To all my fellow deep feeling, highly sensitive persons (empaths unite)
Updated: May 15
Lately, six different friends have reached out to me, separately, to share that they are either choosing to go off work entirely or are deciding to go down to part time. Each one of them has confided in me the deep pain and shame that they are experiencing from making this decision, the societal pressures they experience, and the profound sense that they are somehow defective and unable to live up to the expectations of society around them. In other words, they have the underlying sense that there is something very wrong with them. Why can't they just suck it up, stuff it down and continue on like the rest of the population?
These are exactly the feelings that I have been grappling with since deciding to move to part-time work with my day job five years ago. I was experiencing overwhelming anxiety, fatigue, lac of concentration, inability to focus and/or care for myself in the ways that I needed to. My sense was (and has still been to a certain degree) that there was something wrong with me for not being able to 'fit in' to the working world in the ways that I felt I was supposed to. It has been a deep challenge for me, as a single person, to figure out how to support myself while not working full time, manage health costs without benefits, and just in general keep up with the basic costs of every day life. Still, it was a decision that I felt I had to make for my own overall health and wellbeing. To continue to work full time would have been disastrous for me. It continues to be the right decision for me to work part time, and yet, I continue to feel the subtle and not so subtle pressure around me that it should just be a temporary thing while I work to being able to move back to the correct way of existing. Just the other week I was having a conversation with my mom where she suggested that perhaps eventually I would be ‘able to' work full time again. But I have absolutely no intention of going that route and here's why:
I am an artist. A creative type. I like - nay, I require, to be able to express myself creatively. When I don't, my overall health suffers. This creativity comes spontaneously. It does not abide by a 9-5 schedule. It suffocates under the restraints of a boxed in lifestyle where I am overseen by the governance of management and the 'higher ups'. Working a 9-5 job has always, and will always continue to feel like a prison to me. I never understood this entirely as a young person. Fed the social rhetoric of the way that I was supposed to live, I didn't understand why I had such a hard time with it. It was never that I was lazy or didn't want to work. Throw me into an inspired creative project and I will forego eating, sleeping, socializing and pretty much anything else happening in my life in order to complete it. I work around the clock with passion, vigour and dedication. What I despise, is having to sit in an office for eight hours a day, despite what work needs to be done, and even if there is nothing to be done - as if my soul is imprisoned by the conventional, industrial work complex.
But there is another reason for my avoidance of the classic 9-5 and it has taken me years to figure out, acknowledge and honour. And that is this. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, an empath, a healer, an artist, a creative and a deep feeler. Always have been, always will be. It has been that way since I was born. Constantly picking up on the energy and emotional states around me, it has felt almost impossible to simply exist and function in this world in may ways. My nervous system is highly attuned to my environment. I pick up on subtle cues around me. I absorb other people's emotional energy. I have a very difficult time regulating my nervous system and emotional state on the best of days when I'm alone, never mind when I'm out in the world picking up whatever everyone else is giving off. At the age of 36 I have only JUST begun to truly understand what this means and how to manage it and it's been a long road towards that understanding.
Along with the sensitivity traits that I was born with has come inherited belief systems that began in my earliest years. These belief systems have evolved around the idea that I am too sensitive, too deep, too emotional, too much. My feelings and observations and sensitivities about the world make others uncomfortable. Others who are less in tune with their feelings typically do not want to be reminded of their own emotional realities. It is inconvenient and scary for them. It is easier not to look inside and understand their emotional worlds. I get it, it's not an easy or comfortable task in any way. These inherited belief systems have also evolved around the idea that I need to turn off my sensitivity traits and shut my body up in order to conform to the 'correct' ways of existing in this society. It has not felt ok that I require a lot of freedom, flexibility and space for regulation, processing and creativity in order to just function at the most basic level.
To add to this all, it has come to my awareness over the years that many of these sensitivity traits that I embody are either consciously or unconsciously attributed to weakness, frailty, lack of character, strength or even intelligence. Feminine based traits that are my strengths such as emotional awareness, intuition and creativity are typically viewed to be less important than more masculine dominant traits such as logic, productivity and cognition. I have had a hard time finding my place in a society that worships the latter as the superior way of existing and as a result, for most of my life, felt ashamed of who and what I was.
It is no surprise to me that every single one of those friends who reached out to me over the past month to share their work/life changes are also highly sensitive persons. We pick up on the stress around us. We absorb and feel deeply the environments in our homes, relationships, work settings and even our societies as a whole. Over the past year, with the COVID-19 crisis, it has felt often almost impossible to function and continue on with the basic responsibilities of life such as work, home duties, relationships etc. In the past, I would have said that I was perhaps depressed. But I don't believe that is so. When I look at the global climate right now, I understand that I am picking up on the insanity, terror, chaos and unpredictability of the world around me. Others who are less sensitive may be less effected. Me - I look around and have a hard time processing everything that is happening and what we are experiencing on a global scale to the point that it feels hard to do basic tasks. I'm not denying the stress of this experience on anyone and everyone experiencing it. What I do think is that the highly sensitives are the ones who are really feeling it. It's showing up in our bodies, minds and spirits. We are the ones, after all, who will take on the emotional energies of others who are not capable of processing their own stuff. No wonder my friends' systems need a break.
For most of my life I have been led to believe that the idea of emotional energy is 'woo woo'. Why? Why is it that we are so afraid of what we cannot see? Why is it that we must label it as being some type of hippy dippy nonsense when we know that science has proven that everything is just that - energy. Emotion = energy in motion. When we put our hand close to a flame, we know that it will get burned, even though we are unable to actually directly see the heat in the atmosphere. That is not 'woo woo', that is science. So why, when it comes to our emotions do we view this differently? My belief is that it is because we are afraid. We are afraid of our own internal, emotional worlds. And those of us who bring these worlds to light and highlight the reality of them are often feared as well. We are written off as being different, 'woo woo', out there, flakey, hippy, or even weak. My belief is that it is that fear of emotions and sensitivity that causes us to be labelled as such. And I am just SO done...
I am done with somehow internalizing or subtly accepting the belief that my sensitivity is a weakness. I am powerful, intuitive and emotional. These are important traits. This is important work. We need these traits now more than ever. And yet, those of us who have them are left feeling like we can't quite measure up.
In his work focussing on addictions, ADD and trauma recovery, Dr. Gabor Mate speaks of the relevance of genetically inherited sensitivity. He claims that while conditions like ADD, depression/anxiety, addiction, and even physical disease are not genetic in nature, what is genetic is a propensity towards sensitivity. In other words, individuals who are born highly sensitive will feel emotions very deeply, which means that they will also feel pain (their own and others') more intensely, which will give them more of a need/urge to escape that pain through various addictions. In Mate's opinion, this is the connection that is witnessed between artists and suffering. Creative types may be more likely to experience emotional distress and/or mental illness because they are more sensitive to emotions, the environments around them and to the effects of personal and intergenerational trauma. It is not the 'disease' that is genetic, it is their sensitivity. In his book 'Scattered minds: the origin and healing of attention deficit disorder' he writes:
'The existence of sensitive people is an advantage for humankind because it is this group that best expresses humanity's creative urges and needs. Through their instinctual responses the world is best interpreted. Under normal circumstances, they are artists or artisans, seekers, inventors, shamans, poets, prophets. There would be valid and powerful evolutionary reasons for the survival of genetic material coding for sensitivity. It is not diseases that are being inherited but a trait of intrinsic survival value to human beings. Sensitivity is transmuted into suffering and disorders only when the world is unable to heed the exquisitely tuned physiological and psychic responses of the sensitive individual'.
I, myself, have been prone to anxiety and depression. I have developed Complex PTSD as the result of familial environment and intergenerational trauma that I am actively working to heal. I am more prone to burn out, sensory overload and physical illness. I have two autoimmune illnesses that began during periods of deep emotional stress in my life - my body spoke when I was unable to find solace. I have been pathologized, stigmatized, re-traumatized, belittled, medicalized, invalidated, medicated and brushed aside. I have been unconsciously viewed as the 'weak' one, the one unable to keep up with the world the way it is, the one who just 'can't seem to get it together'. What I have really been experiencing all along, has been highly attuned responses to the environment around me and lack of support in understanding how to work with and honour my inherent sensitivity. It is this sensitivity that has allowed me to create beautiful music that has touched others in important ways. It has allowed me to write, to feel, to sing and most importantly, to see deeply into other people's souls and understand why they are in pain and where it comes from. These are gifts, not deficits. I am so absolutely done with the shame and inherited belief systems that have led me to believe that there is something wrong with me and I am SO grateful to finally be at a place in my life where I can say 'no' to subtle or not so subtle suggestions that that is the case. I am grateful that I have the privilege to be able to stand up for my own needs and that I live in a part of the world where I have options and the rights and freedom to make decisions for myself. I am grateful to be stepping into a place of empowerment.
To my dear, dear friends who are making the decisions to take care of themselves despite the belief systems that society, work culture, the patriarchy, industrialization, and our culture as a whole forces onto you, I see you. You are beautiful. You are the deep feelers, the healers, the empaths, the truth-tellers, the seekers and the creatives that our world needs the most right now. You are not broken. You are breaking open. Keep going.
Always here and sharing with you this experience of the healing path.
'Scattered minds: the origins and healing of attention deficit disorder'. Mate, Gabor. Random House. 1999.