I was recently introduced to the concept of hypersensitivity via a few blog posts, one of which I reblogged. And, whether you’re looking to just improve your own life, or, looking to be a better leader, knowing yourself is crucial.
Here are some techniques that I’ve used to work past this tendency in myself. I should point out that I am not a therapist, nor have I had supervised Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I was therapy through a cheap clinic for a while, and the therapist suggested that based on what I was expressing, I would do really well with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She gave me some homework, and I read up on it on Wikipedia and elsewhere online.
The blog I mentioned refers to an article that I found useful in articulating some of the things I’ve struggled with in my own life, and might be useful to read before reading the rest of my post here. http://lonerwolf.com/highly-sensitive-person-hsp/
Hypersensitive and Frozen Over
See, most of my life, I’ve experienced myself as fairly and emotionless. Actually having feelings is really difficult for me to get to–it’s not like I can just flip a switch and have emotions again. Then, something will happen and the skin on my entire body prickles and the center of my chest hurts and I’m overwhelmed with hurt or shame or anger or whatever.
When I started doing intensive personal growth work at the Diana’s Grove Mystery School, and before that at Reclaiming events, I became aware how I had adapted armor, that I was thin-skinned and the armor kept me safe, muffled. As I started intentionally trying to “remove” that armor and have feelings, I remember joking, “There’s no skin under here!”
I was an oversensitive kid. When I was 5, I’d cry at the drop of a hat seeing people in pain on tv or hearing sad music. But, in Kindergarten and First Grade is when I first started building up that armor. I was fat, and kids relentlessly teased me. Viciously. I was in pain all the time. Over the years, I built up walls. I stopped feeling, because it was the easiest way to get them to leave me alone. To stop hurting.
Years later, I’ve finally become aware that I’m not just emotionless–that I’m oversensitive. And, instead of blaming myself or being angry about that, I’ve tried to 1. acknowledge it, and 2. acknowledge that just because my emotions explode to a 10, doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way, and 3. that one rejection does not mean everyone will always reject me and I’m worthless.
That last phase in the oversensitive process is the one that consistently sends me into the depression spiral.
Techniques and Tools
I have leaned more heavily on the Four Levels of Reality tool from Diana’s Grove, which was adapted from Jean Houston. However, there’s some strong crossover.
If you read Wikipedia and a few other online guides to CBT you’ll know as much as I do. Also, I have taken some guidance from blogs about anxiety.
The Four Levels of Reality as I use them:
- Physical Reality: What actually happened. “Bob shut the door making a loud sound.”
- Mythic Reality: The story we instantly tell. “Bob slammed the door angrily.”
- Emotional Reality: The instant emotional reaction we have. “I’m hurt and angry at Bob because Bob hates me.”
- Essential Reality: The stories we always tell, the way we see the world, because of what we’ve experienced in our past. “Of course Bob hates me, because everyone hates me, everyone has always rejected me, no one will ever love me.”
Essential Reality is a lens, like a pair of glasses that we see the world through. It’s a filter that coats our world. If we have good self esteem, if we like ourselves and have true confidence, then we might have a different story. “Bob closed the door really hard, I wonder if he meant to do that. Or maybe he’s angry. I should check in with him about that.”
First: Know Yourself
I have found, over time, that one of the keys to self transformation is first knowing myself. Once I know what’s going on, then I can look at what I want for my life, and how to modify and adapt. I’m not talking about “how to make yourself not hypersensitive.” In my case, I did the most adaptation I think one can do–I froze over my feelings almost completely. I remember doing it when kids started teasing me. By the time I hit middle school, I had no emotional affect.
It’s a skill I learned to cope with the world, to cope with the kids that verbally abused me every single day.
Knowing myself means–I know that I am emotionally sensitive. And, I know that I am generally frozen over. And, I accept myself, I know that I am that way. However, knowing myself means coming up with tools to work through that hot flash of shame/anger/overwhelm when something “bad” happens. I can realize, that it’s not a 10, it’s maybe a 2 or a 3, and if I look at it that way, I can reduce the thin-skin impact.
Emotions–when I have them–can be fairly overwhelming for me. However, learning that I’m actually thin-skinned has helped me to better cope with things like, romantic rejection, or, getting an email rejecting a proposal of some project, or other things that emotionally set me off. The tools within the Four Levels, and CBT, have helped.
Let’s imagine a scenario:
I’ve sent an email. Maybe I was requesting an interview on someone’s blog about writers, or maybe I was submitting an article, or maybe I was inviting someone to present at an event I’m hosting. And then the dreaded moment arrives; they send an email back, and I can see from the first line that the answer is “no.”
My gut clenches. Heart palpitates. Skin crawls. Anxiety goes to an 8, 9, or 10. I feel the adrenaline lacing through my system. I’m hurt–no wait, I’m angry that they rejected me!
I can’t even stand to read the email, my mouth is dry. Or, I opened the email and there’s the rejection. So I close it, I can’t read it. My anger turns into self loathing. Of course they rejected me, because everyone always rejects me. Because I’ll never….
Out of the Spiral
But here’s where CBT/4 levels comes in. I feel myself going into the old hamsterwheeling. Here’s the thing–I know I’ll feel better. It might take a few hours. Probably it’ll take a day; sleep always helps me. In fact, one of my challenges is that anger almost immediately makes me sleepy.
I just want to eat carbs and pass out and forget about the stuff that hurts me so bad.
However, in this instance, I can say, yeah. I’m having emotions. I’m raw. Is it worth being this raw about it? I look at my old essential realities popping up–“Everyone always rejects me.” Well, that’s not true, I have plenty of physical reality to back that up.
I look at my emotional level. “Is this worth being at an anxiety level of 9?” I think. Nope, probably not. This is more of a 2 or a 3. Yes, it sucks to have an article/proposal get denied, but, this isn’t the End of the World.
So I recognize:
1. That I’m having an emotion and that’s ok, and the adrenaline will taper off, and there’s some other stuff that I can do right now that will help me ease through that. Sorting files, facebook, whatever. Something I can do to relieve stress.
2. That this isn’t the end of my career/life, and that there will be other opportunities, and other folks like my work. And yes, perhaps that article could have been written better. Or, perhaps that person’s blog wasn’t a good fit for my work.
3. That this doesn’t make me a bad person. That my work being rejected doesn’t make me bad, it just means I might need another pass at editing, or, that they didn’t have time, or, whatever the reason was.
For me, the key to all of this is keeping the oversensitive emotional reaction from leading me into the spiral of depression. My tendency in the past has been:
- Get bad email,
- Get hurt/angry/overwhelmed,
- Ignore emails for days and crawl into bed and be dysfunctional for a week because, everyone hates me, why do I bother, I’ll always be rejected.
I’m summing up complicated feelings, and I can’t properly articulate the sheer exhaustion that I feel when dealing with some challenging situations. Eating healthy helped a lot with that, I’m a lot less tired, less brain fog. But, big emotional moments exhaust me and the self-loathing leads me into depression.
Nipping it in the bud from the start with physical reality (I don’t suck, people do like me) as well as being ok that I have a big oversensitive reaction, has helped.
Let’s go for a scenario that could be romantic, or, it could even be friend/business related. I’ll lean toward romantic, as those are more highly charged.
I’m waiting for an email from someone, and they aren’t emailing me. And it’s killing me waiting for that email and I’m envisioning all the terrible things. They don’t like me any more, whatever. Maybe it’s a romantic thing, maybe it’s a professional thing, whatever it is. I’m stuck in mythic hamsterwheeling.
So physical reality here is, they haven’t emailed me. So I remind myself that, I don’t know why they haven’t emailed me. Being in mythic hamsterwheeling land means that I’m in emotional oversensitivity land, I’m angry, hurt, sad, whatever is going on.
So I just keep going back to what I know is true/physical reality.
I try to wait a reasonable time before following up. And, when I’m less emotionally charged but still charged enough to be bold enough, I will have direct communication and ask what’s going on.
If it’s a romantic thing, I might say, “Hey, so, we’re in XYZ relationship but it’s often days between when you contact me, and I sometimes message you and don’t hear back. I want to find out if you’re ignoring me, if I’m annoying you, or if you’re having second thoughts about us, or, if you just aren’t as communicative as I am wanting you to be.” etc. That would be a truncated version of what I might say, and if at all possible I’m doing that in person or over the phone so it’s conversational, not a run-0n line of oversensitive-sounding text.
Now–the unfortunate side of boundaries-land is that the answer is often “no.”
Many of the times I’ve had that conversation, the answer has been either, “No I don’t want to communicate that frequently, ” or, “No, I don’t want a relationship.” And that can sting…or, it can be a knife in my chest.
But I also know that it’s better than sitting there angsting and wondering and waiting for a response. I’ve tried to take to heart the “He’s just not into you” approach with romantic relationships, as well as with some professional relationships.
What that means for me is recognizing when I’m getting emotionally invested, and when someone else doesn’t seem to be, and then trying to clarify that as soon as possible rather than dancing around and avoiding the conversation. My tendencies to be oversensitive lead me to heightened anxiety which makes me want to avoid these conversations like the plague. However, I always do feel better.
So that’s another physical reality I can focus on.
Yes. I’m oversensitive. My emotions are sometimes raw. But I know I’ll be raw, I know it’ll hurt. And I can keep going back to What I Know, to Physical Reality. That relationship wasn’t going to be satisfying for me if he’s not communicative or not that into me. It sucks, but I’ve cut my angsting down quite a bit by focusing on the Physical Reality.
I’ve kept myself out of a number of Black Pits of Depression that would have sucked me in a few years ago by focusing on physical reality and what I know.
Maybe one of these years I’ll be able to go through a course of therapy with a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but for the moment, my own work has led me to at least some stability and greater mental health. You can learn more about CBT online, but I also highly recommend working with a therapist if you have the opportunity. They’ll help you do a better job of this than my years-long stumbling.