As some of you know, I have stepped back from some of my HSP activities (not the research) to write a book on something different, not on HSPs. I already knew I needed to back off, but the pandemic brought it home to me, that I specifically wanted to move away from the job of generalizing about HSPs to the media. I would be asked by some interviewer, “How are HSPs handling the lock down?” and I would say (a bit gruffly, I fear): “I don’t know. Each differently. Some suffer, some love it. We are in the same storm, but very different boats.” Then to be polite I added some generalizations.
I don’t feel bad about the generalizations I have made about HSPs. They are all based on research or my long experience, and I know they have been helpful to many. But what keeps standing out for me now is how different we all are. All living beings are, but even within the group of HSPs, or maybe more in this group, we are so different. After all, if our trait is about being more sensitive than others to our environment, that should mean that we vary more than others coming from similar environments.
The idea that every human is different is such a cliché that I hate to touch the subject. It is an obvious scientific and spiritual fact (in that most spiritual traditions mention using the unique gifts that God or our karma gave each of us). I used to joke that psychology is the study of whether people are more the same or more different. And I love the bumper sticker, “Be yourself. What are the options?” That sums it up so well that it seems like there’s nothing more to say.
But I don’t think people take the idea of individual differences seriously enough, and my knowledge of high sensitivity is what brought that home. There is a huge difference between HSPs and those who are not, and it has been so difficult to convince the world of that. But what about all our other differences?
I’m not going to blame our society or even human nature for failing to take into consideration individual differences, although I see that improving. Both science and medicine, for example, move forward mostly through studying what is generally true. And we all develop our inner hypothesis about how people generally are (usually we think they are like ourselves), and then carry around those stereotypes when we meet someone new.
We do think differently about people according to their age, gender, and ethnicity, but within those groups there’s the same problem: We do not see the differences among individuals. However, this is all inevitable, because we need generalizations in order to make predictions, plans, and just to understand and empathize with someone else until we know more.
Your Differences Are You
However common generalizations and stereotypes are, we do not have to accept them about ourselves if we know they don’t apply. But first we must notice them. My eleven-year-old grandson has learned to sail expertly, and when he’s going out or coming in, adjusting his sails, people say “I can’t believe someone your age…” When we go out together, I hear about myself, “I can’t believe how agile you are on that boat, at your age.” Last time he and I went out and heard things like that, we decided to start weeding out ageism from our own speech!
It is your job to have a very clear idea of yourself and be ready to share it or correct the views of other when it is appropriate. You might need to say that you can or cannot do a certain job, like a certain situation, perform well, and so forth. Above all, what follows from knowing ourselves clearly is that what is good for us and what is good in us can guide how we can be most useful in the world.
An Inventory, if You Want
If you want to (you may vary on this!), spend some time soon thinking very seriously and objectively about yourself—your traits, traumas, skills, strengths, preferences, dislikes, quirks, flaws (I call flaws those things that do not work for others, unless they don’t work for me either), etcetera. Maybe write the list down. Think of it as an inventory of yourself, like an inventory of the items in a store–don’t you deserve that much attention? You do not have to be that thorough, but what fun to end up with such a list.
Add to your inventory your age and how much of your life is still before you and what you can expect to happen to some items on your list as you age. And there’s your physical health and financial resources, any chronic burdens. Maybe include the support you can expect from others. Stop when you are tired.
If the inventory includes (and it should) flaws, problems, or just things you wish that you were and are not, you can do at least three things about them, probably more: One solution is to reframe them if you can, in that they may also be strengths—maybe you said you are stubborn (but then aren’t you also persistent?), vulnerable (but also sensitive?), “codependent” (but also devoted and empathic?), impulsive (spontaneous?), distractable (alert to opportunities?) and forgetful (living in the moment or wise in other ways?).
A second solution for the problematic items is to weed them out if they are habits, or heal the source of them–another topic. And a third solution, after applying solutions one and two, is accepting those flaws that are still there. Hey, it’s a package deal. No one is perfect. Someone else may treasure these quirks of yours. No accounting for tastes! There may even be some way to put them to good use–become an expert on that problem.
Now look at the finished inventory. If you are disappointed, ponder that. You may find that once you face your disappointments, you can forget about them. You are who you are.
How Can We Make Use of This Person?
Now look at that list as an objective outsider who needs someone to do a job. Any job. Run a library, be a caregiver to a sick relative, walk dogs, study astronomy, teach reading, be a good friend, write poetry or lyrics to songs or lines in greeting cards. By job I clearly only mean what this person, given this inventory, could do when not sleeping, eating, and all that stuff. Can this person be someone with a beautiful garden that makes them feel good (or that people walking by it can enjoy)? Can this person be someone who makes dogs and cats happy? Someone who is simply cheerful and radiates that? Someone who is funny, or who dresses delightfully, or who enjoys kids so that their parents feel good about their offspring, or someone who cares about the environment in big ways or small?
Can this person be someone others can depend on, for food, clothing, education, love, a visit now and then? Or can this person be someone others hardly notice, yet can feel grateful for what they have been able to do given their inventory, maybe one with many burdens?
We all need some purpose in life. Some would say firmly that we were all put here so that we could live that purpose. Have you found the right one yet, one that fits you perfectly or close enough for now? Because of course the fit changes as circumstances change. Perhaps your purpose now is to raise your children or retire and enjoy your accomplishments so that others can take your place or take new pleasure in the new you, the one no longer working so hard. You decide.
After my last blog, on impermanence, many people wrote comments and I enjoyed reading them. You talked to each other and gave your own solutions for dealing with the fact of change and loss. So, I welcome any comments on this post, as you explore the joys and difficulties of being unique.