Saturday, February 02, 2013

Childhood Memory: A Highly Sensitive Boy's Relationship with "Excitement"

From time to time I get asked if I ever write "anything personal" on these pages.

"You know, like a memoir, or something that happened to you," they then add... perhaps since pretty much everything I write here is "personal." I did actually start in on some more "personal" stories a couple of years ago... and, in all fairness, my post "Perceptions and Reality: Childhood, Part I" was about my early life. I intended to write a series of such articles, but got bogged down after thinking it was a little too self-indulgent.

The other day I was reading an article about having the right amount of "excitement" in my life, which led me to another article about the issues of "boredom" which got me to thinking about my own life and reminiscing about myself as a boy and youth... and who this highly sensitive youth really was.

One of the things I realized was that one of the ways I always seemed like an oddball among my peers was that I really was never interested in doing "exciting" things. And that was true of me, from a very young age. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that "exciting things" simply didn't feel "exciting" to me; I didn't want to be any part of them, I wanted to do "safe and comforting" things. Or maybe it was more a case of the feeling we call "exciting" not actually feeling good/positive the way it does for many people.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't that I didn't want to "do" things-- I just found almost all forms of (what I perceived to be) "risky" behavior to be stupid. I don't have all that many memories from being six or younger, but I do remember that I would almost always engage in "critical analysis" of things, back then. If someone said "let go do 'something'," I would  not only want to feel assured that this "something" have a high likelihood of a pleasant outcome, but I wanted to feel confident that any "collateral damage" resulting from the possibility of failure was minimal.

That's "fancy speak" for not engaging in risky things, and not being impulsive.

So when some of the other neighborhood kids would come along and say "let's jump over the fence, steal some apples and beat on the window so the neighbor's dog starts barking, and then run away really fast!" I was never onboard with it. And even if I hesitantly agreed to go along, I'd be so beset by anxiety that I had no possibility of enjoying the experience. All I could "see" was the potential trouble at the other end... there would be the neighbor's anger at us, then the phone call to my parents, followed by a lecture from my mom, then a different kind of lecture from my dad.

My mother's primary form of punishment was that she would sit me down and spend about an hour (at least that's what it felt like!) lecturing me about what it meant to be "good" and "obedient," and what shame I was bringing on the family with my actions, and how I must be ashamed of my ways... and she had a manner of forcing me to sit through an age of droning on about the same thing said 30 different ways. There were no beatings, no "time out," no grounding... just my mother talking, and asking sharp questions about once a minute-- which I'd better have the answer to-- or the lecture would just be prolonged because I "hadn't been paying attention."

Once my mom was done with me, odds were I'd be handed off to my father. His lecturing style was a bit more direct and threatening. His favorite thing to point out was that "parents of boys who disobey them end up with little choice but to call the police and have said disobedient little boys put in jail where they belong and can only have bread and water until they come to realize that they should behave properly." It was a fairly effective punishment tool-- the idea of going to prison scared me, and it really didn't occur to me that it was "a story" he told... till I was almost in my teens.

Yes, I was extremely gullible, as a child. In many ways, I still am.

Anyway, I literally did think like this, as a small boy and teenager, and my "risk-reward analyses" never came out in favor of "excitement." It's a way of thinking that has never left me. Some thirty years later, I learned about High Sensitivity... and deeply related to something Elaine Aron once said about HSPs being like the "cautious deer" observed among wild deer populations.

Of course, I didn't just think this way about "illicit" excitement-- I also thought this way about "endorsed" excitement, from riding rollercoasters to jumping in the water from a high springboard. If it looked like it could "go wrong" or "be painful" I wanted no part of it. I was never a candidate for "Stupid Human Tricks."

I have often been told that my reticence is fear-based. Whereas there might be a slight truth to that, there's more at play here. So-called exciting activities don't feel good. I feel "jangled" for an extremely long time, afterwards. Shaky, out of sorts. Like the shot of adrenaline we get in response to an "exciting event" stays with me for many hours, where it dissipates in minutes for most people. It's not a "good feeling" when I'm still "jittery" from the "thrill" of riding the rollercoaster... six hours "after the fact." Giving rise to the question of whether my avoidance of "excitement" is genuinely fear, or merely reasonable life management....

But here's an odd thing, as I wind this up: At the same time as being excitement avoidant, I was always very open to doing things that most others-- including my childhood peers-- rejected because they were "extremely/too difficult." From an early age, I excelled at accomplishing things many wouldn't even attempt, let alone succeed at. Need a giant tree cut down, and all you have is a steak knife? Give it to me, I'll get it done. Car has broken down at the summer cabin and someone needs to ride twenty miles on their bicycle to the store for milk and bread, and then twenty miles back? No problem, I'll go.

This strange marriage of extreme caution and extreme stick-to-it-iveness defined me until I became an adult... and remains with me, although in a milder form than 30+ years ago.

A past therapist once psychoanalyzed this as being a reflection of my self-perceived shortcomings at "outwitting" people made up for by "outlasting" them, instead.

Not sure I buy that. But it sounded plausible, at the time...

In retrospect, I feel increasingly sure that my pervasive childhood and teenage nickname "grandpa" was more earned as a result of my retiring nature and careful approach to life than from my mother's penchant for dressing her young son in clothes befitting a 60-year old. I used to blame being treated as a "weirdo" and "misfit" on my "grandpa pants" but I'm not so sure, anymore...

Caution and risk aversion is-- of course-- not in the nature of all HSPs, nor is a tightly controlled impulsivity. However, my years of introspection and self-inquiry tell me that in my case, it's more a reflection of my HSP nature, as opposed to "learned fears." Even when I was an infant in my crib, I had little interest in bright shiny objects, "noisemakers" and general interaction. From the anecdotal evidence I've gathered over the years, it wasn't that I was afraid, just that I seemed not interested.

That's my story, and I am sticking to it!

Talk Back! What was your relationship with "excitement," as a kid and youngster? How is it, today? Have you-- and do you-- generally have a different perception than other people as to what "excitement" feels like? Do you consider yourself risk-averse? Share your experience-- leave a comment!

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  1. Patience is a good thing :).
    I think I never really had excitement as a kid, my parents were pretty boring people so in general we didn't do things that would be a problem.
    Also: I was the youngest of six children, so my parents would often talk about my brothers and sisters doing this and that and not approving of it. I knew which things would be a problem and which not.

    Next to that, from a young age we learned to be independent. We had to travel by public bus for 40 minutes long, from when I was 10 years old I think I travelled totally on my own, but I soon made friends who did the same thing. The most exciting thing I did was going shopping on my own in the big city where the school was and I remember being afraid of buying the wrong products or whatever.

    From my teen-years on I didn't really have good friends and I often wandered off in my own world. I would watch cartoon-series at home even when it wasn't allowed. I would go on the internet and chat with strangers. Those kind of things were exciting to me.

    I don't think I have a real different idea of 'excitement' than the rest of us. Some years ago I joined a student club and learned the fun of alcohol too, I became WAY more able to have fun in big groups and all sorts of personalities. That was a real eye-opener (not the alcohol thing, the learning-new-people thing).

    I'm graduated now and can get excited when things I made are published for real or when somebody asks me to work for them.
    I'm also excited about travelling, I really want to see more of the world, even though it might cost a lot of energy.

  2. I come here and feel so normal. Thank you. What you've described is exactly how I was as a child. And yes, even still. It annoys me that the more deeply something hits me, the less able I am to articulate my thoughts, but please know this was particularly helpful today.

  3. Hi Peter:

    Something you said about being gullible in the past and even now to a point got me to thinking. Is this a common HSP trait? When I was much younger I went through life with a sense of what I can best describe as benign egocentricity; operating from the misguided belief that the rest of the world was as ethical, aboveboard, and benign as I was. Needless to say I found out that surely wasn't true though I still can occasionally get tripped up by this "assumption". Again, is this typical HSP behavior? Thanks much!

  4. I was exactly this way, too, though my family always thought it was because I was physically disabled. Yet I took big risks most wouldn't dare, like going by myself to a foreign country to study even though I can't perform the simplest physical tasks (like getting dressed) without help. But jump into the water or get on the scary ride? Forget it. Not fun.

  5. Hi Peter,
    I am going to need to reflect on this :) I am still--constantly--working through the impact of overstimulation on "fitting" in. In my case, travel is just too hard to be enjoyable most of the time. Your point about being jittery after risk (which in my case could just be a visit to my family) is so true, but what I experience even more is the overwhelming positive or negative excitement *in anticipation* of things. Even as an adult, I can get so excited about an upcoming event that I am too sick or tired to enjoy it when it actually happens. As I work through my MB profile, I am much more aware of my P-ness that makes it so wonderful to be in flow, and so awful to be in anticipation or worse, pressured. Your post begs the question. . .is it that I am experiencing that remembered experience of overstimulation in advance?? And also, how did/do you handle the pressure from your friends to join them in things that are too risky for you?

  6. I clearly remember having this kind of thought, as a child: "Why is John doing that, when the consequences are clearly unpleasant?" Like you, I wouldn't engage in anything risky or crazy, because I could clearly picture the consequences in my mind.
    Now that I think about it, today I still do this, but with different kinds of situations. For example, I frequently watch people around me get all mad and argue with each other in crazy ways. I know how they could work things out easily, and I know the nasty consequences of each word said. But they repeat these behaviors cyclically, and don't seem to understand the pattern. I rarely engage in loud conflicts because fortunately I see the consequences ahead. Anyway, this is just an example.

  7. I am not very big on risk-taking but I do enjoy some of the exciting activities that involve taking risks. I do believe that careful approach to life is a good thing :)


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