Masking Our Sensitivity

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It’s two days before Halloween as my wife and I head to our favorite Italian restaurant in the city.  Entering the foyer of the restaurant, I notice a message written on the chalkboard listing the night’s specials. In addition to mussels with plenty of garlic and Venetian zuppa de peoci soup, a psychic is also on the menu tonight. “This should be good”, I tell my wife as we walk through the dimly lit dining room to a booth along the far wall.

I had recognized the psychic’s name written on the chalkboard; a local woman named Carol well known in the area for her accurate readings on a local radio show. Our antipasto has just been served as the nights entertainment begins. Sitting on a stool in the front of the room, I notice as Carol politely refuses an appetizer brought over by the owner stating that she doesn’t eat before reading for people. Noticing the owner’s surprise she explains that the food will make her sleepy and affect her energy. It was an awkward moment; the food in this restaurant was some of the best in the area and I don’t think the owner ever had one of his dishes refused especially when he decides to serve it to her personally. But she stayed true to herself; not letting social pressures distract her from the job at hand. Taking note of her behavior, I was pleased to see her actions embrace her identity.

Our main course was served as Carol began to walk around the room, stopping at each table. Since we were sitting over by a far wall, we had pretty well finished our meal by the time she arrived. Talking to my wife first, she addressed some health and career concerns my wife had before turning to me and studying my face for a moment. “You do some really good work with people” she commented; “But in public, you keep that side of yourself so hidden; why is that?” Still studying my face, she raised her eyebrows urging me to say something. There wasn’t much I could say; the fact that she knew that I always kept my intuitive sensitivity hidden around strangers without having ever met me was a testament to her psychic sensitivity. Perhaps, in response to my startled expression, she gave me kind smile and moved on to the next table. Watching her walk away, I knew without a doubt that she had just shown me how I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

Being Comfortable In Your Own Skin

For Highly Sensitive People, it is very easy for us to feel the emotions and unspoken attitudes of those around us.  During our interactions with others, if our sensitivity prompts a negative reaction from them, we are painfully aware of it. And, if over time this pattern repeats on an ongoing basis, we can become very hesitant to show our sensitivity at all.

In my own life, as a child raised in household where I was taught that men didn’t cry or show much emotion, I could feel my father’s disapproval whenever I got too emotional. There was always that unspoken judgment hanging in the air between us. Being that I could sense the emotions of the people around me very easily, this mindset created a conflict with my sensitivity when I was growing up. Funerals were especially difficult where I would feel overwhelmed by the mourner’s emotional energy circulating within the room. Taught that crying in public was taboo, I would fight my sensitivity to keep my emotions in check.

Now sitting in a restaurant many years later, I found it ironic that right around Halloween when it is tradition to don a mask in order to elicit a specific response from those around you, I realized that I had been following that pattern most of my life; hiding my sensitivity behind a mask of acceptable social behavior.

Learning To Accept Out Sensitivity

To be comfortable in our own skin means we have to be accepting and nurturing to the gifts our sensitivity bestows us in the face of a culture where being Highly Sensitive or intuitive may not generate a favorable response. The key here is to stay focused on our values; following our values keeps us authentic which in turn allows us to acknowledge, and work with the gift of our sensitivity.

Living A Meaningful Life

In his Extraordinary Living Program, author Stephen Cope points out that in order to live a meaningful life requires we not only work with our gift but acknowledge the sacrifice which often accompanies it. For Highly Sensitive People, working with the gift of our sensitivity may require us to sacrifice the emotional need to fit in by not attracting unwanted attention. I find it interesting that Cope also states that most gifts are borne from a background of suffering at some level. Like myself, the majority of highly sensitive people I have met raised in dysfunctional family’s dealing with alcoholism or addiction issues also battle the “Don’t ask / Don’t tell”  syndrome of putting up a false front  in order to not attract attention to your family. Learned at an early age, we blend into our environments like a chameleon in order to avoid the predatory eye of judgment.

The Gift And Its Sacrifice

For the Highly Sensitive it’s not always easy. Recently, I spent an afternoon hiking with a friend who was grieving the death of a family member. Although I didn’t feel it at the time, the energy of her shared grief affected me on an emotional and physical level. Days later feeling moody and morose, I decided to take an early morning jog alone along the Mohawk River rather than meet up later that morning with my running partners Linda and Shelley. I simply did not have the energy to pretend that everything was OK with me and didn’t want my mood to bring them down.

However, in response to my text declining participation in our usual Sunday run along the river, I was surprised when both texted me back stating they would be on their way shortly and would meet me by my car. Shelley was the first to arrive. A highly sensitive person herself, as she got out of the car she immediately sensed my emotional state. As I spoke about my hike with our mutual friend earlier that week and its effect on my emotions, I saw her eyes tear up a bit as she went to hug me. My stammered apology wasn’t necessary. Shelley knew of  my sensitivity and saw it hiding behind the mask of  self reliance I was trying to present.  “You need us right now” was all she would say.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you. As an HSP I far too often do this myself …hide behind a mask so as not to disturb others. And funny I have come across this very theme (not being true to yourself) for the third time this week. I think it is trying to tell me something!

  2. says

    Hi Karen, I appreciate your sharing your comments and love the reason you give for hiding behind a mask as “not to disturb others”. That really resonates with me and I’m sure with other readers as well. Thank you for that. Sounds like the theme of being true to yourself may be your new personal mantra these days….
    Namaste’
    Ed

  3. MarieFleur D. says

    I have only recently “discovered” the name of my trait… years and years I knew I was different, trying so hard to fit in, not understanding the world. Now that I know I am an HSP, I understand yet it does not make it any easier: it IS a gift and a curse at the same time each and every day. I so recognize picked up emotions from other people: they say you should train yourself to block it but I can not, especially not with people you really care about. I do believe that there are many different levels of HSP; I think some of us are more sensitive that others… I think I am on the extreme side of the scale – life is a struggle for me every day. Not in a bad way but just a struggle because every little experience affects me deeply.

    • says

      Hi MarieFleur,

      Many people are now discovering their trait and it helps to know that it is biologically based. I agree with you that blocking energy is not always a good idea because it causes you to be disconnected. However, you also have to be able to let go of other people’s stuff. So it is like being an energetic gymnast most of the time taking the energy in and and disconnecting or responding. I think a lot of wisdom can be developed through that process and that is why I think it can be a good thing. However it is not easy and can wear you out so you have to take special care of yourself and not try to be superwoman.

      I hope this helps,
      Maria

  4. says

    Hi MarieFleur,
    I agree that we feel life very deeply and that this energy can weigh us down at times . Awareness of our HSP nature is a good starting point for managing our time and actions in a way which allows our uniqueness to express itself. For me it has been to recognize that this trait is really about our ability to feel or perceive the energy of the world around us. Without awareness of our HSP nature, we simply react to it and think something is wrong with us. Once we understand our gift, we can start to work with it.

    One of the things that has been helpful for me is to deal with my HSP traits is through the use of strategies such as surrounding myself with people who validate me and limiting my time in reactive environments. That’s not to say that I still don’t have my good and bad days which is the sacrifice the Stephen Cope speaks of in his article. But in the end, I know this gift has a positive influence on those around me.
    I wish you strong dreams and a steady heart.
    Ed

  5. Sheryl says

    Thank you for your article. I wore the mask constantly as a child in my family, so much so that I did not grow up with a self-identity. I developed intricate defenses, wanting to trust that my parents would be loving if I could be “normal” while dancing a complicated dance around my HSP trait. I knew on some level that I was whole, but my parents assured me that I was anything but. (We don’t have a relationship any more.)

    Anyway, I still struggle with understanding who I really am and why I am here. Who am I, and what am I supposed to be doing?

    Any ideas? Thank you!

    • says

      Hi Sheryl,

      Welcome to the club! I know what you mean about recognizing that you are whole but having your family denigrate your wholeness since that happens to a lot of HSPs myself included. A couple of people whose work I have found helpful are: Clarissa Pinkola Estes (her CDs are amazing) and Bill Plotkin, author of Wild Mind. Both address these issues in different ways. Dr Estes has a Jungian approach and Bill Plotkin offers soulcraft. You can find both online through the links provided. A lot of us are working on reintegration after having our psyches chopped up in the interests of conformity.

      I hope these ideas help.

      Stay in touch,
      Maria

  6. says

    Hi Sheryl,

    When it comes to finding our identity and path, a good starting point for HSP’s is to start with joy. Often, the things which bring us joy in life are also the things which illuminate our unique talents. Conformity doesn’t erase our talents, it only distracts us from them. Danielle La Porte sums it up nicely in her Make It Happen podcast when she says: “Do a little more of what you want to do every day until your ideal becomes what’s real”.

    Namaste’
    Ed

  7. Maree says

    “Do a little more of what you want to do every day until your ideal becomes what’s real”.

    Love love love! I’m going to use this as my mantra from today.
    I can’t go back to nursing as the emotions I absord would just wreck me. But I have found a passion in yoga so I will try and go to more classes.
    I too was raised by a parent that stunted my childhood growth but at the age of 44 wow amazing things are happening in my spiritual growth. In fact since I went to my first yoga class at age 39 amazing things have been happening to me.
    The most important? I no longer hide my true self. It is so liberating to not care what a person thinks. The upside is I’m genuinely happy most of the time. The downside? I have had to go NC with people. But even the downside is good right?
    Thank you

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