Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reflection: HSPs, childhood and how early lessons shape our adult lives

We are off to Seattle, today, to see "The Hobbit."

I feel somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a great movie event, and I thoroughly enjoyed it-- blood, gore and violence notwithstanding. Seems like a lot of people think "The Hobbit" series will be a much greater and "more important" set of movies than LOTR. Beats me.

When I was a teen growing up in Spain, it seemed like half the world around me was reading Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I just never got into it. I am not even sure how I "missed" it, so I got to reflecting a little bit on that, this morning.

I quickly came to realize that I grew up in a household where reading was absolutely encouraged, but meant I was weaned on Alastair MacLean and John LeCarre and other "spy vs. spy" action stories. James Bond was probably the closest thing to "fantasy" and "mystical" anyone considered reading, in my world. Occasionally, I'd be treated to a historical novel-- basically a "history book" with "characters" inserted to make the reading more... interesting.

In most aspects of my pre-adult life, I had little to no opportunity to explore "my own" sense of intrigue and interest... only the version of life that was superimposed on my existence by my parents and the adults around me, which included the books I read. It was an environment in which "children don't have opinions." I clearly remember that comic books were "banned" at our house-- I got repeated lectures on how they were "stupid" and lacked any kind of worthwhile content... and were basically "for people who are too dumb to read real books."

I think my father genuinely believed I'd turn into an idiot, if I read comic books...

During much of my childhood, everyone was "into" trading cards-- there were "space" trading cards, cars, nature, airplanes, sports and much. The "issue" I grew up with-- which caused trading cards to be a total "no-no" for years-- was that trading cards came in packs of gum. And gum-- being part of the candy "family"-- was also "banned" at our house. I eventually managed to make a tenuous agreement with my mom that as long as I bought the trading card/gum packs with my own money (from mowing lawns in summer and shoveling snowy driveways in winter) AND I agreed to open the packets in front of her so she could take the gum and dispose of it-- it was OK... even though she thought it was "stupid, and I would soon get tired of wasting my money."

Whether it's a natural part of being an HSP or not, I never argued with my parents... I just shrugged and went along with whatever was served up to me. Whether being "compliant" is part of a temperament type, or part of being an HSP, or something we are taught-- or some of each-- I don't know. But I do recognize that my "survival strategy" had a lot to do with wanting to keep my stimulation levels very low-- of course, as a child I had no idea that the reason I was so "excitable" was because HSPs are simply wired that way.

In her books about the HSP trait, Elaine Aron points out that highly sensitive children typically don't need to be yelled at, lectured to and/or controlled the way many other children do. The HS child typically learns easily, and doesn't need "beatings" to get the message. Nor do they typically need repeated lectures, reminding (and shaming) them over and over to drive home the point about some "trespass" of theirs.

What is not discussed very often is the effects a "highly controlled" (but not necessarily abusive) upbringing for a highly sensitive child can havem with respect to who they turn into, once they become adults. Specifically because HSPs tend to learn their lessons easily, childhood habits can be difficult to unlearn... regardless of whether they are "still serving" us, as adults.

In my own case, my very structured and controlled childhood helped turn me into a young adult who was always "waiting to take direction" from others. I have no doubt that my parents genuinely wanted "what was best for me," but they gave me their interpretation of that in a way that never involved my having my own opinions-- in fact, it often felt pointless for me to have opinions... unless said opinions/preferences happened to be what my parents wanted me to want.

As I continued to evolve into adulthood, those early lessons led me towards increasing solitude. When I sit here now and look back 25-30 years, I can see how I gradually learned to "have my own tastes and opinions"... BUT I fell into a pattern of only choosing what I wanted, and doing what I wanted, when I was alone. If there were other people around? I just went in whatever direction they wanted to go. Sometimes that would set up some awkward moments for me, especially in the company of those I considered friends, when they suddenly say something like "How come you never told me you were interested in _____ (fill in the blank)?" and I'd find myself trying to explain I hadn't "mentioned" a favorite pastime they perhaps also were interested in. Back then, I didn't really "get" that friendships existed and grew strong because of sharing, and my tendency to keep everything to myself was directly correlated with my difficulty in making-- and keeping-- friends; in and of itself a challenge many HSPs face.

In the latter part of the 1990s, I started learning everything I could about this "highly sensitive" trait of ours, as a result of which I got to know dozens-- and eventually 100s-- of HSPs through email and forums and workshops, and I really came to see the "effective" way in which childhood lessons imprint deeply on HSPs. I also came to see that my very "controlled" childhood was by no means a unique experience, among my sensitive peers.

Of course, I'd already been in therapy for a number of years, but had struggled with certain issues-- one of them being the ability to "just let it go," with respect to old patterns and behaviors I'd been taught were "right," when I was younger.

OK, so that wasn't precisely what my therapist had recommended-- but the gist of those words clearly lay as the core message below dozens of hours of analysis. I'm not for a moment suggesting that HSPs shouldn't learn to let go of the past and of habits that no longer (or never did) serve them... just that our path to reaching the "point of letting go" is often a little different, because we have "embedded" the lessons from the past far more deeply than most people do.

Another thing Elaine Aron often shares in her workshops and presentations is the fact that HSPs who grew up in chaotic and/or non-supportive homes tend to be more deeply affected and "harmed" by the experience than the greater population. Of course, the UPside is that those HSPs who grew up in loving and supportive homes are generally more powerful and well-adjusted people than their non-Sensitive counterparts. In other words, being highly sensitive works both ways.

So what's the message here?

To parents of HS children, to learn what they can-- and what it truly means-- to have a highly sensitive child. What you do for that child-- NOW-- will have more impact on their long-term functioning as a human being than you could possibly know.

To my fellow HSPs who struggle with "reacting to life" in ways that are clearly based on dysfunctional lessons from childhood... recognize that "letting go" may require you to chart your own path to healing. There may not be a standard "fix it method" you can get from a therapist or a self-help book. It's also a difficult thing to break out of a pattern of "dwelling on the negative." However, that must be done, if we are to truly leave our pasts behind. But here's the good news: as HSPs-- we have something going for us in that respect: Because we experience everything more deeply, and take those experiences to heart more readily... we also experience HEALING more deeply and profoundly.

To myself, the message is that I did have very judging and controlling parents who didn't encourage me to have my own thoughts and opinions. That's a fact, which I can put in a neat little "box" and store away. My parents are dead, however. Beyond that, life is full of judging and controlling people, and I will have to deal with them, sometimes. They are not my parents. I am not dependent on them for my survival. I have a right to my own opinions and convictions... AND a right to choose who I spend my time and energy on.

And yes, it's JUST "that simple."

Talk back! Are there childhood lessons that clearly have controlled your life-- in ways that don't serve you well-- as an adult? Are you consciously aware of when you are "responding to a memory," rather than to the ACTUAL situation in front of you? Is it difficult for you to "let go" of old behavior patterns? Have you found any particularly helpful ways to move on? Share your experiences-- please leave a comment!

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  1. My parents were (and still are) like this too. With their best intentions, I'm absolutely sure. And I was the child you described. I never made any waves. And I rarely do them now. I've always prefered peace, above all else. I was not aware this could be related to the HSP trait, but I guess it makes sense. With 29 years old I'm still struggling to find my own voice!
    This was inspiring to read. Thank you!

  2. "Specifically because HSPs tend to learn their lessons easily, childhood habits can be difficult to unlearn"

    Yes, I agree. As HSP's we tend to internalize messages very deeply, both the spoken and the unspoken component. Learning HOW to let go is a process in and of itself.

    Everyone seems to speak of "just letting go" yet few people consider that letting go is actually a skill and process that can and needs to be taught.

    "Just let it go" really doesn't cut it. Some necessary discernment and know-how around how other people's conditioning can get -literally- entangled inside of us is needed. I've also found that many HSP's - in part- already have an inner "method" for deeply letting go, often we just don't realize and need somebody to help us spell it out, so that we can use it consciously. Once all the pieces fit together letting go can be very quick and effective, but it's not just a matter of "it happens because someone says I should let go" :)

  3. Peter, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I had a similar kind of upbringing, parents with strong personalities, and around age 40, I discovered I was really my own person. The interesting thing is that it took me moving "back home" in recent years to know how strong the need is to control me, how strong their judgments feel to me - and how off-base. Don't get me wrong, they're really generous and likable people, they just need their eldest child to be a certain way, and they'll do whatever it takes to be right about it. I generally don't challenge, stay quiet and smile in all the right places, but sometimes I withdraw to find out what I really feel or think. Indeed, I'm not afraid of being alone, because when I'm alone, I'm not defined by anyone else.

    So it makes sense why I might be reactive to manipulation or control. It's also clear that I can't expect others to change, so I must change. Maybe those with strong-willed parents know that truth in an especially significant way. There's something comforting in having that self-knowledge, though, and maybe I was given these parents so I would grow into a stronger me.

    The only piece I question is that it's simple. I think it used to be pretty simple when I lived 1500 miles away and could laugh about it. When I come face to face with it in my daily life, it can still be a rather painful dynamic.

    So thanks again for sharing, it does help to hear others' stories.


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