In the summer after I graduated from college, I did what any sensitive perfectionist might – applied to graduate school. Chill out and get some life experience? Travel? Do something just for me? Nah. I felt really driven to continue the pathway of “should’s” forward (probably because, at that time, I linked “doing the right thing” with gaining positive attention from mentors and affection from my parents. I wish someone could have shaken me awake, but life happens in its own time).
I had to make a decision – a really important decision – about which graduate school to attend. The decision-making process was excruciating. Should I go to the San Francisco liberal arts school, whose director expressed her sincere to desire to have me as a student, to earn the PhD of my dreams? Or should I stick with the local program, in a loved and familiar town, with my soon to be fiancé, at about a quarter of cost?
At that time in my life, I wasn’t known for being easy on myself. And, true to my typical fashion at the time, I took this important decision very seriously. I agonized. I talked to friends and family. I wrote pro and con lists. I consulted an intuitive (who basically told me to chill the fuck out, get a massage, and make the decision from that kind of calm place. I thought she was nuts).
Basically, I approached a big, important subject from a place of seriousness, then tried to think my way to an answer.
Intuitively (after that massage I got), I chose the liberal arts school. And then I thought some more and changed my mind to stay local. Years later, I regretted the decision.
There is a big difference between importance and seriousness, and this difference is extremely relevant to how we approach sensitivity and our sensitive lives.
Highly sensitive people are naturally good at sensing. It’s what we do. Sensing happens in the body through the nervous system, and even more subtly in the energy field (the spiritual nervous system). But often, we are conditioned at an early age to use our heads instead of our hearts or bodies. We’re taught not to be so soft and so sensitive, and to toughen up – and because our bodies respond automatically to their surroundings, the only place we have to toughen up is in our mind (which, incidentally, toughens the tissues of our body, but that’s another post for another day).
Our mind – our thoughts and the stories we create about our life – shape our reality. And not just the stories themselves, but also the tone of the story or thought. Something I see over and over again are highly sensitive people who have been taught to primarily use their mind, and to take the musings of their mind very, very seriously.
If any of you have been parents, you’ll understand intimately the following scenario. If you’re not a parent, I think it will still make sense. Say my child is learning how to walk – which means he falls down a lot. And every time he falls down, he looks to me – the parent – to respond to him. Responding to our children’s needs is important, but how we approach things that are important doesn’t need to be serious.
In fact, if I approach every little fall and scrape with seriousness – like the sky is falling and the world is coming to an end – then he will learn to react as if the sky is falling. He’ll make a big deal out of something that’s not a big deal.
If instead, I approach him with neutrality, and perhaps gentleness, and dare I say a dash of amusement, then he will learn that it’s okay for him to fall down sometimes, and that falling down isn’t necessarily a serious thing. He’ll learn that he can continue learning the important work of walking with a sense of curiosity and permission to fail.
Permission to fail. That is what amusement awards us, and what seriousness takes away from us.
Importance is something we use to place a value on something. It’s how we determine if something is worth doing, or if it’s at the top of the list or the bottom. It’s a choice.
Seriousness, on the other hand, is a tone. It’s how we approach something, and it’s also a choice. How we approach a problem or decision goes a long way in how easily that thing will be to solve.
On an energetic level, seriousness constricts and/or stops energy from moving. Think of something you had to take very seriously, like a test that determined half or your grade. How did that make your body feel? Probably pretty nervous, constricted and tense.
When we are amused and neutral to a situation, energy is able to move – and when energy moves, we are able to create solutions, see our next steps and flow through the issue with ease rather than get stuck in it.
There are all kinds of articles floating around saying how things like walks, art projects and laughter calms our nervous systems, quiets the mind and makes us more productive. I believe this is especially true for highly sensitive people, since we’re sensing SO much. The more we can get in our bodies, learn to give our busy mind the day off, and to approach ourselves with more amusement than seriousness, the more easily we’ll flow through life.
In 2012 I moved to Seattle to start my life over. I was new to Seattle and I didn’t have a job, so that was also new. I was also newly divorced, and newly living with roommates. Basically, I was doing a bunch of things I hadn’t done before.
This was ten years since my decision to go to graduate school, and I had learned a lot, including the power of amusement and not taking myself too seriously.
Which is what led me to one of the best decisions I ever made – permission to allow myself to be in kindergarten about the whole situation.
If I’ve never lived in Seattle, never been newly divorced, never lived with five other women – why should I think I would be good at any of it? Why would I hold myself to very serious standard of success? That would be nuts. Instead, I gave myself permission to approach my move and my new life as if I were in kindergarten – a place where there are no mistakes, just learning experiences, where I can take naps if I need to and ask for help early and often.
In other words, I gave myself permission to be amused. To let what’s important not be serious.
In less than a year, life was flowing. I had built this business and was supporting myself, I was living with the man who would become my husband and I absolutely adored my life. Did all of this happen just because I shifted my mindset? Of course not – there’s always a fair amount of luck involved, I’m sure. But I enjoyed the process. It felt easy. Because of the permission I had given myself to learn rather than achieve.