If you’ve ever experienced going to a networking event, and being the odd one out because everyone else knows each other – you’ll understand what it feels like to be excluded.
If you’ve ever stood up to speak in public, and felt your throat go dry and your palms sweat, as you feel all eyes on you – you’ll know what it feels like to be ‘different’.
Imagine feeling different and being the ‘odd one out’ all the time.
That’s what it’s like to be sensitive.
I’ve written before about what sensitivity is, and while there are huge gifts in being sensitive, it’s also traumatic.
Along with the Ordinary Trauma of playground bullying, or parental neglect, people can experience trauma in their daily life just because they’re sensitive.
Yet there’s a powerful way that we can heal this trauma, and it’s called self-awareness.
I’ve explained in a previous post how I lost my husband suddenly just after my daughter was born, but my life story is actually more complicated than that.
My sensitivity created trauma from a young age.
I was a shy, anxious child and I grew up in a chaotic, frequently hostile family environment.
I was in and out of hospital with unexplained abdominal pains, probably due to the stressful conditions that I lived through every day.
I found the structure of school very comforting, and I enjoyed learning, although I always struggled to make friends, and spent most of my free time alone.
I always felt ‘different’ somehow; always on the outside looking in, and never felt quite like I belonged anywhere.
Fast forward through my adult years, and in April 2013, I went to a specialist optician to check my eyes and to undergo some sensory processing tests.
I remember following the optician through his clinic, walking past shelves, filled with row upon row of empty glasses frames, until we got to a special room at the back.
I sat down in a chair, about 2 metres away from the optician opposite me.
He touched his nose and then said to me,
“Look at my nose and tell me what you see”
I remember looking at his nose and saying aloud
“I see your nose”,
(yet thinking ‘What a strange question’).
He then asked me
“What else do you see?
Can you see my eyes, my head, or anything behind or around me?”
I said, “No, I just see your nose, and everything else is blurred out.”
He did lots of tests with coloured lights and coloured plastic lenses, until he settled on a particular colour that he thought would help me.
I didn’t realise there was a problem until the optician showed me a piece of yellow plastic.
He said “Here, have a look through this”
I took it and held it up in front of my eyes, and looked across at him.
And that’s when it hit me like a lightning jolt through my whole body.
Just for a split second, I could see the whole of his face at once.
It was like I had been blind and was suddenly seeing for the first time.
It only lasted a fraction of a second, but it was enough to show me that what I normally see, is not normal at all.
It was in that moment that everything changed.
I realised that ‘normally’ I can only see patches of a face, as if I’m looking through binoculars.
I see whatever I directly look at: nose, mouth, eyes, and the rest is blurred out.
I felt my dysfunction come crashing down on me.
I discovered I have a form of face blindness (otherwise known as Prosopagnosia),
I have sensory processing challenges (eg I can’t see and hear at the same time) and I probably have autism.
After the initial massive shock wore off – it all made sense.
The autism piece explained so much about my life experiences, and why I felt so different.
I wasn’t just imagining it, there was a real reason for it!
I had huge hope that a lot of my issues could be fixed with these yellow lenses.
But alas, even after wearing my special glasses for several weeks, it still didn’t fix the problem.
After my epiphany, I went through months of anxiety, depression and grief.
I remembered all of my painful past experiences, and I grieved for the little girl who could never fit in.
I felt despondent that nothing could fix me.
Now I know that my sensitivity is probably related to my autism.
How autism is traumatic, especially in women
Autism is a spectrum condition, and it affects people in different ways.
The higher functioning end of this spectrum tends to be known as Asperger syndrome or Autistic Spectrum Disorder. (ASD)
Despite the assumption that autism is only in men, there are many women with autism or ASD in society (with or without a diagnosis).
The reason that women on the spectrum have remained ‘hidden’ for so long is that ASD presents very differently in women.
Women with autism tend to mask their symptoms; masking is another way of saying ‘trying to be normal’.
It takes a lot of energy to be constantly vigilant and checking whether your behaviour is acceptable or appropriate; making sure that you can effectively blend in and not draw unwanted attention to yourself.
We can be acutely aware that there’s things we’re not getting that other people just get, so we feel misunderstood and alienated.
I’ve had experiences in a group setting where someone will say something and everyone laughs and nods, and I’m left wondering
“What was that? I don’t get why that was funny”
But I might smile and laugh anyway, because I know that if I’m the only one not smiling, that looks weird.
I probably do that so often now that I don’t even notice I’m doing it.
‘Trying to be normal’ is traumatic, even without a diagnosis.
The truth is, we all have an innate need to be accepted and to belong.
We’ve carried this need from as far back as our ancient ancestors.
In the days of the sabre-toothed tiger, being outcast from the ‘tribe’ was a fate worse than death and it carries the same subconscious terror even today.
Feeling different is intensely stressful, and so we strive at all costs to appear ‘normal’.
And since sensitivity is something we’re born with, no matter how old we are, we have a lifetime of stressful experience.
The stress of trying to be ‘normal’ is cumulative and traumatic.
No matter what kind of sensitivity we have:
It’s traumatic to have to use up all our reserves of energy merely to be present with a room full of people, and do what’s expected, regardless of the impact on us.
It’s traumatic to be overstimulated, (by sights, sounds, smells, social expectations) but ignoring those signs and attempting to carry on as if nothing is wrong.
We might feel anxious and have trouble concentrating; assuming other people are judging us.
We might feel misunderstood, and socially excluded, yet not have the skills or the courage to engage with others to meet our needs.
Trying to ignore those feelings so we can appear ‘normal’ in public is very stressful and traumatic.
We might feel overwhelmed by the demands of daily life, and everything we need to get done in our work.
We might have bouts of depression that stop us enjoying our life, yet trying to pretend we’re ok, and attempt to be ‘normal’ is traumatic.
The world can be a hostile place for people who don’t quite fit the mould, and trying to be ‘normal’ adds an additional layer of complexity; our minds and bodies perceive all this as traumatic.
Sensitivity creates trauma, but you can overcome it with self-awareness.
Even though it might feel like an insurmountable struggle, it’s possible to overcome the trauma of sensitivity and to live an empowered life, despite all the challenges.
Your ability to embrace sensitivity as your superpower depends on your self-awareness.
One facet of self-awareness is being able to keep your energetic tank ‘topped up’, so that any drains on your energy are regularly and effectively replenished.
1. Acknowledge that it’s hard, and the specific ways in which it’s hard for you.
It’s important to be real and honest with yourself; notice which environmental or social factors are stressful for you, and consciously try to minimise them.
Maybe it’s loud noise or the bustle of people; maybe it’s bright lights or strong perfume; knowing what triggers are particularly stressful for you is important information.
Maybe there are certain people in your life that you find unbearable; you have the right to choose who you spend time with, and to cut ties with people if they are a net drain on you.
No matter what your circumstances, you can have some control over what stimulation you’re exposed to.
Be conscious in minimising those drains on your energy.
2. Learn how to deal with any ‘meltdowns’
If things do get too much and you sometimes have meltdowns, make sure you have a strategy for calming down and regaining your internal balance.
3. Be conscious and intentional about regular self-care.
It might sound trite, but self-care done well will be worth every moment of your time and attention spent on it.
Everyone has their own view of what self-care means. The most important thing is to try different things, so you’re clear on what works for you.
My main tenets of self-care are:
Walking in the forest
Periods of silent solitude
4. Understand your strengths and interests and pursue them.
Life is meant to be fun and joyful, and being able to pursue your interests and passions will make your life more exciting and enjoyable.
Knowing what you’re good at, and what you enjoy doing (realising those two may be different) is a vital life skill.
Having a positive force for good in your life will balance the negatives, and give you a reason to keep striving to achieve.
5. Make time to be with people who ‘get’ you.
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, connection is something we all crave, and it’s vital for our wellbeing.
Make sure that you consciously allocate time to connect on a deep level with people who allow you to be who you are without judgement.
Those people are precious; whether they’re friends you connect with in person, on the phone or Zoom, or only by Direct Message in an app.
Being who you really are, and receiving support, encouragement and loving connection with others will be a huge boost to your energy reserves, and your wellbeing.
I accepted my truth
When I discovered my truth, I had to accept myself as different and stop striving to be something I’m not.
I’ve accepted that I have meltdowns and times when I can’t cope very well, and I’ve intentionally designed my life to minimise these.
Yet my ‘dysfunction’ is only a part of me and the downsides can be managed.
My sensory processing challenges do not define or restrict what I’m capable of achieving in my life or business.
The benefits of my differently wired brain are what makes me amazing in my work and allows me to make my unique contribution in the world.
You are unique.
It’s important not to let your sensitivity define how you behave, what you believe about yourself, or what you’re capable of.
Your pattern of challenges AND your strengths are unique.
When you learn to self-regulate, you can embrace your sensitivity as your superpower, and achieve to your full potential.
If you recognise yourself in this, and feel that your sensitivity is a barrier to your success, let me help you.
If you’d like to learn how to embrace the superpower that it really is, then please get in touch and let’s have a chat.
[Photo credit George Gvasalia]
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