The Gifts and Challenges of Being Highly Sensitive

There were so many things I wanted to write about tonight, like the way things feel really intense on a global scale right now (as I’m sure you’ve noticed). But when I step back and look at the threads of all my experiences woven together, there is something that runs through all of them like a creek – cool, clear and penetrable. The creek is my sensitivity.

I’ve been a sensitive being since the day I was born. What that means is I notice EVERYTHING. I notice scents and subtle changes in my environment, like a siren outside or the dimming of lights. I notice changes in people’s facial expressions and can read their shifting moods instantly. When I walk into a crowded room, I not only hear all the words people are saying, but I feel their energy, the good and the bad. I’m aware of tiny details all the time, like a ladybug on a leaf, or the way the grass moves in the wind, or the birds that fly overhead at the exact same time I cross the Columbia River on my way to work. I feel a whole lot. Another way of saying that is I’m an empath. That means that when people are hurting (whether they are loved ones or complete strangers), I often feel as if I’m hurting too. That’s in part why I avoid violent movies and media. I’m constantly aware of the needs of those around me and have zero tolerance for watching others suffer (i.e. bullying, excluding, etc.)

Interestingly, 20% of the human population is highly sensitive, which is the term used to describe an inherited trait that affects the sensitivity of the nervous system. If you happen to be one of these highly sensitive individuals, like myself, then this blog post is for you.

An open letter to the sensitive ones among us:

It’s true that the world can feel overwhelming, and love can feel daunting (if only because it enhances the immense amount of emotions you already feel). It can sometimes appear like you are the only one who feels as much as you do. But you aren’t alone. There are many of us out there.

Ups and downs happen to all people, but for you, those ups and downs might feel exaggerated. There will be moments of sheer exhaustion, fear, grief, and heightened vulnerability. But there will also be elation, joy, heart-opening bliss, deep connection with others, empowering self-awareness and humor. Your sensitivity can be challenging, but ultimately, it is a gift. No one on this planet feels as much as you do. You are truly alive, and you get to experience the widest range of emotions that some individuals never get to access.

Being highly sensitive comes with some responsibilities to take extra good care of yourself. Why? Because being over-stimulated regularly taxes the body, mind and spirit. You need to take time-outs to rest and rejuvenate, cry, write, run, process and whatever else makes you feel grounded. Sleep is of utmost importance.

When you do fall in love, don’t fear your emotions. Let them exist. It’s a beautiful thing to be moved so deeply, and if you are with the right person, they will see your sensitivity as a strength, not a weakness.

Know that your vulnerability in expressing your inner complexity to others is what makes you so strong and admirable. Communicating is also the only way to build intimacy and help others understand you, so learn how to do it, and do it passionately. There will probably be lots of questions you have, and processing, in general, that you want to do with the people you’re closest with. Sometimes, this makes you wonder if you’re worth the patience afforded to you. Believe me when I say, you are!

Highly sensitive people make wonderful friends, partners and leaders. You are big-hearted, but you can also be fragile, because things impact you on a larger scale than they do others. That’s okay. I believe there is strength in letting others see you for who you are. Be true to yourself, and learn your eccentricities. Try not to worry so much about how others perceive your unique traits. At the end of the day, the amount of love you afford yourself equals the amount of love you are able to give and receive, so in that department, go big!

Love,
A Highly Sensitive Friend You Haven’t Met Yet

Shells

How Every Good Story in Life Begins; Thoughts on Travel, Memory and Purpose

In one swift movement I pull the heavy fan of hair up off of my neck and spiral the curls into a tight bun on top of my head. Then I slip my feet into two comfortable leather black sandals, and walk out the front door.

That’s how every good story in life begins, doesn’t it? You must first simply open the door, walk across the threshold, and out into the world. But what comes next is a mystery. Pay attention because there is a message in the spaces between knowing — the left turn instead of the right, the rose dangling across your path, the stranger who says “hello”; the pull to go a bit further, or to slow down and listen. I know it all too well. There was a purpose to every fork in the road overseas, just as there is now.

Dusk has pulled a shade across the sky and I can’t quite make out the street signs, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to move. As the soles of my feet settle into the familiar footbeds, perfectly molded by miles of walking, I choose a direction and stroll into the arms of the warm evening air.

A cat rustles through the hedge near my feet as a bicycle whirs past us. I keep walking. I pass someone hunched over a front-yard garden plot in the dark.

“Nice evening to get some yard work done, isn’t it?” I say.

He stands up and laughs, agreeing.

“Enjoy!” he calls after me as I roam on, noticing the rhythm of my stride, and pick up the pace.

I exhale, feeling my muscles stretch and wrap around my bones, lift my legs up and set them down again. I breathe in. The air smells sweet and earthy. If Oregon had a perfume, it would be this night – alive and blooming, yet subtle like a river winding through the fern-lined canyon. The smell is deeply comforting and reminds me of the camping trips I went on as a child.

As I stride up the sidewalk and around the corner, I spot a single glowing ember — a cigarette — it flickers, and gradually, my eyes adjust to make out the dark silhouette of someone sitting on the porch behind it. Across the street, a television set casts an eery blue glow through the window. I look ahead at the charcoal trees and see stars peeking between their limbs like owl’s eyes.

I close my eyes momentarily and when I open them, I’m beneath a bright streetlight, walking along a shoulder-height concrete wall. I move my arms and legs theatrically, giggling at my shadow as it waves back at me.

Suddenly I’m in Poland, walking where my ancestors never walked out of. The memory scares me, so I return to now. And then minutes later, I’m in Italy, strolling along the water’s edge, gazing out at the full belly moon hanging from an invisible thread above the glittering sea. Not long after, just around the bend, I’m in Germany, crossing the wheat field, yellow stalks crunching underfoot.

It’s surprisingly easy to visit these places I’ve been to before; I call the memories my travel ghosts. I feel them so poignantly sometimes that I have to stop what I’m doing and forfeit my full attention to them. It’s then that I feel an overwhelming aliveness, remembering the taste of freedom and recalling the detailed sensation of a place or an experience.

But as I walk past the rosemary bush, and the lights of my home come into view, I remind myself that I’m still free now. After all, just tonight, I put on my traveling shoes and stepped out, no plan or agenda in mind. Traveling really can be that simple. It begins with the desire to experience the world, and then unfolds in the spaces between the knowing and the planned and the organized.

If you want to travel, here’s my advice: Open your door. Step out. Then pay attention.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Morning in Spain.

Morning in Spain.

Sunset in France.

Sunset in France.

I Would Have Kept the Trees

When I walk past the hedgerow
and glance near my feet at the sandy piles,
it could be easy to forget
that life once rooted itself here.

I look at the holes now filled
and think: this is how it happens;
this is how sacred things disappear.

The outstretched arms that birds once perched upon,
the dappled shade cast by its leaves;
the earthworms and beetles,
the ants and the breeze
that once
moved through it.

All this
no longer
is.

Instead, there’s a parking lot with a clearer view
of strip mall and road,
painted yellow stripes,
ordered and marching ahead.

I would have kept the trees.

There's nothing in the world like a good tree hug! This photo was taken in Baia, Italy.

There’s nothing in the world like a good tree hug!