Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Letters to the Living No. 5: On Gentleness, Wrestling with a Wounded Angel – by Andréana E. Lefton
Part 1: The Single Mom Inside
I have been trying, for days now, to write about gentleness. It is such an important concept — something I struggle with inside myself, and that I feel is lacking in the world at large. But for some reason, despite multiple drafts, revisions, and asking friends and family for insight, I still feel no closer to understanding gentleness or its application in our daily lives.
So this morning I decided to sit down, take a deep breath, and actually feel the space in my body.
More often I concentrate on heaviness, the pressing weight of being human and all that actually means. All I have to be and achieve. Switching perspectives — from being stuck in this dense physicality to being made mostly of water and air — helped me reach an understanding that has little to do with argumentation, and more to do with honesty.
I realized it’s okay to be groping in the dark, enlightened by my own confusion. Yet, I am also trying to be kinder to myself, letting those ripples touch every one of my actions and interactions. I fail so often, and I think I’ve been dwelling on those failures recently, clinging to all the times I let the voice inside my head beat me up. Sometimes I wish I could grab that voice by its shimmering throat and knock some sense into it.
That is precisely where gentleness comes in. Instead of beating up my harsh task-master, I know, deep down, that I must treat this constant companion with the greatest love and respect. At the same time, I know I must stand up for myself too. But how? How can I treat my inner dictator with love, while also being my own defender and friend?
This is at the core of my attempts to write about gentleness. It is this constant pull-and-tug between who I think I should be, and who I am, right now, this minute. This dialogue creates a lot of internal friction. Which is why we need gentleness in the first place!
Riding the El
in downtown Chicago, I saw a young mother with two small children. She was slumped in her seat, expressionless, exhausted. The kids were growing tired and cranky. Every time they got rambunctious, she would plop them back in their seats and tell them loudly to be quiet. Every time, I felt my own heart quiver. I wanted to intervene, but knew I mustn’t.
Now, reliving that scene, I see how personal it was. I have such empathy for that mother — tired, alone, trying to do her best, but feeling the weight of never doing enough. Hmmm, now who does that sound like? Well, like all of us, at some point in our lives. She certainly reminded me of me — my inner single mom trying to raise me up right.
Those kids, her kids, I love them. I loved them as I sat on that juddering train, as all the other passengers tried not to look annoyed, but darted sharp glances in the direction of their screeches. I am those kids too, or at least, some of their untamable spirit dwells in me.
Reimagining my inner dictator as a struggling single mom helped so much. If I have compassion for this mother on the train, a total stranger, how could I not have compassion for my young, tired, trying-her-hardest inner parent?
And, if I love those crying, playful, unruly kids so much, how could I not love the bawling, dancing, I-don’t-care-who’s-staring self I usually keep locked up? How could I not treat both inner parent and inner toddler with equal if different modes of kindness until, and here’s the real magic, they both mature? Until they reach their own understanding that has nothing to do with pull-and-tug, and everything to do with the space and flow of my ensouled body?
Wherever we are, sitting with a cup of tea, or at a computer, or on a commuter train, every bit of us is in flight. Thoughts are flying across synapses, cells are migrating to heal a wound, memories are churning up by the whiff of perfume floating off a fellow passenger.
And that harshness or loving-kindness inside our heads is flying too. He or she is fluid, and as full of space and change as we are. Our beings are not solid granite. We are evolving constantly — the parts of us that are immature or always have a foot out of line. And the sweet, beautiful parts too. Flying. Every blessed bit of us.
I may not have a grasp on gentleness yet. I may not know how to juggle the demands of being a young, single mother to myself — much less to the world around me. But when I shook out my thought-wings this morning, they looked strong and ready for a journey — however long it may take.
Part 2: The Fruit of the Spirit
They say: Learn the beauty of scabs and thick skins. Learn to give as good as you get. Learn to speak loudly, whether you are carrying a stick or not.
“They” are the voices of conventional wisdom. And they do speak loudly, advising us to, “Sell yourself. Push yourself forward. Don’t take guff. Use your elbows.”
The world’s a harsh place kid…
Yes, the world is indeed a harsh place. Part of my growing-up years were spent in Israel, a splintered land that embedded itself in my soul. Those years were like a palmful of broken glass: sparkling, jagged, light-filled. And potentially lethal.
There were times when I felt those shards surround my whole body, as if I was walking in an envelope of bright danger. At any moment, if I was incautious, I could lose my life — any of us could. So each of us, in our own way, developed an ability to slip from this knife’s-edge reality into the daily flow of school, running errands, meeting friends. It was an odd, dreamlike existence. Normal, and yet, not.
Perhaps because of the existential anxiety floating through the air, each person became their own inviolable universe. There was no need for social pleasantries. No one waited in line or moved aside for you on the sidewalk. We were invincible. We were self-sufficient. We were razor-sharp and could deal with any shrapnel flying our way.
Except that I couldn’t. I don’t think any of us really could, not Israelis, Palestinians, Arab-Israelis, pilgrims, expats, or tourists. But this early experience of living in a society that is abrasive almost by necessity made me acutely aware of abrasion of all kinds. I developed a heightened sensitivity to harshness, and instinctively withdrew from environments that reminded me of the death-sparkle in Israel’s air.
I remember walking into an American public high school on my return to the States. My abrasion-radar went wild. The low, institutional brick building was a warren of sharp objects — high-energy particles called teenagers zooming through the halls and classrooms. We churned through eight classes a day, with little meaningful connection between classmates and teachers. I would come home feeling tired, cross, and convinced there was a better way to learn.
It’s not just schools that often lack gentleness. Workplaces can rub us raw too, as can public transit, shopping malls, restaurants, and daycare. The levels of noise, advertising, and stressed-out people dealing with other stressed-out people can leave us feeling bombarded and drained.
Creating more spaces of refuge, like public parks, is one option. But another option is to integrate gentleness into all our spaces and daily interactions. It could be something as small as turning down the music in cafés. Or as radical as a mother making the commitment to care for herself with as much tenderness as she does her family.
What is essential is reorienting our minds and relationships toward a quiet that has little to do with physical noise. Rather, it is the quiet of being attentive to ourselves and others. In these moments, our energy is less frenetic. Our voices drop a register and no longer seem on the verge of snapping.
Gentleness is not a showy virtue. It’s not something you can put on a résumé. American society, in contrast, praises daring, open-mindedness, and self-confidence. These traits fit a mythology of pioneers and entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re also beginning to explore the value of vulnerability, which goes hand-in-hand with the capacity to be expansive and courageous.
But I believe that vulnerability by itself is not enough to cultivate the openness to life that, when nurtured, is deeply transformative to soul and society. In order to be open in the first place, a person needs some caring support. If the air is glittering with harmful words, ignorance, and unkindness, we’re unlikely to breathe deep and launch into the truest, most hidden aspects of our story.
A level of trust in oneself and one’s environment is a prerequisite to baring one’s soul. And trust grows through encouragement not criticism. I know some people advocate “tough love” as a form of strong medicine. But most guidance can be dispensed with a light touch and lots of respect and real love for the person on the receiving end.
Which brings me back to gentleness. It is found in the Lotus Sutra
“Dwell in the abode of great compassion
Wearing the robe of gentleness and forbearance…”
And it appears in Galatians 5: 22-23, again paired with “forbearance” or patient endurance:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
There is no law against these nine virtues because they form the law of ethical relations itself. Through their practice, we receive our freedom, as individuals and as a society. In a world that acts like a body at war with itself — and bracing for new and unexpected blows daily — analysis and retaliation are not enough. Our very beings must radiate the cure.
The phrase “fruit of the Spirit” is a potent one. It means that gentleness is one of the offspring of our higher selves, not the seed but the purpose of the seed.
And if gentleness strikes you as a rather soft and tasteless fruit, I’d like to reveal its robust and vivid core. Think back on your own lives. Gentleness shines out in memory. It forms the scaffold upon which we rebuild our fire-bombed selves and communities. I came across this quote by an anonymous therapist on Tumblr
“What trauma survivors need is gentleness. Because no one was ever gentle with us.”
It was shared nearly 2000 times.
Gentleness forms the under-song of survival — the hidden face of evolution, wars, famine — and the partner of resilience. It is the loving touch that reminds us we are not alone, and there is hope. There is healing.
Gentleness exists between people. And it dwells within each of us.
It is me saying to myself: I’m so in awe of you, I must treat you as if I truly understood what noble means. It is me saying to others: I get it. We’re wounded and taking a thousand risks simply by showing up. And I see that. I honor you.
Ever think eye contact is important?
GRIEF AND THE BODY – PART 2
I did not work in any serious capacity in the year following my mother’s death, sensing I needed the time to reorganize my faith, refuel my life force, and listen for a new plan to spring forth from a deeper place in me that would be more aligned with the core of my nature and sensitivity. I had also started experiencing panic attacks whenever I went out in the world, a world which had now revealed to me how punishing and relentless it could be. I had to fight off the pull to cocoon in my home and disengage fully from life, though in truth it was my internal pain I was trying to block off, but from which there was ultimately no escape. Though anxiety again had served for a time to initially separate me from my grief, these deeper feelings were increasingly begging permission to be heard. As warmer days approached, I began to venture out to the healing space of the local Botanical Gardens, and spent many afternoons there journaling, prayerfully reflecting, and allowing myself to weep as the beauty of the Gardens held me. I sought out grief counseling and engaged in a grief support group at the local hospital. Months into this process, feeling the need to bring in income and commit to something small that kept me connected to the functional world, I took a part time job making Christmas ornaments for a family owned ornament shop. Ironically, the shop was in an industrial district building neighboring a crematorium, a massive reminder of the fact that my mother had been cremated only months before. Still, in life’s beautiful mystery and wisdom which only retrospectively I saw, I was somehow led to this little job that was themed around my mothers favorite time of the year. The work was light and unpressured, the people kind, and it allowed me to remember myself as a generative, functional person.
On the one year anniversary of my mother’s death, feeling adequately restored and ready to slowly re-engage in my work in the behavioral health field, the panic attacks largely resolved, I started a job in a call center of a behavioral health insurance company. This opportunity greatly appealed to me because it enabled me to be in a helping role once again, though with the safe emotional boundary that telephone work allowed. The position also paid well, and the company would eventually be supporting employees in working full time from home. At the time this felt like the perfect fit for where I was at in my personal and professional journey. However, with a one hour commute and an intense one on one training regime, I quickly started to feel too out in the world and anxiety once again crept in. However, after commuting for the first 6 months, I moved to a place less than 10 minutes from the job, and moved into a period of relative stability as the training completed and I was able to work independently. Anxiety was no longer the daily undercurrent, but it had morphed into a state of almost constant overstimulation, a natural response for an HSP in a high intensity, fast paced call center.
With the warm months of summer at hand, a time when I’d normally be out delighting in my favorite activities, playing tennis, bike riding, or taking long walks, I remember it odd that I’d come home at the end of a work day and be in bed by 5 or 6 pm. I would not go to sleep at that time, and sleep was increasingly becoming a stranger to me, but I was so mentally spent from 8 hours of empathizing, boundary setting, and problem-solving on the phones with people largely in crisis or angry, that the energy it pulled from me allowed nothing left to go out and play at the end of the day. Over time, I needed progressively more space alone, and craved the quiet and stillness of being in my own thoughts and in my own home for extended periods of time. I struggled to find balance with the other imperatives that made a quality of life, maintaining relationships with friends and family, reinforcing my faith through church and spiritual involvements, and having the energy for the basic self-care of exercise and time in nature. Even the repetitive movement of walking outdoors or the intensity of the summer sun became almost too much for my overloaded physiology to endure.
A little over a year at my job, I came down with a severe respiratory infection. I even coughed up a tiny bit of blood, which greatly alarmed me, and my breathing became extremely labored. However, even after the acute infection had seemingly resolved, my breathing had never been the same. It seemed that every breath took a bit more effort, and I felt that if I didn’t consciously cause my lungs to push air in and out of my body, they would not maintain their natural rhythm and function of their own intelligence. My sister – a pulmonary nurse- then referred me to the pulmnologist and allergist at her office, at which time it was determined that my childhood asthma – which had been inactive for some 40 years – had now suddenly returned. In addition, I was diagnosed with chronic sinusitis and vocal cord dysfunction (VCD), a phenomenon where the vocal cords partially close upon inspiration, and most common in abused women or women in the helping fields. Thus began a long journey with allergy shots, more specialists, vocal cord exercises, and multiple drugs totaling up to 10 medications per day at times to keep my airways open. Being exquisitely sensitive to medications, and my symptoms still not well controlled, a waking nightmare ensued from which no light ahead could be visioned.
Still, I reached for healing, and in a desperate desire to return to my innate ability to breathe comfortably on my own, I again began thinking about the body as a metaphor and the symbolisms of the symptoms and dis-ease I was experiencing. Returning to the possible grief-lung connection, I pondered ….Had I not grieved my mother’s death fully and well? After penetrating deeper into the human experience, having journeyed through the terrible suffering and death of the woman who gave me life, had I found a way to come out of it more authentically alive, more spiritually grounded, and with a richer sense of meaning , or was I continuing to drown in the mire of unconsciousness and ill-direction? Was I experiencing anticipatory grief as I saw my father age and decline, experience the losses of my own body aging with more to come, or fear my sister – pulmonary nurse and beautiful, caring soul – soon to be moving out of state when retiring? In addition, I wondered, how does “breathing on my own” frighten me, as if it means not depending on anyone or anything outside myself to sustain my life? With asthma being difficulty exhaling fully, are there things that I need to express that are not being said? Is the throat wringing VCD a result of words being cut off, words that would allow me to set the boundaries I need, especially in the workplace where I am continually talked over and abused? Or ,do I simply feel that there are people or situations in my life that are suffocating me, such as feeling trapped in a job that I realize dishonors my sensitivity, but feel I must stay in for the financial security?
In this together,