I was recently struck by a sub-heading in Holly Klassen’s Huffington Post blog piece on parenting as an introvert: “They are with you ALL THE TIME.”
I don’t know whether it’s an introvert thing or an HSP thing, or both, but that sentence neatly encapsulates my experience of other human presences. They don’t have to be doing anything, or saying anything. They don’t even have to be awake. Just the awareness of their presence in some way engages a portion of my energy, rendering it unavailable for other purposes. It’s like a computer process that runs in the background and eats up all your RAM, slowing down normal tasks, and making high-resource tasks impossible.
This doesn’t happen with animal companions, however. I have often contemplated why I prefer to live with animals, but was never able to pinpoint it – until I read that sentence. The cats I share a home with are also with me, literally, all the time, not just somewhere in the house, but often in the same room I am in. Yet somehow, my attention is not engaged in the same energy-consumptive way. If this is true for other HSPs, it may explain why HSPs are more likely than average to have a strong affinity with animals.
Of course, it’s different when they are actively seeking my attention. That is just as distracting as if a human was doing the same thing. It’s been many years since I lived with a dog. The dog’s happiness was so dependent on my awareness of, and interaction with him, that it felt like a constant pressure and demand (which is something HSP parents also comment upon). I suspect clingier personalities may be a challenge for HSPs, regardless of species.
But I’m still curious about exactly what it is that makes my experience of animals different from my experience of humans. Is it the absence of language? If so, wouldn’t I feel less distracted in a human environment where I didn’t speak the language?
Come to think of it, I may. I regularly shop in neighborhoods where I don’t speak the dominant language, and although the shopping districts are very crowded, I do feel somehow apart, and surprisingly unharried even when people are actually touching me as they brush past. I’ll have to compare that to how I feel next time I’m in an English-speaking crowd.
Another possibility is that I can’t really empathize myself into a cat’s experience. Maybe I can’t into a human’s experience either, and just don’t know it! But with a cat, it’s obvious that she experiences the world in an unimaginably different way. I can’t be aware of her thoughts, and there’s a blessed freedom in that.
Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with how I see her, but with how she sees me. When there’s another human in the room, I’m suddenly, distractingly, aware of my outside. Not so with a non-human.
I’ve written before about right-sizing stimulation. Animal companionship is the right level of engagement in my home space. Being the only creature in the room is a little flat, somehow, but add another human, and I can’t just be in the space anymore. In some obscure way, I’m doing. But with animals, there’s a nice balance between the two, the perfect level of fellowship.
This post about a man and his cat expresses lots more ambivalence about his affection for the cat he shares a home with than I feel. The blogger knows it’s a primary relationship in his life, yet he can’t quite pull himself out of the cultural box where only other humans are supposed to matter that much. That kind of culturally-imposed inner conflict about what is otherwise a positive, nourishing experience is not useful to anyone. Psychologists who label relationships with animals as “compensatory” really need to rethink that.