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.