much.
I should add, however, that I believe there are healthy and toxic expressions of this tendency... although many are probably "unhealthy" to various degrees... However, if you are simply a very giving and selfless person, who’s also very aware of your own “bag of goods,” a deep caring about healing and the well-being of others is definitely not a bad thing.
So how do we assess what’s really going on with us? I believe that acceptance of-- and then maintaining an ongoing mindfulness about the fact that we do this-- offers us an invitation to pause and then exercise self care. The key word there is SELF. For me, that was a strange "pill" to swallow... I came to see how I was (often passive-aggressively) offended by anyone who took care of themselves FIRST, and by extension felt "offended" by the notion that I should take care of me. Of course, that was really just a “smoke screen" laid over a deeper issue. That issue being my pathological fear that people would not like me and abandon me if my focus was no longer on “being useful” to them. Ultimately, I had to face my root fear that I was not loveable simply as a person, but only to the extent I could “do things” for others. In one of those ironic twists of life, it was actually that very “excessive helpfulness” that made me come across as rather arrogant and needy, at the same time.
I heard something noteworthy, a while ago: "Taking care of YOURSELF is respecting, caring about and loving other people."
On the surface, it took me aback, a bit. At first, I struggled to agree. After all, I’d “processed” a lot of old garbage to reach a place that felt to me like I was finally “just being.”
But really? It's TRUE. When I take care of myself, and my needs, I am making a statement to others to the effect that "I care enough about YOU to offer you my BEST and "examined" self, not just a 'broken and damaged' version of myself with just as many issues as anyone else." In case that's not coming across as being very nice or clear... think of it this way: On a psychological/spiritual level, it's exactly the same as taking a shower, combing your hair, and wearing clean clothes when you leave your house to go spend time with friends. You care enough to do that... so take some time out to care enough to "tidy up" your heart, mind and soul, too.
Being highly sensitive to others and their needs… and here I’ll characterize this as being mindfully sensitive, not just being “blindly trapped” in your sensitivity… is often the result of being sensitive to ourselves. Maybe that sounds bass-ackwards. But I have found it not to be.
So now, for the reality check, and some soul searching!
Talk Back: Do you recognize this kind of “helping others to avoid helping yourself” pattern in yourself? In the past OR in the present? If you are a chronic “helper” or “people pleaser,” can you see ways in which you are actually trying to avoid yourself? If you are always rushing to the aid of others, perhaps with the rationalization that you “can’t help it, because you’re an empath?” WHY do you REALLY think you do this? When you look closer, is your involvement requested, or do you simply “take it upon yourself?” If this post, and these questions are making you feel uncomfortable, what do you think you’re not really admitting?
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