Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2007.
I used this more innocuous title to bring up the subject of aging, since I personally do not read articles on the subject. Still, I’ve had a recent birthday, so I gave it some thought.
Well, I tell myself we’re all in the same boat. We can all feel too old for something—if you are a theoretical physicist you are over the hill at thirty, and athletes are too old at forty. We’re all aging. Maybe we are as good at things as we were decades ago—or much better—and just as physically functional in most settings. But we will all suffer more and more losses of abilities, friends, and youthfulness in general. No one escapes. And that inevitability can take away one’s sense of individuality.
Most HSPs seem to find it important to be unique. The stages at the beginning and end of life are very confining in that regard. We all did it—crawl, walk, talk—and we all will do the stages of aging too. And we live with negative stereotypes of “people over thirty,” “parents” (if we are that age), and then “senior citizens,” as soon as you have any grey hair or wrinkles. The prejudices about those who are older than the one making the comment are especially insulting to our uniqueness. It was hard enough to be stereotyped as neurotic for being highly sensitive, and now this too? Above all, I plan to continue to be more and more myself with every year. Even as I die, I hope to do that my own way.
Once again I think HSPs will do well to stay in contact with each other as we think about aging. The introverts will want to ponder it all alone, perhaps a bit ashamed of their concern about it, but that is very isolating. Sensitive extraverts will probably find the non-HSP’s birthday jokes and complaining to be both distressing and ungraceful, and that their own views about their age simply puzzle others. So talk about it with others, but choose your co-explorers carefully.
How Do HSPs Age?
For better and worse, we do become even more sensitive. We are bothered by gross levels of stimulation more, process everything even more deeply, and are even more aware of consequences. But I think generally we age extremely well. We are careful about our health, have saved for a change of seasons, and have enough insurance. We tend to be close to nature so that natural processes are more acceptable, and are involved in serving others or the planet. We have often thought through the meaning for us of this phase of life and developed our own way of making peace with it. We have some spiritual path or philosophy, and we are often sought out by others for our wisdom–if we let anyone know about it. So do offer your sensitive insights when they are sought. You might be surprised by how helpful they are to non-HSPs.
A spiritual teacher of mine once said, “You must ride the tiger of aging.” Every day you will grow older—there’s the tiger coming at you down the path. If you ride it, you use every day to grow in consciousness, as most HSPs naturally are inspired to do. In that case, aging works for you, not against you. You control the tiger’s process rather than allowing it to stalk and frighten you. The body grows older but the soul grows stronger.
Not that flowery denial works for HSPs. We notice our bodily changes with as much keenness as any other subtlety, and we have our stronger-than-others’ emotional reactions to it. Sometimes talking about it helps, but sometimes it just further erodes the soul’s sense of personal purpose and destiny. So, although we can not put aging into some optimist’s vault for all things unpleasant, perhaps we need a glass door between it and us—a determination not to let the end of life ruin the rest of life. We know it is there, we can see it all the time, it reminds us to be in the present and leave no important words left unsaid, but we must keep a certain necessary barrier.
If the door does open at times and lets in the howling torment with a rush, then we need to seek the comfort of those who deal with aging as we would like to. I hope that this other already lives inside of you, in memory. Together, the two of you can close the door again. If you can’t ride the tiger always, at least a tiger behind glass can’t have you for today’s lunch.
Love the ‘riding the Tiger’ expression.
Ken Rubenstein says
Great piece, Elaine. Offers much comfort as close in on entry into my 80s.
Thanks, Elaine; this is affirming. At 63, I feel more vulnerable to being overwhelmed and overstimulated than when I was younger. I was afraid I might just be looking for excuses to avoid things I didn’t want to do — now I know it’s real, and I do need to build more quiet time into my life.
I’m currently retired & recently have experienced a major life change… moving to a different state & living w/my daughter, her husband & two active grandchildren. I’m finally learning I am a HSP…after feeling most of my life that there’s something wrong with me…being told I’m too sensitive…that somehow I’m “damaged goods”. Thank you for your article offering insight into the aging process of a highly sensitive person. I love the quote about the body aging while the soul grows stronger. I feel like an old soul which brings me peace even when feeling out of step with those around me. Thank you!
Jim Roberts says
I am 79 years old. I was deemed an HSP several years ago and find it describes me well. I like the fact that there are books for HSPs in different llfe circumstances. Now in old age, and a pandemic, I long for some intelligent commentary on what it’s like to be at the convergence of Old Age, during a pandemic and in retirement. It would seem a fitting sequel to books already out there for HSPs in various life situations. The HSP designation has been enormously comforting to me in reminding me I am not alone.
I think it is especially important as an updated resource for people in my, our, situation today.