The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay/June 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
With Depth:
A Book Review Leads to a Lesson about the Body

The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World's Most Beloved Neighbor
by Amy Hollingsworth (Integrity, 2005).

I went to the library knowing I had a fever. I wanted to find something to read before I took myself off to bed. This book about Mr. Rogers was one that caught my eye. How many of you watched him as a child, or caught his show while your children watched? Or laughed at the many parodies of him? He was hard to miss. Starting in 1968, he taped 900 shows for Public Television, which are still being shown. (I'm using the past tense only because he died in 2003.)

I'm almost certain Fred Rogers was an HSP, one who truly celebrated having the trait and being different, without doubting the value of anyone else's uniqueness. Consider these words of his: "And so, for me, being quiet and slow is being myself, and that is my gift." Or the fact that each show began with a yellow light, signaling "it's time to slow down." Not that all HSPs are slow at everything, but we do like to gather all the information before we make a decision. We can understand his trademark song, "I like to Take my Time," in which he sings that "I mean that when I want to do a thing, I like to take my time to do it right." (p. 2). We like to be careful and we like to stay calm.

Care and calm is what Mr. Rogers embodied. He had a daily ritual on his show of coming in and replacing his dress shoes with sneakers, his suit jacket with a cardigan. He did this very deliberately, in both senses. He wanted to be a calming influence on television, where most shows overstimulate and distress children, especially the young ones whom he saw as especially vulnerable to the media's powerful effects.

But all of this was also just who Mr. Rogers was. For example, his own life had the same sense of calm ritual. He arose at 5 am for prayer, reflection, and Bible reading. At 7:30 am he took a swim at the local pool, weighing in at exactly 143. He went to work at the studio at 9, praying that his work would convey something of spiritual value. He went to bed every night at 9:30. He ate no meat, drank no alcohol. Sound like some HSPs you know?

Raising Sensitive Children

Care and calm were part of the tone of his show and the result of his personality, but also the principle behind his views of child development. As the author of this book, Amy Hollingsworth, points out, Fred Rogers believed very much in that great HSPs principle of doing less and accomplishing more. He likened it to the best way to deal with quicksand: The more you hurry, the more you don't get where you need to be. He felt the principle especially "applies to a child's emotional development...Hurriedness causes it to be hard and resistant." It was as though he wanted to serve sensitive children in particular, but also to preserve as much sensitiveness as possible in every child.

The reasons for his passion for keeping the sensitive part of each child alive probably came from his own childhood, He was an only child until age eleven, overweight, often sickly, playing alone much of the time, and frequently bullied. He was "scared to death to go to school" (p. 124), so he was usually driven back and forth, to protect him from the violence of the other boys. He did not turn all of this upon himself, however. He resented the teasing, the not being accepted for who he was, and having no where to express his feelings. "I cried to myself whenever I was alone. I cried through my fingers as I made up songs on the piano. I sought out stories of other people who were poor in spirit, and I felt for them" (p. 125-126). What a familiar story for sensitive boys especially.

A Peacemaker Who Embraced Negative Emotions

Like all sensitive children, Fred Rogers was highly emotional. Not surprisingly, it was a very important subject to him. "As a sensitive child," Hollingsworth writes, "he tried to find safe outlets for his feelings, especially the negative ones" (p. 57). He told her in an interview that if there were one legacy he would like to pass on from the shows, it would be that feelings are all right. You don't have to hide them. There are always ways to say how you feel without hurting you or anyone else.

But his was not a philosophy of "anything goes." If you look carefully, you find that Mr. Rogers was equally passionate about control or what is now called "affect regulation." We can have strong feelings, as HSPs do, but also feel them and express them in controlled ways that prevent undo distress on ourselves and others. Thus, while he was famous for his views on supporting a child's self-esteem, he did not advocate praising what was not praiseworthy. But to him a negative behavior was simply an unskilled attempt to express emotions, and therefore still important and even valuable for what it was, a message. He always returned to the principle of honesty, authenticity, being yourself.

I think we can say that, like many HSPs, Mr. Rogers was passionate about peace and preventing violence due to his sensitivity to it. Author Hollingsworth tells a story from Rogers about his coming upon his five-year-old grandson watching super heroes on a children's show. He sat down with the boy and confessed that he found what was happening on the screen scary, even as an adult. As the show became more violent, he pointed out that people should not do that to each other. His grandson informed him that the machine guns were only killing bad guys, and Rogers responded that there are better ways to deal with bad people than killing them.

That night Fred Rogers wrote a public service announcement aimed at children, for any television station that would air it: "Some television programs are loud and scary, with people shooting and hitting each other. Well, you can do something about that, you can turn it off. And when you do turn it off, that will show you that you are the strongest of them all. It takes a very strong person to be able to turn off scary TV" (p. 95).

A Strong But Gentle Voice

In 1969, before he was a TV icon, Rogers appeared before a Senate Subcommittee on Communications, arguing for a large grant for public television that seemed would never escape committee with the necessary support. The committee chair was a brusque, skeptical senator who kept interrupting as Rogers tried to speak in his slow way. Rogers knew he would not be given the time to read his ten-page "philosophical statement," so he said he was trusting the chairman would read it, trust being "one of the first things a child learns in a healthy family." The senator interrupted again, finding all of this irrelevant.

Rogers was undeterred, but got briefer. "This is what I give. I gave an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, 'You've made this a special day by just your being you. There's no person in the world like you, and I like you just the way you are.' I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service."

The chairman softened: "I'm supposed to be pretty tough guy. This is the first time I've had goose bumps in the last two days."

Rogers expressed his gratitude for the goose bumps, but with a steely face. Goose bumps are not money. He went on to recite with great conviction the words to his song "What Do You Do (with the Mad That You Feel)," as if controlling his own anger that anyone could doubt the value of public television. And with the last words of the song, "Know that there's something deep inside that helps us become who we can," Fred Rogers finally got what he wanted. The chairman said, "I think it's wonderful. That is just so wonderful. Looks like you just won the twenty million dollars."

A Spiritual Life Without Fanfare

Perhaps what caught my attention most about this man was that he was a Presbyterian minister who had been given the mission of serving children, but who knew it? For twenty-five years he was able to teach spiritual values of tolerance, honesty, and kindness without ever using the word "God." Instead he embodied St. Francis of Assisi's admonition to "preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."

Unfortunately the author is not quite so reticent, so you will have to be comfortable with mainline Christian writing should you read the book yourself. But remember that Mr. Roger's own view about not mentioning God on the program, besides it being on public television, was that he did not want children raised without a religious upbringing to feel left out. He would not want you left out either.

Mr. Rogers not only attended seminary, but also had advanced degrees in music and child development. That is, he was a well-rounded personality, and well informed about the task he had taken on. Nor was he the sort of self-righteous believer who is unaware of his own shadow. He was quite conscious that the various characters on his show represented parts of himself, including the obnoxious ones. He was probably most Daniel Striped Tiger, a shy guy fond of talking about "important things" like fear and sadness and what it means to love. But there was also King Friday XIII, a pompous ruler who liked "making pronouncements--long ones when short ones will do" (p. 58).

A Lesson For Us All About Vulnerability

What impressed me the most, perhaps, was Fred Rogers willingness to be himself, to be vulnerable. I think this is especially difficult for HSPs just because we are so much more vulnerable than others, so we often try to hide this in order not to be shamed or feel odd. But Fred Rogers was determined to let us be ourselves through his own example. On one show he tried break dancing, on another the Charleston, with the predictable results. Trying to roller skate on a show, he wobbled and almost fell. Trying to teach an exercise, he hopelessly mixed up a sequence of head, shoulders, knees, and toes, laughing it off.

Even letting us see what he was good at, swimming, to him meant allowing the camera to join him at the local pool and watch him from the shoulders up while he disrobed, taking off his suit and tie, putting on a Speedo. Then exposed without the good old cardigan and sneakers, he swam alone, sweet music playing, "laying bear his best gift, his honest self" (p. 61).

The Body As Spiritual Teacher

As I said at the outset, I read this book at the start of a not-serious-but-hard-to-get-over illness which has turned out to be a major test of my own ability to treat myself like the HSP that I am. Further, there were major psychological components to this illness. On April 7, 2003, I had some upsetting news. I was with a certain friend at the time. So what, huh? Well, on April 7, 2005, I had forgotten about the anniversary of the event and was planning to visit that same friend. But as the time approached to leave, I started feeling sick. I cancelled our meeting, went to the library to get some books, and crawled into bed, shivering. Later my temperature soared. It was several weeks before I realized the coincidence of the anniversary and the illness. Had I gotten sick to avoid recreating that event of two years before?

But it gets better. I was sick all weekend, yet kept stubbornly trying to do the things I had planned. On Monday I was supposed to fly to New York from San Francisco, but my doctor nixed that idea. What convinced me was not the danger to my health, but to my fellow passengers. (He cited a study finding that one man with TB traveling from Korea to New York City gave tuberculosis to all eight of the passengers seated around him--front, behind, and either side.) So took the antibiotics he prescribed, since it seemed like I might have pneumonia, and I restlessly rested some more.

The fever did recede and after four days I was able to fly back to New York City. I had a fairly active weekend, although I noticed I was easily tired. I am sick so rarely that I had no sense of how much rest I needed. That Tuesday was very stressful, as I was waiting for to hear about something similar to the event of two years before. Once again the news was upsetting.

My fever came back. What a surprise (not). And I felt as though a brick was sitting on my chest, especially if I walked fast or farther than a block or went up a flight of stairs. I went to another doctor, got more antibiotics. The fever went away but the cough and weakness did not. I had to cancel appearing at the East Coast HSP Gathering, and when I tried to talk to them by phone, I found I couldn't speak for more than twenty minutes. After that day I also developed laryngitis. I was beginning to feel like a real mess.

Finally I saw a pulmonary specialist, and he told me that I was getting over whatever I had had, but it seemed that the recovery would be slow. I asked if I could take another scheduled trip. He said that he supposed that I could at this point-if I was willing to do 50% less, and what I did do, to do it 50% slower. He thought I would be weak for a long time.

I repeat, I had never been sick for more than a few days. And slow is not really me. I walk fast, talk fast, plan a lot into a day. I'm also used to exercising daily-hiking, swimming, horseback riding. But if I did any of that now, the brick returned to pressing down on my chest. I was being told firmly what I could and could not do.

Why this lesson now? Well, I just turned sixty, and while fast is fine, but I'm not sure it's always right for an HSP over many years. I think we often learn to pack our lives full in order to please others, seem normal, or prove ourselves worthy. What had I been doing just before this illness? Just as an example, see the opening of this newsletter: I'd been traveling around Europe, at the end speaking to an audience of almost a thousand. I don't want to say that HSPs can't do that. We can. Mr. Rogers could. But we have to be exceptionally calm and attuned to our bodies.

Along Comes Mr. Rogers

I find bookstores and libraries overwhelming-all those titles, and how do you decide what's worth reading? Fortunately, I have a knack for just happening upon books that prove unusually useful to me. So, back to the scene of me, fever rising, going to the library to try to find something to read while I rested. And there were the words of Mr. Rogers: "So, for me, being quiet and slow is being myself, that is my gift." I recognized the words of an HSP at peace with himself. My wise body-teacher was beginning to look a lot like Mr. Rogers.

I have often said that the body is our wise old spiritual teacher, quietly and firmly insisting that we live according to natural law. When we disobey, the punishment is swift but without anger.

I have also written about the infant body, which we take care of in the manner that we were taken care of as infants. I think it's both, two opposites working together. I will not go on and on about the teachings of my own spiritual master/body or the needs of my particular infant/body. But I do think I can pass on some additional principles I have learned from my body since writing The Highly Sensitive Person, whether I always follow them or not. They are probably commons sense to most of you, but I keep having to relearn them.

Lessons From The Master

* Spend "quality time" with the body. Maybe yoga or dancing. A daily stretching routine before bed. I like to light a candle and massage myself with sesame oil (it penetrates the skin best, but use the untoasted kind to avoid smelling like a delicious Chinese dish). I pay close attention to each part, as I would to old friends. Sometimes I find that when I'm done, I'm both closer and more distant from my master-infant-body. More distant in that I am suddenly clear that I am NOT my body. But also clear that any state of consciousness is the product of it, and hence I can be whom I want to be spiritually only if I am in close partnership with my body.

* "Motion is life." I've learned not to stay motionless or do a repetitive motion for too long. If I feel my body getting stiff or my brain stagnant, sometimes I just take a walk, but I've also learned from a body worker to gently move a selection of limbs (doing them all takes too long), pumping life into the joints and muscles, by making 30 circling motions with, for example, the foot, then the lower leg (bent at knee), the upper leg (leg swings), and so on. Or the hand, lower arm, upper arm, shoulder, both arms. I circle or swing or extend as far as possible. I also learned that tapping or gently sweeping an area with the hand can give it "life." Of course if anything hurts or might be hurt, I don't do it. Then I lie down and marvel at how alive I feel.

* I try to go to the doctor promptly when something seems wrong, and along the way I keep searching for those doctors who do not, too often, make me feel ashamed for my detailed observations, my rushing in about every little symptom, or my reservations and penetrating questions about the tests and treatments passed out so nonchalantly these days.

* I'm finding some genius body workers out there. They come in all fields, from massage therapists and yoga teachers to osteopaths and acupuncturists. Most are HSPs and can "read" the body better than I can, thanks to their years of experience with that language. I don't feel I have to stay loyal to one in particular. When I've gotten what I can from that person, I try to make myself move on. If it really helps or feels good, why not? At least some people say, "You only live once."

* I treat an illness or injury as very solid, real, and material. But I also consider its possible additional psychological or symbolic meaning. The spiritual teacher who is the body often speaks in these puns or cryptic messages. You know what I mean, I think.

  • Trouble breathing? What's happening to your spirit?
  • Skin rash? What's up with your boundaries? Feeling thin skinned?
  • Heart hurting? Who or what broke it?
  • Sore neck? Are you being stiff necked? Is someone a pain in the neck? Are you decapitating yourself in order to keep mind/brain and body from communicating with each other?

* I notice more and more the subtle effects of what I eat. (But I try not to worry if I ate something "wrong" and I really try not to preach to others about what they should eat.) I hope I'm not just being dragged off by my inner puritan, but I find it easier and easier to eat what's good for me. Whole foods, etc. Funny thing is that most of what's for sale to eat (all those muffins, cookies, and meats) I now consider non-food, like boxes of soap or auto parts.

So that's what I've learned from my body. What have you learned? Now I'm sounding like Mr. Rogers. If you watch him on TV, although he's no longer alive, you feel his life, and that means the calmness of his body, which can speak to yours: "And so, for me, being quiet and slow is being myself, and that is my gift." It was his gift to me, or I hope to make it a little more so.

May/June 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
From the Field: How the HSPs Organized Themselves in Holland by Rijn de Jonge
Sensitive Children: How Can We Talk About Sensitivity to Children (For Example, to Sixth Graders)?
With Depth: A Book Review Leads to a Lesson about the Body
More Books: Three Quick Reviews

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