I began my last newsletter by saying,
In the week since I drafted this article, violence has erupted across the U.S. and here in Rochester following the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis. I need to respond to this, and I know instant responses are our “new normal.” But my instinct is to take my time. If the resulting reflections might contribute here, I will share them with you later.
“Later” has arrived. This article is different from my usual in two ways. First, rather than offer you information, advice, and strategies about being highly sensitive (HSP), I offer you the vulnerability of my unfolding process as a white, HSP woman waking up to the reality of the violence and prejudice Black people face every day here in the United States. Second, because I’m speaking of my white experience, this article is directed mainly to my white HSP readers. If you are Black or a person of color, I can’t imagine what you have been through. I hope you will comment on this process in whatever way you see fit.
Why is this hitting me now? I’m not sure. But I’m aware that my life is stable enough now personally and emotionally that I have the capacity to take in the truth and to have a hope of handling the pain that comes with the truth, so I can take effective actions towards change. That was not the case in the past.
How I’ve struggled to process violence
As I’ve listened and learned in the past two weeks, my perceptions have changed rapidly. In fact, I’ve found it scary to write, because I’m sure I’ll see things differently a few days from now. But there are two facts I know will not change:
—Black lives matter.
—Black people have been victims of violence in this country for hundreds of years.
Like most HSPs, I am deeply disturbed by violence. But I’ve dealt with my aversion to violence by looking away from it whenever possible. I understand why I took this approach, given how much I was affected from an early age even by fictionalized depictions of human cruelty. When I saw the Lord of the Flies in seventh grade, I came out feeling like I might throw up. I was sickened by the murders of two of the boys by their fellow castaways, and completely overwhelmed to find out how terribly we human beings are capable of treating people we see as threatening or as “other.”
I see now that I packed away these feelings of horror and tried not to do anything to stir them up. I could get away with that: I grew up white and middle class, with privileges I’m only now becoming conscious of. I was spared seeing any violence or serious conflict first-hand. Nor have I ever had to face the systemic injustice and prejudice Black Americans encounter every day. Because injustice is inherently violent, I ended up distancing myself from injustice as well. But not this time.
There’s a time to protect myself, and a time to look directly at what is happening
I can’t look away any more. I’ve watched the videos of George Floyd’s death, of the Central Park incident with Amy Cooper, and of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I’ve read the descriptions of the last night of Breona Taylor’s life. I don’t know which was more painful: the videos themselves, or the realization I’ve used my privilege for so long in order to look away from the violence and injustice Black people deal with daily here.
I’m passionate about finding ways to help highly sensitive people create sustainable lives. That’s what I write about. For me right now, “sustainable” means being able to maintain my composure and effectiveness while I go about the difficult work of examining my own unconscious biases and working to remedy the effects of my complicit role in the status quo of racial injustice in this country.
Why not just work on this privately? Why write to you about it? Because I believe HSPs, and particularly white HSPs, can play a crucial role in this process of dismantling our systems of racial inequity. But to do that, we first need to create stable, sustainable enough lives for ourselves that we can handle looking at the truth without falling apart. Then we can use our formidable powers to contribute to change.
As an HSP, how can I contribute to change?
I’ll speak for myself here: I can be deeply thoughtful, capable of profound empathy. After years of fielding my own intense emotions, I have no fear of sitting with someone else who is in pain, even great pain. And as a sensitive person I have the capacity to create around me the kind of sacred space in which transformation can happen.
However, when criticism or hostility are aimed directly at me, I easily become overaroused. I fear other’s judgement, and I become acutely self-conscious if I think I’m being judged. So I struggle in tense or conflictual interactions to stay connected to myself, slow down, and say what I need to say. I’m so concerned about how what I say might unintentionally hurt or anger someone else that it’s hard to open my mouth, and I’m at risk of complicit silence. And I’m not a hardy protester: I get overwhelmed by big crowds.
Given my strengths and limitations, how can I contribute to change? My Focusing mentor, Ann Weiser Cornell, spoke to this in a recent email supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement (she included a list of helpful resources which you can access in this PDF if you wish):
What I’ve learned is that coming to terms with my own privilege means being able to stand the feelings of guilt, shame, and grief that will surely come up. There’s a lot I don’t know but this much I do know: feelings, when felt, carry us forward. When they are not felt (when they are silenced) we are all stuck.
Yes. I’ve read that as whites “wake up” to the reality of race relations, dealing with our own pain about racial injustice is a way of avoiding burdening Black people and people of color with that pain. I can begin my contribution by managing my own feelings—of heartbreak, guilt, anger, shame, confusion, defensiveness—and by supporting other white people doing the same. If I can’t greet my own guilt and shame with compassion, I will be unable to hear others’ pain.
Moving past fear of judgment to find the right next step
I’m already undergoing the deep processing that comes with a massive shift of orientation. I recognize the signs. I’m having trouble concentrating on other projects. I’ll start a sentence then be unable to finish it because the energy of my mind already went back to the deeper issues it is grappling with. I wake up in the night, feeling a kind of inner buzzing that means my mind is rewiring itself.
With so much deep processing going on, I’ve spent many more hours than usual writing this article. But there’s an additional reason for my slowness. As I’ve taken in the reality of my own implicit bias, my HSP perfectionism has spiked. I’ve been in and out of identification with a scared part of me. It wants to protect me from your possible judgment by making sure I appear before you all polished and shiny: clear, righteous, and unassailable.
But if there ever were a time to transcend my perfectionist conditioning, now is that time. I can’t see my own bias. If I can’t stand to hear about it from people around me, how can I change it? If I hurt or offend you, my readers, but can’t stand to hear it, what am I here for? I may be highly sensitive, but I’m determined not to be fragile.
A role model for inspiration
However, while processing our pain about racism is an essential first step for people who look like me, it is not enough. There’s so much I need to learn about the history of racial discrimination and violence in this country. I’m committed to learning it. I’m committed to examining the part I, a white woman, play in these racial dynamics. I’m committed to finding concrete ways I can act to help facilitate change, not only in my own thinking but in the systems and structures that perpetuate racism here.
As I’ve begun this process, I’ve found myself searching for role models— not only of what to do, but how to be. I’ve watched videos, read articles, and attended webinars about race and racism these past two weeks. For me as a white HSP woman, one video stood out above the rest. In it, Rob Stewart interviews Cassandra Pye, who is the Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Lucas Public Affairs, a Black woman, and a mother.
In this 38-minute interview, Cassandra states the painful truth powerfully, authentically, and from the heart. If you only have a few minutes, I recommend you watch the five-minute segment starting at nine minutes and 45 seconds into the video. Cassandra’s statement brought reality home to me in a way nothing else had. She is a model for me of the clarity, presence, and self-connection I aspire to as I begin the challenging process of addressing my own conditioned racism.
Thank you for reading. It’s a privilege to write for such a thoughtful audience. If you have reactions, please share them with me.