Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2013
A year ago my husband and I were invited to Wellington, home of Victoria University, for a small, prestigious interdisciplinary conference, October 31 through November 3, on close relationships. This is his specialty and one of mine, so it was an honor indeed, especially my being invited to speak about sensory processing sensitivity (SPS, the scientific term for the study of Highly Sensitive People, HSPs) in relationships.
I let the HSPs I had been hearing from there know about my visit and a group of four volunteers leaped into action: Sarah Conner, Jacqui Gee, Rachel Nankivell, and Janine Ramsey, a New Zealander living in Australia (along with Australian Trudy Brunton, helping from afar). The five of us planned a talk for the afternoon of November 2, my only time off from the conference.
What a team these women were! They had hoped to fill a hall for 90. In the end they had to move the venue to a theater holding 400 and they nearly filled it. What a success. I already knew Sarah and Janine a bit, but I wish I had gotten to know Jacqui and Rachel better. I was a bit dazed the day when I finally met everyone for the first time, just before I was to speak. I spent more time with Sarah Conner, who picked me up at my hotel.
Sarah’s expertise is marketing, so we also knew each more by emails. She reached out to every possible data base as well as New Zealand media, including having me invited to be on a national radio show similar to Fresh Air on NPR in the U.S. Besides the many who heard the live show, the talented interviewer, Mark Cubey, reports that the resulting podcast is one of their most popular.
I already knew Janine, as you may as well through the last Comfort Zone, in which I wrote about her budding effort to present the high sensitivity trait to organizations through her presentations on “Sensitivity Style.”
Speaking to the Twenty and the Four Hundred
The morning before I was to speak to the HSPs, I presented to the 20 or so of my fellow scientists, all eminent, who had come from around the world to this interdisciplinary conference. There were anthropologists, sociologists, evolutionists, and primatologists, along with research psychologists.
I do not often present to such an audience. They are a crowd that could make anyone nervous. (I think they were anxious presenting to each other, too.) For me they were a tough bunch of non-HSPs who were hearing about me and my research for the first time and sure to have many skeptical questions. Plus, my husband does most of the data analysis on SPS, and I risk phrasing something a little less impressively than this crowd would expect. Adding to that danger, I speak much more to non-scientist HSPs, so I have to be careful not to slip into a more casual, less objective-sounding mode.
I prepared and practiced for several days, when I was not at the conference (with jet lag) 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. I think the presentation went well, but I was totally wrung out by the time it was over. Nevertheless, at the moment the morning session ended, I was off to speak to the 400. I had not had time to eat, so I sat in the front row of the theater as sound and lighting checks went on around and with me, while I bolted down some lunch that was kindly offered.
I think the talk went well. I knew my fellow HSPs came to hear about high sensitivity from the “horse’s mouth,” not to hear me in particular, so the talk did not need to be perfect for it to meet the need. I missed seeing the faces of my audience, which tends to add to my confidence that all is going well. But this was a movie theater, so the lighting was not strong enough to light up the rows. I could feel the presence of these HSPs, perhaps even more without being able to see them. I always sense the quiet, kind attention we offer each other, but it seemed especially strong that day. I also met many at the break, although I sensed their respect for my down time as well.
We planned that I would talk both on HSPs–research plus coping methods–and on highly sensitive children (HSCs). That was ambitious indeed, but half of the audience had actually come because of their sensitive children. Plus there were many, many questions. I let the time get away from me, perhaps because I was too tired to improvise some cuts. But, again, it appeared to go well.
After Speaking, the Usual Crash
I knew what would happen that night: Much as I always really enjoy the honor of receiving so much enthusiasm and respect, I completely crashed that evening. I think my reaction has improved over the years, but this day had been a double bolt with the morning talk, too.
I say this for other introverted HSPs who may also wish to share their deep thoughts with others. You can do it, but probably at a cost. That is true even if you feel no conscious anxiety before and during, as I do not in front of HSPs. For me, the size of the crowd seems to be the issue–the larger it is, the more overstimulating. I guess that should be true, but it always surprises me. When I spoke to 1000 in Holland eight years prior, I was ignorant of this effect and did not rest enough afterwards, but joined others for some travel around Europe. Upon reaching home, I had the most serious infection I have ever had (in the lungs, which then affected my heart). Of course I recovered, but it required months.
With time, I have learned more about this predictable crash, but it turns out that Charles Darwin could have told me: “Most men remain [nervous when speaking publicly] throughout their lives; but this appears to depend on the consciousness of a great coming exertion, with its associated effects on the system, rather than on shyness.”
Mainly I must go to bed, stay quiet, and not allow my mind to go to any content, as it will only be negative thoughts about even the most minor things I did wrong–a worn out brain still produces thoughts, but not very accurate ones. I try to stay with my buzzing and sick-feeling body, meditate or rest, and wait for it to end. I know the cause now.
Jacquelyn Strickland, an extraverted HSP, and Janine, an introverted but high sensation seeking (HSS) HSP, are tired after their presentations but do not quite crash the way that I do. I think they can enjoy the results more than I do. Hence, much as I love my sweet, respectful, attentive, enthusiastic, highly sensitive audiences, I have to keep the speaking to a minimum, and perhaps in the future let it drift towards very little or none at all.
Monday with Janine and Sensory Style
The speaking was not quite over, however. On Monday morning Janine Ramsey and I presented in a prestigious setting, the Executive and Professional Development Program at the University of Victoria, Wellington. Fortunately they keep these groups small, 10 to 15, and I only needed to speak a half hour, on the research, and then sit back and enjoy Janine. I had not seen her since we met in 2011 at the HSP Gathering in Santa Barbara, but we had been steadily working together online on how to present high sensitivity in the work place, and finally came up with combining it with high sensation seeking (HSS) to create an all-inclusive typology. It was a pleasure to actually present this together.
Because this was an exclusive (and expensive) event, we were speaking only to influential people from various organizations. It turned out they were all HSPs as well, so that in the end everyone spoke freely about how to help have this program received in the world of business and civil service. The suggestions were excellent, and the entire morning was great fun.
Note about the Delay of Sensory Style Online
By the way, in the last newsletter we might have mentioned that Janine would have her Sensitivity (now Sensory) Style website up soon, so that anyone–including you–can go for a small fee (to cover the high expenses of starting up this website and business), take the two tests (HSP and HSS) at once, have them automatically scored and plotted on the two dimensions, and then read excellent material about your particular strengths, needs for growth, how you work with others, and so forth. I know many of you have wanted to know about how your level of sensitivity and sensation seeking, independent traits, work together. However, because of our activities in New Zealand, that website is not quite ready. I will announce it in the spring.
Then, an HSP on the South Island of New Zealand
Now the travelogue! No doubt you have heard that the South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world. That is completely true, as you can see from the link–provided you are rested. For the first few days, I struggled to enjoy my surroundings, but as always, nature healed me swiftly.
We began with a two-day “tramp” on the northern part, on the Queen Charlotte Track. No backpacking or communal hut is required. You can walk from one lovely, isolated resort, with water taxis taking your luggage.
We were astounded in the first minutes of our hike by the differentness of this world. There were huge tree ferns and other trees we have never seen before, plus strange bird songs. These plants and animals have lived mostly in isolation since New Zealand broke fully free of the continent of Gondwana, at least 65 million years ago. This ancient continent, which I am sure you recall from your geology courses (not), included most of the landmasses in today’s Southern Hemisphere: Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, the Arabian Peninsula, India (which later moved north), Australia, and what became New Zealand.
An Aside about Birds and Dinosaurs
Since going its own way, New Zealand’s living things evolved undisturbed (except for the meteor that wiped out most of the Earth’s dinosaurs). Of course that changed relatively recently, but the flora is still intact in the national parks like the ones we visited. The original fauna was nothing but birds, two species of tiny bats, and a reptile that looks like a lizard but is not. It is directly descended from dinosaurs. As are birds, of course.
Many of the birds nested on the ground or gave up flying, having no predators except other birds of prey. The best protection there was freezing so as not to be detected. Nothing a feral cat likes better than a bird that holds perfectly still when it sees you. The poor birds with these good ideas gone wrong have not fared so well with the mammal predators such as stouts and weasels that were imported by the mostly British settlers. These ferocious little guys were brought over to eliminate the previously imported rabbits (to hunt, to eat, and be reminded of home). The birds that are left, however, sing songs you will never hear elsewhere.
Well, that may be more than you wanted to know about the flora and fauna of New Zealand, but it deeply impressed me. No photo can capture the experience that an HSP in particular could have when walking through this primeval world. It rains here a great deal as well, so that waterfalls and the sound of water is everywhere, as well as views of the sea. The sum of this beauty dropped me into an emotionless, thought-free, restful silence that I only appreciated later.
Sheep and Lords of Rings
Next we drove south along the East Coast to Christchurch, in rain so heavy that it was harder to appreciate the scenery. Further, Art was relearning how to drive on the left side of the road, so mostly we kept our eyes on that road, and the endless sheep pastures, clipped down like infinite manicured golf courses by the chomping of these adorable ruminating ungulates. The lambs had just been born–this was spring in the Southern Hemisphere–and I could not keep from watching them. I must have enjoyed watching at least a thousand particular mothers and babies, often twins and even triplets, when driving through the countryside.
The clouds cleared in the afternoon, when we flew from Christchurch to Queenstown, farther south still. We had been advised to do this because if we had the good fortune of clear skies we would see a spectacular sight, and we did. Snow covered ranges, much like the Alps, march down the western flank of the island. Directly under us there were the green plains covered with sheep and a bit of farming, cut through by very broad, shallow, glacier fed, silvery rivers. Where we passed over higher elevations there were strange bleak prairies covered with tussock grass and dark brown undulating mountains with patches of snow.
If you saw The Lord of the Rings, you would recognize each of these terrains. Peter Jackson chose New Zealand for the filming just because of its otherworldly quality. Every tour guide pointed out where this or that scene was shot. (My husband, just to be ornery and because he did not care for those movies, kept asking where the scene with the Rhine maidens was filmed, as if the drama they kept referring to were Wagner’s Ring Cycle, on which Tolkien partially based his books, although few Lord of the Ringsfans know it.) Jackson was right–it is a fantasy landscape in many ways, but in fact, I can only repeat, it is a trip back in time to a world our DNA knows, if not our conscious egos. As an HSP, I could feel this.
Queenstown, the Gateway to the Wilds for Humans and Refuge for Wild Humans
Our first impression of Queenstown was that it was spectacular–set on a seemingly limitless lake under snowy mountains aptly named The Remarkables–also it was a bit silly. It has more store fronts selling extreme sports trips and scenic tours and flights than there are restaurants, and there are plenty of them, too. At one time it was a gold rush town and then a place to supply the lonely sheep stations around the lake. Old timers say it has changed so much in only twenty years that they thoroughly hate it.
High sensation seeking young people from all over the world flock here, to find tourist jobs and in their spare time to bungee jump, white water raft, paraglide, go canyoning, mountain bike or ski off of almost vertical mountain slopes, and whatever other extreme sport they can dream up. At least that’s what they are shown doing in the photos in every store window. In the evening the youth gather at the lakeshore, chatting and drinking cheap beer or wine, much as they do on the steps of fountains in Paris, Venice, or Rome. I remember doing the same thing. It is as if the whole world is their summer camp.
At the same time Queenstown is a gateway for trips into wilderness that you could never reach on your own (hence the high prices). The first trip we took was on horseback, of course, into the aptly named Paradise area on the Dart River. This is a land held in private trust since its owner died, and impossible to see otherwise. Jackson used it for many parts of the Ring and Hobbit movies, after having to offer an arm and a leg to get permission to film there. He could not resist that combination of green pastures, shining river, mysterious dark forests with trees several hundred years old, and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains.
I heard some good horse stories, such as the one about the expensive horses imported from Australia for a chase scene through the glacial-fed river. When their feet hit the icy water, they turned and ran, dumping their riders. These shots turned out to be great for battle scenes in which riders were seemingly killed. It made for very authentic falling off. But to get the chase scene he wanted, Jackson had to use the rather mundane local plugs. Indeed, some of the horses on our ride had been movie stars. Any white face marks had to be dyed so they would all look alike and be able to circle around to ride through again and again, giving the appearance of a mounted horde–of bomb-proof riding-stable horses.
We also went to Doubtful Sound (doubtful because James Cook, who “discovered” New Zealand after the Maoris did, doubted he could sail out of it once he got in due to the direction, towards land, that the wind always blew). This fjord (i.e. an inlet formed by glaciers) is so remote and uninhabited that visiting it was a 12-hour day–a 3-hour boat tour of the Sound itself, with the other nine hours spent going and coming, including a one-hour ferry crossing of a huge lake. Here we were back in the primeval stuff–temperate rain forest dating back to the dinosaurs, mostly attached to sheer cliffs, and sky-high waterfalls plunging straight to the sea itself. It is so Jurassic that the BBC used it as a backdrop for a documentary on dinosaurs.
Tears of Joy and Recognition
I stayed on deck and just stared as we cruised the sound, often a few yards away from the land so that we could peer into this other world. Once the captain turned off the motor and told us all to be quiet, not even walk around, and listen to the silence of the time before humans.
I had noticed that when I was seeing these “sights” I seemed to have no feeling about them. I was like a clear glass that these awesome beauties penetrated without obvious effect. That seemed curious, so there on Doubtful Sound I asked myself if I was feeling anything, and burst into tears.
We HSPs and our tears! I forgot to say that I also burst into tears when I started my talk to the four hundred HSPs, while trying to comment about New Zealand’s loss in the America’s Cup. This time I had to stop crying because the DEET, for killing the primeval biting bugs, was getting into my eyes. Maybe DEET is the answer to a way to cure us.
By the third trip I knew what I felt–pure joy. This trip was “Funyaking” on the Dart River. First, however, we had to put up with a jet boat ride up the river that was made to seem like some crazy theme park ride with 360 degree spins. But perceiving the subtleties in the situation (ahem), I realized these jet boats were the only way to get up the river, which was another braided glacial river only a few inches deep (the location of Isengard, for those who care).
These high speed boats can skim the surface, but the channels are so complex and changing that the operators sometimes have to spin the boat around quickly to find another route without slowing down and getting stuck. Hence the spins are really to prep you for such navigational crises, and the goal, if you are paying attention to anything but the jet boat ride, is really to see the upper reaches of a spectacular river and snowy mountain range (“The Misty Mountains”) that you could never otherwise visit. First, because it is in Mt. Aspiring National park, which is kept a wilderness. Second, because other than hiking trails, there is no other way to get humans in. Third, it is Maori sacred land and they don’t want just anyone going up there (they actually own the tour company).
After going up by jet boat, this trip offered an inflatable-kayak trip back down. This met my goal to get close up again to these places by kayaking a quiet river, which the Dart mostly is. There are moments, however, when one channel joins another that can be rough. I was in the front of our two-person balloon boat, and passing through one of these points, I all but fell out. The guide grabbed my kayak and pulled it to shore when someone yelled, “Have you noticed you’re missing someone?” Looking back, I saw Art rising out of waist-deep water. Other than being soaked, he was fine. It was actually a highlight of the trip for him.
The Best Living Thing in New Zealand–Something to Go For
Many of you will choose to make the trip to New Zealand–It’s at least 12 hours of flying, and that’s from California. Thanks to frequent flyer miles, we flew business class so that we could lie down and sleep. I would not have gone without this luxury. Rejoice, however, that there is such a place, and it is being well cared for now. The Green Party there is quite powerful politically, meaning the people support the protection of their environment.
However, this brings to mind a reason to go: New Zealanders. They are supremely kind, polite, and friendly. (An introvert can now and then wish they were a bit less so.) Those serving you (cab drivers, wait persons, tour guides) do not take tips, so that it gradually dawns that their enthusiasm about your visiting and just being yourself is sincere. Out in the country, at least, they never lock their doors, and if they sell something, they leave the thing for you to take and put the money in the can.
Now imagine highly sensitive New Zealanders, growing in the numbers who recognize their trait. Meeting some of them may well be a superb reason to fly to the other end of the earth.