The Highly Sensitive Person

The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.  Broadway Books New York, 1996.

Pg 38:  Once settled, you need to create a safe space within your imagination where anything at all is welcome.  Invite any feeling to enter awareness there.  It might be a bodily feeling—an ache in the back, a tension in your throat, an unsettled stomach.  Let the sensation grow and let it tell you what it is there to show you. You also might see a fleeting image.  Or hear a voice.  Or observe an emotion.  Or a series of these—a physical feeling might become an image. Or a voice might express an emotion you begin to feel.

Pg 43:  Why the Infant/Body Self?

Think of what the infant and the body have in common.  First, both are wonderfully content and cooperative when they are not overstimulated, worn out, and hungry.  Second, when babies and sensitive bodies really are exhausted, both are largely helpless to correct things on their own.  The baby-you relied on a caretaker to set limits and satisfy your simple, basic needs, and your body relies on you to do it now.  Both also cannot use words to explain their troubles; they can only give louder and louder signals for help or develop a symptom so serious it cannot be ignored.  The wise caretaker knows that much woe is avoided by responding to the infant/body at the first sign of distress.  Finally, as we noted in the last chapter, caretakers who think newborn babies or bodies can be spoiled and should be “left to cry” are wrong.  Research demonstrates that if a small infant’s crying is responded to promptly (except at those times when responding just adds to the overstimulation), that infant will cry less, not more, when older.

Pg 44:  The other message an infant may receive is that the caretaker is dangerous and ought to be avoided or values more highly a child who is minimal trouble and very independent.  Perhaps the caretaker is too stressed to care for a child.  And there are those who at times, in anger or desperation, even what the infant to disappear or die.  In that case the infant will do best not to be attached at all.  Such infants are said to be avoidant….From our first attachment experiences we tend to develop a rather enduring mental idea of what to expect from someone we are close to and depend on.  While that may seem to make for rigidity and lost opportunities, meeting your first caretaker’s desires about how you attached was important for your survival.  Even when it ceases to be a matter of survival, the program is still there and very conservative.  Sticking to whichever plan works—to be secure, anxious, or avoidant—protects against making dangerous mistakes.

Pg 45:  (those HSPs who grew up feeling securely attached…had good resources and could handle overstimulation fairly well)  Eventually, you learned to do for yourself what your good caretakers had been doing for you…You found that your body was a friend to trust.  At the same time, you were learning that you had a special body, a sensitive nervous system.  But you could handle things by learning when to push yourself a little, when to take your time, when to back off entirely, when to rest and try later….Those of you with an insecure childhood also need to face it so that you can be more patient with yourself.  Most important, you need to know what was not done so you can be a different sort of parent to your infant/body.

Pg 46:  When holding is not adequate, when the infant/body is intruded upon or neglected—or worse, abused—stimulation is too intense for the infant/body self.  Its only recourse is to stop being conscious and present, thereby developing a habit of “dissociating” as a defense.  Overstimulation at this age also interrupts self-development.  All energy must be directed toward keeping the world from intruding.  The whole world is dangerous.

Pg 47:  Perhaps you had an overprotective, needy caretaker who really wanted a child very dependent and never able to leave.

Pg 51:  It may help to consider your behavior from the viewpoint of your infant/body.  If it wants to try new things but is afraid, you need to help it, not reinforce the fear.  Otherwise, you are telling it that it really is all wrong about its desires, that it is not fit to survive out there.  That is a crippling message to give a child.  You’ll want to think long and hard about who gave you this feeling in childhood, and why, rather than helping you get out and learn to do things your way.

Pg 58:  When witnessing, imagine standing to one side, watching yourself, perhaps talking about yourself with a comforting imaginary figure.  “There’s Ann again, so overwhelmed she’s falling to pieces.  I really feel for her.  When she’s like this, of course, she can’t see beyond right now.  Tomorrow, when she’s rested, she’ll be all excited again about her work.  She just has to take some rest now no matter what seems to need to be done.  Once she’s rested, it will go smoothly.”

Pg 58:  Here’s a list of some purely physical strategies (for overarousal):

  • Get out of the situation!
  • Close your eyes to shut out some o the stimulation.
  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Go out-of-doors.
  • Use water to take the stress away.
  • Take a walk.
  • Calm your breathing.
  • Adjust your posture to be more relaxed and confident.
  • Move!
  • Smile softly.

Pg 59: Or take the situation—task, discussion, argument—out of doors….Walking is also one of those basic comforts.  The familiar rhythm is soothing.  So is the rhythm of slow breathing, especially from your stomach.  Exhale slowly with a little extra effort, as if blowing out a candle.  You will automatically inhale from your stomach.  Or merely attend to your breathing—this old friend will settle you down.  The mind often imitates the body.  For example, you may notice that you have been walking around leaning forward slightly, as if rushing toward the future.  Balance yourself over your center instead.  Or your shoulders may b rounded, your head down, as if under a burden.  Straighten up, throw off the burden….uncurl….Try to create the moves as well as the posture of someone calm, in command.

Pg 60:  The Containers in Your Life

Another way to understand all of this advice is to remember how we began this chapter, by appreciating that your infant/body’s earliest and still most basic need is to be held and protected from overstimulation.  On that strong basis, you can go out and explore, feeling secure about that safe harbor of the good caretaker’s arms.

If you think about it, your life is filled with such safe containers.  Some are concrete—your home, car, office, neighborhood, a cottage or cabin, a certain valley or hilltop, a forest or bit of shoreline, certain clothing, or certain beloved public places, such as a church or library.  Some of the most important containers are the precious people in your life: spouse, parent, child, brother or sister, grandparent, close friend, spiritual guide, or therapist.  Then there are the even less tangible containers: our work, memories of good times, certain people you cannot be with anymore but who live on in memory, your deepest beliefs and philosophy of life, inner worlds of prayer or meditation.

Pg 61: …greatest maturity is our ability to conceive the whole universe as our container…as long as we are in bodies, enlightened or not, we need some bit of tangible safety, or at least a sense of sameness.

Boundaries:  and you want to control any urges to merge with others.  It would be nice, but it just doesn’t work for long.  You lose all of your autonomy.

Boundaries take practice!  Make good boundaries your goal.  They are your right, your responsibility, your greatest source of dignity.

Pg 62:  The Infant/Body’s Message

1)      Please don’t make me handle more than I can.  I am helpless when you do this, and I hurt all over.  Please, please, protect me.

2)      I was born this way and can’t change.  I know you sometimes think something awful must have made me this way, or at least made me “worse,” but that ought to give you even more sympathy for me.  Because either way I can’t help it.  Either way, don’t blame me for how I am.

3)      What I am is wonderful—I let you sense and feel so much more deeply.  I am really one of the best things about you.

4)      Check in on me often and take care of me right at that moment if you possibly can.  Then, when you can’t, I can trust that you are at least trying and I won’t have long to wait.

5)      If you must make me wait for my rest, please ask me nicely if it’s okay.  I’m only more miserable and troublesome if you get angry and try to force me.

6)      Don’t listen to all the people who say you spoil me.  You know me.  You decide.  Yes, sometimes I might do better left alone to cry myself to sleep.  But trust your intuition.  Sometimes you know I am too upset to be left alone.  I do need a pretty attentive, regular routine. But I’m not easily spoiled.

7)      When I’m exhausted, I need sleep.  Even when I seem totally wide awake.  A regular schedule and a calm routine before bed are important to me.  Otherwise, I will lie awake in bed all stirred up for hours.  I need a lot of time in bed, even if I’m lying awake.  I may need it in the middle of the day, too.  Please let me have it.

8)      Get to know me better.  For example, noisy restaurants seem silly to me—how can anybody eat in them?  I have a lot of feelings about such things.

9)      Keep my toys simple and my life uncomplicated.  Don’t take me to more than ne party in a week.

10)  I might get used to anything in time, but I don’t do well with a lot of sudden change.  Please plan for that, even if the others with you can take it and you don’t want to be a drag.  Let me go slow.

11)  But I don’t want you to coddle me.  I especially don’t want you to think of me as sick or weak.  I’m wonderfully clever and strong, in my way.  I certainly don’t want you hovering over me, worried about me all day.  Or making a lot of excuses for me.  I don’t want to be seen as a nuisance, to you or to others.  Above all, I count on you, the grown-up, to figure out how to do all of this.

12)  Please don’t ignore me.  Love me!

13)  And like me.  As I am.

Pg 79:  It’s never too late to overcome discouragement.  While it is wise to accept what we cannot change about ourselves, it is also good to remember that we are never too old to replace discouragement with bits and pieces of confidence and hope.

Pg 83: Reparenting Your “Gifted” Self

  1. Appreciate yourself for being, not doing.
  2. Praise yourself for taking risks and learning something new rather than for your successes; it will help you cope with failure.
  3. Try not to constantly compare yourself to others; it invites excessive competition.
  4. Give yourself opportunities to interact with other gifted people.
  5. do not overschedule yourself.  Allow time to think, to daydream.
  6. Keep your expectations realistic.
  7. Do not hide your abilities.
  8. Be your own advocate.  Support your right to be yourself.
  9. Accept it when you have narrow interests.  Or broad ones.

Pg 160:  Reflective Listening

When done as an exercise, set a time limit (ten minutes minimum, forty-five minutes maximum).  Then reverse roles, giving the other equal time, but do not reverse right away.  Wait an hour or even a day.  If the subject was some conflict or anger between the two of you, also wait before discussing at all what was said.  You can take some notes on what you want to say if yo want to.  But your best bet in this case is to express your reactions during your turn at reflective listening.

The DOS:

  1. Bear yourself physically as one who is really listening.  Sit up, arms and legs uncrossed.  Lean forward, perhaps.  Look at the other person.  Do not check your watch or clock.
  2. In words or tone, reflect back the actual feelings that were expressed.  The factual contents are secondary and will come out as you talk—be patient.

To start with a somewhat silly example to demonstrate the idea of emphasizing the reflection of feelings, your partner might say, “I don’t like the coat you’re wearing.”  In this exercise, aimed at emphasizing the feeling, you would say, “You really dislike this coat.”  You don’t say, “You really dislike this coat,” which emphasizes the coat as though you’re asking what’s wrong with it.  And you don’t say, “You really dislike me wearing this coat,” which focuses on yourself (usually defensively).

But silly examples can lead to much more. Your partner responds to your reflection of these feelings by saying, “Yes, that coat always makes me think of last winter.”  Here there aren’t many feelings—yet.  So you wait.

Your partner says, “I hated living in that house.”  You emphasize the feelings again: “It was pretty bad there for you.”  Not “why?” Not, “I tried to get us out of there as soon as I could.”  And soon you may be hearing things about last winter you never knew about before.  “Yes, I realize now that I never was so alone, even with you in the same rooms with me.”  Things that need to be discussed.  That’s where the reflection of the other’s feelings can lead, as opposed to focusing on facts or your own feelings.

The DON’TS:

  1. Don’t ask questions.
  2. Don’t give advice.
  3. Don’t bring up your own similar experiences.
  4. Don’t analyze or interpret.
  5. Don’t do anything else that is distracting or not reflecting the person’s feeling experience.
  6. Don’t lapse into a very long silence, letting the other do a monologue.  Your silence is the “listening” half of reflective listening.  When timed right, silence gives the other the space to go deeper.  But also keep reflecting what has been said.  Use your intuition in the timing of these two.
  7. And no matter what the other says, don’t defend yourself or give your view of the matter.  If you think it’s necessary, you can emphasize afterward that your listening did not mean you agreed.  While the assumptions behind feelings can be wrong (and we can do something wrong because of what we feel), feelings in themselves are not right or wrong and usually lead to less trouble, not more, if respectfully heard.

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