Monday, December 10, 2012

HSPs, Stress, Simplicity and Turning Down the "Volume" of Life

I watch people, and their struggles with life-- and it makes me wonder about how we approach our choices, and our pursuit of meaning and happiness. Although I write these words from the perspective of being a highly sensitive person, I feel like they can be applied to pretty much everyone in this world-- not just HSPs.

So many struggle so much to deal with the overwhelming volume of "stuff" that seems to flow through modern existence... we even have programs like "Hoarders" on TV, showing us people for whom the "stuff" has gotten completely out of control. But somehow... we look at them and rationalize "Ah, but that's just an isolated few." And perhaps that's true-- in its most severe manifestation, and in a specific aspect of living.

But really....? REALLY?

Mt. Shasta, June 2012
We discuss "hoarding" and think about it in terms of having a lot of "items," but it strikes me this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg, and far more people struggle with this issue than we imagine... as "Hoarders of the MIND."

HSPs perhaps struggle more with this dimension of "excess" than the rest of the population, because we spend a lot of time "inside our heads."

For the highly sensitive, actual "stuff" (in the physical sense) may not be the greatest issue at hand, instead it is the mountain of "ideas," "experiences," "activities," "anxieties" and "beliefs" that weigh us down. We and those around us don't really notice this issue, because-- like emotional abuse-- there are no outward "physical signs" of emotional/spiritual hoarding... aside, perhaps from the way we find it difficult to "deal with life" because we're chronically overstimulated.

Think about it, for a moment...

Think about those you know-- and that includes yourself-- who are "stuck" in a state of paralysis or frenzy, because there is "too much content" in their lives. Think about the way people obsess endlessly over their (in)ability to reach some state of Being they feel like they "should" have. Think about the endless lists of "what needs to be done today/this week/this year/this lifetime," and how there's almost never any "space" left over to just sit and contemplate. Think about how many people have to "schedule" relaxation... because "something else" would not get done, if quiet time was something you merely took because you wanted to or felt like. Think about how many people feel bad about themselves... and even suffer from chronic low self-esteem because they look at those to-do lists and conclude that "I'm a useless person and I hate myself for not being able to get everything on my to-do list done."

Then think about how and why it got to be that way...

Not just in your life, or a friend's life... but in global life.

We spend a lot of time looking only at the symptoms of the things that ail us. We point at "poor organization" or "bad time management" or "lacking motivation" as the core reasons for not being able to get all of it done. There's a multi-billion dollar industry centered around organizational and motivational self-help.

And yet?

Nothing ever seems to change. In recent years, I have spent more time examining our underlying motivations, rather than the "symptoms."

Olympic Peninsula, Washington, October 2012
In the end, everything seems to be fear based. Almost all hoarding exists due to a fear of "not having," in some capacity. Sure, there are "rational and reasonable" triggers... often based in some past trauma. But even seemingly "healthy" people do it... and I strongly believe that emotional hoarding is still an illness-- albeit a "cultural illness." It's a way to-- individually and collectively-- put a "barrier" between us and merely "being" in the world, as we are.

Maybe society teaches us fear. I don't know. Actually, I am pretty sure it does... or it's at least part of the picture is societally generated. We are surrounded by messages that we are somehow "failing at life" unless we constantly FILL it with something. Even as I sit here typing, I watch the cursor on my screen "freeze" every thirty seconds, as my computer (via Facebook, this article started as a shorter Facebook post) updates an endless parade of things I should "want," "need," "have" and "do." The implication is that if we HAVE or DO less, we somehow ARE "less."

Whether my assessment is ultimately true or not, society DOES teach us to regard "input overload" as normal, and then goes on to define the choice to have/do "less" as either "underachieving" or "laziness."

As HSPs, our sensitivities can become augmented to the point of hypervigilance because we're tuned in to the feedback from the world around us. We process the signals from our surroundings... and impose on ourselves that we "should" be able to finish our to-do list. We tell ourselves that "that's what EVERYone does!" Then we run like crazy, operating under 24/7 stress and tell ourselves that we can get it all done. And when we're not physically running, our minds are running-- processing endless thoughts about how we might make ourselves come across as "more normal," while telling ourselves we can do that, too...

Agreed! Absolutely! We "can" get it done...

You can also become a professional basketball player, even if you're short-- as Spud Webb did, at 5'7" (170cm) tall.

But why choose the most difficult path you can find, with the most obstacles in the way? Why choose a path that really doesn't feel "natural" to you? And why choose the path "defined" by society, rather than by yourself? Here comes that rationalization again: "Because that's what people DO!" And below it lies a deeper rationalization-- one we're perhaps not as proud of or willing to admit to, because it shows our less-than-pretty insecurities: "I want people to be impressed with me and by extension like me!"

So? Who cares? Your life is your life. Comparisons are deadly. And for HSPs-- who tend to be very "inner oriented" and "self-referencing"-- basing life on "outer oriented" cues can be particularly toxic; leading to physical illness, low self-esteem, depression and a host of other issues. And here's a fact check for you: Other people are only going to be "impressed with you" to the extent you're impressed with yourself.

Lake Siskiyou, California, June 2012
So how do we deal with all this?

One of those clever "pop culture" self-improvement principles asks the metaphorical question "do you see your glass as half FULL, or half EMPTY?" Then it goes on to teach us that we can live better lives if we learn to take a positive attitude and see our Glass of Life as "half full."

Whereas I agree with the underlying principle of this maxim, let's step back and look at the bigger picture.

Let's look at the glass, for a moment.

If your Glass of Life is so BIG you have no hope in hell of ever keeping it even half full-- let alone ever getting it completely full... of course you're going to eternally struggle with life, and not feel good about yourself. And it's not your approach to life (optimism/pessimism or happiness/depression) that's the issue, it's your F&%#(*!! GLASS!!!

Bottom line, get a smaller glass!

If your "glass" is of such a size you can relatively easily keep it half full and-- God forbid-- maybe even fill completely from time to time, of course you're going to have an easier time feeling good about life!

His Holiness The Dalai Lama once said "The purpose of life is to be happy!"

I can already hear a chorus of protest rising, all its voices singing out the words "But I/you can't just not ____ (fill in the blank)"

Why not?

What are you afraid will happen, if you "take away from" the quantity in your equation of life, rather than "add to it?" What are you afraid you will "not have?"

Look, if you are genuinely content and living a happy and fulfilled life in pursuit of keeping your giant glass "half filled," then these words are really not directed at you. But the point is, most people have a "giant glass" but they are not happy with the state of their glass (aka "life")... and they are eternally in a state of struggle and emotional turmoil. Many will say (truthfully!) that they are "working on" making things better; making their life more manageable. But the problem is that they are working on the "symptoms," not the "problem," itself.

Assessing your life-- honestly-- and embracing greater simplicity and "less" in both the physical and spiritual/emotional realms can be both scary and challenging. Bottom line, many "factions" of our (especially western) consumer society depends-- for its own survival-- on keeping us all fearful and overworked. It accomplishes this by portraying life as a "contest," where the objective (or "winnings") center around the word "more." It teaches us that merely wanting "enough" is not acceptable... unless, of course, we define "enough" as "having it all."

I say-- sometimes the ONLY reasonable path to happiness and inner peace is to embrace the word ENOUGH!

Talk back! Do you feel overwhelmed by the "content" of your life? How do you define how you want your life to be? Is it done through an INNER process, or an OUTER process? If you are letting others/society define your life for you, why? What do you think would happen if you chose LESS content in your life? Leave a comment-- share your perspective and experience!

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  1. I completely agree with all of this, Peter. It seems that the current norms were largely created by non-HSPs. Whereas our inner lives are rich already, perhaps non-HSPs are filling up an emptiness with "more more more" that we cannot understand. And what they are experiencing tends to dominate our culture.

    This post is SO timely for me. Although I am pretty consistent in taking time-outs for myself in order to decompress and re-charge, I find that I am still not fitting in true relaxation. I have, however, begun telling myself "One thing at a time, girl." There are so many areas I have an interest in exploring, within and outside of myself. The excitement and urgency of wanting to learn more, make improvements, shed ideas/feelings that do not serve me has been overwhelming. Thank you for the validation of what I've been trying to tell myself lately.

    And I love the pictures you included. The are perfect.

  2. Thank you! Wonderful article and reminder of how beautiful simplicity is.

  3. Thank you for this great read.
    I am more than guilty of wanting to create/know/accomplish everything... from my work life to my art life as well as other "desirable activities" I haven't gotten around to but would like to learn.
    It is so incredibly tough to tell my inner self to slow down or to choose a few (or better yet, one) of things I want/like to do. This creates issues when it comes to keeping goals or stay on focus. But until we can clone ourselves (I need at least 10 of me ;D), I must come to peace and be proud of the things I DO accomplish. After all, I am just one person. I'll work on making that glass just a little bit (ok- maybe A LOT) smaller! :D

  4. The message of this post is particularly soothing to my soul, right now, because I've been feeling overwhelmed by everything I feel I 'should' be doing, and by my apparent inability to keep up with the pace society imposes on me. Thank you!

  5. Dear Peter:
    As I look back, I realize I envied some of the people I knew, who had better work schedules, then (I assumed) richer lifes. I always missed involving in more activities in my spare time and felt I was not enjoying life as I was supposed to, nor achieving any of the goals that people of my age were at the time. And I worked hard to get just that. I knew that was not the life I wanted to live yet I was so much afraid of a big change. That may be a problem for some of us, (being conscious of having such a big glass to keep full), to take action and change or leave behind all that we do not really need or does not feel natural to us. The fear might appear greater than the potential good we have not yet experimented. Having born in the world of consumism, how to renounce all these "want to, have to, wish to" without feeling that you are a "freak"?. It is something we have not been taught to do. Today, I have realized that life for me was too fast, too complex, too stressing, too unnatural. My life was in fact defined by an outer process. I just left myself be swallowed up by the inertia of this "modern society". Today, I do not want to push myself too hard just to fit in. I have gone through some little big changes. Do no longer want to be a life "hoarder". (Also working on not being an emotional hoarder). Meanwhile, I have gotten myself a smaller glass.


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