I’m currently experiencing what I describe as an ‘introvert hangover’.
After a period of intense social activity, I can often feel a bit out-of-sorts. Nothing terrible, just a bit tired and headachey and conscious that I’m less productive, focused and resourceful than usual.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who experiences this. In fact I’ve talked to lots of people who describe something similar.
For those of us who recharge by spending time alone being quiet, it can be easy to get a little bit overwhelmed by the world. It’s not that we don’t enjoy being out there in it, it’s just that being in stimulating environments with interesting people generates lots of ‘data’ to be processed. All that filing, categorising, making sense of, takes some doing. It’s like updating software on your computer whilst simultaneously trying to carry on with business as usual. Sometimes everything just grinds to a halt for a bit.
I notice that I can feel a bit anxious about the fact that I’m prone to these ‘hangovers’. I can think that I should be different from how I am. I can be tempted to try and distract myself with food or fidgeting or analysing things. But none of those things really help.
Here are some things that do:
Accepting that this just happens sometimes. It’s not wrong or something to be fixed. It just is – and, soon enough, it will pass.
Practising radical self-care. Allowing time for silence, rest, eating and drinking healthily, getting outside, breathing deeply, exercising…
Explaining to others that it may not be possible to be as productive / communicative / creative or energetic as usual on days like these but that normal service will resume shortly.
Taking a shower and enjoying the white noise, the immersive experience and the symbolic value of washing away all the accumulated busy-ness.
Doing something distracting and unstressful – like watching or reading something entertaining, doing a puzzle or playing a computer game.
Some people find that it helps to have a cry – not necessarily because they feel sad or that there’s anything wrong – but simply because it can be an effective way of discharging tension in the body. Others find they can physically shake it off. Yet others find that breathing techniques and mindfulness can help them to move through the experience more quickly and easily.
This week I received a message from a friend who had watched Matt Walker’s TED talk, Sleep is your Superpower, which I shared in the Ideas Community a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen the talk, you’ll know that it focuses on the harmful effects of not getting enough sleep. However, as my friend pointed out, many people know they’re not getting enough sleep – but that doesn’t help them to fix the problem. In fact, the anxiety provoked by knowing you need more sleep but aren’t managing to get it can be yet another cause of insomnia.
So I offered to see what I could find out about practical ways we can help ourselves sleep better. What makes it easier to drift off in the first place – and how can we get back to sleep when we find ourselves unexpectedly awake, minds racing? Here’s what I found:
Doing moderate- or high-intensity aerobic or resistance exercise during the day can help to improve quality of sleep in people who are experiencing sleep problems. Even regular episodes of low-intensity exercise (such as walking) can make a significant difference to someone’s ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep they get. Exercise can also help us to feel better psychologically, meaning that we’re less likely to find ourselves awake as a result of anxiety.
The timing seems to be important. Exercising can elevate body temperature for up to 90 minutes afterwards, signalling to the brain that it’s time to be awake. The endorphin-release we get can also make some people feel livelier (and less sleepy) for a while afterwards too. So best to finish particularly vigorous workouts at least a couple of hours before heading off to bed. (Related info here and here)
We often focus on the amount of night-time sleep we’re getting and forget that daytime sleep counts too. Napping can be a great way to boost our sleep levels. Research findings suggest that 10-20 minutes during the early afternoon works best for most people. Some swear by the ‘nappuccino’ or ‘coffee nap’, which involves drinking coffee before taking a short nap, so that the caffeine is kicking in just as you wake. However, napping isn’t for everyone and can be counterproductive for some. (To find out more, here’s a great article on the subject, plus a blog post I wrote exploring the topic in more detail.)
Having regular times for going to bed and getting up not only makes it easier for our bodies to know what to expect and respond accordingly but also helps us to do better work when we’re awake. Occasional lie-ins to make up for lost sleep can be useful for some, but where possible it is best to get up at the same time each day, so as to avoid confusing our circadian rhythm (or internal clock).
Creating a pre-bedtime routine that helps us to wind down and adjust to sleep mode can be helpful. This might involve setting aside time for listening to music, reading, meditation, breathing exercises, physical relaxation techniques such as body scanning, or taking a bath or shower. Beforehand, it can help to make a note of anything on your mind that feels unfinished or worrying. By writing down everything you need to remember and reassuring yourself that you will look at what you’ve written first thing in the morning and take care of it then, you can help to bypass the Zeigarnik effect. I wrote a blog post on the subject here.
Our circadian rhythms are easily affected by light exposure – specifically, how much light we encounter, what kind and when. Living in an artifically-lit environment can affect our production of melatonin (a sleep hormone) and confuse our internal body clocks, which are still evolutionarily primed to work best in natural light. In order to sleep well, it helps to:
get plenty of bright daylight, especially during the morning and early afternoon (which can be supplemented by light from a light box during the darker months if necessary).
avoid anything that generates blue light (such as phones, TVs and computer screens) for a couple of hours before going to bed. Blue light is proven to stimulate brain activity and wakefulness -which is great during the day, but not so great when you’re wanting to switch off.
keep the bedroom dark (by using blackout blinds if necessary, or replacing digital alarm clocks with analogue ones).
Our behaviour is sensitive to environmental cues and we can help ourselves to sleep better by ‘nudging’ ourselves in the direction we want to go. For example, if we want to sleep when we’re in bed (rather than lying awake, thinking), we can help to form that association by keeping mentally stimulating activities out of the bedroom. Watching TV in bed may feel like a relaxing thing to do, but it can easily compromise the quality of the subsequent night’s sleep. If there’s a phone by the bed, we can find ourselves checking for messages out of habit when we stir during the night, and then finding ourselves wide awake, even though it’s still 3am. So keeping it in a different room overnight – or at the very least, putting it so far away from the bed that you can’t reach it without some considerable effort – can help.
Dim bedside lighting, a cool temperature (ideally around 65-70° F or 18-20° C), good ventilation, a comfortable mattress and pillows, and a quiet environment (or earplugs) can all help too. (More on how to create the optimum conditions for sleep here.)
Food and drink:
What we eat and drink, particularly in the hours before bed, can have a significant effect on how well we sleep. The general recommendations seem to be:
avoid going to bed hungry
don’t eat heavily immediately before bed
don’t drink so much that you’ll need to get up in the night
take care with alcohol, as it can help you to get to sleep but has a detrimental effect on overall sleep quality
try snacking on melatonin-containing foods such as almonds, walnuts and bananas or relaxing with warm milky drinks or herbal teas if you’re in need of a little something before bed
If you find yourself awake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, the advice is to get up and go into another room for a little while. Keep the lighting low. Do something gentle and not-too-stimulating. Perhaps make a warm drink and cuddle up on the sofa with a blanket and a book or some relaxing music. If you have worries on your mind, write them down and reassure yourself that you’ll tackle them in the morning, when you’re fully awake again. If you find yourself starting to feel sleepy – go back to bed and let yourself focus simply on relaxing. Who knows, you might just get a little more sleep – but even if you don’t, you’ve taken good care of yourself and allowed your body to rest.
There are so many more ideas I could include. But for now, I’d love to know – what helps you to sleep? How do you cope with night-time waking? Do you have any tips to share? If so, it would be great to hear from you!
We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.
A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:
Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole
As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:
“It will always be like this.”
“You’ll never get better.”
“They all think so.”
“Everything’s gone wrong.”
In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.
So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.
Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.
So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.
Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.
Having spent the last few weeks reflecting on some of the useful things I’ve learned since turning 18 – and inviting others to write in with their learnings too – I’ve found myself smiling wryly as I realise how many times people tried to share their wisdom with me over the years, and how many times I was completely incapable of understanding what they were trying to say.
In a recent conversation with behavioural scientist, Jason Hreha, I mention one such example. As a child, my dad would often tell me to “take deep breaths” – and I would often think how silly he was to imagine that something as inconsequential as taking deep breaths could be of any use whatsoever in the particular crisis I was facing. Fast forward three decades or so – and it turns out he was right. Deep breathing is good for all sorts of things.
Then there were the many times he reminded me that “charity begins at home”. Back then I thought he was using this as an excuse to be ungenerous to others. Now I realise that he was probably trying to share more or less the same insight I shared in a post just the other week. (see ‘Kindness’)
And there was the time he paraphrased Shakespeare’s: “To thine own self be true.” I’m not sure what I thought he meant at the time, but I remember not being terribly impressed. I had little interest in being true to myself at that point, busy as I was, gazing at others who seemed so much more deserving of my loyalty.
Ironic, really, that I find myself doing the work I do now – so much of which emphasises the importance of self-awareness and internal validation in building resilience and psychological wellbeing.
It’s tempting to imagine that we can save ourselves and those we love a lot of time and heartache by sharing wisdom down the generations, but the reality seems to be that we only take on board new ways of seeing things when we are ready to do so.
However, new research suggests that to focus on this is to miss an important point.
According to a recent study by Robin M. Kowalski and Annie McCord of Clemson University published in the Journal of Social Psychology, we “… should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves… The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.” (Read more here.)
In essence, by thinking of what we wish our younger self had known and then acting on it here and now, we can help our current self become the person we wish to be in the future. A useful exercise in its own right, one could argue.
Sadly, my dad isn’t around to share a wry smile at all the wheel-reinvention I’ve been doing. Nevertheless, I like to imagine that, even though I wasn’t able to comprehend the insights he was trying so hard to share with me all those years ago, there might have been some value for him in the act of sharing. It would be nice to think so.
In the words of Viktor Frankl, happiness is “the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”. Like my robin friend, it shows up most often when we’re busy getting on with something else.
We are shaped by the people we choose to spend time with. Their words and actions influence our behaviour, health and happiness.
It’s worth taking the time to find the people that make your heart sing, the people who remind you of what is possible, the people who love you for being you. They will help you to grow into the person you want to be.
If we want to be kind to others, the most useful thing we can learn to do is to practise kindness towards ourselves.
It can be tempting to imagine that we can bully ourselves and neglect our needs whilst showing compassion to those around us. For a short while we might just about get away with it – but as a long-term strategy it simply doesn’t work.
Sooner or later, unkindness on the inside starts showing up on the outside, whether in words or sighs or thinly-veiled resentments or flashes of anger.
By contrast, the greater our self-compassion, the more resilient, happy and resourceful we are likely to be. And in turn, the more we will have to give to others.
So be nice on the inside first. It’s the kindest thing to do for all concerned.
Feelings and thoughts change constantly. Our view of the world is sensitive to hunger, fatigue, time of day and countless other things besides.
It’s easy to forget this, particularly in the moments when it would be most helpful to remember. In the grip of uncomfortable emotions or persistent thoughts, we can be tempted to imagine that we will always feel as we do right now. We won’t. On the flip side – wonderful feelings won’t stick around either.
Learning to recognise thoughts and feelings for the flighty things they are and not get too attached to them (whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’) makes life easier. Worth practising.
If I could go back in time and talk to my 18 year old self, what would I want to say?
I’m gathering some thoughts, a few at a time. Things I think I ‘know’. Things I wish I’d known.
Not so much for him, because I know that his experience will be different from mine. But for me – a little reminder of things that can help.
Here are the first few…
There is no rule that things ought to be a certain way. If you find yourself feeling cross or indignant, ask yourself what you think should be different. I’m willing to bet you’ll find a ‘should’ in there somewhere – a sense of entitlement to something, a sense that things should be other than they actually are. That ‘should’ is the source of the discomfort, not the situation itself. Life is messy and unpredictable. There are no ‘shoulds’.
Some things you can control, others you can’t.
What you say, what you do, what you make things mean – you get to control those. Other people’s behaviour, the weather, sports results – those aren’t yours, sorry.
Learning to focus on the things you can control and let go of the ones you can’t saves a lot of time, energy and suffering. Sounds simple. Takes practice.
That normal life, normal appearance, normal experience you may be imagining – it doesn’t exist. Generally speaking, people are a bit odd. Most of us feel like outsiders sometimes. We can all imagine that everyone else knows what they’re doing. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Forget trying to be normal. Go do something fun instead.
Figuring out how to do new things is messy. You will end up feeling (and looking) silly sometimes. There will be a lot of mistakes. This is ok. That old saying about omelettes and eggs is true. Things will break from time to time. You will break from time to time. That’s just how it works. Keep going. On the other side of all the brokenness is something worth having. You may just not be able to see it quite yet.
Human beings are natural storytellers. We tell stories in our minds all the time. Learning to recognise the difference between facts and stories is really helpful. When we get them confused we can cause ourselves and others a lot of heartache. Watch out for the word ‘because’. It’s often a helpful indicator that a story is about to begin.
Ask yourself, what single habit would I like to create in my daily routine? Now ask, why?
“If you want to be calmer, if you want to be able to respond rather than react, meditation’s a great habit. If you want to get fitter, then your habit might be to walk for half an hour three or four times a week, the same time of day on designated days during the week. Or it could be reading poetry or it could be having a phone call with someone who makes you feel good regularly; reaching out in some way. Whatever the habit is, start today, but be clear on your why. What’s it going to give you? How will it improve your life? How will it create better, deeper connections? Because it’s the why that is instrumental in motivating us towards the behaviour we want to create every day… So many people want to change half a dozen things, which is overwhelming so they don’t start. Don’t worry, just choose one. That’s it.”
Look at people you pass in the street and silently wish them well.
“I look people in the face and wish them well for their day. Just in my own mind and my own thoughts, I wish them well – I don’t voice it. Wishing good on other people, particularly people who look troubled, I find incredibly powerful and energising. It helps me. I mean I kind of believe that we’re more connected than we believe we are, that we’re not all just these separate individuals. And if you think of it like that, if we’re connected, it’s kind of wishing well upon the system of which we are a part. And ultimately by doing good to others, you’re doing good for yourself. So I just have this practice that I find really helpful of ‘wishing well’. In a kind, gentle way, just doing that to 5 or 10 people as you walk along the street, I find really powerful.”
Take a few moments during your lunch break to practise yoga.
“Lunch yoga is the Little Challenge that I’d like to offer you. Not eating lunch while doing yoga (although maybe I shouldn’t knock it until I’ve tried it). Lunch yoga is simply doing yoga during your lunch break. There are a million videos on YouTube iff you want to just follow along with someone, One thing that I’ve done, not that I’m brand loyal or anything, but I’ve used the Nike Training Club App. They have a lot of exercises. You can just filter by yoga, pick one that fits the amount of time that you have and you’re good to go.”
Choose a small object that has meaning for you that you haven’t thought about for a while. Put it somewhere obvious. Each time you notice it, pause and notice the thoughts that come up.
‘Three Simple Steps To Find Meaning From A Personal Object’.
“Here’s what you do. Find something wherever you live that’s kind of small, something you’ve had it in some place for so long that you’ve really stopped noticing it, but it’s important to you. It might be something you picked up on a vacation or a gift that you were given at some point, but you put it initially in a spot and it had meaning for you, but now it’s been there so long that you’ve kind of lost track of that meaning. Take it and put it somewhere else. A conspicuous spot where you’re going to see it and then, each day, when you come across it, just pause for a split second and see what comes up in your mind. Pay attention to what happens and just take note of that. It could be, now you’re thinking of this person who gave this to you. Or you’re thinking of the vacation that you got it or whatever the case may be. That could be enough right there, but if you really want to extend it, take a minute to jot that down. Write down what feelings, emotions, people that this is evoking and then act on one thing if you want to go a little bit further. You could jot someone a little note and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you”. If it’s a memory that that triggers, maybe you’ve got a photo or two that you want to share or maybe you were on that trip with somebody and you want to talk to them about it.”
When you’re in a stressful situation, pause for a moment and think of three things you’re grateful for.
“When you get really anxious or mad or unhappy with something – let’s say you’re in traffic jam and you’re getting really riled up and you can feel your heart beating and your temperature rising – you’re locked in an emotion, a stress reaction that is really hard to get out of. And that’s kind of like the lizard brain has taken over, and that can be quite harmful because you’re producing a lot of stress hormones. When you’re in a situation like that, find three things you’re grateful for. Because two things are happening. First of all, you are forcing your brain to use a different part of the brain. So it’s interrupting the stress response because you’re having to think for things that you’re grateful for. And the second thing is that you’re rewiring your brain to become more sensitive to positive things. And it can be something really silly like, “The sun’s shining”, “The car smells good”, or, “I like the way my hair looks today”! Whatever it is, every time you feel yourself getting into that spot of darkness, just come up with three things you’re grateful for and you will see yourself immediately calm down. Over a period of time, within two weeks, you can actually find yourself being a happier person.”
Find out more about the line-up of guests for Series 2 of Adventures in Behaviour ChangeHERE.
It’s the end of series 1 of Adventures in Behaviour Change: the Little Challenges podcast and I’m taking a little time out to reflect on all the wonderful conversations there have been so far.
At the end of each episode, I invite our guest for the day to suggest their own Little Challenge that people can try for themselves. There have been all sorts of different ideas of tiny, practical things that can help to make life just a little bit easier, happier or more meaningful.
Here are the first 5 Little Challenges our guests shared:
Use a guided meditation app such as Insight Timer to help you meditate for just a few minutes a day.
“When I first started a mindfulness practice a little over five years ago, I had read a book and it was suggested 10 or 20 minutes a day and I thought to myself, “That’s just way too long – I can’t sit that long!” And so the way I approached it was I said to myself, “What is the smallest amount of time where at the end of the day, I can’t say to myself, I was too busy, I didn’t have time for that even though it’s really important to me?” And so I came up with two minutes. And so for two and a half years I meditated for two minutes every single day. Now I meditate a minimum of 10 minutes a day, but even the two minutes a day for those two and a half years, really had an impact on my ability to react to stress differently, because it gives you that skill to just pause instead of be very reactive.”
Choose a task or an activity you’ve been meaning to do but putting off. Now ask:
Is there a barrier that’s stopping me from doing it? If so, what is it?
How can I adjust my routine or environment to make it easier to do it?
How can I remind myself to do it when it’s the right time, right place?
How can I make a public commitment to doing it?
“I think everybody will have something that they have been wanting to do but haven’t quite got there yet. A ‘Little Challenge’ could be recognising that thing and first working out, “Is there a barrier, or is there friction to me doing that thing?” And, if there is, then looking at ways to get rid of that barrier or reduce that friction. Then thinking about, “How could I make it more obvious for myself to to do this thing?” It might be if you’re taking some pills and you keep forgetting, you know, “Where can I put them so I’m not going to miss them?” Thirdly, thinking about the right time, right place. So actually I may be thinking about this behaviour quite consciously now because I’m doing the ‘Little Challenge’, but when it comes to actually doing it, I may not be, so what is the perfect time and place to nudge myself to do this behaviour? And then finally, the commitment piece, so, “Can I find a way to externalise my commitment to myself to do this thing? Can I physically write something down, sign something, could I make that public in some way? Could I tell somebody, put on a website? Can I write about in my blog?” And so, so maybe just thinking about whatever it is that you’re not doing and try to follow through those steps.”
Breathe in through your nose and breathe out, slowly, for a longer amount of time than you breathe in.
“My ‘Little Challenge’ would be to create a bit of space for yourself in the day. Just breathe and be really conscious of your breathing. In particular breathe in through your nose and breathe out, slowly, for a longer amount of time than you breathe in – so you could maybe breathe in for two counts and breathe out for, say, eight counts, which will slow you down. It’ll oxygenate your blood, it’ll bring you into the moment. You know, particularly at times if you’re stressed or you’re anxious, this is when you need it most.”
Make a daily appointment on your calendar to do something that’s just for you.
I think we’ve forgotten how to make serious appointments with ourselves and put ourselves first so that we’ve actually got a full tank to be of service to others. And so I want people to get their calendars out and put something in their calendar every single day that’s for themselves. Maybe it’s five minutes of just sitting on a chair staring out a window and just being mindful for five minutes and it’s your five minutes. And it could be doing some gratitude journalling or it could be five minutes of pulling out your favourite recipe book and finding a recipe. It doesn’t matter what it is, but every single day, something just for you that is scheduled. It’s non negotiable. It’s for you. The interesting thing about using your calendar is that it feels kind of counterintuitive, that if you fill your calendar up, you don’t have freedom, but the opposite happens. The more you’ve actually scheduled your day to account for you, the work you need to do, the people you want to be with, the activities you want in your day, and the more they’re scheduled in, they become guiding posts for you. You’ll actually have that freedom because you built it in.”
Share a little bit of honesty with another human being.
“My ‘Little Challenge’ would be to create a truth, something honest that you’re going through or that is affecting you, and share that with another human being. It doesn’t have to be something big and horrible, but just a bit of honesty. If you’re not using social media, then you can do it in real life, or you could write a letter. We’re evolved to be in a tribe, in a village, and our modern society doesn’t really work in the same way with us looking out for each other, so we can create a virtual village by doing that using the internet or using analogue means to share some truth. So that’s what I would suggest to people: think of a truth and share that with someone.”
I was unloading the dishwasher with my son the other day.
Ok, I’ll be honest. I was ‘encouraging’ him to unload it.
And somewhere in the midst of the cheery disagreement about whose turn it was to do it, he told me about the ‘Uno reverse’ meme.
The idea is that you carry a ‘reverse’ card from the Uno game in your pocket and then, when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do or says something you want to turn back on them, you produce it.
Apparently there’s a similar one involving a Monopoly ‘get out of jail free’ card. One of his friends has even been known to carry an ‘advance to Mayfair’ card which seems to work for him in all sorts of situations. (I guess he must own Mayfair, since it wouldn’t make sense if someone else had a hotel on it…)
Anyway, as it happened my son didn’t have a reverse card handy (ha!), so he unloaded the dishwasher anyway – but the conversation got me thinking.
I started wondering what it would be like if there were other types of cards we could carry and ‘play’ in real life. Cards that could act as shorthand for all sorts of things that can be tricky to say directly – particularly when we’re not feeling at our best. For example:
I really like talking with you, but right now I need to be quiet and not talk with anybody
I’m hungry and I need to eat something right away (before I start saying all sorts of things I’ll regret)
Do you have a spare hug?
I really appreciate the invitation and I don’t want to cause offence by saying no – but no
If I happen to cry, please don’t take it personally – it’s just that kind of a day
Talking about big important stuff is unlikely to go well right now – please could we schedule it for another time?
Sensitive. It’s a funny word, with a muddle of meanings – some positive, others not so much. Here are a few from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:
receptive to sense impressions
delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others
excessively or abnormally susceptible
easily hurt or damaged
If you’re someone who is often told that you’re “too sensitive”, you may have come to see sensitivity as a weakness, something to be overcome.
Over the years, I’ve talked with so many people who have learned to see themselves as flawed, simply because they feel too much. I’ve certainly felt that way for most of my own life.
It’s true that if you’re someone who is acutely tuned in to your senses – which is all the word means, at its root – life can feel like a bombardment at times. So many signals to read and interpret. So much complexity to make sense of. So many sensory stimuli.
It can be exhausting.
Dealing with people can be particularly challenging, not least because – as demonstrated by the word ‘sensitive’ itself – words can mean so many different things. Trying to balance non-verbal perceptions (of body language, expression, tone of voice) with a guess at what the words might be being used to convey, is an extraordinarily complex job.
That we understand one another at all is hard to believe.
Yet for people with heightened sensitivity, there can be an extra layer of confusion. Our sensitivity is sometimes the legacy of life experiences which have left us feeling less-than-safe; a hypervigilance, a watchfulness designed to protect us. Often we have learned to read situations well, yet may not have any real insight into how we do so – which can lead to those awkward moments of absolutely knowing something to be true, whilst having no rational-sounding way of explaining to others how it is that we do.
From a sanity point of view, here be dragons…
The world needs people who feel. Our presence, our listening, our caring, our creativity – these things are precious beyond measure.
And at the same time, we have a responsibility to learn how to take good care of ourselves in order to be able to contribute those things. We need resilience. To learn how to switch off and recharge. To thrive.
For a long time I flinched when the words “too sensitive” appeared in conversation, as sooner or later they inevitably did. I taught myself to respond to them by feeling less-than, by becoming silent. I knew I wasn’t easy to be around and felt ashamed to be the way I was. I didn’t realise that I could be that person and be ok.
I see a different possibility now.
To be sensitive and fully present in the world and, at the same time, grounded, healthy and well-resourced – how can we learn to do that?