Some of you are probably curious about how Alanis Morissette is taking part in the film being made on HSPs. Or, if this is news to you, how she came to be in the film. Alanis reached out to Will and Diana Harper, the Director and Producer (my email address being notoriously difficult to find, intentionally). This delighted us, as she is an important figure to many people, for many reasons. We interviewed her in December at her Malibu Beach home. Okay, so maybe you are curious about how that went.
It went fine. Actually, I am not prone to just write about someone. I want to respect a person’s privacy. If I’m going to write about Alanis, at least I want this to have some substance and be something that she would like. (Since I wrote that, she has read this and, very sweetly and thoughtfully, expressed to me how moved she was by it–she wanted that last part in here!) The substance here may be the effect of Valentine’s Day (or of all the attention my husband’s research has been getting in the news lately, because I decided to write about Alanis and love, and then expanded it to emotion in general because it is such a huge topic for HSPs, who feel so deeply about everything. Indeed, it expanded so much that it now is in two parts, with the second coming in February and focused on “emotional regulation” and new research on that and HSPs.
Love as Three Scoops
What is love? There are many kinds of love–love of things, love of humankind or of all beings, love of God, game-playing “love,” etcetera. But the kind of love I mean here is for one other person, although there may be many towards whom you feel this of love. You want to be around the person (there is an attraction, a “vibe”); you want to know all about the person; and you want to help the person as much as possible. “As possible” is crucial, because you must take into account your own needs as well. But increasingly the other’s needs are also your own needs because you have “included the other in yourself” (one finding of the research my husband and I have done on love). If you just like a person, the three are still true, but not as strong.
I have developed this three-part definition of love and liking because I find some people are confused by other people in their lives who say they love or like them but do not show these three behaviors.
Of course the three are not rigid ideas. We might like or love a person so much that we would choose not to be around him or her, as when a child is ready to leave home or a student ready to graduate and we encourage that out of love. We might give up wanting to know all about a person if the person does not want to be known, at least not yet. We often are not in a position to help someone we like or even love. But when we start out being attracted to or wanting to become friends with someone, we usually mean to have these three and hope the other will towards us.
Love as a Source of Strong Emotions
Sometimes love is thought of as an emotion. “Wow, I love him so much!” But love is actually a motivation (to do the three things above), so that it can give rise to many emotions, such as joy, yearning, fear, anger, the excitement of discovery, grief, shame, curiosity, guilt, and pride. In fact, love and liking are probably the biggest cause of all our emotions. It plays a large role in our evolution and survival, in that love causes us to raise children rather than simply leave them as eggs to take care of themselves, and both fathers and mothers contribute to raising a family because they love each other–they want to be around each other, to know about each other, and to help all they can.
Personally I think more and more love is where we are headed as a species, at least I hope so. We are one of the most loving of all species already. We not only raise our young together, but cooperate in many ways with each other because we love or like each other. Love is in competition with some other human qualities, of course, that are not so lovely. But I hope “love will triumph.”
How Alanis Regulates Strong Emotions
A simplified definition of emotional regulation is to feel the right emotion for your long-term wellbeing, at the right time, and in the right intensity for you. HSPs, having so many strong and subtle emotions, must develop emotional regulation, especially early in life, but throughout life. We can learn some of the fine points of emotional regulation from lyricists and poets like Alanis, and artists of all types, who need to be aware of their emotions because so much of art is about the expression of a basic emotion in a new way. In the case of Alanis, she told me that she usually writes a song in less than an hour, because it is the expression of her emotions at the time. Often expressing emotions leads to the artist seeing more deeply into the nuances and origins of the feeling, another part of emotional regulation. This can work for you, too. Indeed the growing field of art therapy depends greatly on this principle.
Because emotions are their tool, artists do not feel negative about negative emotions, another important part of emotional regulation. HSPs also need to accept whatever they feel rather than feel additional shame, fear, or anger about having the emotion. And if there IS shame about the feelings they feel, that they have the capacity to fly in the face of that shame and express their feelings anyway. This could be why many artists are often credited as “being so brave”. Finally, often artists have learned they can tolerate strong emotions, also essential to emotional regulation. HSPs need to learn that confidence as well. We will survive this wave of feeling.
Since artists are often expressing emotions stirred up by love, they help us regulate the emotions specific to love as well, vicariously. In our first HSP study (published in 1997), we asked and found it to be true that HSPs report feeling love more intensely than others. When we have fallen “head over heels” or lost someone we love, or been rejected or betrayed, poems and songs about the resulting feelings make us aware of how we feel, make us feel okay about feeling so intensely because we are not alone, and help us tolerate these tidal waves of emotion by finding out others also have them. (Although sometimes poems and songs also stir things up, so we need to know when to stop listening, too.)
Lessons from Alanis on Handling Criticism
However, artists are troubled by other sources of intense emotion besides the ones they sing about. One is familiar to HSPs–handling criticism. Like love, criticism can lead to many emotions, but especially shame, guilt, anger, fear, and depression. Even the kindest criticism can still be difficult for an HSP to receive because, by nature, take it so seriously. We are designed to take every opportunity to improve our “cognitive maps” through feedback from the environment. We evolved to pay particular attention to negative feedback (“so you say that didn’t work”) because it is often the quickest and most important way to correct a mistake. (Although, in many work or social situations, HSPs usually learn even better from positive feedback, as it is keeps us within our optimal level of arousal, which means we learn better).
Anyone in the public eye is a target for constant criticism, but Alanis gets it from both barrels: she is a famous artist and an HSP. Sometimes critiques of one’s work, such as art work or a performance, are valid, at least from the critic’s viewpoint, as an expression of the person’s own reaction or in comparing one person’s work to another’s. Sometimes criticism is even constructive, helping improve the communication of emotions or ideas.
Sometimes, however, criticism can be hostile and actually violent. These critics are perhaps envious, thoughtless, seeking public attention, or worse, perhaps a psychopath enjoying the power he or she has over others, especially through the internet, as we have seen with cyber-bullying. This type of intentionally harmful criticism is becoming much more common, according to Alanis.
HSPs take note: Alanis has learned to avoid all types of public criticism as much as she can, and often has her friends and colleagues vet articles, etcetera, before they send them to her, in order to separate the feedback that is helpful and validating from the more derisive or cruel bullying. Even public opinion about her music she does not take too much to heart, because she wishes her music to express what she wants to express, which are her own emotions and perspectives, not what other people want her to express. She is aware that what she expresses will often bring up a lot for the people listening, and is okay with that, as she sees artists as default activists…inviting people to define themselves in accordance to the art. That’s a pretty good lesson for all of us when we as HSPs wish to express our deep feelings and insights to the wider world.
What about useful criticism? She has friends and family who can tell her when she is missing something, of course, and fellow artists and producers she collaborates with to provide feedback about her art. But when criticism of her music, behavior, or values comes from people who can hardly know her or her goals, she does not look at it. She lets others show her the articles that accurately capture the essence of what she was expressing (as a way to mirror and support her) and report anything else truly useful to her.
Love as the Antidote to the Ill Effects of Fame
Another social emotion that Alanis has to deal with is the pride and egotism that comes with fame, as well as the overstimulation. I don’t think any well-known person can escape these feelings without active effort. After all, we are designed to take in all kinds of feedback. And we naturally rank ourselves among others. If someone tells us we are the best, what do we do with that? The trouble is that this feedback is largely the projections of others, also quite natural: “You have saved my life” (rarely the case), “I can’t live without your art” (not likely), “You are the best ever” (until someone else comes along). We all know so many public figures, especially entertainers, who have let fame destroy their personal lives or their bodies, to the point of actual death. The intense energy leads to overstimulation, requiring drugs for sleep or stress-relief, and then the drugged sleep and general exhaustion requires stimulants to “get it on” and perform as expected. It seems to be a huge risk for many successful performers, and of those, many are HSPs, from my own observation and also Alanis’.
For Alanis, fame as a very popular singer began when she was still in high school, but she was wise enough not to release her music outside of Canada, her homeland. By the time she was 21, however, she had moved to Hollywood to develop collaborations that would help her mature as an artist, and her album Jagged Little Pill was released internationally. It sold more than 16 million copies in the U.S. and 33 million. Back in Canada the album was certified “twelve times platinum.” She moved to Los Angeles and all the rest of the story of her art, some of it highly controversial, unfolded. If you read her history, you will be amazed that she survived as an HSP.
This is where love comes in for Alanis. If you truly love other people, again, you want to be around them, to have time for them; you want to know as much about them, which means more time away from the limelight and more of the spotlight on them; and you want to help them if you can, which might mean using your fame to help others, but also sacrificing time for your art to do things for others. This is all the opposite of egotism. Basically, assuming you respect the person you love, you can’t also feel overbearing personal pride around that person for very long. That’s ranking, and the other is love or linking. Both ranking and linking are natural instincts, and doing better than others (fame) naturally pulls us into ranking mode. If, however, you list the people who make you feel good and those who make you feel not so good, the first list is almost always of people with whom you link, the second list is usually of those in which ranking predominates in the relationship, even if you are on top. Hence love again triumphs.
Alanis told me, and probably many others, that as she has matured she has learned that love and relationships are the most important thing to her. Even when she is performing, her relationship to the audience has become paramount. Interestingly, she feels she’s mostly singing to HSPs now, who are often choosing to risk overstimulation by sitting in the front row. And she loves connecting with them. Indeed she says now that the concerts in which she ends with a dialogue with the audience are the most satisfying for her.
Love especially protects her because she makes her husband and parenting her child (including home schooling or “unschooling”) such high priorities. After giving birth, Alanis (who is self-admittedly “obsessed with the stages of development”) noticed her natural style of motherhood fell into the category of attachment parenting, wanting to give her child the best possible start in life. I don’t think she means the extreme of attachment parenting, which would be having the child’s body in contact with yours 24 hours a day–we also talked a great deal about highly sensitive parents and how much they need down time. What is meant by attachment parenting is making certain that an infant or young child always has a dedicated, loving caregiver close at hand. Alanis has made sure that her son has been surrounded by a committed and loving community, on top of her and her husband being consistently present.
All this love really takes time away from what it takes to stay famous. It seems, though, that successful entertainers who can maintain a good, private family life make it through.
Wisely, Alanis also spreads her love out into the world rather than putting all her love “in one basket.” For example, she promotes both the scientific side and the practical side of attachment parenting. And she is now also choosing to help empower highly sensitive people, like herself! You will like her response to our question, “What is your one message to non-HSPs?” She came right back with “Have Mercy!” Two simple, well-chosen words from a true poet.
What else does Alanis do to regulate her intense emotions? She meditates and takes other quick snatches of alone time. When she arrives wherever she will perform, she immediately searches out where she will be able to be absolutely alone when she needs to be. She has made use of high quality psychotherapy when she needed to, and is very knowledgeable about Jungian psychology and her “parts,” including her own shadow. She eats with care, after overcoming an eating disorder. These are all too typical among women performers. And sometimes she just gets into a warm bath, lights candles, and talks kindly to herself! Try it.