The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
With Depth:
Good Grief

(What Turned Out To Be For Me An Easter Thought)
The last newsletter had an article about unbearable emotions, and I promised not to focus on such dark topics next time, but more thoughts came to me, so consider this more like a postscript.

Perhaps the most unbearable of all emotions is grief over the death of someone very close and dear. But for HSPs, it can be pretty bad even during separations. If you've ever been homesick, you know what I mean. Is there any way to think about grief that could give us a slightly greater perspective, that would help the pain at all?

Most if not all mammals are miserable when separated from their close others, and grieve even more if they realize it's death that has struck. Even the alpha male in a pack of wolves will grieve the death of the lowliest member. We need our group. We are bonded. We are motivated to stay together. And although we can form new bonds, a bond is a bond. So we suffer when it's broken. This is our fate as social animals. I don't mean to say that coldly, but rather very warmly. It's wonderful the way we are, that we can enjoy each other's company so much, and that we are calmer together because we're safer together.

A Terrible Choice

But the more we love, the more certain it is that we are going to suffer grief eventually, unless we die suddenly before any of those we love. It seems that humans are different, and HSPs even more so, because we have brains that have especially developed to consider possible outcomes, and so we can imagine this suffering. We even have a certain amount of choice about it, in a sense. Although we aren't always free to choose our choice. More on that in a moment. The choice is, you can bond or you can try to suppress your instincts and be a relative loner--no spouse, no children, no friends so important you would miss them if they were gone. But recently I had an epiphany, rather obvious I'll admit, that life is much easier and better when you go along with your instincts--to be close, to make friends and to marry and have children if it works out for you. And all of this in spite of how hard as it is in many ways to have these often very complicated relationships, and to grieve them when they are interrupted.

Yet some do make the choice not to love. I don't know of anyone who chooses it without having already suffered an unbearable loss, survived it, but vowed, usually unconsciously (the reason I said we only sort of have choice) to never go through that again. And I know many more who are conflicted about it, sometimes without knowing that the fear of closeness amounts to the fear of separation, loss, and grief.

It's hard to escape love, however. Even monks in a silent monastery are deeply bonded. The early Christians saw that the monks alone in the desert seeking God were only losing their minds, and ordered them to live together. You've heard of sensory deprivation. Well, we can suffer from social deprivation in a similar way. Ever spent too much time alone? I don't mean nice solitude, but too long. And this is coming from an extreme introvert, who loves to be alone--with someone in the next room. Too much time alone and you start to feel very, very weird. Those rare humans "choosing" (if it's really a choice) to be complete loners sentence themselves to anxiety, loneliness and depression. (And those sentenced to this by others are experiencing perhaps the ultimate pain.)

So there are two paths, with two kinds of suffering--one flat and awful, the other full of the extremes of joy and pain. Most of us choose the one of bonding, connection, relatedness, love. But most of us also try to fudge things--to have the joy without the suffering, the love without the grief. We deny the future loss, or we love a little less. We are present with the other person, but not quite present; related but not quite related; needing but not "dependent" (horrors), or constantly shifting partners in the dance of intimacy to prove to ourselves that there will be somebody any old time we need some body. I'm sure these are partly instinctual strategies too. Nor can we be present all the time, with everyone. But it's so easy not to notice that we've gone down this dead end.

Once Again, The Big Picture Comes to the Rescue

To avoid these strategies, maybe it helps to realize how silly it is to try to love less, since the grief is usually just as bad when you lose someone whom you realize too late was a loved one. Then your life fills up with regret and additional grief over what might have been. It's so true that with those on your "short list" of dearly loved people that you want to say everything you might have wished you'd said if they died suddenly. Why wait?

For those who like a quantitative approach, think about how many hours of pleasure you will gain by loving compared to the briefer pain at the end, after the loss. Or the futility of fighting one's basic instincts. Or perhaps most important, that the more one loves, the more one learns how to do it, and you will never run out of people to love, even if at first the thought of transferring your affections from the one you've lost to the new one seems out of the question. Of course it is. No, that person can never be found again. But there are others, different but potentially just as dear. Love is something you feel, that was not taken from you, and so you can feel it again.

What if it is the one you love, not yourself, who is defending against being close? You can talk about it. Even read aloud this article. But if others refuse to see any part of the problem belonging to them, or feel no desire to be closer than the two of you already are, then in a sense you have already lost them, or never had them. You can only have a half full relationship with them.

Many people, however, do want to be close. So it's up to you. Look at others closely, look into their eyes, take the chance. It's partly what you say, largely your presence with the other. (For inspiration, read Martin Buber's I and Thou.)

Tackle Each Part Separately

Okay, back to the hard part. Suppose you've loved and lost the person, or are trying to face the knowledge that you will. And no amount of reasoning will budge the fear. Of course you can't help feeling terrible when separated from someone you love, and you can't help fearing it will happen again. What to do so the grief is tolerable and it does not interfere with your loving again?

For some reason I find it useful to separate out the various feelings I'm having when I'm grieving. I'm not sure why. Sometimes just naming a thing helps. Sometimes knowing the kind of pain tells you the kind of balm it needs or how long it will take to pass.

How do I divide up my grief? There's the first instinctual misery, which is sharp and awful, like a physical pain. Its length probably varies with the length of the anticipated separation. Then during the separation there's the missing actually being with the person, the pleasure of it or the anxiety it reduces. Usually I can be distracted from that, especially if there's someone else I can be with who meets some of the same needs or with whom I can discuss my feelings. If the separation is permanent, you know that time will always heal it. Humans are built to feel it and to heal it.

Then there are the other feelings, which I believe come from past bad experiences. For example, it's very painful if during a separation or after a loss you begin to wonder about the relationship--did this person really care for you? Do they really want to see you again? Are they glad to have a break from you? There may be jealousy about who might be with this person instead of you. Or jealousy about what this person is doing, without you. I suppose all of these feelings can be lumped under fears of abandonment. Usually this is a fear of something that has already happened to you. A person you loved and relied on died when you were young. Never came back. You were once mistaken, thought someone cared for you, and found they did not or thought they hadn't, because they left you often or forever. Maybe a parent left due to a divorce, or your sensitivity detected that one of them rarely gave you a thought or sometimes wished you were not around. That's a pretty bad experience for a child, even if by now you think it's "just a thing of the past."

Another unjustified but unstoppable feeling may be the sort of grief that one would expect to have if you really had lost the person forever, even though you have not. Often this fear is very unconscious, but you find yourself depressed, and if you think back to when it began, it may have involved parting with someone. When infants are separated from their caregiver, they can believe for awhile that the separation is going to end. But after some time, it just feels permanent. And because infants cannot understand words yet, no one can tell them otherwise. They are abandoned, until the abandonment ends. And even if adults could tell an infant when Mother will return, or does tell that to an older child, after awhile, the child can no longer hold that reality. The separation becomes traumatic, an unbearable danger to the cohesiveness of the self. And the fear remains throughout life.

Looking At It In Terms Of Attachment Styles

Another way to understand your personal complex around separation is to think of it in terms of your "attachment style." I speak of attachment theory often because it is so well supported by every sort of research. No one in psychology doubts that attachment styles are formed in infancy, as "mental models" of self and other, and last into adulthood. (And of course HSPs probably experience all three with particular intensity.) There are three types (give or take one or two, depending on the theory). The secure adult still has to deal with the inevitability of loss. One strategy of the secure is, frankly, to deny or minimize it until it happens. HSPs would be more likely to minimize it. After all, they'll tell you, most of a relationship is joyful and close. A second strategy of the secure is to believe, usually correctly, that their needs for closeness and support can be met through more than one person, and another person will like them very much and eventually that new relationship will be as close as the one that was lost.

The insecure also have two methods, and they create the two types. Anxious-ambivalent adults actually have very few defenses against loss, grief, and the fear of these. It's a constant threat they are all too aware of, and they can feel the joy of love quite deeply when the bond is secure for the moment. They just can't trust it. Their strategy is to try to "track" the feelings of the other constantly, to be sure the other is not about to abandon or betray them. They are easily made jealous, although they may hide this if the other doesn't like it. Their "mistake" is that they can't believe anyone else can fill the space that would be left by the one they love. This "mistake" is a strategy born of having to constantly observe and please a care giver. The first attachment bond is supposed to be like this. You figure out who is going to take care of you and hang tight. But when you are secure about that bond, you can begin to branch out. If you aren't, because your care giver is there physically or mentally one moment and gone the next. Your attachment has to be of the One-and-Only type. Don't get confused and love someone else or the important one will be gone. Being filled with the fear of loss and their helplessness to keep the other's attention, the anxious ambivalent type is often depressed and anxious.

The "avoidant" type was neglected or abandoned much more as a child, and learns to pretend not to need anyone. Men also take this strategy, more than women, since men are expected to not show feelings and be independent anyway. But it's only pretending. Avoidants are also always "tracking" mentally those they care about, even if only unconsciously. Their goal is to try to have it both ways, to be loved and not to feel love. They are desperate for some sort of bond, but paradoxically need to care about it as little as possible. You know the type--if you don't call them, you know you'll hear from them soon. They need to be sure you are there. But after that, if you call back again soon, you know you won't hear from them for a long time. They need to be sure you know that they don't really need you. When an anxious-ambivalent and avoidant get together, as they often do, you can imagine the misery they create for each other.

These types are not clear cut. The insecure types can use either strategy, depending on the situation, and are even sometimes secure. And the secure can sometimes enter these difficult mental sets. The test is when there's "attachment stress," such as a loss. Then the underlying security or lack of it usually surfaces. Can the insecurity be gotten rid of or at least minimized? I can offer a guarded "yes." There's something been observed called the "earned secure." I wrote about it in The Highly Sensitive Person in Love. But it always takes a secure relationship, maintained over a long time, in order for it to happen.

Which type are you? You probably know from these descriptions, except avoidant types may miss their pattern. If you find yourself upset or crying "for no reason," look closer for the reason. If you think you can live without people, look again at why you would think that.

And how does knowing all of this help with grief? I'm not sure. But sometimes it does. Maybe it's being able to attribute some of it elsewhere puts the loss in perspective.

Go With the Flow

Perhaps the most important means of making grief "good" is to just go with the flow, hard as that may be. It's just nature and you can't fight nature very much for very long. Deep down, you want to be close to certain people. So, you are going to feel bad when you can't be. It's so natural to do both. Almost everyone wants to be close--don't worry too much about your attachment style. All your defenses will probably fail you and you will be close to someone anyway. Just try not to make them and you too miserable with your old fears. Go with the flow of now.

And, again, loss is inevitable. Try to go with the flow of grief, too. It's so natural. At least everyone understands what you're feeling. Be held by the soft, dark arms of Grief, the archetype, which we all carry and know instinctively how to handle. You wait. Wait for the natural recovery. For those who are comforted by Christian symbols, you wait for the Resurrection.

May 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Personality and Temperament: The Highly Sensitive Person Who Is Also A High Sensation Seeker
Coping Corner: Jet Travel And HSPs
With Depth: Good Grief

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