This is Part II in a three-part series. If you’d like to start from the beginning, start here.
How can she sit there, for eight or ten hours, without more than a couple of pee breaks? I think I’m going crazy in front of this computer. My neck hurts. My back hurts. I have to pee. This monotony is mind numbing. If I leave before her, will that look bad? Maybe I’m just not cut out for a regular 9-5 job.
Those were my thoughts for the first 18 months out of graduate school, when I worked for a prestigious national conservation organization and shared an office with my boss. Some days, I got to do field work and other days I worked with volunteers to teach them about science and gathering data. But for about six months in the winter, I compiled data, crunched numbers in Excel spreadsheets, and wrote reports.
I thought I might die.
Not seriously die, but internally die from sitting in one position all day, staring at numbers on a screen, body screaming for movement, mind screaming for stimulation and heart screaming for something, anything, other than this.
I fought with myself a lot during this time. This is exactly what you wanted. This is exactly the kind of job that all new graduate students wish for. You’re living the dream! Shut up and celebrate already. You’ve made it! Seriously? This is it? This is what I’ve been working for? Two weeks of fun for 11 months of reports and sitting and counting the minutes until I can move my body? Maybe you’re not cut out for this. You must be wired wrong. What are you going to do, quit? So you can be a quitter and a failure? How will you make money then? You’re doing what you’re supposed to do, so why can’t you just like it already?!?
It felt like this thing that everyone else seemed to do with ease – hold down a regular job, one that’s considered a good and desirable job – was something that I was just not cut out for. I mean, I did it, and I did my job well, and I showed up and achieved and progressed and all of that. And I kind of hated it. Work felt like work, but more than that, it felt excruciating, as if my soul were dying. Which made me question the whole process of college and grad school, which I had enjoyed so much – it was preparing me for this? What a rip off.
But at the core of my being, I felt like there was something wrong with me. If this was the final destination and I didn’t like or couldn’t handle the final destination and enjoy it like everyone else, then what the hell was wrong with me?
After working with highly sensitive people for three years, I’ve come to notice a general pattern and commonality in our struggles. As a group, we’re more prone to struggle in the areas of life concerning our dense needs – those about tribe (fitting in), money or how we make it, cultivating a general feeling of safety or that our survival is ensured, relating to others successfully and in ways that aren’t co-dependent or take more from us than we receive, understanding and accepting our gifts for what they are rather than what other people have, feeling valued for what we have to offer the world, having confidence in our unique gifts or passions because they are often very different than others. In addition, we also tend to struggle more with the physical body and often have higher rates of pain, fatigue, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, connective tissue disorders, autoimmune disorders and hormone imbalances.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, these denser needs are considered the basic needs of life – those we need to satisfy first in order to move up the pyramid. You can see this, below. (Yes – we talked about all of this in part one, but let’s review, shall we?).
This is how most dense sensors experience the world and the order of needs that comes most naturally to them. There are exceptions, of course, but dense sensors as a group tend to start at the bottom of the pyramid and work towards the top.
Ane Axford of Sensitive Leadership identified that hsps actually naturally have needs met in reverse order to this, and so she created the Highly Sensitive Hierarch of Needs.
As you can see, this is in reverse order to the way that dense sensors (the majority of the population) have their needs met.
I don’t see this so much as a ladder, but rather more like a grouping of dense and subtle needs (top of the pyramid and the bottom), where subtle sensors have natural tendencies to focus in the top half of the pyramid where dense sensors have natural tendencies to focus in the bottom half of the pyramid.
Another way to view this is through the chakra system, which roughly correlates to the hierarchy of needs, since each chakra (or energy center) within the body corresponds to certain physical, psychological and spiritual needs.
As subtle sensors, hsps tend to naturally spend more time in the upper three to four chakras and are naturally more interested in having those subtle needs met, whereas dense sensors spend more time in the lower chakras (upper and lower referring to placement from foot to head, not in importance – they are all equally important). In fact, it might feel completely backward to an hsp to try to have dense needs met before the subtle needs are satisfied and vice versa.
Let’s explore the denser chakras and the needs associated with those. These are areas where hsps, as a group, tend to struggle, which often makes us feel like “we’re doing life wrong.” There are many reasons why we struggle with these dense areas, and my hope is that as I show you why we’ve had these struggles, you’ll see that the struggle is often more of an issue of fighting common cultural stories than us subtle sensors having any real lack in any area.
The first level of needs (the first chakra)
The first level of needs has to do with survival and safety. Basic to this are food, shelter and warmth – which, in our day and time, have to do with our ability to make money and hold down a job. The order and approach that dense and subtle sensors take to fulfill this need as adults is very different.
For example, many dense sensing people use college and a job as a way to help them understand their place in the world and to satisfy their self-actualization needs. In fact, many of us do this as it’s the general story that’s told about how to be successful. While this can work for subtle sensors, it often more easily leads to success for dense sensors.
Dense sensors tend feel more satisfied and happy when they have money (survival needs) taken care of first or rather quite soon into adulthood, which frees them up to focus on the subtle needs of life, including who they are and how they fit into the larger picture (needs they may or may not pursue, depending on their individual preferences). Focusing on the subtle before the basic needs of money are fulfilled might feel frivolous or pointless.
Highly sensitive people often want to understand themselves inside the larger picture first – including who they are, what their purpose is and how their gifts can lead them to self-actualization, before they get a job (or while they’re trying to find the right job fit). Making money without these subtle needs in place can feel pointless, draining and even torturous to hsps. So much so that they might go without a steady income in order to feel more centered. Or, they may take the more traditional pathway of the dense sensor and end up feeling lost or unsatisfied for no reason they can pinpoint.
In this way, I often see hsps having trouble with the 1st chakra needs – how to make money and hold down a job in a way that feels good to them. The issue is that, if the subtle sensor must have needs met in according to the Highly Sensitive Hierarchy of Needs, then there are a bunch of other needs that must be satisfied in order for that person to have the energy, drive and staying power to work on the densest need of all. It simply won’t make sense to be making money without the other needs met first. It might feel like you’re going against the grain, losing your integrity, sacrificing integral parts of yourself or “selling yourself out” in order to fulfill the cultural norm.
The process of meeting dense versus subtle needs often works in reverse for a dense sensor contemplating the meaning of life (transcendental needs) – it just might not feel important or urgent unless all the other needs are in place first.
Second layer (second chakra) needs
The second layer or chakra has to do with the need of establishing trust with ourselves and others, and generally how we relate to others. For dense sensors, trusting the self and others is something that feels important to establish quickly – it’s the second need in the hierarchy of needs. A simplistic way to look at this (and there are more complex ways, of course, I’m just trying to keep this as basic as possible) is that as long as dense sensors feel physiologically comfortable and safe with another person, they are able to start to apply trust.
For the subtle sensor, however, trust requires that several other needs are met first. We need to feel like we are seen, heard, and that our needs and values are taken seriously by the other person. We need to feel like all of who we are is seen and accepted and valued before we can apply trust. The same can be said for trusting ourselves.
I find that because hsps often operate so differently from how they see most of the world operating (often, they’re looking at dense sensors), they have an incredibly difficult time trusting themselves. Trusting ourselves would mean giving ourselves the permission to do things our way, even though it seems like everyone else is doing it the other way. Trusting the self, then, can feel like a very risky prospect, one that I see hsps often fight for a very long time, especially if their family of origin encouraged fitting in, applied restriction to self-expression and choices, or used strict standards related to achievement and behavior.
In romantic relationships, you might see this lack of trust play out as a hesitancy toward intimacy, a fear of commitment, or a tendency toward co-dependency (all things hsps tend to struggle with), but you can also see how it works with casual relationships, with friends or even a waiter at a restaurant.
When I sit down at a restaurant and read a menu, I am aware of my all of my food sensitivities and needs regarding food and know that I must communicate all of these to the waiter. I am looking for the waiter’s response to know if I can trust the establishment and thus, the ingredients in my meal. When I ask for special revisions to my order, I notice the response of the waiter – was I seen and heard? Was my request (my physical needs) taken seriously and considered? Was my request valued? In the exchange that we have about my meal, I can deduce whether or not my needs will be met. If they can, I start to apply trust to the establishment and perhaps even a feeling of safety.
Because we have such an ability to pick up on body language, tone and emotional content of a conversation, deciding whether or not to trust someone often has little to do with words – it has everything to do with the subtle aspects of the conversation.
I realized this very vividly for myself in an argument with my husband early on in our relationship. At this time, he already knew that I was highly sensitive, and made a decision to keep his voice monotone in conversations that included a large amount of emotional investment for me – things that were trigger subjects for me, or subjects that I was really passionate about. His theory was that if he stayed monotone, I wouldn’t be as reactive (as if I shouldn’t be reactive – again with the restriction – but that’s another lesson for another time).
What happened, however, was the opposite. I became increasingly frustrated with him, and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized that by keeping his voice even, I couldn’t deduce his emotions through tone, which left me feeling completely blind and like I had to become more emotional in order to connect with him over something important. The big take away for me was that I am actually more responsive to tone and emotional content in a conversation than I am the actual words. When my husband removed the emotion from his voice, it felt like he was speaking a foreign language – I ceased to hear what he was saying because of how he was saying it. It was like I was speaking to a stone.
Issues that affect our ability to be in either chakra
Because the first two chakras or layers are so dense, they relate most easily to the physical body, energy levels, basic support and feelings of stability within life and within the body. If at any time in our lives, our basic survival needs, stability or support were threatened, violated, or removed completely, we may learn that our first and second chakras (and our bodies in general) are not safe places to be, and we’ll retreat back into the upper part of the aura (maybe even with the aid of drugs, which often act as methods for separating us from our bodies).
Childhood trauma, whether physical, emotional or psychological in nature, have huge detrimental effects on hsps and their ability to embrace their denser natures. Truly, trauma affects all of us, not just hsps, in this way, but hsps – because of their sensitivity and natural tendency toward the subtle layers – may find the road to healing and embracing their dense needs and chakras a longer and more fraught with struggle.
Similarly, sexual assault and trauma at any time during the life of an hsp can make embracing the first and second chakra layers very difficult, as it takes often away feelings of basic safety, trust in others and trust in the self – all of the basic needs of the lower two chakras.
The third chakra or layer is another place where hsps tend to struggle, and this working in this layer can have positive affects in both the first and second layers. I talk about the third layer explicitly in Part III.