Are you a sensitive person? Perhaps you’re familiar with the saying, “Be in the world, not of the world.” It can be very difficult for a sensitive, open person to participate in the reality most human beings seem comfortable with. For if we honor our senses, if we approach others with openness and honesty, one of two things might happen. We could experience another person respecting our willingness to be fully authentic and present with them, or we might be taken advantage of. How do we interact with others, then – how do we strive for authenticity while remaining on guard? How can a sensitive person learn to function in a society which, in effect, asks us to “toughen up and get over it?”
Elaine Aron, in The Highly Sensitive Person, asks not that we get over our sensitivities, but, in effect, to get with them and learn to honor ourselves just as we are. A general trait of highly sensitive people is that we have no control over stimulation. And though some of us can get used to certain stimulations, overstimulation still depletes us. When we feel depleted, it seems to me that some of us retreat into ourselves and others lash out (as if to say Leave me alone! without quite knowing how to ask). Waiting until we are grossly over-stimulated can create several unpleasant scenarios. One might be that we unintentionally hurt others. Then we are bound to feel badly about ourselves.
Society and many of our family members do not like it when we seem to require special treatment (thus we need to learn to treat ourselves with care). Another consequence of failing to honor our needs is that we push ourselves until we become ill. In both cases, we can learn to appreciate our sensitivities and set guidelines to help us cope. This begins with more fully exploring who we are and what we are made of, so that we might better understand what our needs might be.
When my children were young, we lived out in the country. Coming from a large family myself, I didn’t get a lot of one-on-one time with my parents while growing up. After bringing my daughters into the world, I was determined to give them what I felt I did not get enough of, including time and parental attention. As young girls, they wanted to interact with others and to experience the world outside familiar surroundings. One of the only ways for them to do this, given where we lived and the lack of structured youth activities, was by visiting a distant city or even the mall! No matter when they asked to go somewhere, I would drop what I was doing and arrange a trip. After all, they didn’t ask very often and I was their only mode of transportation. But at certain times, I felt so overwhelmed that, during our drive, I would blurt out in frustration, “I just can’t do this one more time! Can’t you just be satisfied being home?” and so on. Taken aback, one of them would invariably respond, “Well, Mom, why didn’t you just say ‘no’?”
Though saying ‘no’ seems simple to me now, at the time it seemed absurd. As a highly sensitive person, I recognized the incredible gift I was given in mothering my daughters. I wanted them to be exposed to art, music, culture, friends. I wanted them to have all I could provide, putting myself last on the list. If you are a parent, perhaps you know what I mean. However when we put ourselves last, we invariably grow to resent it. We can’t draw water from a dry well. No matter how much we love those we are here to serve, we need to serve ourselves first, in a profound way. This doesn’t mean we are selfish. It does mean we learn to honor our need for rest, introspection and regrouping. As we do this, we set a healthy example for others to follow, including our children.
We live in a very driven culture, and increasingly, a driven world. Sensitive or not, we all need to stop and refuel. Yet the sensitive person needs down-time. If you are one of “us,” please stop waiting for someone to give you permission to live your life. Stop simply hoping others will treat you kindly, the way you would treat them. You might be waiting a very long time. Start with honoring your own feelings, treating yourself with respect. (If you have trouble doing this, honor yourself enough to get help.) Learn to ask for what you need and stick with it. Don’t backdoor your needs by trying to earn others’ approval first. As Rick Nelson sang in Garden Party, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
And to view Rick Nelson performing Garden Party: