Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Self sacrifice is very hard to escape.
It is so conditioned into us that whether you are an HSP or non-HSP doesn’t matter. You are subject to the expectation.
Self sacrifice carried to an extreme will make you sick, emotionally and physically.
Why is self-sacrifice such a problem?
Self-Sacrifice Solves A Lot Of Problems
Self sacrifice solves so many problems:
- if there are scarce resources, self-sacrifice ensures that there is “enough”
- if someone is abusive, expecting self-sacrifice from victims “erases” a problem and injustice
- if life is unfair, it is because self-sacrifice is your “lot” in life
- if the system does not work, self-sacrifice enables us to avoid dealing with the problem
- expectations of self-sacrifice ensure that social inequities remain in place by allocating support only to some
- expectations of self-sacrifice maintain unequal relationships and relationships that are one-way streets. They maintain power imbalances and the status quo.
How Self-Sacrifice Affects An Individual
Self sacrifice feels devastating to the individual who experiences it. It is more than feeling like you are less than others. It is a way of appropriating the life force of one individual for the benefit of others.
For highly sensitive people for whom emotional vampires are a danger, a life of self-sacrifice can be even crueler since you are being both emotionally and usually physically exploited without any hope for reciprocity and care.
People stuck in self-denying situations often feel angry depleted and robbed of their lives.
They are right!
Self Sacrifice Destroys Relationships
Self sacrifice is culturally conditioned. That means it is expected and is often the basis of social and familial approval.
When such an arrangement is socially supported, change becomes more difficult, because the social support for change is not there. Generally, some people benefit from the arrangement and therefore will not want to end it.
A sacrificing arrangement takes away the power from the person who is sacrificing because it is in the nature of the relationships to deny the validity of any claims from the individual who is being used. That is why many people who have been in self-sacrificing situations will feel rage and powerlessness at the same time: two uncomfortable emotions and even more hurtful together.
An unequal self-sacrificing relationship is set by expectation and social custom, therefore, it is not always possible to negotiate a better arrangement, and if improvements are possible they are often hard won and hard maintained.
Without appearing too gloomy, it is important, to be honest about the deep difficulties faced by those individuals and groups whose lives have been damaged by individual, group and systemic exploitation. When you grasp and feel the intractability of racism and sexism, you can have some compassion for those recovering from those forms of discrimination.
Self-sacrifice may be physically and emotionally devastating to the victim, but it is also spiritually damaging, even more so for the perpetrator than the victim, although both are harmed, nonetheless.
Changing Your Life
Changing your life to one of healthy living and wellbeing is very challenging. It is important to treat oneself with respect during the difficult process of change.
People who seek more equal and more respectful relationships are often considered troublemakers, and misanthropes by those who gain from the inequity.
We see this resistance to change all over as our world gradually evolves to one where individuals share the world more fully. As desirable as equality is, it takes time to make a transition to an equality based life and can take a long time depending on the support that you have and receive.
As individuals recovering from racism can attest, the road to full acceptance can be a long one.
There are steps you can take to make the process easier:
- assess your skills and resources
- develop skills so that you can survive in the world
- determine what your basic necessities are and get them met s that you need as little as possible during the process of creating a self-respecting life for yourself.
- find support among people who share your desire and vision for a better way of life
- expect the process of change to take time
- honor yourself for making the journey
Developing a self-respecting life is a hero’s journey. Those who undertake it deserve compassion and respect.
How we need separate selves and radical self care. Two outstanding podcasts to help us with these:
Listen to CNM 002: Interview on Kicking Codependency with Professional Counselor, Jennifer Beall from Codependency No More Podcast in Podcasts. https://itunes.apple.com/us/
Listen to Anne Lamott: Radical Self-Care Changes Everything from Sounds True: Insights at the Edge in Podcasts. https://itunes.apple.com/us/
You say that HSPs are prone to high levels of cortisol chronically if they are constantly dealing with overstimulation. Is this true in the moment as well? Are we quicker than others to respond with a high cortisol level because we are overstimulated? And as a result, do we too often judge ourselves for “not being able to let go of our feelings” when this is really just chemical, a sign of our body trying to protect itself? Perhaps we are all “willing ourselves to think and behave in a more open and loving way (or something else)” when this is contrary to our natural response and thus in the end keeping us more anxious and overstimulated?
Elaine Aron explains:
Moment to moment variations in cortisol definitely play a role in how an HSP, or anyone, processes information and communicates about it to others. We need moderate levels of cortisol to energize us. Cortisol in large amounts is usually in response to a threat that seems serious or cannot be avoided. One such threat can be the sense that one is getting overstimulated.
Once cortisol levels are high, it serves to focus us much more on threat, which is reasonable, but can lead us to feeling threatened by everything around us. In this way, it shortcuts logic, so that instead of thinking things through calmly, we make the instinctual response that humans have evolved to deal with that broad type of threat. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes not at all. In the case of an argument with someone in which we want to be loving and open and find we cannot be, we are probably reaching that high level of cortisol that leads to an instinctual reaction to the threat of shame, abandonment, being controlled, or one of those other fears we can have regarding our closest others. Suddenly we are responding to the other, not as a fellow human, but as a dire threat. Usually we become wildly defensive.
Marital researcher John Gottman advises that a couple (or any pair of people) discussing an issue should monitor their pulse. If it goes over 100, they should go off alone and cool down for at least 20 minutes. I put this advice into The HSP in Love, where I discuss in detail how HSPs can handle conflicts in relationships.
The pulse is, of course, driven by the adrenal hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline acts in seconds and cortisol comes soon after if the original alert is perceived as a threat. This sort of acute cortisol response is highly functional, preparing us for something difficult. It is quite different from the chronic high level some people develop that cannot be turned down easily even when there is no “real” threat at the moment. Our history determines whether we have chronic high levels of cortisol.
For example, research with HS toddlers shows that when entering a strange, novel environment they will always have the adrenaline reaction other kids do not have, but will have the cortisol reaction according to how secure they feel with their mothers or the caretaker who is with them. So a history of insecurity in childhood might result in seeing everything as a threat and create high chronic levels of cortisol that are maladaptive and unhealthy.
Taking a Break versus Repressing your Feelings
The acute, self-protective cortisol response is something for HSPs to think about. “Let’s sleep on it” is especially good advice when an HSP is involved. That lets things settle down and rationality return. However, we have to be sure not to bury real complaints because we no longer feel the angry emotion itself or think it was too strong and therefore wrong. That rapid, cortisol-driven instinctual response to threat–to fight back in this case–may have had some wisdom in it.
On the other hand, we should not use a high cortisol level as an excuse for being cruel. “I was so overstimulated (or angry) that I couldn’t help myself.”
Instincts have wisdom in them. They push for the response to a given situation that caused your ancestors to survive better than others–on the average. But instincts are often wrong. They can be wrong for you or wrong for the other person or the group you want to be included within.
If we know obeying an instinct is wrong, all humans can resist it to some degree, whether the instinct is to run, fight, have sex with someone, eat, run from a tiger, or anything else. We call it will power. The trick is knowing when to obey an instinct or impulse, to be angry for example, and when to try to cool it. What is moral behavior is, of course, one of life’s great questions.
Even if you decide you should control your instinctive response, you will not always be able to do it. The instinct may be too strong, too intensified by cortisol or reinforced by past learning. If it is better for others or yourself in the long run, you should certainly try to control yourself. But the message here is not be too down on yourself if you cannot. Everyone fails at this sometimes. And yes, HSPs could have more trouble, in a given situation, controlling an instinctual response to be angry, resentful, afraid, or anything else simply because they could reach a high level of cortisol faster and turn on an instinctual response sooner than someone else. In the end, your own situation and values determine what you will try to do and how bad you feel if you fail. But perhaps you should err on the side of giving yourself a break, given that most HSPs have such a strong desire to do the right thing, whether we can or not.
Who besides me needs ideas how to get more grounded?
In this together,