The art of putting yourself first, sometimes means saying “No”, and sometimes it means facing fears and saying “Yes”.
For many people around the world it’s that crazy time of year again with lots of social events creeping into the calendar. If you have any sensory processing sensitivities (also known as Highly Sensitive People or HSPs) or are even slightly empathic, this can be a time that creates a great deal of angst and leaves you feeling a bit like you can’t win.
Even although I understand that I am highly sensitive, I still find myself wondering whether I am intuitively inclined to want to turn down a social invitation because I’m saying yes to me, or whether I’m saying no because it’s something I’m resisting out of fear.
And by me, I mean the authentic me, the one that has been emerging; discovering what my own feelings are, what is true for me, what I like and don’t like, want and don’t want. More than anything it’s about knowing where I start and end, as opposed to the feelings and wants and desires of those around me; and those who shaped the person I had learned how to be as a child.
The Inner Dilemma
The main thing we hide from as highly sensitive people is our exposure to too much. As an HSP, it’s mainly about our exposure to the physical world around us; the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and/or physical touch of others. As an empath, it’s our awareness of other people’s feelings that can send us into hyper drive. I have both these traits, and a social invitation sets my mind swirling.
For example, we just received an invite this week for our family to attend a potluck (bring a dish) dinner at the weekend with some families from the kids’ school. On one hand the empath in me is thinking about how my kids would absolutely love to go; with so many of their school friends there they would both have a ball.
The HSP in me is also thinking about how nice it might be to catch up with everyone beyond the brief exchanges at drop off and pick up times, perhaps even have an opportunity for some deep delve conversations with one or two people.
On the other hand, I’m thinking about what it might be like to have a succession of fairly shallow conversations with most people, how noisy it will be and how difficult it will be to focus my attention. I’m also thinking about how difficult it will be to extract the kids at a reasonable hour and, of course, how over-stimulated they will be at that time of day; normally reserved for winding down to bedtime.
With two kids who seem on the limits of what they can manage in a social context by just attending school, anything outside of that shows up instantly in their behaviours, meltdowns being the order of the day. One child folds in on herself, withdrawing from the world to the extent I can’t even get an answer about whether or what she would like to eat. If pushed (especially by her sister) she explodes like a volcano.
My other daughter skips the folding in part, she is just all out there; losing her patience, temper and any powers of rational thinking in the blink of an eye; eggshells are walked upon and tempers flare.
I mention this in more detail because it’s these very reactions that many of us were taught to suppress as a child that opened us up to the gifts we have today. I understand that for some it was in anticipating the dangerous reactions of an adult that you depended upon that your sensitivities developed, but most of us were expected to conform to certain behavioural standards that ignored what we thought or how we felt anyway and now drive our guilt if we even contemplate putting ourselves first.
This is the part that haunts me on occasions like this. When I catch myself wondering how many times I can say no without feeling guilty, I know I am standing in the shadows of my childhood. Western society tends to value those who are more social and outgoing and, certainly, social invitations (I was taught) should always be accepted unless there is a very good reason not to.
How I feel was not one of those reasons. Death, being in a different country or otherwise engaged in an important work matter (that one cannot be extricated from) may just cut the mustard. Whether I actually want to attend is not anywhere on the list of acceptable reasons to say no.
Draining or Recharging?
When I think back over the social invites my partner and I have debated over (he likes attending these things even less than I do), it seems so clear that what we have been debating is our own value. We, like many of you, have been brought up to value good manners (as determined by societal norms) over our own feelings.
So it helps me to think of myself like the battery on my device; some things recharge me, others deplete me. For example, I relish contemplating words or a phrase I might hear that tugs upon my being, begging to be explored further (like the topic of this article); it’s a definite recharge activity. As is interacting with others who get an ah ha moment from our conversation, or inspires that in me; conversely I find chit-chat draining.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to defining who we are and what we like. It’s not even as simple as being sensitive (since that shows up for each of us in different ways), or an extrovert or an introvert. Put me in the midst of a room where I have to focus my attention amid chatter and noise and my battery will drain fast; yet play some loud music I can get lost in, or dance to, and I’m a happy camper.
I am not shy, I am actually quite friendly, just not very sociable. I’m someone who likes and needs the scales tipped more on time for inward attention and reflection than outward attention.
I know my kids will not suffer from lack of social interaction, thirty hours a week of giving their attention out at school seems to be enough for now. We can and do catch up with their friends during school holidays and do daytime activities; school days and evenings are pretty much no-go zones for us.
So when I consider this latest social invite, and consider an alternative (more appealing) low key family bike ride in the forest earlier in the day and then home for a chill out, I know I am saying yes to me (and the whole family) by saying no to the invite.
On the flip side, I was also invited to attend a Family Constellations workshop this week. While there was the usual pang of regret that yet another thing was threatening to impinge upon my precious me time, I knew that saying no would have been nothing short of me resisting out of fear.
The fear in this instance relates to working in close physical proximity with people I don’t know well. Family constellations does some deep personal work, often using others as a proxy for a person or issue in your life. While that in itself is not done in a confrontational way, I still find it challenging to lean into someone or stare into another’s eyes while in the process of working things through.
However, that discomfort was surpassed by my desire for some new inspiration and challenge. So I decided to feel the fear and do it anyway, as Susan Jefferies would say, and do not regret my decision. I had a great morning, very enlightening, and came away feeling inspired and uplifted.