Wednesday, April 24, 2013

HSPs, Choices and the "Chaotic" People in Our Lives

I have been spending a few days among the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona-- one of my favorite places on the planet. Although it's really a "working" vacation-- Sarah was giving a workshop here, and we had some people to see-- being away from home and familiar surroundings is always a good time to pause and reflect... and to generally think about the deeper issues in our world.

In the course of being part of the HSP community for many years, it has often struck me how often HSPs seem to become "embroiled in drama," often involving abusive, needy, usary or outright crazy people.

Bell Rock in Sedona, up close and personal
Although most vehemently will defend their own "innocence" in these chaotic relationships, it has also struck me how often chaotic and hurtful situations arise not "because of other people," but as a result of our own choices, needs and the way we feel about ourselves.

What is really going on, when we have a "chaos monger" in our lives? Why do we choose them? And I'm sorry, but NO... we're not just "innocent bystanders," at least most of the time.

There are typically two really common dynamics at play... both of which are related to our senses of self... and, by extension, dubious self-esteem.

In one scenario, an almost compulsive "need to help" drives us to-- basically-- to surround ourselves with people who need "help." Many would argue that it's "compassionate" and "the right thing" to help those who are struggling... and that's a valid point. However... there is a price to pay (overstimulation, exhaustion, frustration) for being the perpetual "caretaker" for someone who doesn't attempt to solve their own issues and expects us to be eternally accountable for their issues.

Red rocks of Sedona, AZ
Many would say "But I didn't CHOOSE these people!" and maybe that's true, in an "active" sense... as in, we don't go out there and openly advertise "I want to look after life's hopeless needy nutballs," but what does happen is that we don't start saying "no" as their obvious-- as well as subtle and subconscious-- demands start to manifest and increasingly ramp up. In the longer term... we HSPs end up "holding the bag" where someone with healthier boundaries (and less "investment" in being perceived as compassionate) would long since have said "sorry, you're a drain on my life, get lost!"

But how is it that we are actually accountable, here? Usually the problem is that we feel like we have no "personal value," aside from how it's measured by our capacity to "take care of" others... and "help them when they are troubled." In other word, we don't perceive ourselves being valuable as human beings, if we're not "caretaking." Think about it, for a moment... not on the "surface," but at its deepest level... who would you be, if you were not always taking care of your needy friend's latest crisis? Who would you be, if you were not lamenting that all your time and bandwidth was being used up, by someone else?

These are not intended as "blaming" questions... merely as a deeper line of self-inquiry.

The above, of course, is a fear based response... often learned in childhood and youth, from our families of origin who perhaps marginalized and diminished us unless we were "useful."

Closely related is a second scenario, also fear based: It is a general fear of "strong" people who have their lives together. We fear we are "small and inadequate" in their company, and that they couldn't possibly be interested in spending time with us, because their lives seem so much more successful and "together" than our own... and so we fear they would "abandon" us, once they discover the "truth" about how small and seemingly insignificant and boring our lives are. In short, we lack a sense of "worthiness," in their company.

So, when we put the two together (as sometimes happens), not only to we choose to "hang onto" people who are using us and causing us grief, but we also end up feeling afraid to choose the company of those who would actually be good for us, because we fell like we are "less than" they are.

There is not an "easy fix" here... but the road to healing and moving to a better place with ourselves starts with simple awareness of our own patterns; of the choices that are causing us grief.

What do YOU think? Do you often feel like you're surrounded by people who need to be "taken care of?" Does their presence exhaust you? Does it feel like they just have "insinuated themselves" there? Have you ever considered that you-- by your direct or indirect actions-- INVITED them to be there? Does it sometimes feel like you wish you had "more together" friends... yet you feel intimidated by people who seem to "have it all together?" Please leave a comment and share your experiences!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

If You're an HSP-- It's Time to Stand up and be Counted!

There are a great many traits, characteristics, interests, behaviors, conditions and preferences that influence our lives.

Maybe we are HSP's-- Highly Sensitive Persons. Maybe we are "introverts." Maybe we have "allergies." Maybe we identify with a Myers-Briggs type preference like "INFJ" or we prefer an enneagram type like "Type Nine." Maybe we're "ADHD" or have "CFS" or are prone to "anxiety." Maybe we are "gifted" or "empaths." Whatever the identifiers might be, it all adds up to some kind of "acronym soup."

Don't misunderstand-- I have nothing against "acronym soup;" I actually believe all these different labels can offer us very useful insights that help us navigate life. They only become an "issue" if we reach a point where we substitute "the label" for "who we truly ARE."

Which bring me to a particular statistic I like to send through my twitter account on a regular basis:

HSP factoid: If HSPs are truly 15% of the population, there are over ONE BILLION of us on the planet!

Pretty stunning piece of information, don't you think?

The above is based on Elaine Aron's original research which shows that 15-20% of the population are HSPs. I'm using the "conservative" lower number, here. As I write these words, the "population clock" on the U.S. Census web site estimates the world population to be 7,078,772,000 people. It estimates the population of the United States to be 315,673,000 people. If you use the 15% figure, that means:

There are an estimated 1,061,815,800 Highly Sensitive Persons on planet Earth.
There are an estimated 47,350,950 Highly Sensitive Persons in the United States.

Let that sink in, for a moment.

Pretty amazing, isn't it?

Now consider this: If there truly are so many HSPs... where on earth are they?

The other day, I was on a busy commuter time ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. As I wandered around to pass the time on the 30-minute crossing, it occurred to me that since I was in close proximity to 2500-odd people, it also meant there were probably 400 HSPs within a few hundred feet of me.

It made me pause to consider a simple question: How many of them KNOW they are HSPs? Then the follow-up question: How would their lives be different, if they did know?

I spent the next 20 minutes sitting in the car, in my version of "deep thought." It occurred to me that there are lots and lots of "attributes" found in a significant percentage of the population, as well as some found in maybe only 1-2% and they all get lots more attention than "being an HSP." More people are aware of them, more people talk about them, and each of them have more to say about it.

I went looking for HSPs on the web, and considering how many of us there are and that the idea has been "in the public arena" for over 15 years, I was amazed at just how invisible we are. And in the few places where we are visible, how little we participate.

So I went on a longer "journey," trying to figure out where "we" are.

First I looked at HSPs as compared to other interests or attributes. I visited some INFJ Myers-Briggs/Jungian typology forums which were among my old haunts. It seemed relevant since the majority of INFJs are also HSPs. An INFJ forum I used to belong to currently has about 7400 members with hundreds of discussions every day.

This, for an "interest" that's present in less than 1.5% of the general population. By comparison, the largest and most active HSP group online is on Facebook and has about 2500 members.

To compare something different, I looked at introverts online. 70-75% of HSPs are introverts, and HSPs account for something on the order of half the world's introverts... so there's a lot of overlap, as well as some similarities and negative biases-- introverts are often seen as "too quiet" and "shy," by the world.

I found the introvert communities online to be thriving and active. I found it ironic that author Susan Cain's (she wrote the book "Quiet" and is also an HSP) forum just for her book is almost twice the size of the largest HSP forum.

So I decided to take a different approach-- looking at high sensitivity from the angle of being more of a "problem" than an "interest." Back in days long gone, I was part of an online community offering support for those suffering from social anxiety-- an issue more than a few HSPs report to be part of their lives.

Social Anxiety affects an estimated 5% of the population, compared to 15-20% HSPs. My reasoning for going this route was that maybe HSPs are quiet about the trait because of hesitance that it's seen negatively. Similarly, Social Anxiety carries a bit of a negative connotation and stigma.

I was surprised to find that the old SA community online now has 115,000 members who have contributed millions of discussions. And that's just one of many such forums. In a related sense, I looked at an ADHD forum I'm vaguely acquainted with. Again a condition affecting maybe 6-8% of the population... here the forum (one of numerous) had some 71,000 members and lots of active dialogue. So, clearly, "fears of being perceived negatively" does not prevent people from participating in online communities.

By now, this was getting increasingly puzzling to me. Being a Highly Sensitive Person is something that clearly affects people's lives, clearly suggests the need to educate oneself and develop good life management skills, and clearly is a trait whose members benefit greatly from "peer connections" to share ideas and information.

Not happy with what I was finding, I did a little further digging, this time using my experience as a webmaster, researcher and e-commerce marketer.

Here's what I found: On one hand, more people are looking for information about high sensitivity and HSPs than ever before-- a trend that has been in place for at least eight years. During the same period, search queries for both Social Anxiety and ADHD have actually declined somewhat, while search volume for INFJs and Introverts have both increased.

After finally examining the "raw numbers" of search queries for different terms, some of the issue became clearer: In spite of being in the public awareness since 1996, there just aren't that many of the world's billion+ HSPs who know the trait even exists. And those who do know? They generally avoid talking about it... like it's a "secret" attribute.

That also gave me pause for thought. People seem more willing to be open about having a sexually transmitted disease than about being highly sensitive??? That just does not make sense, when you back away and consider it in a "big picture" sense....

Getting a little more "personal" with what I discovered, a very rough estimate would suggest that maybe two percent of the 47 million HSPs in the US are even aware they are "HSPs." Of those two percent, I expect a majority are very hesitant about letting anyone "know" about it.

But that's not all the explanation. More can be found in the phrase "non-participation." As keeper of several dozen web sites, blogs and forums I get to look at a lot of site visitor logs. Ironically, my HSP related properties (as opposed to "business" or "writing" or "stamp collecting") are some of the most visited, while at the same time being the least interactive.

I recently experimented a bit with this by installing a couple of totally anonymous interactive polls on a couple of HSP-related articles I have online. Sure enough, as long as anonymity was assured, participation shot up... with something like one-in-three visitors answering a couple of questions where before one-in-about-500 had chosen to make even a short comment, or click the Facebook "like" button.

What does this all mean to us, as highly sensitive people; as a growing global "community?"

From 15-odd years of following the dialogue and trends of HSP forums around the world, one of our overriding core concerns is having those around us recognize that we're "not crazy," and that our sensitivity is "not all in our heads." Ideally we'd like to be able to say "I'm an HSP" and not have the ensuing explanation turn into someone rolling their eyes at us.

Basically, we want to "be seen" as highly sensitive individuals, without negative judgments or cultural biases. We want our medical and mental health professionals to be aware of-- and acknowledge-- the trait, so we can get care that fits our sensitive nervous systems, rather than ignores them. We don't ask for "special treatment," just validation.

These are reasonable and honorable aspirations.

But... to be perfectly blunt... how the HELL do we expect that to happen if we're constantly "hiding" the fact that we're highly sensitive? How can things possibly change if we're not telling anyone, and not becoming members of-- and active participants in-- virtual and real life groups and communities??? How are the 46 million HSPs in the US who don't know about the trait ever going to escape from being misdiagnosed and drugged into oblivion for an ever-increasing basket of "disorders" and "syndromes" when we're not willing to be "visible examples" to them? How are they going to get off the "pathologization treadmill" and live fulfilling lives that are true representations of their essential selves... if we're going to persist in hiding our sensitive "lights" under a bushel?

Yes, the world is sometimes a harsh and scary place for the highly sensitive among us. And yes, it hurts when people judge us and marginalize us. But how can we expect things to "change" as long as we approach sensitivity with more secrecy and reluctance than social anxiety and even warts on our privates? How will things ever change, if we're not willing to STAND UP AND BE COUNTED??

Talk Back! Do you feel free to share (if asked) that you're highly sensitive, or do you have fears about others knowing you are an HSP? If you step back and take an objective look, are there "personal" things you share that are probably "worse" than being highly sensitive, yet seem easier to talk about? If you don't share the trait (especially if asked something like "what's wrong?"), what is your primary concern about sharing? Please share your experience and leave a comment!

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Nuts and Bolts of being a Highly Sensitive Person

I haven't been writing much, as of late.

Well, that's not entirely true. I've actually been writing quite a lot... I just haven't been writing a lot of blog posts. Instead, I have been writing some "guest gigs" elsewhere, and I have been working on free-standing articles for various publications and web sites... things that are generally a little too deep and "involved" to fit into a blog post.

It's funny how our choices and actions in life sometimes are among our best "teachers" of what is important to us. I always knew that I wanted to write... but "just writing" was an obstacle for many years in the sense that I wasn't always very good about coming up with "something" to write about. I had no particular expertise or "niche focus," and my skills at writing fiction were a bit dodgy because I fairly broadly sucked in the area of character development. I could write dialogue, I could write descriptive prose, and I could "get from point A, to point B" with some skill. However, the people in my stories were rarely "interesting." In fact, they were mostly mousy, flat and two-dimensional... perhaps a reflection of the fact that I generally steered a wide course around "risky," "dangerous" and "psychotic" people.

Anyway, I never imagined that "being a Highly Sensitive Person" would find a place as the cornerstone that inspires much of my writing.

Most recently, what I have been working on is a fairly thorough article/web page to serve as a broad-based information resource for HSPs. My challenge was to create something that would not only offer a lot of information-- in ONE place-- to someone who had just discovered that they are highly sensitive, but also be useful to those who have been "on the path" for a while and want to learn more. Last-- but certainly not least-- I wanted to come up with something that might be "a useful link" people could send NON-HSP friends and acquaintances to, to tell them a little more about being an HSP.

So, I have created a page called "The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS that?" which I'd like to invite you to have a look at... let me know what you think-- either in comments here, or in comments at the end of the article. Don't worry, you won't be asked to pay anything, or become a "member" of something!

Someone on one of the HSP forums recently asked me if I ever write about things that are NOT about HSPs. And the answer to that is "yes," I definitely do. Sometimes I write about writing; sometimes I write about things I feel passionate about, or have expertise with. Sometimes I write about topics related to my various forms of work... and sometimes I write about running a business from home. It all depends.

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