Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Upcoming HSP Workshop
HSP Workshop in Chicago!
HSP’s in Relationships: the Arduous, the Agonizing, and the Amazing
Come join us at Collective Hope in Chicago on Friday, June 30th, 2017
1142 W. Madison St.
9:00 am-12:00 pm
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BODY – Anonymous
“I don’t think I can handle how deep you are…..”
These were the words uttered by a man I was dating several years ago. I’d met him at a health club, a place that had become an increasing part of my life, and where multiple social connections had been borne over a season of many years. And though the words cut me deeply at the time, I needn’t have been surprised as they acted merely as a mirror to my own relationship with myself, trapped in a superficial life and unable to connect with the depths of my own being. It was before I knew about my sensitivity, and though I had a vague sense of being different from the rest of the world, I was still living largely imprisoned by my physicality, with only an occasional glimpse into the unmet hungers of my soul. I harbored a wealth of near paralyzing fears. My sensitive wiring, along with a difficult family life with a depressed, alcoholic mother and anxiety-riddled father, likely germinated my trepidatious disposition and left a deep well of ill-defined emotional needs that never got sated. Hence, feeling ever acutely fragile, I often sensed catastrophe was waiting for me at every turn, ready to make its claim on me if I didn’t anticipate each enemy on its way. I existed in a continuous mode of self-protection, orbiting around the fringes of my life, but never landing long enough to fully inhabit it. My answer to many of life’s problems was often to fold up and leave…leave jobs, relationships, geographies, and especially my own inner turmoil. Yet life gets very tiring forever being in motion, so instead I found an exit that allowed me to stay in one place, by taking an urgent dive deep beneath my own (thin) skin.
Not ironically, the emotions most allowed to sit in the front of my awareness were usually fears themed around illness, death, and loss. I later learned this is not uncommon for HSP’s who more often grapple with the existential questions of life, death, meaning, and loss. Still, as a teen, this played out in a traumatic bout with anorexia in which I nearly lost my life. Whittling down to 68 lbs, I had somehow adopted the axiom, “when you can’t handle your life, you can’t handle your food.” I never had the stereotypic fat-phobia that usually characterizes the disease, but rather feared my very inability to hold onto the most basic of life sustenance (food.) As an adult, though my weight had generally stabilized, in a still misplaced effort to assuage my many fears, I grew excessively focused on building up my body. I clutched tightly a belief that strengthening and defining my shell would somehow shelter me as the malevolent winds of the universe blew my way, leaving me vulnerable to the many potential tragedies that can meet the human condition. Strength superceded appearances as I dead-lifted and protein-packed in hopes of carving out a different person in self-rejection of my naturally lithe (perceived-weak) body and sensitive (perceived – weak) temperament. And as each new psychic insult or personal trauma came along – from a perceived interpersonal rejection, vocational or financial crisis, or the death of a loved one – my focus on the body would take an exponential leap, while I abandoned the tender care that my inner being cried out for, especially at those very times when I was in the greatest sorrow, fear and pain. The practice of dietary cleanliness and intense exercise (excessive for this sensitive constitution), which were briefly positive expressions of my self-care, morphed into a constant wrestle for power and control as I journeyed faithlessly along, unplugged from my own heart or from any Divine presence. During the most emotionally challenging seasons, I was additionally drawn to practices such as juicing, fasting, and detoxing. And though unable to maintain any of these dietary rigors for extended times myself, I lived in awe of the vegans, raw foodists, and paleo zealots, holding the belief that the cleaner the food regime they could follow, the more virtuous and protected they were.
Arguably, while these were ostensibly healthy practices for emotionally intact others, they merely roped me more deeply into the life under my own skin, and pulled me further away from the gentle care and feeding of my hungry heart. Though my relationship with food and body had changed shades between my teen and adult years, it remained pathologically obsessive still glorifying self-deprivation, and I moved from anorexia nervosa to a new disorder called orthorexia nervosa. The disorder literally means “fixation on clean eating”, often starting with benign intentions for more pure and healthful eating, but in time increasingly takes over ones life, while meaningful relational, professional, and spiritual pursuits take a stanching step behind. Ironically, the disorder also often leads to a decline in physical health as a result of increased restriction of whole food groups that lead to a lack of nutritional variety.
Moving into my middle years, the focus on building my shell to act as my primary personal citadel began to extend to the other physical containers in my life in order to harness that elusive sense of safety I was so desperate to attain. I became fixated on home ownership, bank accounts, advanced degrees, and 401Ks, responding to the deep questions of life, human need, and survival according to the common, collective thinking. These foci – along with the practices to preserve physical health – reflected the values and messages for survival and “the good life” that my family and society espoused, and were not innately evil in their own right. In fact, they even aligned in a sense with some psychological theories on humans’ “hierarchy of needs” …. The famed psychologist, Abraham Maslow, asserted that people must first secure the needs of the body and physical environment before they can pursue the higher human needs for esteem, social connection, and self-actualization. Certainly, securing a stable home, a level of knowledge, and a conscious approach to the body temple can be healthy expressions of self-honor . Yet when they become the primary drivers on the journeys of our lives , and are esteemed to carry the omnipotence we often seek in the midst of our existential helplessness, they become false idols we’ve bowed to, supplanting and eroding the deeper yearnings of the soul. On some level, I always knew this truth, but soon life’s gentle arms would reach for me, calling me to own it.
As I progressed to my 40’s and 50’s, whether from the effects of aging or dietary invariability, I was increasingly met by the limitations of my physiology with the onset or worsening of several health problems. I was plagued with a bone-deep fatigue, a mind filled with fog, many restless nights, and sore, creaking knees. Despite anxiously rummaging to find a new dietary regime or health practice that might promise to resolve these issues, to no avail the dis-ease in my body would not seem to budge. And as the pace of my life was forced into recession with the heaviness of my mid-life physiology, a wise voice deeply buried began to release from within. It gently whispered that I had a choice…I could get in the ring once again for yet another round with my own ego, or accept life’s compassionate invitation to finally lower the armor and take myself off the battlefield. I was called to answer questions most of us each face at some points in our lives…What god(s) will you worship? What creed will sit in the front of your life and act as your north star when you find yourself lost in a dark night of the soul or simply need to decide how you will spend your next (extra-)ordinary day?
With my body slowly moving out of the way, something for years in my peripheral vision began to come more clearly into view….I thought of so many I knew over time who’d lived cleanly and greenly, yet were laden with physical maladies, while others living largely indulgent were often observed to vibrate a vital life and color. Could it merely be explained by the luck or lack of good genes? Where might the dichotomy be in these distinct subsets of people, and what might their journeys have to teach those of us truth-seeking others? In my observation, the healthy, even aged, individuals seemed to have a lightness of spirit, a way of being in the world that is giving and forgiving, releasing, adapting. Along with the continual process of loss in a lifetime, they’ve seemed to embrace the parallel process of shedding – willfully releasing old resentments, unfulfilled dreams, superficial values that can never be lived up to, and relationships and other pursuits that don’t somehow serve. Contrarily, those struggling with significant health problems, despite an austere and disciplined life, often appear to be carrying grief in their pockets, chips on their shoulders, and the gavel ready to give sentence held tightly in their fists. Could it be that, rather than too many pints of Neapolitan or hours lying on the couch, it’s the weight of carrying a lifetime of toxic emotional cargo that is the primary hastener of physical decline? And, perhaps my own draw to detoxing at times might have something to teach me about my own unmet emotional needs. Is there years of old grief, anger, fear, or longing, longing to be expressed, yet stuck and stifling the very mitochondria of my being? And how can I, at this late stage of the game, come out from under my own skin, freed from the prison of my own physicality. and learn to speak an effective emotional language that joins rather than divides – joins me to my heart-self, and my heart to the hearts around me?
These are the questions around which my life now seems to orbit as I seek a place to land rather than look for an escape. As I emerge from years of hiding, I struggle to find an in-road to the murky world of spirit and feeling. Having experienced much trauma in my years, I also seek access to dislodge the wounded energy it laid down in the memory of my cells. And while it’s not about the body, I’ve come to understand the power of working with the soma in leading the way back to one’s own long buried story, circumventing the defenses that the intellect often begs to erect. For emotion , or e(energy) + motion, reflects the truth that our feelings and related experiences are as living things that must be allowed to flow unimpeded, to roll open in a way that allows us to fully receive their guidance, gifts, and teachings. Becoming tearful on the massage table, even without conscious initial awareness of any particular thought stream or memory, is one way I’ve been shown this magnificent mind-body connection. Yet another inroad to my spirit and story I am working increasingly to engage is through the use of rhythm and music. Its opaque and cryptic language can also run ahead of my cognitions, and dig deeply into places in me so long closed that I’d forgotten what lived there. And though I haven’t yet defined what is or whom the God I worship, I’ve stopped looking for Her in the gym or at the bottom of my bowl of greens, and have come to sense Her presence in the swaying cords of mystical, magical melody. For this HSP, the love, fury, beauty, power, hope, and raw emotion, evoked and expressed by music and the arts without a single role in support of human survival and evolution, is the greatest evidence I see for the realness of a Divinity. In this knowledge, I rest, finding comfort there. I can detach from this old, broken body, and dive deeply into the roots of my own restored soul. Finally connected and anchored there, I am ready to reach out my hand to you…
One of the best ways to recharge is by being in the presence of art. No thoughts, no critiques. Just full-on absorption mode.
– Dean F. Alfar
In this together,