Just a few more reps, I told myself as sweat dripped down my forehead. Just a few more and that lunch is toast.
I had just run four miles and was clocking in at minute 94 in the gym. My lean thighs were pushing a huge sled of weights away from my body for the last few times that day, and while my mind was partially celebrating another daily workout done, it was also moving forward to the mountain of homework that awaited me.
I was seventeen. It was the year 2000, and I was a senior in high school. I was enrolled in three advanced placement classes, serving as a teacher’s assistant, placed in volunteer-based internship across town and working out between 2-3 hours a day.
Oh, and starving myself.
On the outside, it seemed like I had everything – a good family, a safe home, privilege, friends and whole heap of accomplishments.
But on the inside, the world felt incredibly painful to me.
Harsh comments or dour looks from friends, parents and teachers made my insides cower in shame. In fact, I think I was a machine run by the fuel of this shame. By this time, I had proven myself to be an achiever – I’d had to be. As a child, I was allowed to be nothing less unless I wanted the emotional pain to set in. Standards were set high. At some point they simply became my own. And so I decided that I would become Wonder Woman.
What other choice do I have? I thought.
I would get the good grades, and get into the good schools, and impress my teachers, and do eight million things everyday. If I was distracted with the eight million things, I wouldn’t have time to feel the pain of being sensitive in such a tough world. And when time opened up, I filled it – I turned my body into the next project of perfection, working to control all of my surroundings with pin-point precision. I would create less of my physical self – because if there was less of me, then there was less pain, right?
As you can probably guess, my hypothesis were incorrect. They only caused me more pain. And in my personal attempt at burying my sensitivity to the world around me, I turned into a rough-skinned perfectionist.
Not tough-skinned, mind you – although by the gods did I try. It’s just that toughening up really didn’t work so well.
But perfectionism seemed to. For a while.
You may have done something similar. Many of us highly sensitive people do. We realize, often subconsciously and early on, that the world wasn’t built for us. That we have to live according to a set of expectations that are literally painful for us. There is rigidity where there should be flow. There is constriction where we are asking to expand, please.
And so instead of just going about our flow and our expansion (or whatever it is we’re up to in that phase of life), we start constricting and creating rigidity. We compensate for our sensitivity. And because we’ve been taught that if some is good, more is better, we continue to compensate until we overcompensate. The most sensitive among us become the toughest.
We get smart. We get skinny. We get accomplished. We get predictable.
We do this because it makes us feel like we have some sort of power in a world that makes us feel powerless.
But this does not make us powerful. In fact, it actually robs us of our true personal power. Instead, it creates a weak substitute, a substitute of worth based on what can be externally measured and seen rather than what is true about us and our insides. And so it never works for very long.
This is often the point where people come to work with me one-on-one. It’s such a confusing time. But I’m doing all of the right things! Why do I feel like it’s all falling down?
It’s falling down because you build a skeleton on a false foundation. It’s falling down because what you’ve created has no soul, or somebody else’s. It’s falling down because living as a persona, rather than a person, is exhausting. It’s falling down because it’s not you.
You are sensitive. With sensitivity comes an important vulnerability that is about a keen responsiveness to life. Sometimes, this can feel like a burden because there is so much to respond to and the structure that the world has created is not one rooted in sensitivity, but sensationalism. To literally use shock and awe to try and make a point. To over-sensitize for the purpose of connecting and moving forward.
Of course we don’t always thrive in these situations.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t or that we never do. It just means that we need some extra time and our own tools. We need to know that our way of being in the world is valuable.
Your way of being in the world is valuable!
And, truthfully, I think the we need to start changing the culture that we live in to be more open and accepting and embracing of sensitivity.
Honestly, though, that last one starts with you. And I don’t mean that you need to be on some crusade to change the world (although you can be and that would be awesome), but rather that the world changes by you changing within it. As you accept and embrace your sensitivity, you create permission for others to do the same.
But first, you need permission to be who you are. Not the over-compensator you’ve been taught to be.
I would like to tell you that my road from overcompensation to acceptance was easy. I said a few magic words, and POOF! Automatic uncensored sensitivity. But that would be a big fat lie and another attempt at overcompensation.
When I landed the plane of overcompensation, I thought I’d won because my wheels were on the ground – I was eating again, I let myself accept a B- in Wildland Economics 205 (because I seriously did NOT understand the subject) and I was living away from home – I didn’t realize I’d just made the first touch down of what would become a very bumpy landing.
Wind gusts would carry me back up until I caught myself in that old, familiar pattern, and I’d dive again toward the earth, bumping along the runway.
Expecting to be instantly free of a pattern you craftily created for the sake of safety and security is like expecting a ten-day old baby to start living off of avocados. Because, will power.
It’s not so much that you will instantly shed this pattern, but more that, once you start peeling it off, you’ll notice just how uncomfortable it is. And you’ll start shedding it, pulling it off piece by piece, until you recognize the stranger standing before you in the mirror and decide to keep her near you once and for all.