Before I show my appreciation for the ways Ane Axford’s writing and ideas have changed my way of thinking about sensitivity, my way of seeing the world, and my highly sensitive self, let me say how grateful I am for all the people who have visited my blog, read my writing and left comments in the past couple of days. I appreciate all of you.
In Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist (which I highly recommend, by the way), he suggests writing a fan letter to those who’ve inspired you to “show appreciation without expecting anything in return”. The point of it is to “get new work out of the appreciation”. This post is my public fan letter to my highly sensitive heroine, Ane Axford of Sensitive and Thriving.*
Since discovering her last year on the HSP Health Blog, Ane’s ideas have created, to borrow a phrase from the late author Caroline Knapp, a “kaleidoscopic shift” in me and how I think about high sensitivity, how I viewed myself and what is possible. Knapp beautifully described this shift in an article titled “The Merry Recluse”:
(It is a) kind of sudden internal restructuring that occurs when an established set of facts about the self seems to spontaneously shift, presenting itself in a new order, a surprising light. An old thought becomes a new thought; a prior definition takes on a twist, a new edge, a new meaning.
Here are a few examples of “new thoughts” inspired by Ane:
On being a person who is Highly Sensitive vs. being a Highly Sensitive Person
I planned on writing about a different topic for my second post of the week, but last night I visited Ane’s (AA from now on) Facebook page and what she wrote and the fact that she continues to write things that create that “kaleidoscopic shift” in my thinking made me scrap my plans.
Learning about high sensitivity from Elaine Aron and understanding it has really smoothed out my bumpy life. But I got to a point where I didn’t want to be defined by my sensitivity and wrote about how labels like “HSP” and “Introvert” are keys to opening a door to understanding and accepting who you are, but Who You Are is on the other side of the door. I’m “sensitive, too” not “too sensitive” as AA put it. I’m a person before I’m highly sensitive. (Actually, I’m a reader more than anything else.)
But on AA’s Facebook page she wonders:
if in a world where sensitivity is not seen as relevant, or seen as weakness, or something not real…where sensitivity is put last if at all…maybe for a time we did need to put sensitivity before the person. Maybe that was in response to a world where sensitivity was misunderstood and misused. We needed the protection of the sensitivity before our personhood. My person was too weak to come first at that time, I believe.
“We needed the protection of the sensitivity before our personhood.” — not only is sensitivity something you hold, something you take care of, but it is protection in AA’s opinion. The idea of sensitivity as protection blows my mind. I don’t even know what I think about it yet but the kaleidoscope is shifting.
On uncertainty and failure
I’m highly sensitive and I like to be certain. My sensitivity and desire for certainty constantly clash. Being highly sensitive is about being attentive and responsive to what is and with attentiveness and responsiveness comes uncertainty. In an interview with Jocelyn Paige Kelly at Realizing Your Creative Life, AA made me look at uncertainty anew. She says “presence means being uncertain. If you are certain, you are not present.” Without presence, you will not be at peace. AA also says she faces uncertainty on purpose and “thrives with uncertainty by engaging in it”.
I was never really afraid of failure but I have been afraid that whatever I tried would somehow fail me and be just another thing that doesn’t work for me. In the same interview with Kelly, AA discussed failure and what she said has helped me countenance the idea of failure better:
What words of wisdom would you give to an entrepreneur who’s afraid of failure?
Axford: I would tell them to try to fail. To do things as simply, easily, quickly, and basically as possible. I think that trying not to fail is the antithesis of creativity. Especially for HSPs who can tend to want things to be absolutely perfect and to have a perfect plan before they begin, just beginning is essential. Everything is in progress. There is no final failure that ruins you forever and there is no final success that saves you forever.
These words were in my mind as I started my blog after thinking about starting one for almost a year, wanting “things to be absolutely perfect”. Now I think “if something doesn’t work it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It just didn’t work. Start over.” I value creativity and if creativity comes with failure, then I accept it. Now I engage with failure by asking some questions suggested by Jonathan Fields:
What if you fail? How will you recover? What’s truly worth doing, whether you fail or succeed? In this failure, what went right?
On the Highly Sensitive Hierarchy of Needs
Sometimes I think the world is messed up and people are messed up. I wonder why most people value what they value and how they can possibly operate the way they operate. I think the world is upside down sometimes and the way it works doesn’t work for me. It seems like people just go from point A to point B without much thought or soul-searching or effort. They’re at A and want to get to B (whatever that may be — bigger house, better job, more romance) and they just…go to B? I start at A, I think about B, but remain at A still, think about B some more, circle and circle and circle and then maybe eventually I’ll get to B. Maybe. Does anyone understand what I’m saying?
I never understood why I’m so at odds with the way other people operate until AA wrote about the Highly Sensitive Hierarchy of Needs on her website and in a Tiny Buddha article. I don’t completely understand it and would love to know more.
If anyone else has a grasp on it, could you please write about it?
What I do understand is HSPs are motivated by and driven by meeting our needs at the top of the pyramid first and the non-HSP are motivated by meeting the needs at the bottom first. What this looks like for me is always asking these questions before I do anything: Who am I? What do I need? The answers have nothing to do with a body or what it needs, its safety or belonging. I start with what I sense, feel, and want/need to be myself. Hence the reason I have trouble going from point A to B. It’s a slow process.
Even though I don’t completely grasp the HS Hierarchy of Needs, I know for sure that it is at the heart of helping HSPs thrive. I just know intuitively that it’s a powerful concept. My mind goes to it whenever I’m struggling and feel like I don’t know how to function in the world. I say to myself “what works for everyone else does not work for you” and then I try to find something that works.
Speaking of struggling, in AA’s article “Are You Drowning in a Sea of Sensitivity?” , she offers highly sensitive people a new approach to life: floating. The idea that one can float through life and thrive seems completely antithetical in the minds of most people in our stressed out, goal driven society. Remember the HS Hierarchy of Needs though. In the article she compares our constant sensing and feeling to water and suggests we walk or float on all those sensations and emotions and let them carry us through life:
Just float. Let yourself be where you are and do what feels easiest or best to you in that given situation. Don’t compare it to any other situation. It’s showing up right now in you, it’s not random and it’s not outside of you.
This approach to life actually requires that you be strong and trust yourself. It is not for the faint-hearted.
I love the imagery. One of my favorite memories is of floating in the Caribbean Sea when I was twelve years old. I don’t remember ever feeling as calm as I did then. Floating actually requires you relax and let go. Since reading this article I’ve realized that I had been thrashing about in the sea of life. Compare the imagery of floating in water to the imagery of thrashing about in water. One makes you feel peaceful. The other is the quickest way to drown. It reminds me of something Alan Watts wrote:
To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, you float.
I loved the “floating” metaphor so much that I was going to call my blog “Melene Learns to Float”.
High Sensitivity is your Superpower
Ane Axford is the only HSP expert (that I know of) who has even suggested high sensitivity could be a superpower and a gift instead of a burden you endure and complain about and manage. If she contributed nothing else, that would be enough. Since I read these words in “Are You Drowning in a Sea of Sensitivity?” — “your sensitivity, this ocean of emotion, is your superpower” — I have felt empowered and sought to find out if what she wrote is true and to make it true. But, language matters. The fact that she wrote it at all changed everything for me.
If you haven’t read the introduction and the first chapter of her book Super Sensitive, please do. What she has written and shared so far is fascinating and I look forward to reading the whole thing so I can be inspired even more so than I already have been if that’s possible.