Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2004.
Traveling home from a weekend introducing the HSP concept to about twenty fellow HSPs, I was struck again by the amiable, flexible, good-spirited energy we all enjoyed while together. But I was also impacted by the unfolding stories of depression, loneliness, and feeling free for the first time, in this group, to be one’s self. The following are my thoughts on these matters as of now.
The very first thought is that another gathering is coming up this October, so it seems worth mentioning again that it’s no longer chance—every gathering of HSPs (so far) has been wonderful and healing. That does not mean that it is entirely wonderful, entirely healing. I know that HSPs are not necessarily going to say if something does not work for them. But I have to take them seriously when so many of them say—sincerely, I think—that it is life changing. Why might this be so? Let’s start with the role of the “persona” for HSPs.
The Adaptive Power of a Strong Persona
One way that we HSPs use our sensitivity is to notice what’s expected of us, what others consider normal, what others want—and then do that. We develop an adaptable, adaptive persona. “Persona” is the term Carl Jung used for the part of ourselves that we employ to deal with the collective world, the mask we wear. (Persona was the Greek word for the mask worn by players in a drama.) With it on, we fit in perfectly, even shine. Behind it, we can be ourselves. Sensitive men in most cultures really have to work to develop their persona, one that says, “I’m as much a man as any of you” or at least “I am doing my own thing and I don’t care a bit what you think of me.” But sensitive women have to do it too—to look outgoing, energetic, tough, interested, and not very sensitive, even when they feel otherwise.
I think the persona functions in another way for HSPs. By imitating others’ reactions to life and situations, we “borrow” their less sensitive emotional response. Being HSPs, we are more emotional, even if we have learned to hide it (see Reflections on Research). If we are more emotional, we have to become experts at regulating our emotions—that is, finding ways to keep our emotions from getting out of hand and overwhelming us. One way to do that is to imitate the responses of others, borrowing their calmness or simple lack of reaction to help us regulate our emotions. Animals do this all the time, without bothering with personas. Emotional reactions in social animals are designed to be contagious. When one member notices danger and becomes frightened, or notices food and becomes excited, all the others notice this emotional response and instantly feel it too. Sensitive animals, humans included, are usually the leaders in this regard. Emotional contagion is one of the big advantages of living in a group. And it also works to keep social animals calm. We’re all less anxious when we are around supportive others. And if there’s a noise and if the non-sensitive majority ignore it, we sensitive ones may decide we can too. After all, there’s safety in numbers and in the evaluation of a situation by the majority.
But we humans can also choose to imitate a calm persona, even when no one calm is around. I did it the first time I took my son on an airplane. Prior to that I was a bit afraid of flying. No self-respecting HSP can ignore being in a tin can hurtling at 800 miles an hour, 30,000 feet above the ground, piloted by God-knows-who but certainly not an HSP, while just outside the window the temperature would freeze you if the lack of oxygen did not get you first, forget about the likely explosion and hitting the ground at whatever speed you would hit. But I knew I had to be calm for my son, so I pretended calm. I put on a calm persona. But in pretending, I actually felt it, like the lyrics of the song in The King and I about “Whenever I feel afraid I whistle a happy tune; the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.”
Actually, my fear of flying was put to rest by all the means we have discussed. I also watched flight attendants, who stay calm no matter what, and borrowed their persona. And I thought about how they and the obviously experienced travelers, usually businessmen, had flown thousands of flights and were being calm about this one too. So I was being calmed by emotional contagion. My “herd” saw no problem. Sometimes a herd is a good thing.
So a good persona helps us both to fit into a non-HSP world and to control our emotions when we need to. However, there’s a high cost, in that we can be so busy creating and improving on that mask that we identify with it. We have forgotten to pay attention to the one behind the mask, whom we were trying to protect. We don’t even know who that is any more. We still have reactions, feelings, and opinions, but they are muted, sometimes to the point of being unconscious and almost non-existent.
Sooner or later, HSPs realize they have made a pact with the devil, so to speak. They have lost themselves. They have squelched their own reactions for the sake of fitting in or staying calm. When they break free, I call them “liberated HSPs.” And what makes a group of HSPs so exciting for its members is that they gradually realize they can shed their persona, or some of it—the part that adapts to non-HSPs. They don’t have to be ashamed of their emotions. They can be FREE! At least a little.
A group of HSPs can also reduce one particular fear, of being overwhelmed by our own emotions. We receive at least a taste of another way to manage their emotions, by being in the presence of others who understand and will not shame you by asking, “Why must you get so worked up about every little thing?” Or cause guilt by saying “it upsets me to see you so sad.” Instead, the whole group of HSPs will probably say something like, “Yeah, that’s okay, we would react the same way,” and maybe “Here’s how we cope when it gets to be too much.”
At this last event, we all sang happy birthday to someone, and she cried. Instead of making a room full of non-HSPs uncomfortable, this room-full just smiled at how familiar it was, because we’d already discussed that we all cry easily.
Loneliness and HSPs
In this particular group that I was with, the problem of loneliness came up often. This is not surprising—again, we humans are social animals. No matter how much we need our solitude and down time, we also need to be able to return to a group of at least one other, where we feel we belong.
If we belong to no one at all, how does one cope with it? That depends on the reason for the loneliness. Some HSPs are lonely because they have recently lost the person to whom they were closest, often for many years. Loneliness while grieving such a loss is a very natural state, and does gradually resolve itself as you become closer to others. No one will replace the person who is lost, but other relationships do fill in the gap. That is the probable purpose of grief—it is actually a “social emotion” signaling to others that we feel bad specifically because of a loss, and so others come and fill in as best as they can for the missing companion. So how do you cope? By letting the right others know about your grief and letting them spend time with you. It’s something people generally want to do. It’s instinctive. You would do it for them.
If you are lonely because you have moved, or if you are older and many of your closest friends have passed on, you have to make an extra effort to make new friends because people may not know you need companionship. It’s best to seek out others who also need to make friends—others new to the area or newly bereaved. Or people who understand your need and want to help you. Places of worship are excellent for this. Having a paid counselor for a time can also bridge the gap while you find new friends.
Sometimes when we are lonely, if we look closely, we find that one small change would help a great deal. For example, perhaps you are mainly aware that where you live you are surrounded by strangers. Who would you call on for help? Who could you have a chat with at the spur of the moment, maybe over some sudden, distressing news on the radio. Maybe you can solve this kind of loneliness fairly easily, by simply meeting some of your neighbors. Neighbors generally like it when someone takes the first step. If you enjoy your first chat, have them over for tea or whatever next. No big deal, but enough time to chat. They want to be able to count on you in a crisis, too.
Or perhaps as an HSP you need to rest and be away from people on the weekend, but by the end of it you feel lonely. Then you need to plan something social for every weekend, preferably in the middle of it, so you can recover Sunday night. That may be all you need.
Loneliness That is Harder to Remedy
Other causes of loneliness are more difficult, in a way, since they are often in part the result of the lonely person’s own habitual thinking and behavior. Anything about us that makes it harder for us to meet people and become intimate with them can lead to loneliness.
If you are aware of your own role in your loneliness, and if you realize that you have made a free choice, that could help. For example, most of us who are HSPs are somewhat fussy about who we spend time with. We don’t like phoniness, impulsiveness, or ignorance. So even if we meet many people, we make friends with only a few. And if we prefer not to go out much, we may not be meeting enough to find any suitable friends. Or the suitable ones have already become friends with those who have been more available. Maybe we are even holding out for our ideal close friend. So you can choose. If the loneliness is stronger than the need for a perfect conversation, you can always lower your standards.
But sometimes these high standards are all just an excuse because of deeper fears. Many of us are not meeting people or getting close to them out of a fear of rejection, especially rejection by those with whom we would most want to be close. Those who are available and interested in us are almost by our definition not appealing. Fear of rejection is not a good feeling, but how do you get rid of it? First, you have to figure out why you fear rejection. Is it common with you? If so, you have to figure out why you have this pattern and work on that. Is it because you were unpopular and rejected as a child? Was that due to your sensitivity or something else? Whatever made you self-conscious then, is it really still a problem now? And is popularity with everyone really what you want now? Or was the problem more at home, that your parents criticized you or rejected, abandoned, or neglected you. Children generally decide there’s something wrong with them when this happens. That can make it difficult not to fear rejection everywhere.
The most important remedy in the present is to get away from the general fear that everyone will reject you by looking at the specifics. Consider if a rejection or feared rejection might be due to something about the person or situation. Okay, maybe you are right and you will be rejected, but that might only be due to there not being time for the other person to get to know you properly. Or the person is too busy with other friends to make a new friend, no matter who you are. Or maybe he or she is a total snob and not worth your time anyway. Think about the times you have not been rejected, the people who have loved you. Don’t they count? Don’t they know more about you than a stranger?
Again, the important thing is to not expect rejection everywhere you go, but to get specific about who you can and can’t expect to like you and under what circumstances. Keep thinking about the kind of people who do like you and try to meet more like them. Think about the situations in which you shine, and try to be in them when you meet people.
Is It Really Loneliness?
Sometimes I have found that people feel lonely, especially single persons or those without an immediate family near them, even when they have many loving friends. This requires some careful exploration. Often these lonely ones were traumatized by being left alone too much as children. Those who should have supported them when they needed it most were not there. In this case, they are really being upset in the present by something that has already happened to them in the past and may not be relevant at all now.
It’s amazingly common, this fear of what has already happened that feels like a fear of what is going to happen. For example, as adults we usually do not need people to be as supportive as we needed them to be when we were children. But we may feel lonely because we are afraid that no one will really be there for us when we need them, having had that experience as a child. The fact is, friends always help each other out in a crisis. Even strangers are usually glad to help out. Furthermore, when things are going well, we may not need or even want constant support from friends, people treating us like children. Seeing all of this can sometimes get your loneliness in perspective.
Others are surrounded by friends but still lonely because their friendships are not intimate—they do not involve disclosing deep things about each other and finding that is accepted. Sometimes people lack the skills, but more often they are just afraid to be close. They believe, perhaps quite unconsciously, that if the other really knows them, it’s then that they can expect rejection, betrayal, abandonment. Again, these are fears of things that have already happened. In my books I have written quite a bit about “insecure attachment styles,” which develop in about forty percent of children and persist into adulthood unless we work to change them, which I have also discussed elsewhere. The work is not easy—these kinds of defenses are meant to keep us safe from hurt and so they are difficult to overcome.
Finally, some HSPs tell me they feel lonely only in crowds. Well, yes, we all do. Crowds are full of strangers. But there is that old saying that a stranger is just a friend you have not met yet. If someone near you is alone, speak up and surprise yourself. I know, it sounds just horribly corny. But say hello. The other person is also a social being who needs and likes contact as much as you. And any way you say it, the only cure for loneliness is human contact.
On the other hand, if you don’t need or want to say hello, maybe you aren’t lonely after all. Maybe in the past others have seen you off by yourself and told you that you must be lonely—they would be—even if in fact you had chosen to be alone. Maybe the truth is that you are just being an HSP, taking some down time or protecting yourself from overstimulation, and you are just fine with that.