The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary/March 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
With Depth:
Seeing the Big Picture--What We Do as Priestly Advisors

You know that I like to talk about "warrior kings" and "priestly advisors" as the two ruling classes in aggressive societies. Not only has this structure been described by anthropologists, but it just makes sense. Aggressive societies get that way by taking the offensive and having bold warriors and kings (and business persons and politicians). But something has to balance that bold, impulsive energy. That's the role of the priestly advisors (they also tend to raise future kings, at least in legend). If the warrior mind set is not balanced, a society can get into considerable trouble by not looking ahead to the long-term consequences of impulsive, aggressive actions. And of course I think HSPs tend to take the priestly advisor role.

More specifically, our role is to provide a better thought-out and therefore more useful-in-the-long-run perspective on a given situation. And in order to do that, to grasp a situation as fully as possible, we need to see it in the largest possible context. as well as in its details. We also need to feel the full emotional significance of all the possible outcomes of a situation, for ourselves and others. Anyone can get the details, and it is easy to be caught up in the first emotions created by a situation. But to see and feel the thing in the larger context--this is difficult. This is our job.

Happily, this ability to see the "big picture" is our specialty as HSPs. The more we process something, the more we put it in the context of our other knowledge and experiences. Of course HSPs can lose the big picture, especially if we are caught up in our own negative emotions, like fear, anger, and despair. These create stress and overarousal, and overarousal tends to interfere with deep processing and clear thinking.

Fortunately, if I can say that, we feel bad feelings so deeply that we are forced to think of ways to free ourselves from them. And when we do that, we also free ourselves from those narrow, distressed viewpoints. So in spite of being so emotional, we can be remarkably calm, too. The calmer we are, the better we can see the big picture; the more we see it, the calmer we are. So while it will not always work, at good place to begin is the application of the big picture to our own emotional reactions.

The Larger Perspective On Our Own Emotions

Although our emotional reactions are usually determined by past experiences with situations something like the current one--the big picture--emotions generally function to focus us on the immediate situation. We have to act--to run, fight, cry, explore, or whatever--right now. Sometimes that's just the right thing to do. That's why emotion gets us moving. E-motion. But so often we would be better off reflecting before we speak or act. If that seems to be the case, but we are all in a panic or rage, what can we do?

Meditating is one of the best ways to return to the big picture. Meditating calms us down, spreads our mind out, expands it, and all at once this particular thing does not seem so important. Being out in nature also helps. Try looking at the stars--there's a big picture.

Indeed, our own mind can take us to a bigger picture, with an image of time as vast as the universe. How important will this crisis be in a week, a year, ten years, a billion? How important are you or I in the scheme of things? Wouldn't we be happier if we could relax and see our relative unimportance?

Suppose I'm working frantically on a project that is overdue. I know that my franticness is not helping and is also not good for me. So how important is meeting this deadline, really? I might protest that it would create huge problems for others. How huge? Maybe not so huge. Or I might say that the big picture is that I might lose my job and be out on the street. Well, how bad would that be? Is there nothing else I could do to make a living or to live less expensively? Maybe I could do something quite different with my life.

What about fear? I find it helpful to actually think through the worst case scenario. The big picture here is often figuring out the odds that the thing you fear will actually happen. And then again, if it does, how bad would it be? Often I find I can face it better than I thought I could. Once you are face to face with the worst case, well, you can start looking at the stars and your place in the universe and perhaps make contact with a larger, braver part of yourself. For example, everyone has to die. Every adult you know will be dead a hundred years from now. Of course every cell in your body does not want to die. But there is a bigger picture that you can speak to your body about. It is star dust, after all.

How about anger? Often the big picture here is the other person's perspective, including the possibility that the person is simply too ignorant to do better. Or the big picture question is whether expressing your anger will be worth the hassle in the long run.

Depression, hopelessness, sorrow--those are the most difficult to settle down by taking the big picture. Often it--s a big picture that has us stuck. "I'll never be happy." "I'll always fail." "There will never be another like him." "No one I love will ever love me the way I want to be loved." We aren't riled up. Our emotions are down and spread out over everything.

These are the emotions that require the most careful application of the big picture. Often the only way to revive a happier long-term perspective is through someone you care about just being there, sharing the burden. Social animals always feel better in the company of others. If this is not possible, how about some time in nature, including some vigorous exercise, or getting a good night's sleep (if you can)? These almost always provide a bigger picture without your having to strain to think differently with those usually depressing results.

The difficult news to face about depression is that, while medications relieve the symptoms, a big picture that can make life meaningful through thick and thin is only created from within. If you are not able to find a meaningful larger perspective, this is an invaluable sign that you have some deep inner work to do. Often depression does not diminish substantially until you heed that sign.

A Bigger, Better Picture

Our little egos can be reduced to a very small perspective. Fortunately, we have within us something quite miraculous, that I can't pretend to explain, that is able to take an enlarged, wide angle picture of ourselves show it to us. This inner photographer is whoever or whatever makes our dreams. Dreams always give us "the rest of the story," meaning a more complete picture. Dreams do not necessarily tell us exactly what to do. But neither does a larger picture. We still must contribute the ego's conscious thought. That thought will be much more calm and accurate, however, in the light of the information found in our dreams, once we learn to decode them.

For example, nightmares often tell us about a terrible inner situation, and recurring nightmares tell us that situation is still there. It's up to us to figure out the meaning and do something about it, by first appreciating and then working with that part of us that is so upset and until eventually it is soothed.

Actually, besides our dreams, all of our emotions can give us a bigger picture than our rational mind can do, especially if our emotions don't fit with that rational picture. "I'm supposed to be happy yet I'm so sad." "I ought to be angry but I'm really not." Indeed, all sorts of problems, symptoms, and even illnesses can give us a bigger picture about our life. Try facing a terminal illness if you want to know what's really important.

As we appreciate more fully our dreams and emotions, we begin to sense how large life itself is. The dreams never end, the emotions never stop. Our ego moves in a sea of life. What is this sea, and what gives it the order we sense? How does it become a picture at all, and not just chaos? There is a larger center to us all. Jungian psychologists call it the Self, but you can call it whatever you like. You could think of it as the transcendent, the transpersonal, or God, in the sense that the Kingdom of God is within and organizing our little lives into something meaningful. Our relationship to that larger thing is what ultimately provides us with a steady Big Picture.

So much for my glib advice. Now, assuming you are in a frame of mind to reflect on the big picture for others as well as yourself, let's take some examples.

The Big Picture and Relationships

When a relationship is having any kind of trouble, it helps to look at the big picture, starting with the other person's perspective. Taking their perspective can be painful, because often we are the cause of their difficulties! Who wants to hear that? But if you can recall that you are merely a bundle of emotional reactions from your own past relationships, you don't have to feel so ashamed of being wrong or a pain in the neck. You weren't born a problem, and neither was the other person. Something shaped you, and the other, so that you would become a problem for each other.

How much has to do with temperament? Part of the big picture here is realizing that some things about you or the other person can't be changed. But for every negative aspect of a temperament trait, there's a positive one. Further, every relationship has problems. When you enter a relationship, you take on a set of problems. Always.

Still, some problems are bigger than others. And some could be improved. If you take the big picture of ten years from now, do you think this relationship will improve? Are either of you changing yourselves? If not, it is highly unlikely that things will change between you. Will that be okay with you, ten years from now? Will you go to your grave resenting someone else for preventing you from living your life the way you wanted to? Bad idea. The big picture offered by your grave will bring it into focus.

Or suppose I lose someone I love. This is truly difficult for anyone--we are social animals, we become attached to those we like and spend intimate time with. Yet the world is full of people to love. Some need our love, others would like to help us by giving us their love. New bonds form, as long as we stay open to that larger possibility.

Politics and the Big Picture

Let's move outward. When we are disappointed with our political leaders, it often helps tremendously to read history or listen to those calm commentators who liken our times to times in the past. Even if historical events seem to be like those that preceded bad times, like the fall of the Roman Empire or the chaos of the French Revolution, we can appreciate that most people lived through these times. They were simply witnesses to some craziness. It's good to do all that you can to direct the flow of history, but let's face it--the majority of people involved are overwrought, disturbed, and short-sighted. You can only do so much to direct their energies in a better direction.

What about the really bad stuff? Right after 9/11 most of us felt our lives would never be the same. Terrorists would be doing awful things from now on. We had to get revenge. We were lost in our riled up, perspective-diminishing emotions.

A few days later someone told me about a lecture they heard in which the speaker insisted that the right way to view this event was as an unusual historical event, much like the sinking of the Titanic. The best thing we all could do for ourselves and those around us would be to stop seeing it as a turning point and to take a larger perspective.

How true that was. It reminded me that I grew up with the A-bomb always over my head. I thought every plane passing over might drop one. I lived through the Cuba Missile Crisis, fully expecting to be evaporated by a mushroom cloud at any moment. So far, at least, I'm still here. Some things have changed, but not all that much. Until they actually do, you stand up for what you believe is the best way to behave in such a crisis. But you also keep a part of you relaxed. Okay, so you die in the name of freedom. You will be in good company. It's a worthy cause, and there are many such causes. Since you must die anyway, if you die for something you believe in, isn't that something? Which brings us to the long human, indeed animal, struggle with evil.

The Larger Perspective on Evil

Both HSPs and most non-HSPs are horrified by the evil humans do to each other, to animals, and to the environment. By evil I mean doing something cold and calculated that you know will hurt others. Is it our nature to be evil? Let's try to look at the bigger picture.

Well, are animals evil? Sometimes. You might enjoy reading Jane Goodall’s Through a Window for her observations of chimpanzees--sometimes the males murder systematically and females have occasionally eaten the offspring of other, related females. It's not common behavior at all, but it does occur. It was always explainable, after the fact. In this sense it was "natural." Something to fear, but not insolvable.

Humans obviously do evil too, and much more of it, as well as expressing much more kindness than chimps generally show. So the question is, what conditions drive primates and humans to do such behaviors? What conditions help them remain peaceful and loving? How can we create the peace-inducing conditions and reduce the violence-stimulating conditions? Who has addressed the issues? Gandhi for one, who taught ahimsa, nonviolence, which he rightly warned us must be practiced, at least for now, in a sea of himsa, violence. The problem has not yet been solved. Yet no chimpanzee group has produced a Buddha, Jesus, or Gandhi, so we must be making progress.

Bigger picture, nature itself. The universe. Cold and uncaring or full of love? Love is certainly what we want and what we see, but we can also see the other. What if it is both? What if we determine for ourselves, in each moment, which one predominates around us?

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish HSP who lived in Amsterdam during the Holocaust and eventually died at Auschwitz. Although she shared a fate with six million others, she was a rare soul whose diaries describe a spiritual journey that is very uplifting today and will be for many generations, I am sure. Etty took a larger view of her situation. She knew she would die and that it was not that important. She saw that her task was to make sense of something utterly senseless and horrible. To maintain her trust in something larger, to stay in contact with it as best as she could. To appreciate each day of freedom and life so that it was not wasted. To be kind and gracious to others, and to control her emotions on her "bad days" so that she did not make things worse for those around her. We have the same tasks today. It requires similar heroism sometimes.

The Bigger Picture Spiritually

Etty Hillesum leads us to the spiritual. She grew spiritually, so that she could be loving and present with others and with herself during the darkest horrors. That's really something. But what does it mean? Why and how could she be that way? Why would taking a spiritual outlook help her so much? Was she kidding herself?

We HSPs know she was not, but we can't say why, at least in a way that would satisfy everyone else. The spiritual bigger picture is just too big for anyone to fully describe. It’s the largest one of all, isn’t it? Science can show us the wonders of life and the universe, but it can't explain its ultimate origins or the larger picture in which it is situated. Our universe might be the contents of a single electron-like blob making up one vein in one wing of a fly sitting on a horse being ridden by--who? We don't know. It's a huge mystery and it will remain so, forever. We can name it something or ignore it, pray to it or curse it, call it sacred or call it a field of energy-matter-space-time. All we know is that there is no big picture without someone to look at it. That's our human task, and the task of HSPs most of all.

February/March 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: The Highly Sensitive Parent
Sensitive Health: What To Say To The Professionals Who Doubt The Whole Idea Of High Sensitivity
With Depth: Seeing the Big Picture--What We Do as Priestly Advisors

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