Sensation doesn’t have to equal pain

As highly sensitive people, we are born to a life of high sensation.

Our very first, and often our strongest and most accurate, method of gathering information about the world around us is through our sensory system – our tissues and nervous system. As infants and children, this can often make us seem “high maintenance” to parents who don’t understand how the highly-powered microphones of our nervous systems work.

Often, I see highly sensitive adults who, in childhood, were punished for their expression of sensation – whether that be sensory sensation, like in crowded rooms or with rough fabric, or emotional sensation. Highly sensitive children often become the emotional expression for when the family unit is experiencing underlying issues – as children, we don’t know we’re doing this – we just feel uncomfortable, sad, wound up, tired, or extremely emotional, but what is actually happening is that our systems are picking up on the pain or dysfunction in the family and we, being sensitive, become the conduit and the expression for the family pain.

Perhaps we even become what therapists have called “the identified patient” of the family – the one who everyone else points to as needing help. The one who causes the problems, or needs therapy, or extra trips to the doctor. All family fingers point to us, when we are not actually the whole problem – we are mainly the sponge for and expression of the whole family’s dysfunction.

If we are singled out this way – or otherwise told that our physical sensations and our expression of those sensations are wrong or bad, we’ll likely do everything we can to turn off sensation, to toughen up, or retreat into a shell.

This often doesn’t work for long. If we are inherently sensory beings, gathering most of our information about the world through our senses, but then learn that these sensations eventually cause pain (through criticism, withdrawing of affection or love, or embarrassment), we will do everything we can to avoid them.

In fact, in many cases, sensation simply becomes associated with pain. It isn’t necessarily pain, but the stories we’ve created and the programming we’ve had since childhood can short-circuit our natural ability to follow sensation by simply jumping to the conclusion that sensation = pain (of some sort, at some time, certainly).

So we get stuck within the stories and the programs – all at the level of the mind – which swirl around in our head, creating a drive to be perfect and controlled and, ultimately, creating a lot of stress, tension and even anxiety within the body.

One of the most revolutionary things we can learn to do for ourselves as highly sensitive people is to learn how to get back to trusting sensation. This requires that we detach from the stories and past experiences we’ve had about sensation and choose, instead, to trust the wisdom of our body and nervous system. This takes time. It takes courage. And it takes some effort to reprogram the mind to quiet down while we do it.

When we learn to follow sensation, we are able to tune into a very important part of ourselves – our inherent needs. If sensation has always lead to pain, and we have always believed in the story of that pain, then it may have become very difficult for us to discern our own sensations, which lead to our emotions, which lead to our basic needs as humans. Being able to express our emotions and our needs, both to ourselves and to our partners and friends, is what creates real intimacy, genuine self-care, and the kind of connection we’re hardwired to crave.

Taking on this task of following sensation need not be daunting. It can become a practice of permission. A practice, meaning that it’s something you work at, slowly but surely. Permission, because this is the stuff that space and freedom are made of. Give yourself permission to practice this skill and not be perfect – or even good! – at it. There is no solid end goal. It’s a practice of learning to know yourself better.

To get started, try this:

Wherever you are seated now, take three deep breaths. With each breath, notice where the breath fills – your chest? Your belly? Your ribcage? Do your shoulders rise and fall? Let your breathing get soft again, letting it be natural, and close your eyes. Start to scan your body from the top of your head moving down toward your toes, slowly. For each body part, notice the sensations you feel there. Is there tingling? Do you feel tension? Is there ease? Is there pain? Is it hot, or cold? Is there nothing at all? There are no wrong answers to these questions, this is just a place to start to explore your own body and to trust the sensations that you have.

Once you’ve done this a few times, you can start to dig deeper. Once you’ve identified a sensation, you can ask that sensation, What do you want me to know?  Trust the first answer that comes to you, and move on. You may want to write down the information you get once you are finished with the exercise, but it’s not required.

Next, take this exercise to a yoga class. This is, essentially, what yoga is all about – bringing consciousness and awareness to something that unconscious before. Use your yoga time to practice following sensation in your body, and learning to listen to what that sensation means in that moment, rather than the story your mind would like to tell you about it.

Remember, there is no wrong way to start to trust sensation. It’s just a practice. Give yourself permission to try and to not be perfect. You’re a beginner. There’s no shame in that.

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