The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary 2011: Comfort Zone ONLINE
With Depth:
Learning about HSPs' Complexes from Joseph the Dreamer

In the first issue's "With Depth" in May 1997, I described our frequent conflict between feeling hopelessly vulnerable and compulsively making ourselves be tough anyway. In the second issue, I described our conflict between seeing ourselves, on the one hand, as inferior and defective, so that we feel deflated, depressed, and discouraged, and seeing our self, on the other hand, as superior, special, more aware, which brings a sense of superiority and dangerous inflation.

I described each of these conflicts as complexes. That is, they are powerful personal issues that are also archetypal, collective perspectives. Complexes gather energy around two psychological poles, one of which is our conscious position, held at all cost, and one of which is always lurking in the unconscious, eager to flip us over like a beetle on our backs and give us this strangely upended view of the world.

In this issue I said I would move us towards a little more peace between these factions. I also said I would begin to discuss the dreams of HSPs, especially as they help us with these complexes. And I promised a Biblical story to assist us. That's a lot to do, but fortunately they all work together and can't even really be done without each other.

Joseph and His Brothers

Most of you know this story of the boy so beloved by his father, so envied by his brothers. But however you were taught to see it or feel about it as a part of the Bible, I would like to go over some of the details in a psychological way, as we did last time with the Ugly Duckling. This does not take away any other meaning or purpose of the story--just adds to it.

Humans seemed to be designed to learn certain knowledge through stories. This is surely why every tradition is full of them. Stories work whether we are conscious of all their psychological meanings or not, but I think they work even better when we make some of that conscious. Stories considered in this psychological, symbolic way can open us up to new solutions, new ways of seeing ourselves. So let's try it. But do read the Bible's version yourself, too, Genesis Chapters 37-48, as you may discover something quite different in it.

We don't know that Joseph was highly sensitive, although his own dreams and his ability to interpret dreams suggests it. What matters in our story is that he is different from the others, like an HSP. And he has a loving father--in fact, too loving. So he has the sort of self-confidence and faith that many of us would give most anything to have. The down side of that, of course, is that he feels superior to his brothers. And being so much younger than them, and different from them in this other way, he also almost surely has a sense of being totally inferior, although the Bible doesn't tell us that.

Consider his first dreams, that his brothers will bow down to him (first their sheaves to his, then the sun, moon, and eleven stars to him). These turn out to be prophetic, but one can also imagine them as being very much the product of the "up/down" complex I have been talking about--a sense of superiority compensating for a sense of inferiority.

To me his robe of many colors is symbolic of the way we as children can attract attention from adults for our giftedness, our seeing in technicolor while others see only drab grays. But that creates envy. Our contact with the dream world and the unconscious is also part of this. When his brothers see him coming, wearing this bright gift from their father, they are so filled with envy and hatred that they decide to kill him. Their words, obviously filled with sarcasm, are "Behold, this dreamer cometh."

We often don't recognize it, but it's frequently envy that causes us HSPs to be bullied. It seems to me, however, that if we have the right attitude, we also sometimes enjoy a certain amount of divine protection. Maybe that's to compensate for what we get from the rest of the world.

Joseph Becomes Egyptian

So Joseph is not killed, but thrown down into a well. How many times he will be thrown down, then rise again--symbolic of that up/down complex. He seems doomed, but then his brothers decide to sell him for money, and he ends up in Egypt. (In the Bible there is then a curious story inserted about Tamar that is full of deception, anger, and people who fall down psychologically and rise up again.)

What does Egyptian bring to mind? At least in those days, Egyptians must have seemed impossibly cosmopolitan compared to Joseph's sheep herding folks. But in Egypt, Joseph quickly became the head of his master's household. We can imagine his difficulty adjusting, but his realizing that he had no choice. So he must have used his sensitivity to pick up on how things were done in this urbane, complicated culture. He also must have been sensitive enough to know what a well-run household needs, wherever it is. Sensitivity made him a very good manager, even by Egyptian standards.

The master's wife, however, takes a liking to him--a very dangerous situation. HSPs with any confidence at all can find themselves attracting others who are hungry for a deep source of something which the HSP has some contact with and which the non-HSP attributes to the HSP personally. When Joseph rejects the woman, she frames him and he's thrown down into prison. Here's the kind of Machiavellianism that certain HSPs often fail to spot coming, just because they would never do such a thing to anyone themselves.

Down in prison, however, the overseer of the prison soon has Joseph running it! There's something precocious about Joseph that others always recognize.

Joseph Follows His True Vocation

We can well imagine that running a household or running a prison was not exactly in Joseph's vocational plans. His true talent, however, comes up whenever he needs it. It has to do with intuition, dreams, anticipating needs, and knowing how to meet those needs. When Pharaoh's chief butler and baker are thrown into prison and each have a big dream, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams for them. However, what matters most to me is what he says about his talent. The dreamers moan that there is no one to interpret these obviously important dreams. Joseph says, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me them, I pray you."

This is really the only way for gifted HSPs to avoid feeling superior or "inflated." We need to recall that whatever our insights, we are only channels for them. They belong to God, or to whatever force you believe dealt you the hand you are playing in this life. Being sensitive means being dealt some liabilities and some assets. We don't have to identify with either. We cope with the liabilities and develop the assets.

After two more years, Pharaoh finally has his fateful dreams about the seven fat cows devoured by the seven lean ones, the seven fat ears of corn devoured by the seven thin ones. No one can interpret this for him. The butler, back up on top now, remembers Joseph down below. Joseph is brought up from prison and asked to interpret them. Again he says, "It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace." Such wise words.

Pharaoh is so impressed that he also gives Joseph the job of protecting the country from the coming famine, saying, "Forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art."

Pharaoh doesn't get it, that it is God acting through Joseph--he still mistakes the river bed for the river. Soon Joseph, who the Bible says is only thirty years old, is second only to Pharaoh. So the danger of inflation continues for the HSP who expresses some intuition--the more you are accurate (and confident, charismatic, and lucky), the more you are seen as omniscient, godlike.

The Rest of the Story

I am going to leave the rest of the story for you to work on. It is quite long, complicated, and not usually told as completely. But it may be the most important part. It is what he does when his family comes to him, hat in hand, hungry.

We all have families, and many of us were like Joseph--not much appreciated by, say, our older brothers or sisters. Maybe our parents were a bit like Jacob, using a gifted child to feel good about themselves and not seeing what consequences that would have.

Joseph does quite a number on his brothers and his father. And he weeps at several points. He's sensitive and he's tough. Read it and think about it.

Remember too all the consequences of Joseph's life for this particular religious tradition: his going to Egypt, his family going there, the story of Moses and the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the return to the Promised Land, and all the rest. For our purposes I ask you to think of this as a reminder that although we HSPs may be delicate or whatever, we are not small figures in the game of life.

Learning from Joseph

In the rest of this column I was planning to talk about dreams, very apropos after Joseph. I am turning to dreams because working with these two complexes, sensitive/tough and up/down, is not a linear, logical process. I can't give you the steps. It involves being like Joseph and watching for dreams about them, then thinking about those dreams in your head, holding them in your heart, and living inside of them with your imagination. (This last, Active Imagination, will be discussed in a future issue.)

See, you never "get over" or "work out" a complex. That's the bad news. The good news is that our complexes give us our individuality. They are our path. They are our teachers. Joseph's complex was being a stand-out that keeps getting put down. Yours may be outcast/center of attention, merged until you don't exist/total isolation, or sick person/healer. Struggling with your complexes deepens you, makes you interesting, makes you who you are, makes you compassionate and conscious. It transforms.

How do you struggle with a complex? You and it talk. You develop a dialogue between your conscious mind and the unconscious psyche where the complex lurks, banished there by your rationality and identification with only one half of it, the "good" acceptable half. Maybe the Victim is lived, the Dominator hidden. The Fool lived, the Seer hidden. The Tough lived, the Sensitive hidden. But if you learn to listen, you'll meet the other half in your dreams.

An Embarrassingly Quick Course in Dreams

To try to explain dreams in a few paragraphs is pitifully silly on my part. But they are essential resources for HSPs, and while there are good books on the subject, they are not written with you in mind. To get to the HSP-relevant aspects, I have to cover a few basics. I'm going to leave out the "maybes" and "oftens" and write in succinct, flat statements, but dreams do not follow any rules, so nothing I say here is for sure.

First, in my considerable professional experience, dreams are certainly not meaningless. Nor are they meant to be obscure. They are attempts by the psyche to communicate.

What does the psyche want to communicate? "The rest of the story." What you aren't aware of. That's what makes dreams so important. They provide invaluable clues about our "real" attitudes and situations, which then can suggest quite new solutions. If a dream's meaning seems obvious, look again at the little places where what happens or how you react in the dream is not at all what you would expect.

The language the psyche uses to reach you is all symbolic, metaphoric. There's no book of symbols that is universally true--if you dream about a bird or a taxi, you need to think about what a bird or a taxi means to you personally.

No detail in a dream is irrelevant. Odd details are especially important. Watch for puns. A dog collar kept showing up in my dreams, until I got the message to "call her."

Settings of dreams and your age in them usually tells you the general topic. A dream set in the house where you grew up is about just that, your childhood. If you are an adult in that house, it is probably about your childhood and you now.

The amount of emotion in a dream is roughly equivalent to the amount of emotion you need to express or be aware of around that issue in real life. Nightmares and recurring dreams are very important--they are attempts to get your attention, to get you unstuck. You have vast amounts of emotion bottled up.

People and Animals in Dreams

One way to think about people in dreams is as parts of yourself. If an old school friend shows up, ask yourself, who is this person to me? A gossip? Someone wiser than me? My complete opposite? Then think about why you are being visited by that part of yourself and what happens between you and it in the dream. Do you ignore it? Hate it? Does it want to be friends? Merge with you through sex? Remember to think symbolically--sex is not necessarily sex, but intimacy or union.

There are exceptions to seeing people in dreams as parts of yourself. Especially when the persons are close to you, a dream may be about your relationship to them or even information for them. Or the dream may be both about them and them as a part of you. You just have to be very, very careful in these cases, as it was your dream, your idea of them, not necessarily who they are.

The oldest traditions on dreams all tell us that dreams of ancestors, animals, and persons now out of our lives are best taken as helpful visits from them, attempts to direct us. If your deceased grandmother shows up in a dream, ask yourself, "what was Grandmother trying to tell me?" If the grandmother doesn't look like your actual grandmother, perhaps you are being visited by some energy that wants to serve as a grandmother to you. Not a small honor. If a turtle shows up in a dream, ask yourself "What does Turtle have to teach me about my life right now?" Animals are great teachers about the proper instinctual response to situations.

Acting on Dreams

Finally, although dreams can add vast amounts of insight, they should not be acted on without careful thought. The psyche tends to be like nature--kind one minute, cruel the next. It's really not either one. Our human feelings react to it. And human feelings are essential. They make us moral and just plain smart.

Think about Pharaoh's dreams of the thin cows eating the fat ones. It's a simple statement from nature about nature: famine, hunger, survival. Dreams are that way--expressing needs or the psyche's needs without considering any social implications. The dreams did not advise saving up food for seven years, then distributing it. A lesser man than Joseph might have advised Pharaoh to have the rich build high walls around their homes to keep out the poor when the famine comes so that the thin could not eat the fat. But Joseph's advice was far more moral and feeling-oriented. It is up to our conscious, rational minds to weigh the practical and moral implications of any action to be taken because of a dream.

Remembering Dreams

Most HSPs remember dreams often. If you are one of the exceptions, you probably are not getting enough sleep or are having trouble with insomnia. Do what you can to sleep more. (Sleeping medications, however, will also interfere with dreaming, and all but the herbal kinds like chamomile are habit forming.) Try not to use alarms to wake up--the dreams most easily remembered are usually the last ones.

When you do wake up, stay in bed until you have searched your memory a bit for any dreams. At first you won't remember any, but if you stay with it, you often will. You can even try jogging your memory by running through categories--was there a dream set out of doors, at work, with animals, with people, at the beach? Write down any dreams you recall and think about them during the day and before falling asleep that night. All of this tells your unconscious Dreammaker that you are interested in communicating. And of course you don't need lots of dreams--a few a week will keep you busy.

When you usually dream but have stopped for no apparent reason, go back to the last dream or the last big dream and work with it more. In my experience, it is as though your Dreammaker is saying that you don't get another if you aren't going to use what you've already been given. If you don't understand a dream, have the desire for clarification. And no matter how unrelated the next dream, think very hard about whether it is the clarification you asked for. In this way you will develop a dialogue with the source of your dreams.

The Dreams of HSPs

Your dreams probably already have a way of symbolizing your sensitivity. As an example only, for me it's everything to do with my feet--going barefoot on rough ground, the kind or condition of shoes or socks I'm wearing or given or need (socks are especially interesting--the cushioning between inner and outer), anything anyone else does in a dream affecting my feet. Animals related to my sensitivity are fish, birds, and horses (the last are willingly enslaved, strong yet sensitive, quick to run).

As for the struggle between the sensitive and tough parts, I find that dreams involving cruelty, violent crimes, and the like are usually about myself dominating or hurting my sensitive self. So then I look at my life and see where there's a cruel, dominating energy making life hard for my sensitive self. This may be coming from within or a force from outside, but something that I am allowing to happen to me.

As for the up/down complex, it may show up in just the way you would expect symbolically. You are up or down. Maybe you are up on mountains--beautiful or scary mountains, mountains you can't get down from or find your way into. Or it's towers--towers you are climbing, looking up at, on top of. Flimsy towers or firm ones. Then there are the airplanes. Airplanes landing, crashing. Being buried. Being down in a hole. Elevators that are falling or stuck or crowded. (I always think of, "Elevate her.")

Alas, it is hard to know when a dream is compensating for something or showing how it really is. If you are up on a flimsy tower, it may be that you are thinking too well of yourself, on too little basis or you may instead be thinking too poorly of yourself, afraid of any little thought that would isolate you at the top of a dangerous inflation. But then, these two fears are so similar, given the nature of a complex. Indeed, that's probably why it can't be sorted out.

Escaping the Extremes

What do you hope you and your dreams will get you to? Consider Cassandra. She was the prophetess who foresaw the fall of Troy. She had been doomed by Apollo always to know the future but never to be believed. Sound familiar?

Apollo's curse is about the two extremes we must deal with--feeling and often being right, to the point that we may secretly feel omniscient, yet publicly looking like and occasionally acting like a crank. Like all complexes, the up/down complex always makes us feel there are only two terrible choices. In this case, it's say what you think and probably be ridiculed, or keep quiet and feel untrue to yourself, unknown by others, and stuck with going down with a sinking ship you could have saved.

The resolution is not so much about compromise or moderation as it is about "holding the tension of the opposites." The truth is the truth. You say it or you don't. But say it wrong and it isn't heard. So maybe some transcendence of the opposites is the way out. The first step might be revealed in a dream in which you are shot for being a prophet, but revived to become something humbler, a teacher. (For more on that, see Vocation.)

Maybe a dream will show you that you can say part of the truth and save the rest for later. You say the part others are ready to hear, but just haven't put into words yet.

Sometimes even speaking a little of the truth means preparing the ground, looking for the right time, as when Pharaoh's dreams made him ready to listen to anyone, even some guy brought up from prison that his butler knows about. Sometimes that means speaking truth that is sweet, not so bitter that it can't be swallowed. It means being a bit political, a bit astute. Not wearing our coat of many colors around our plain-coated brothers. It took years before Joseph's brothers could hear the truth, that Joseph deserved the coat and the dreams of their bowing down were right. And before Joseph could handle his brothers bowing before him without becoming inflated, but weeping instead, he had to be thrown down into prison many times.

Still, I don't think he ever forgot he had once been given such a coat or that it was a gift given with a special fondness for who he was.


February 2011 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Our Spiritual Life: The Priestly Part of our Being "Priestly Advisors" Part I.
With Depth: Learning about HSPs' Complexes from Joseph the Dreamer.
Books: What I'm Reading.


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

February 2011 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Our Spiritual Life: The Priestly Part of our Being "Priestly Advisors" Part I.

With Depth: Learning about HSPs' Complexes from Joseph the Dreamer.

Books: What I'm Reading.



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