Ok, so not a nutrition post but today, Feb 1st 2020, I am feeling the pain of the UKs exit from Europe and it prompted this post on being an HSP.
Have you heard of the term HSP, Highly Sensitive Person? It’s estimated that 20% of the UK population are HSPs and I know myself to be one of them. I’m no expert in this but I did find some comfort in discovering I was not the only one who was battling with the over-whelm of being incredibly susceptible to taking on the pain of the world. It could be the suffering of other people; the plight of the planet inflicted by us humans; the abject horror and bemusement of how people can be so cruel, mean, thoughtless, vicious even to others, to animals, and not seem to care. It scares me and hurts me, literally.
HSPs often have their particular areas of susceptibility, their specialty suffering so to speak. They will no doubt have been told “don’t be so sensitive”, “pull yourself together”, “get a grip” like it’s a failing, a weakness and a personality flaw to be so tuned in. I like to think of it as a superpower, but probably like most, if not all superpowers, it comes at a cost.
For me the flagrant abuse of mother nature is a constant challenge but more so, the suffering of animals. I am so easily engulfed by emotion when I see, even hear of animals in pain. I can’t watch wildlife programs despite loving the wonder and awe that mother nature inspires, because all too often they will show a wounded animal, a mother that has lost her young, even a wild hunt, which of course is the natural order of things, but I struggle to witness a lion taking down a zebra or such like. I can certainly no longer casually scroll through social media sites like Facebook because all too often there will be a photo of a wretched, abused or abandoned animal., cat, dog, horse, donkey – whatever, it literally hurts my heart. This is not sentimentality, although I’m perfectly capable of that too, this is deep, visceral, chest tightening, gut wrenching, tear-inducing pain that I cannot escape. Once that image is in my mind it haunts me, often at night, as my heart clenches, my breath stops short and I am ridden with feelings of what feels like trauma. It is tugging on the heart stings to a point where is utterly unbearable.
I feel so porous, so raw and exposed so often and despite many a training offering skills to protect oneself from all of those invasive, negative energies, nothing has ever helped me. Being so porous, there are always dents, tears, giant holes that leave me vulnerable. To be able to turn off, even turn down this emotional overload would be a relief but I don’t know how. I understand totally the desire to escape into alcohol, drugs, food. It is only my dogged self-discipline and commitment to being good to my body and brain that stops me succumbing. Exercise is my way of managing, it saves me.
Many HSPs are creatives and / or therapists. It helps to have that diaphanous layer between the world and your emotions in both professions. Being an HSP can bring about the most awe-inspiring music, art, poetry. As a therapist, I have am so incredibly blessed to be able reach in and connect with the people who come to me for help. When I first studied psychotherapy I was very struck by the idea that it matters little what specific disciple a therapist is trained in. The success, or not, of a therapist and their patient is so much more about the therapeutic relationship, the personal connection that is made rather than what the therapist actually practices. This is absolutely about the ability to have empathy with the patient, but after 30 years of working in the field of human health, I think it is more than being empathic. It’s about a deeper, more visceral, inexplicable connection that comes from just a few words, or no words but a look, a bolt of feeling from to another. This is weakness and a strength. It’s also why I continue to work in human well-being. When a patient and therapist connect on that level, healing happens. For both parties. What a gift. But it’s exhausting. It is why I chose not to be a full-time psychotherapist, I’m not tough enough. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a vet – not a chance, watching Lassie was too much for me!
I feel like I am carrying wounds that are my own and those of many others. I am so profoundly honored that people are willing to show me their pain and look to me for help. I also know that by the end of the day, although ecstatic and often hugely elevated by my work, I come home and quickly crash in to a dark and complex place where I can’t be with anyone else. I guess it’s my way of processing the energies of all those people I am blessed to share time with, but there is a price. I look at my peers and wonder how they can have some much life outside of their work. I work and I recover. Then I work and then I recover. I don’t get in to arguments, I hate conflict of any kind, I don’t tolerate crowds or loud noise well, shopping malls exhaust me within minutes and I need a lot of alone time.
Sometimes I get intensely embarrassed when I feel the prickle of the first tears. It can be something seemingly so innocuous but if I am triggered, it is so hard to stop myself crying. It’s often music, which can truly break me; it could be something on TV, it’s often witnessing a moment of kindness or hearing of someone’s personal struggle. I can be out running with the dogs crying to the thank you’s on Radio 4s Saturday Live show or simply be caught off guard by witnessing a moment of tenderness between two humans, more often human and animal.
I was telling a great friend and colleague about something I had read in the awe-inspiring book Wilding by Isabella Tree about how, as oak trees age and their trunks become hollow, they will drop a limb to the ground to stabilise themselves. This blows my mind – the majesty and brilliance of nature. Relaying this information made me cry! I know – ridiculous, embarrassing…. but my dear friend, another HSP, she got it, it was ok that I was choked up because she felt it too, Thankfully I am married to an HSP. He says I do his crying for him. He feels it, he’s male, he’s learnt to suppress it.
Are the HSPs of this a world a conduit to the pain of the world? I appreciate this may sound high-falutin and pretentious, but if you are an HSP and find yourself exhausted by the every day, maybe you too have times of feeling that it is a burden that is hard to bear. If you’re not, then please understand that you might not understand why some people you meet seem to have a totally different filter to the world and their filter may be letting in very different information to your own that you find ridiculous, irritating, even infuriating, it’s not a choice so please be gentle with us.
If you too are an HSP, let me know how you manage the world.