If you face each detail – calmly, patiently, steadily – look how the whole can turn out in time.
It’s been an intense week. First, the election, loaded not only nationally but locally, due to a corruption scandal. Then, ANOTHER mass shooting, also close to home given my history with country western dance bars and mental disorders. And to top it all off, the weather, after being mild and steady for months, suddenly went kerflui in a very extreme way. For days. Still is, in fact.
My motivation level is barely registering on the meter. OTOH, confusion is high, as I ponder for the umptee-millionth time where the line is between necessary downtime, and a slide into depression to which I should be responding in some remedial way. I was thinking my depression management plan isn’t effective enough, and researching things I could add. Then I was thinking I already had good tools, but wasn’t using them, so maybe adding more tools wasn’t the solution. I was thinking how I have longed to be living in the country for the past 30 years, and yet, I’m not.
In the midst of all of this, I found myself conducting “where are they now” web searches about people I used to know, which is something I do from time to time. This morning, they led me to the years-old blog of someone I had never met, who was the partner of someone with whom I was once (or rather, twice) close friends. She was having a transformational year, and as she blogged, it was transformational to me, too. Transformation isn’t something you can convey descriptively. It wasn’t what she said, it was the way she said it.
Suddenly I was wondering: What if these searches of past associations aren’t unhealthy stalking, or clinging to past relationships that didn’t work, or masochism (given the risk at my age of discovering they are dead)? What if they’re part of a continuous cycle of integrating new perspectives with previous experience?
What if my disinterest in certain parts of my working life isn’t the measure of my ability to create an optimal life for myself, or inability to take care of myself, but is just information?
What if I stopped judging myself, and just let myself be?
It is so easy to get caught up in setting goals and checking off mile markers on the road to happiness, though in the very act of doing that, we are putting it somewhere else than where we are. But happiness isn’t like that. If ever there was something you can’t hold, or store, or defer, it’s happiness. You are having it in the moment, or you aren’t. And that’s a decision we make every moment.
“Happiness” is a fraught, imprecise term, and yet something I think we all intuitively understand. Substitute peace, centeredness, flow, or whatever it is to you. You know what I mean. The second I realize it’s right there for the taking, I’m off again on a journey somewhere outside of it, analyzing the question of why I don’t then take it. Because I’m too busy worrying about why I don’t take it, that’s why!
My brain is stuffed with all these writhing, hopping, squirming, impassioned thoughts. Though I made them, and they are so, so interesting, sometimes I am exhausted by their noise and wish they would just shut up.
Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, I asked myself whether I was my thoughts, or my feelings. ‘Twas a puzzlement. I was equally invested in both, yet I felt a need to choose because they often disagreed, and then I didn’t know what to do. Which was the real me?
Neither, I eventually figured out. Identity is an underground river, that flows below all of that above ground scurriment, impervious to outside influences. It’s just there, a be-ing, not a do-ing. Hey, that sounds like a great meditation image. I’m going to go try it.
It continues to astound me how many things about myself I have overlooked, or underestimated the importance of, often for decades. I’m so perceptive about other peoples’ feelings – how could I be so dense?? Is it all due to a childhood during which my feelings and desires were constantly criticized and belittled? Or is there some inherent inability in my personality (☾+♆ in the 12th?) to see the obvious when I am looking in the mirror?
That’s one of those questions that can never really be answered. Any more than I can say whether my convoluted path could have been more direct, or whether those twists and turns were an essential part of the process. That 12th house ♆ is ☌ ♃ so it is entirely possible that my confusion, as unbelievable as I would certainly have found it at the time, was inextricably linked to my growth.
Knowing Your Own Strength
This post was inspired by an interview I read today, with Debbie Millman, an apparently famous designer of whom I had never heard. I strongly suspect her of being an HSP. If you are still struggling to find your true path, check it out. You can skip the lengthy bio of her accomplishments at the beginning, but come back and read it after you finish the article – by then it will be relevant.
It was the word “courage” in the title that first caught my eye. I have long felt that, in spite of our vulnerabilities, there is a core strength in HSPs, precisely because we ARE vulnerable. Just being who we are, openly and unapologetically, regardless of being frequently overwhelmed, is inherently courageous. Maybe we don’t have a choice, with our exquisitely responsive emotional skin and utter lack of armor, but rising to that challenge still counts.
I feel there is something I still need to discover about HSP courage that I haven’t quite grasped yet, so I haven’t written about it much. But even if I am overlooking something once again, I feel a sense of urgency about illuminating for other HSPs – especially those who hate that they are HSPs – the inherent capacity to endure and persevere our trait endows us with. Not everyone has that. Don’t hate it because there is pain associated with it.
If You Aren’t Making Mistakes, You’re Not Learning Anything
I first heard this when I was in my late teens, and it was a revelation. I understand now why it is especially momentous for people with a history of critical parenting (see Transactional Analysis to better understand how internalizing this criticism can cause you to recreate the same dynamics in other relationships). And perhaps also to people who are naturally predisposed to self-criticism, if there are such people. Reframing “failures” as valuable, even necessary, learning experiences is also something Millman discusses at length.
But what I like best about her story is her point that everything takes effort, so you may as well work towards something you want, instead of getting caught up in somebody else’s version of “success” that will just make you miserable. As she puts it:
…if you’re considering settling because going after what you want seems too hard to do, remember that hating what you do every day is even harder.
Barrie Jaeger makes a similar point, when she talks about classifying work as “drudgery” according to how it feels to you, in Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person (2004).
Beating Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps
Millman’s insistence that everything requires hard work may be daunting at first, and I don’t entirely agree with it. Luck and privilege are significant factors. Not that you should sit on your hands while waiting for either of those to happen to you, but if you are comparing yourself to others (a bad habit which I recommend you quit), don’t forget to take them into consideration.
Millman suggests checking our priorities if we find ourselves “too busy” for activities that may bring us closer to the life we want to lead, which seems reasonable enough. I absolutely agree that our actions speak volumes – especially to ourselves – about who we really believe we are and what we really believe is possible. If we aren’t walking our talk, we need to look at that, and know the reason why.
But she also says (without drawing an important connection between the two) that it can be impossible to predict which activities will change our lives. Finite energy is a real thing for HSPs, if I am any example. Risk-taking has to be balanced with self-acceptance of the need for downtime, or we can squander buckets of energy battling with ourselves about what we “should” be doing, and blaming ourselves if we aren’t doing it. Replacing “should” with “could” creates a useful shift, from starting at self-recrimination, to starting with reasons for choices which may be perfectly valid.
Furthermore, most of the time I don’t have to force myself to do what I love, because I am naturally drawn to it, and it doesn’t feel like work. In fact, I often have trouble coming up for air to eat, pee, and go outside to see the pretty world. I think not allowing ourselves to do what we are most inclined to do is probably a bigger problem than not working hard enough for most HSPs, especially HSP introverts.
Call of Nature
If you have been with me since the beginning, you’ll know I went through several “aha!” moments where I decided THIS is the thing I was born to do. In particular, I concluded I was born to write. I haven’t changed my mind about that.
I was thinking recently about someone whose writing inspired me years ago – a newspaper columnist whose candor, depth and insight stood out from the usual fare like a beacon on a stormy night. But he bought into the notion that writing is not doing, quit journalism in a fit of self-recrimination, and I haven’t heard of him since.
I have been trying to track him down for years. After my latest unsuccessful attempt, I imagined a conversation in which I told him that he had a gift that could not be denied, that a writer is what he is, not what he does, and that touching people in their deepest thoughts and feelings is just as important as addressing their more mundane needs. All of which I understand because it is also true for me. And perhaps the seeds of that understanding were planted by him, though they took so long to germinate, that never occurred to me until now.
Indeed, in the big picture, perhaps feeding the essence is more important than feeding the moment, because it has the power to change the conditions that created those unmet needs in the first place. However, I believe hierachies, whether conceptual or practical, are humanity’s most dangerous delusion (sorry, Maslow), and in this case, are also irrelevant. Bottom line: if you fight your own nature, you will be miserable, and what you have to offer the world will be wasted.
(Don Williamson, you are not forgotten. The lives you touched touch the lives of others, so don’t be too quick to underrate the extent of your impact upon the world. That’s something we can never really know).
The Truth About True Paths
There are many paths. Or rather, if we step outside a metaphor which can easily become too literal, there are no paths. Your path is behind you, not in front of you. In front of you is only discovery.
If you have a tendency to impose tyranny upon yourself, you will find a way to corrupt the most precious wisdom or most life-shattering insights into self-beration. I speak from experience. It’s a remarkably creative process, really. Once you realize that, you can apply that creativity in more constructive ways.
But there is no right path. The very word “right” should tip you off. I have finally evolved into a life that works for me. Does that mean writing is my new career? Nope. I write when I feel like it, as you can see. I always have, and I suppose I always will, as long as I can. I couldn’t not.
But that doesn’t mean, especially in these days of instant DIY blogging platforms for anyone with an internet connection, that it has to be my income-producing activity. Or that I am off-track if it isn’t.
Wherever You Go, There You Are
What I am doing now is something that I have returned to repeatedly over decades, yet I never really noticed that until about a month ago. I was so busy shuffling through prefabricated identity labels that I didn’t pay much attention to my lifelong irrepressible drive to share insights and information.
I remember the moment in my teens when I first recognized this drive. It was so significant that, more than 40 years later, I recall exactly where I was standing when it occurred to me. It’s probably as central to my identity as writing. More central, since writing is just one aspect of information-sharing. And I was unsurprised when it came up as one of the top three characteristics in my Clifton Strengths evaluation.
Yet, even though I was conscious of it, have been conscious of it for more than 40 years, and was recently reminded of it, I had decided I was a writer, so I almost passed up my current occupation because I saw it as a compromise and a diversion from my true path.
I also failed to predict what now seems a pretty obvious benefit of this profession, fulfilling a need I hadn’t fully realized I had. It brings me into constant contact with people who are like me, in the sense of building their life from the inside out.
In the work I used to do, I hardly ever met people in the workplace with whom I felt any commonalities. It shouldn’t have surprised me. If I was miserable there, wouldn’t anyone like me also be miserable there? If there were such people, they had the good sense to avoid such mismatched work environments.
But rather than seeing a relationship between my alienation, and the fact that I hated my job and the life that it required me to lead, I concluded there must not be any other people like me. That’s the thing about forcing yourself into a niche where you don’t fit. It distorts your perceptions so you can’t even find the door. Or if you do, you don’t know where else to go, which was my problem.
The Beginning in the End
But I eventually figured it out, and that probably means you can too. Not because we are all the same, but because if even I could figure it out… I’m now leading a life that feels authentic and satisfying, and that I can picture extending into the foreseeable future. I hope you can skip some of the steps I had to take, but if you can’t, maybe they are as essential to your development as my missteps were to mine. In other words, they’re not missteps at all.
I keep coming back to the story of the farmer’s son, originating from somewhere in Asia (some say Taoism, some Buddhism):
There lived an old farmer who had worked in his fields for many, many years. One day, his horse bolted away. His neighbors dropped in to commiserate with him. “What awful luck,” they tut-tutted sympathetically, to which the farmer only replied, “We’ll see.”
Next morning, to everyone’s surprise, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How amazing is that!” they exclaimed in excitement. The old man replied, “We’ll see.”
A day later, the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses. He was thrown on the ground and broke his leg. Once more, the neighbors came by to express their sympathies for this stroke of bad luck. “We’ll see,” said the farmer politely.
The next day, the village had some visitors – military officers who had come with the purpose of drafting young men into the army. They passed over the farmer’s son, thanks to his broken leg. The neighbors patted the farmer on his back – how lucky he was to not have his son join the army! “We’ll see,” was all that the farmer said!
Different people take different things from this, but to me it underscores how much we interpret our experiences through the lens of current expectations and emotions, as if that is the only possible interpretation.
I’m not suggesting it should be otherwise. We feel what we feel, and we can’t see the future. I’m just saying, have faith in your journey, and keep an open mind. It’s not over yet. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And maybe that’s not even the point.
* Although Bob Dylan’s poetic genius is beyond dispute, I don’t think he’s a very nice person (for which “genius” is no excuse, IMO), and I’ve always found Like a Rolling Stone to be particularly vicious. The line “no direction home,” however, has entered into the collective consciousness with a life of its own. I chose it despite my feelings about Dylan because I felt it would immediately call to people struggling to find a life path, a state with which I am all too familiar, having wrestled with it for some 43 years before I finally found my own direction home.
Maybe if I hold very still and don’t breathe, the pain won’t find me.
I discovered living alone (without other humans, that is) when I was 16, and with the exception of brief sojourns with lovers or short-term transitional situations, it has been my lifestyle of choice ever since.
Living with other people was what I turned to when I first struck out on my own because it was what I had always done, but I soon realized the omnipresent relationships placed unmanageable demands on my energy. Sometime in my teens I redefined “home” as “the place I go to get away from people and rest.” And that is what home still is to me.
I rarely invite people in. If I feel social, I go out.
Most of my friendships are situational, the sum of proximity + time. That used to feel inadequate, but perhaps my expectations have evolved as I become a better friend to myself. The differences seem less important. Sometimes, as friendships deepen, I discover there are more similarities than I suspected.
Then too, as my life feels more and more like my path, not someone else’s that I somehow strayed into, I am less afraid to reveal a truer version of myself. If someone doesn’t find value in me, that’s about them, and I am not diminished by it. I no longer feel as if I am on the outside of other peoples’ lives, pining to be admitted.
Close for Comfort
The 17 years I lived with my recently deceased feline companion is the longest I have ever lived with anyone, considerably outstripping the time I spent in my childhood home (homes, really. We moved a lot). Now I am rediscovering what it is to live truly alone, expanding into all the spaces previously dedicated to her use, following my own rhythms, answering my own imperatives.
And hearing myself think. This could be double-edged, if ultimately healthier. Did I comfort myself with purrs and fur in the face of disturbing thoughts, instead of finding solutions?
We shall see.
Closing the Sale
A headline caught my eye yesterday — what employers value most in potential employees is warmth and competence. “Oho,” thought I. “That’s why I’ve always interviewed so well.”
Like many of my other HSP qualities, warmth is so natural to me, I wasn’t really conscious of it. When employers hired me for my ability to connect with people, I was surprised, and skeptical that I had what they saw.
But when they wanted to wield that ability like a tool, shaping and manipulating customers with it, turning it on and off, I realized they were right, and more. My connections were genuine, therefore I had to honor them, regardless of the interests of my employers. In my HSP sensibility, this was all of a piece. Employers were not so happy about that. No, they did not like that at all.
However, their opportunism made visible to me what I had to offer, and how I wanted to offer it. The authenticity of the connections I make with people is fully realized at last in my relationships with my own clients.
Close to Heart
But these are business relationships, cordial, yet circumscribed. I can’t imagine how HSPs successfully navigate intimate relationships. Literally cannot. Nary a stillshot in my otherwise hyper-envisionary mind.
It’s not news to me that relationships are one of my remedial areas in life. Or to put that less judgmentally, are highly challenging. I have become more conscious of my fear of letting someone else too close to the center of my self. It’s well-founded, emotionally speaking, in a harrowing history.
I recognized many years back that I was consistently attracted to the wrong people, and stopped dating. I haven’t missed it much. I realize I have sidestepped an issue rather than resolving it, but that’s the right solution at the moment. Now is not the time, and perhaps this life is not the life, and that’s OK. I have to trust myself before I can trust somebody else.
My mental life verbalizes its way through adjustment to change. Grief happens more subliminally, below words. And maybe, though analysis has its value, its furious activity is also a refuge from pain which I can only endure in brief bursts.
For all of my words, it is sometimes music that anchors me in a crisis, providing, seemingly at random, a song to characterize this unique passage of my life, and carry me through the tsunami of feeling to peace. This time, a single line from long ago surfaced to guide me to that song:
Little pebble upon the sand
Now you’re lying here in my hand
How many years have you been here?
Little human upon the sand
From where I’m lying here in your hand
You to me are but a passing breeze
The sun will always shine where you stand
Depending in which land
You may find yourself
Now you have my blessing
Go your way
Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea
Everybody is a part of everything anyway
You can have everything if you let yourself see
Happiness runs, happiness runs
Why? Oh, because
You can have everything if you let yourself be
In the first post I ever wrote for this blog, I said:
I love silence with a passion. To me, it’s not an absence of something, but an iridescent, sublime presence, that can move me to acute and transcendent bliss.
It’s 4 in the morning, and the great urban noise bowl that surrounds me has not yet begun to roar. Wrapped in a fog cocoon, the night is still.
My cat died yesterday. She was the last of her family, and now I am a person without pets for the first time in almost two decades. And I am feeling so, so ambivalent about it.
There are people who should not be parents, and mine were among them. My mother regularly expounded on what a burden children were. She said she loved me, but didn’t like me, and I’ve never felt likable or lovable since. And when she was stressed by her responsibilities, which was often, she lashed out in rage. If there is anything I don’t want to be, it is her.
Yet in the end, I am my mother’s daughter.
I talk about almost everything else, but my struggle to meet my own expectations about treating my dependents with kindness and patience is a dirty little secret. When a friend joins me at the vet’s office to see me through the final moments, she is platitudinal – verbal expressions of emotion are not her forte.
“You gave her a great life,” she says.
“I have regrets,” I reply, with a crypticness and brevity that are extremely out of character for me. But I owe honesty that much.
The truth is, I often couldn’t deal constructively with my cat’s demands, especially when they were vocal. I felt desperate – I thought I would break under the pressure – I just needed her to stop. She couldn’t help it, poor girl, and she was obviously stressed and confused by my reaction. Why didn’t knowing that reduce my desperation, or strengthen my compassion, or patience, or selfless love, or whatever it is I didn’t have enough of??
Many times, I resolved to change my behavior. But no matter what my intentions, I just couldn’t sustain those changes. More than once, it crossed my mind that I might benefit from anger management classes. Or a daily yoga and meditation practice. But I pursued neither solution. I didn’t even read a book.
I did finally succeed in altering her behavior in a way that improved our relationship during her final months, but I am deeply ashamed that an 8 pound cat with a wasting disease was better able to regulate her emotional expression than I was.
I want to think this is a cultural failure. If I lived in a world that acknowledges differences in sensory reactivity, perhaps I would have better tools and support for dealing with stress and sensory challenges – and less shame to impede availing myself of them.
And maybe that is true, as far as it goes. But HSPs are more independent of their culture than other people, which has certainly been the case for me throughout my life, so how far is that? I understand my mother better now, but the damage she wrought upon my life is beyond repair, and therefore beyond forgiveness.
So how can I forgive myself?
I spent yesterday weeping, posting memorials, poring over photos and videos, trying to stake down in the present that which has slipped irrevocably into the past. All the things grieving people do.
Yet despite my wrenched heart, the fact that my load is lightened intrudes itself constantly. Already there is more time, money, peace, space. As I move through the rooms of my small house and discover all the different cat-things I no longer need, I can’t help noticing there was literally not enough room for her in my life.
But the silence.
I never thought the house could be too quiet.
I was wrong.