As a sensitive person, I often struggle to publicly and openly take sides on things. On issues, on causes, in arguments. This is not because I don’t have an opinion, or even strong opinions – quite the opposite, in fact. I have a whole ship-load of opinions. I share them with my friends, my fiancee, my colleagues – in safe places. Sometimes, I write about them here and there, where I have the safety of stating my opinion first and then retreating. (Wow, even writing that makes me feel like a coward, because now you see my fear! Gulp. Moving on…)
Most highly sensitive people tend to accommodate others and prioritize the needs of others over their own in order to avoid conflict and criticism. Criticism can feel almost physically painful to the hsp nervous system. Further, the empathic abilities of hsp’s often makes it possible to see every side of a conflict, freezing us in this state of indecision – not because we don’t have opinions, but because we recognize that this opinion would hurt so-and-so, and this other one would ostracize this group, and so on. Indeed, hsp’s often feel frozen in place, watching the world of opinions and arguments happening around them.
And, in this way, we become powerless. Voiceless.
A lot of hsp’s come to me in this state. They’ve given away their personal power – either to a partner, a loved one, an employer or a situation. They’ve accommodated away their energy and nothing is left for them. They feel out of touch with who they are and powerless to change. In this state, hsp’s often describe a large amount of frustration, shame or even anger. In this state, it feels almost impossible to speak up, speak out, or voice an opinion about something we feel is important. We have no power behind the fight. My sensei always says that the most powerful punches start from the hips. A punch from just the arm is powerless. When we’ve given our power away, it’s like we’re just punching with our arm – no muscle, no force behind it. It makes us feel weak, uncoordinated about our own lives, and above all, fearful. Living without our own energy, our person power, is scary.
When we are in this powerless place and asked to speak up, we often experience something resembling both shame and anger. I’ve heard this term called, “shanger,” or “being shangry.” Shanger happens when we feel so powerless that we feel ashamed about our own opinions, and angry because we feel this way. The shame is an automatic response to powerlessness, and the anger jumps on the shame as if to say, “This isn’t right! Change it!” But without the anchor of our personal power, change is difficult, and the anger becomes self-directed and self-punishment often begins.
When I first started in my business as a healer, I was both really excited and really scared. Excited because I had finally figured out what I was good at and what I wanted to do. And fearful because I couldn’t figure out how to begin to explain the depth of my experience of reality. It felt so “out there.” At my first networking meetings, I experienced shanger in my professional life for the first time. People would say, “Tell me about your business!” I would stutter and feel so completely confused trying to explain what I do, that then I felt shameful and then angry at myself. I’d leave the meeting and head straight home for a hot bath (optional wine included).
But through careful reflection and the use of my tools (the same tools I teach in Sensitive Self Defense), I realized that my shanger was just alerting me to underlying fear. I was afraid. Afraid of exposure, afraid of “not doing it right,” afraid of being too weird to operate a business based on this same weirdness, fear that I wasn’t good enough, that my healing modalities were too “out there,” that I wouldn’t ever make sense to anyone.
By recognizing that my feelings were really just teaching me, I was able to address my fear and, in doing so, take my power back. I had been handing my power over to my fear, to my ideas of what’s normal and what’s not, and especially to outside sources of validation. By recognizing my fear and what it taught me about myself, I could take my power back and work through the fear.
Fear is a part of life. For hsp’s it can feel debilitating, painful even. But it will always be there. How well we handle life is based in part on how well we handle fear. Yoga teaches me how to breathe through fear, to sit with it, to learn from it. My meditation tools teach me how to recognize when I’m giving my power away and how this contributes to fear and a feeling of powerlessness. I know that I will not ever eliminate fear from my life, but I know I can learn how to stay calm in the face of it.
Developing a sense of strong personal power (keeping our life force energy working for us) is a lifelong process. As we learn, so we grow, and as we grow, we peel back old layers of ourselves and allow new layers to come up. These new layers may teach us new lessons about fear. Recently, I’ve been engaged on social media and on my personal website on topics I feel really strongly about. Putting myself out there as a person with strong opinions is really scary for me. I find myself commenting on something I’m really passionate about, then being hit with an overwhelming sense of fear that someone will be offended, or hurt, or criticize me. I realize that this is where I’m still working to build personal power. This lesson seems to be about holding my own voice. Can I hold my voice, even through fear?
Yoga posture classes most often teach keeping a long, smooth breath in order to keep the body calm while experiencing fear. But what about the voice? How can we hold true to our voice, even when we feel fear? In this interview with Sensei Jordan of Fighting Chance Seattle, he mentions that in the self defense classes he teaches women, he teaches them to fight back immediately and loudly in order to have the best chances of a positive outcome. This is hard when we haven’t taught ourselves to have our voice, even through fear. In fact, a lot of us learned, as toddlers, to lose our voice when we were afraid. A parent saying something like, “You be quiet right now or I’ll give you something to scream about,” may have been all the fear we needed to learn to keep quiet. So now, we enter into an argument, or a conflict situation, and we freeze. So how do we learn to keep our voice?
Rather than focusing on the breath, I’ve started using sound as a way to help myself and my clients find and hold our voice. My teacher taught me to chant on my exhalations while doing yoga poses, both as a way to increase the length of my exhales (which calms the body) and to teach me to hold my voice during intense movement. As a beginning martial arts student, I’ve watched my fiancee and other advanced students prepare for an upcoming belt tests, making kiai shouts to accompany certain movements. Now, I do not claim to know much about martial arts or the reason behind the shouts, but they seem similar in purpose to yoga chants to me – they help with the exhalation and teach a student to become confident in their voice even as movement becomes difficult.
Basically, sound can help us keep our energy when we are stressed or fearful.
Fear takes many forms. If we’re not aware of it, fear can take our power from us and keep us from having a voice. In order to keep our sense of personal power, we must be able to recognize fear and take steps to work through it. How is fear appearing in your life? What signals you to this fear? What can it teach you? Then, you can take powerful actions to move past it.
One practice that can help us keep our voice when confronted with fear is to chant while engaged in conscious movement. You can chant anything you want – an affirmation, a prayer, a song – as long as it matches your intention. When in doubt, I like to chant the first sutra in the Yoga Sutras. The sanskrit is atha yoganusasanam, pronounced ah-tah yoga nu-shaw-sanam. This sutra is fairly straight forward, as it introduces the practice of yoga, of working toward a peaceful mind. It carries the message, “Stop! Listen up! This is important! We’re making a commitment now to study and learn about ourself.” Perfect for working toward the gear of vanquishing fear.
You can practice this while doing any yoga pose. I like do practice it while in a high lunge, like crescent pose (anjanyasana). Enter this post and keep the front leg straight. Inhale to take the arms up. On the exhale, lunge forward and bend the arms, pulling the shoulder blades down the back, proud heart forward and low body stable. As you exhale and move, chant the first word of the chant. Inhale, exhale and continue the chant with the movement.
I’d love to hear from you. Where do you notice fear? What do you do to move through it?