I almost got to live in a mansion once. My then-husband and I had spotted a 2000-square-foot apartment in the “for rent” ads. The rent was so low, it seemed too good to be true…and as we found out later, it was.

But we didn’t know that yet, and as we pulled in to the driveway, we were dazzled by the sheer grandeur of the place and its location overlooking the Genesee River far below. And we both gasped as we took in the dimensions of the living room. In truth, it was a ballroom. Cinderella could have danced across those acres of parquet flooring, pausing to rest on one of the window seats. The tall windows were framed by floor-length curtains of deep red velvet, faded but still plush. The effect was sumptuous. And the billiards room—for one simply must have a billiards room—featured custom-crafted stained-glass windows. Each panel depicted a favorite pastime of the famous industrialist who built the place.

But there was a third room that left a lasting impression on me that day, and that was the kitchen. I was unmoved by the appliances and the other practical amenities. They were ordinary. What transfixed me was the wallpaper.

The awesome power of environment

Imagine an explosion of bright yellow and white flowers, each the size of a dinner plate, shining against a background of glossy green foil. The effect was overwhelming. The landlord told us an elderly Italian lady had had this paper installed. No doubt, she had distinctive taste.

But here’s what hit me, standing in the kitchen: the room, which was actually quite large, felt small. And I felt small, too.

I’ve thought about that wallpaper many times in the thirty years since, realizing what a perfect metaphor it is for my mental environment.  My “mental wallpaper”—the attitudes I’m holding towards myself and others— can make me and my world, feel spacious and safe—or cramped and overwhelming.

My inner wallpaper has no giant daisies. It is more understated. But it has no less effect on me for being more subtle. In fact, its subtlety makes it trickier to see. This is true for many sensitive people (HSPs). Even hanging unobtrusively in the background of our sensitive minds, our mental wallpaper can dominate, discourage, and overwhelm us, because as we are environmentally susceptible. This means we are affected to a greater degree by our environment than non-sensitive people are. And because our internal environment goes wherever we go, it affects everything we do.

Spotting the effects of ugly wallpaper

The effects of ugly inner wallpaper can show up subtly and gradually, sapping your energy. Imagine you are holding a glass of clear water, and you add a single droplet of black ink. The change is barely perceptible. But as you add more drops, the water gets darker and murkier. Long-term, low-grade wallpaper exposure feels like that.

On the other hand, you may suddenly feel like the wind got knocked out of you, and you aren’t sure how it happened. A fleeting thought can act like a supersonic plane, which streaks by too quickly to be seen, but leaves behind a deafening boom. If you suddenly feel exhausted or get an urge to escape to your favorite distractions, you may have caught a fleeting glimpse of some harsh mental graffiti.

Why it’s challenging to see your own thoughts

It is tricky to be objective about your own thought processes. We are all subject to the effect known as “observer drift”, the “gradual step-by-step alterations over time in the observations and documenting of observations made by a specific viewer.”

To clarify, you are the “specific viewer” mentioned in this definition. And as you attempt to observe yourself over time, you lose objectivity. You stop seeing things. Or you fill in things that aren’t there.

There’s a popular fable about a boiling frog. It postulates that if you gradually heat a beaker of water with a frog in it, the frog will allow itself to be boiled to death because it can’t sense the gradual change. If this were true, it would be a gruesome example of amphibian observer drift. As it turns out, this frog story is a myth: experiments have confirmed  that the frog will leap out of the beaker the moment you give it a chance.

But how about you? I invite you to pause and ask yourself this question: “If someone else were dropped into my brain, would they shriek and leap out?”

If you answered “Yes,” or “Maybe,” or “Sometimes,” then it’s time to face the truth. You are letting yourself be boiled alive.  You may have grown numb to your ugly mental wallpaper. You may be tolerating self-criticism, self-shaming, and self-blaming. And you may be doing all this because you have never known any other way of being. Whatever the case may be, however, only you can change this treatment of yourself.  Only you can fire your mental interior decorator.

4 ways to change your mental wallpaper

Objectivity increases with distance, and it’s hard to get distance from your own thoughts. But with an effort you can facilitate your ability to see and read your mental wallpaper. Here are four strategies:

1—Write down your thoughts. Write down exactly what you are telling yourself, word for word. Describe in detail any images or memories you see in your mind’s eye. Take a hard look at what you’ve written.

2—Use Focusing skills to talk to any critical voices you identify. Find out what they are trying to protect you from.

3—Play the game of “queen for a day”: say to yourself, “If I had an unlimited treasury, wise men, and the power of command, and used all these resources so that all were well, healed, and wonderful, what would things be like?” Use your imagination to flesh out this better world, then compare how you feel now to how you felt before. The contrast in these two felt senses creates awareness and objectivity.

4—Meditate: when you meditate, the resulting mental spaciousness helps you perceive your mental wallpaper more clearly and easily. Witnessing your thoughts reduces their “stickiness.” That is, you can detach yourself from your thoughts and get a bit of distance and objectivity.

Still feeling low?

There are many possible causes for feeling low. If you habitually move too fast for your HSP body; if you are critical of yourself for being sensitive:  if you need to adopt better HSP self-care; or or if you set goals that stress rather than inspire you —you will end up feeling discouraged and deflated.

But remember that your mental wallpaper affects everything you do. So if you feel low, take a look at your HSP interior decoration and make sure it is spacious, wise, and beautiful.

Photo ©2018 Emily Agnew