Activism for Introverts and Highly Sensitive People

As you might already know, kind and gentle reader, I am an introvert and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Because of this I prefer dialogue over debate, connection over confrontation, individuals or small groups over large crowds, quiet over noise, calm over chaos. To be completely honest, most of the time I prefer to be alone.

I used to say, “I’m not a very political person.” I’d joke that if people were on opposite corners of the street carrying signs and chanting about the various ways they opposed each other, I’d be more likely to show up with sandwiches for everyone than to grab a sign and join a group on a corner. I had strong opinions, voted, donated money to various causes, used my social media and blog to share information and marginalized voices, but I wasn’t what’s traditionally considered “active.”

Now I understand that perspective as a manifestation of my privilege. I could stay out of politics because for the most part it had very little impact on me or my daily life. I’m white, married to a white man, a “dink” (double income, no kids), college educated, a documented citizen, able bodied, neuro-typical, conventionally-ish attractive, live in a liberal area, a homeowner, cisgender, pass as straight, work at a university in the College of Liberal Arts, a native English speaker, have health insurance through my work (along with paid sick leave and retirement), and have no criminal record. Did I mention I’m white? Things are pretty easy for someone like me.

So even with the election of this new president, my personal experience won’t necessarily change. However, what has become very clear to me, in the past decade in particular, is that isn’t good enough. It will never be good enough. As long as we continue to be a culture where white supremacy is embedded in every institution, and people who look like me willingly do harm to people of color, gladly oppress those who are different, actively generate suffering for others in order to maintain those systems and that privilege, I can’t be quiet or still.

And yet, this presents a clear dilemma for me: I am an introvert and a highly sensitive person. What does it mean for me to be “active”?

Here are some ideas:

  • Take care of myself. It’s important to prioritize self-care, for all the reasons we always hear about – not being able to pour from an empty cup, putting on our oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs, that making an offering from our own suffering only generates more suffering. It’s essential to maintain my own sanity and wellbeing, so I can be of benefit. I must practice (yoga, meditation, writing), train my own mind, learn to work with my own emotions, feel what I am feeling. I ask for help if I need it. Sometimes that means a therapist, sometimes that means cancelling plans or texting a friend. I practice self-compassion. I pace myself. I take time for creative practice. I make space. I try not to lose my sense of humor, (my go to antidote here is to search YouTube for blooper reels from my favorite shows and movies). I loved what Ethan Nichtern had to say recently on the subject, “In times of fear and stress, sleeping, eating well, and exercise are the first things to evaporate. Let’s make sure they don’t. It all starts at home, and the first thing we need to do is take good care of our own bodies.”
  • Educate myself, about everything. I’ve been reading about the history of issues I care about, as well as the current state of affairs, trying to pay attention to as many people of marginalized and oppressed populations as possible. Besides reading, I also listen. I filled my social media feeds with those same people, along with many activists. Most importantly, in situations where I’m not an expert (i.e. pretty much all of them), I listen before I act. I check my own ideas against what’s already been said and done, and look to those already doing the work, those with the knowledge about skillful action, to understand what I can do to help. I’ve joined some really great mailing lists like My Civic Workout, subscribed to things like the Safety Pin Box, and am taking lots of classes like Hard Conversations: An Introduction to Racism.
  • “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” (Theodore Roosevelt). I asked myself, “What can I already do? What are my skills? What do I have to offer?” I’m a yoga and writing teacher, and a meditation instructor, so I looked for ways I could offer those things as service. I started to take local action, learning about the issues in my home town, county, and state, and the ways I could help make change where I live. I can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the national and global issues, but by bringing my view down to the level of my own community, my neighbors, it feels more workable to me. Doing good things for people I know, am connected to, is more doable.
  • Make offerings. I enable the activism of others, offer help, support them however they might need. I look to see who is already doing the work, and I donate and volunteer to help them. I practice generosity and kindness whenever the opportunity to do so arises. I lovebomb.
  • Use my voice. I can write my congress people, an op-ed, a blog post, or a letter to a person I know needs encouragement to hang in there or even to do better. I can use social media to share information and amplify marginalized voices.
  • Build confidence. I sometimes will challenge myself to just one hard thing, something I’ve never done before, and see what happens, knowing I’ll need to allow for extra time to prepare and time to repair after. For example, the first time I called my congressperson (gah, I hate talking on the phone), I wrote a script to use, but I still cried as I read it, in part because I was nervous but in part because I was so angry and concerned about the issue and was overwhelmed by it, and I needed a few days of rest after. Sometimes I’ll bribe myself, “if you do this, then you can spend the whole day in your pjs tomorrow, reading or watching tv.” I show up to things, taking a buddy if I can, staying near a door, taking breaks or leaving early if I need to. In situations where I feel insecure or unprepared, and where support is offered by someone more skillful and experienced, I get trained, certified, or otherwise empowered. For example, in a few weeks I’ll be starting the Coaching as Activism Program.
  • Cultivate community. As an introvert, I need time alone, but I also need to feel connected to people – really, truly, and deeply. Some of the ways I’ve done that are to: Start a book couple, (one friend to read and discuss a book with, rather than a whole group). Go to a movie, like “I Am Not Your Negro” (a documentary about James Baldwin), and then go out for dinner or coffee and discuss it. Get a group of my favorite people together once a month to share and support each other, maybe over dinner or a collective creative project. Designate an ally – a therapist or friend that is my “go to” person in a crisis. Surround myself with good people.
  • Seek guidance and inspiration. I look to the people and projects I admire and trust. I take their advice, follow their lead, allow them to vet what is important, and to recommend what I should pay attention to or take part in. I read, watch movies, listen to music – because art can be activism, and it can be medicine.
  • Focus my energy. I trust myself to know what to do, when, as well as when to wait or even opt out altogether. I know my limits and triggers, and I honor them. I maintain boundaries. I give myself the time and space I need. I limit my time online, am careful what I read, make sure to fact check everything, and take a break when I’m feeling overwhelmed — How to Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed by Your Newsfeed was a helpful post in that regard.

Back in November, when I first brainstormed the outline for this post, I couldn’t find much already written on the subject. Since then, more has been written, and the search results were much better when I tried again.

10 thoughts on “Activism for Introverts and Highly Sensitive People

  1. Mary

    Beautiful and important post, Jill … every word of it applied to me, other than I’m not a dink. 🙂 And I am retired. The elderly retired folk have some issues, but nothing of much meaning if we have a certain income and are white. So I’m not claiming that as an excuse for anything. I will be printing out this post as well as sharing it and visiting the links. I want to learn how to do better.

    Reply
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  3. tinakomi

    Brilliant post Jill! As with Mary, I’m not a dink. I also am not retired and will likely never be I too, am an HSP introvert and seem to be getting more so the older I get And I’m just plain tired. This post is so encouraging and makes me feel hopeful. I will be checking out all your links. Thank you dear Jill. 💜

    Reply
  4. Julie Neale

    This was powerful and so helpful. I appreciate you articulating for me some of what has been difficult as I begin to exercise this new muscle of activism in the midst of today’s political reality. I just signed up for My Civic Workout and look forward to exploring the other resources you curated.

    I also wanted to share what may be of interest to you. I launched the Mother’s Quest Podcast in December as a birthday present to myself to light the way for my own quest through conversations with other mothers.

    I had the honor of interviewing Women’s March organizer Paola Mendoza a few weeks ago. You can find her interview here if you are interested. In it, she shared that quote from Audrey Lorde about self-care as an act of political warfare. More goodness in the interview. Would love to know what you think.

    http://mothersquest.com/ep-16-rising-up-with-paola-mendoza/

    Reply
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