I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In Feast it was the focus of our week, and Rachel introduced us to Kate Read and her work at Home for the Highly Sensitive. Kate references research on her site that “compares orchids to sensitive folks and dandelions to hardier people.” The suggestion is that someone who is HSP needs more specialized conditions and care to thrive, is more easily impacted by environmental factors including the energy of other people.
I am an HSP. I only discovered the label, the criteria in the past few years, but I’ve always known something was different about me. Actually what I thought for a long time is that I was simply crazy, confused, broken. I felt things so deeply, struggled with feeling raw and tender. I got easily overwhelmed by other people’s energy and my environment. I was told I was too sensitive and that my perception was wrong so many times that I learned not to trust myself. I looked outside myself to know what was “true” and how I was supposed to react. I let external expectations shape me, my thoughts and behavior.
This isn’t just my problem. Anyone living in a Western culture is potentially handicapped by two core and contradictory beliefs: you are basically bad and you are supposed to be perfect.
We assume that we are born basically bad — imperfect, flawed, broken animals. We come into the world with a black mark on our soul (“original sin”), and we must struggle against this fundamental nature even as we believe we will never be able to escape it, at least not without divine intervention. This belief turns our whole life into a desperate cycle of sin, repentance and penance. Every thought, feeling, and action are subject to judgement. We are keenly aware of when rules have been broken, when punishment is justified. We look for who is to blame and we lash out in increasingly aggressive ways. We pray that someone will save us from ourselves, from the conditions of our lives. We feel helpless, bewildered.
We also assume perfection is the goal of all our effort. It is suggested to us that if we work hard enough we can have perfect relationships, homes, children, bodies, and work. And what we can’t achieve through direct effort, we can buy. The external expectation we’ve internalized is that we can be perfect if we just work hard enough and purchase the right stuff. If we aren’t perfect, it’s our own fault. In this way, (because perfection is actually impossible), we live with a constant sense of not being enough, not doing enough, not good enough. This striving for perfection and falling short also breeds comparison and competition, aggression towards the self and the other.
Either way, we can’t win. The antidote to this dilemma, this confusion, to all of it is compassion. And to cultivate compassion, we must begin with self-compassion. We must befriend ourselves, allow space for all that we are, notice how we’ve internalized the assumption that we are basically bad and the expectation that we should be perfect. We can cultivate an awareness of how we get hooked, to notice this and pause before falling into habitual patterns in an attempt to get ground under our feet.
In a recent Daily Dharma Gathering talk, teacher Angel Kyodo Williams suggested,
The doorway to liberation from the tyranny of mind that rejects parts of ourselves is actually being willing to sit with those parts of ourselves [that make us uncomfortable, that we wish away and try to ignore] and allow ourselves to feel the discomfort, to notice the quality of discomfort, to become aware of where this not being okay with parts of ourselves sits in our body, where it is that we carry it.
So rather than moving away, we make space for ourselves, all that we are. We allow things to be as they are. Angel went on to offer,
Allowing ourselves to feel, connect with, and create space for the parts of ourselves that we are most uncomfortable with, that we feel the most aversion to, gives us the opportunity to lean into love for ourselves and no longer be contracted and held in bondage by those areas that we move away from, and because we move away from them we’re not allowing ourselves to experience our whole lives.
In our fixation with perfection, and our belief that we are basically bad, we lose ourselves, we limit our experience.
The most basic truth, the one thing we all have in common, is that we just want to be happy, to avoid suffering. The problem arises in the ways we attempt to create or capture that happiness, the ways we define happiness. We make attempts to avoid suffering, to get safe and comfortable, and we actually end up generating suffering. We are confused about what will make us happy and how to get there. We get hooked, we get stuck, and end up repeating over and over methods that simply don’t work. We fall into blame, judgement, jealousy, depression, addiction, aggression, craving, competition, and self-aggression. We think that perfection is possible, and get caught up in all the ways we fall short of it. We think we are the problem rather than seeing the standard, the search as the problem. We cut off our connection to our basic goodness, our fundamental wisdom, our natural state, our basic nature which is open and spacious and compassionate.
In a free video introduction offered by Sounds True of an upcoming class with Pema Chödrön, The Freedom to Choose, Pema discusses the traditional Buddhist teachings on “Three Difficult Practices,” which are:
- Acknowledging that you’re hooked, developing awareness
- Doing something different — choosing a fresh alternative
- Making this a way of life
It seems to me that I, that we all can apply these practices to all of it: being an HSP, external expectations of perfection, the internal sense of failure and falling short, our avoidance of the things about ourselves that make us uncomfortable, our bewilderment and confused attempts to find happiness and avoid suffering, the ways we generate suffering for ourselves and others — all of it. We can stay with ourselves and notice. We can allow whatever arises, make space for it. When something comes up and we feel ourselves get hooked, starting to move in the direction of habitual patterns, we can pause and notice this too. Maybe we might even choose to do something different. And if not, we can notice that too, without judgement and with gentleness. And we can keep trying, for as long as it takes. This is practice, this coming back, this not giving up. This can be our life, if we choose it. We can make space for all of it, and as Angel Kyodo Williams suggested, “space is love.”