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

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An Ode to Identity Crisis, Embracing Change & Living Fully Now

“The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armor. When that happens it feels like a crisis because it is a crisis – a fixed-identity crisis.” – Pema Chodron

What once was will not always be. And not just in regards to the external aspects of your life, but the internal aspects that make up who you are and how you interact with life. As humans, many of us are on a roller coaster, riding the emotional ups and downs of a constantly shifting understanding of ourselves, our place in the world and our purpose for being alive. When we deny the instability of our identities – and more broadly, the instability of our experience of being alive on this planet – we have what Bhuddist Nun, Pema Chodron, calls a ‘fixed-identity crisis’.

Yes change is scary. Yes change causes us anxiety and depression, but there is a way to ride the roller coaster and enjoy it. I know there is because I’ve experienced glimpses of it, tiny shreds of clarity and deep contentment, reached through great moments of surrender to living right now.

To demonstrate, I’ll share some of the many ways my life and identity have changed over the last decade and how, today, I’ve found a way to embrace change and live life fully.

Sixteen years of school fostered in me a safe and reliable identity of being a student. Being a student provided me a sense of security due to a pre-built infrastructure I could predict, access to a community of similarly identified people in my age group, and a clear medium through which to gauge my progress, successes and growth. University, albeit feeling restrictive to my freedom some of the time, provided a direct path to walk on and a clearly defined goal to reach: graduation with a degree in hand. Still, despite the label of “student,” I felt extremely uncertain about who I truly was and what it all was for, throughout that period of time. This was in part because I often attached my identity to the ever-changing relationships I was in, the opinions of my peers and family, my grades, my health, and of course, the constantly growing and shrinking awareness about myself, my political views, goals, dreams and values. Sound familiar?

After college, I wanted desperately to leave my hometown. I was ready to spread my wings and see more of the world. A common practice was to berate myself for not having left sooner, like many of my peers who moved across the country for college, thinking it somehow reflected a lack of bravery or adventure in me. Now I was finally free to go somewhere new, I thought. I attached my identity so strongly to where I physically lived that when a good job located in my hometown fell into my lap, I suffered a near-constant state of anxiety after accepting the position. Oh and did I mention that the transition from “student” to “worker” caused me panic, doubt and uncertainty? Well, that happened. Just ask my friends and family.

To make matters worse, shortly thereafter, my 2-year relationship painfully fell apart. A person who had become a large part of my life was no longer there, and I had to figure out what that meant and how to move forward. This was just months after I had moved into an intentional community, or cooperative home, built around living a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, eating organic, growing our food and raising hens, eating vegetarian, sharing resources and connecting with the people around me on a deeper level than I had ever connected with previous housemates. At work, I sat in a bland, gray cubicle in a field of bland, gray cubicles. At home, I was taking naked saunas with my household, cooking dinner for my nine housemates each week, fetching eggs from the henhouse in the backyard and growing my repertoire of hula-hoop dance moves. Back at the office, I wore slacks and helped the company grow their bottom line through effective communications.

Along with the heartbreak I was experiencing, this oxymoronic double-life existence was causing me a lot of distress. I constantly felt like a fraud even though, in more ways than one, I actually fit into both lives to some extent at the time. I was successful at what I was doing in my job and started thriving when a manager I looked up to began mentoring me. Meanwhile, at home, I was happy hula hooping on the front lawn, writing poetry, living with a diverse group of people who I was growing to love, learning to blues dance and cook delicious vegetarian meals. I kept my personal life private from most of my co-workers out of fear that they would not take me seriously in the competitive corporate environment we were working in.

Eventually, the time came for me to make the changes my heart had desired for a long time and end the internal battle I was having about where I worked and its misalignment with my values. Ultimately, just like after graduating University, I strongly felt I needed to explore and experience more of the world, and in tandem, more of myself and what I was truly capable of. The death of two friends in the past year had sparked a sense of urgency in me to live life now and not postpone my dreams. Making a big change toward a more courageous and whole life was one way I felt I could honor my dear friends’ lives and their impact on me, so it was time to do something, and soon.

That’s when I bought a one-way ticket to Europe, left my job and moved in with my parents to save for the biggest adventure of my life to date. To say that I experienced fixed-identity crisis during my preparation for the trip would be a dire understatement. I was freaking out. My days were filled with both blissful excitement, and overwhelming anxiety and debilitating fear of the complete unknown I was about to actively dive into. Well, in case you haven’t read the numerous stories on this blog I wrote while on the trip [select ‘Travel‘ in the topics bar], let me just say it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life and was EXACTLY what I needed, and more.

Three-in-a-half months of backpacking solo through twelve countries and 35 cities later,
I was on a 9-hour flight back to the United States, a changed woman inside and out. I promptly moved to Portland and started working full-time at a start-up, which brings me to today.

As you can tell, that’s a lot of change in a fairly short period of time. And maybe you’re thinking: that’s a lot of identity crisis to go through. And it was, but I’m learning that celebrating being alive now, in every state of mood, in every job, in every relationship, in every moment is really the antidote to fixed-identity crisis.

Today I drove home along the same mundane route I drive every day to and from work, singing at the top of my lungs and fist-pumping to the chorus while stopped at the red light, so I could celebrate being alive right then. Tonight, I’m going to spend my precious hours of free-time after work cleaning my room, cooking dinner and packing my lunch for tomorrow. It isn’t as glamorous as exploring Italy or dancing in Barcelona, but I’m going to do it while listening to music that makes me groove, so I can celebrate being alive right now. Tomorrow I’m going to participate in a strength-training class that kicks my ass every time, and I’m going to savor the deep breaths between sets, so I can celebrate being alive right then.

I guess the goal is this: to greet every changing moment of existence for the gift that it is and let it be. More importantly, to let yourself be. I’m going to avoid clinging to one experience as a definer of who I am, or one perspective of my life as a fact written in concrete. Because life is fluid, and we are too.

Everything changes and the more we embrace that, the more we can remove the mask of fixed-identity and be who we are right now in this moment – the only moment we have.

Life is now.

Life is now.

Let the Wind Run Through You

Tonight I’m writing from an abandoned library on the first floor of my grandmother’s retirement center in Tallahassee, Florida. Although it’s nighttime and I can’t see a thing outside but the dim lights lining a pathway through the grounds, I know the silver Spanish moss is gently swaying in the wind, dangling in ringlets from the broad Live Oaks.  I love the big oak trees here and the way the moss drapes itself across every living branch, like old lace, sophisticated and intricate. I can almost hear the crickets singing and rejoicing in the cool calm of the night. It’s been a good trip to visit family, recall childhood memories from past visits , and to stay in my favorite beach house on beautiful St. George Island. The ocean is the mother of wisdom and I love watching the waves roll in and out with my toes in the warm sand. I’ve had lots of time to reflect during my stay here.

Tonight I’ve been thinking about letting the wind run through you, rather than resisting it. We have grief, we have emotion, we have doubt. And I believe the body and the subconscious mind know how to dangle freely like the moss, letting the pain or the thoughts sway through, if we just let them be. It’s the logical thinking, the resistance to the process, and the shame of emotions that really causes the delay in healing. When we feel the emotion arise and we feel like crying, that’s what we should do. If we can trust our body’s instinct and allow the wind to move through it, then we can release whatever needs releasing. What’s difficult is when we tell ourselves “stop feeling that” — then the gears get mucked up and suddenly our mind is driving, rather than the subconscious, which intuitively works to bring pain to the surface so we can expel it, heal, and grow.

On a walk this afternoon, I watched the moss sway in the wind and dance and twirl, sometimes frantically, if there was a big gust. What I find fascinating about the moss, is that it looks like it’s barely attached, hanging onto the bark by mere fibers, but it doesn’t get torn off in the wind. It’s by surrender and flexibility that it is able to hang on amidst the gusts. We too can benefit from these qualities. If we let go and trust our subconscious to show us the way, be it through grief or depression, or any other difficulty, we can heal quicker and more completely. Resistance only prolongs the pain and weakens our ability to flow. Likewise, attaching to logical thought processes or talking ourselves out of feeling something counteracts our natural process of working things through. Whatever comes up is only trying to be healed. It wants to flow, so you can let go and grow.

Homework

This week, try being like the moss:

SURRENDER and TRUST the wind moving through you to keep you alive rather than knock you off the branch. Let your body guide your way to healing by quieting the logical mind, and feel what is asking to be felt.

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