Is it OK just to be yourself? Reflecting deeply on this question can reveal the next steps on your path to healing anxiety and shame.
Last October, I published a post called I can only relax when I’m alone. That article got more responses than any other I had ever published. Some of you shared your experiences of vigilance: you related to the concept of your awareness going out of yourself to monitor other people. Silvia wrote to say she had the opposite challenge. Because of chronic pain, she struggles to stay in her body.
Another reader, Ingrid, wrote to express a deep fear. With her permission, I’m sharing some of our email exchange. Ingrid believes that—
…if I am not paying attention or mainly interested in others, I won’t be loved by them…I will be withdrawn and people will not be interested to engage with me…as if I am not allowed to have my own sense of intimate space.
As she reflected more deeply on this fear, Ingrid perceived its source:
I recognize these fears [are] deeply rooted in my childhood and relationship with [my] mother…till this day she finds it difficult to stay around me if I am not fully focused on her….she loses herself and I find myself constantly alert trying to keep her balanced… as her instability triggers my survival instincts…it’s exhausting.
No wonder Ingrid learned to turn her attention outward. In an effort to create a more stable emotional environment for herself, she learned to focus all her attention on her mother. You do what you need to do to survive, and your attachment to your primary caregiver—most typically your mother—is key to your survival.
Why it’s hard to let go of vigilance
As human beings, we are sometimes called on to make choices that temporarily leave some of our needs unmet. And when our very survival is at stake, we may make choices we would never make in “normal” times.
The saga of the Uruguayan plane crash in the Andes in 1972 is a perfect, if extreme, example. In Alive, his unforgettable account of the crash and its aftermath, author Piers Paul Read describes how the 16 surviving soccer players managed to survive. Stranded in remote, freezing, snowy conditions at 11,500 feet, they ate the frozen bodies of their dead teammates. Their decision was wrenching, but life-saving. It kept them alive for 60 days until they were rescued.
The Andes crash survivors were eventually able to forgive themselves and move on. They managed this even in the face of initial public revulsion when the details of their survival strategies were revealed—because their choice had been a conscious, adult choice.
If Ingrid had adopted her childhood strategy of vigilance in a conscious, deliberate way, she could have simply decided to let go of it when it no longer served her. But her childhood choice to turn her attention outwards was an unconscious one….and over time, this stance became habitual for Ingrid. She came to believe that this must be what love feels like.
The Andes survivors knew that cannibalism was a horribly necessary but temporary survival strategy. A child in Ingrid’s situation believes that vigilance in relationships is simply “the way it is.” But as an adult, Ingrid has a choice: she can continue to live in a world where trying to love and be loved by other people means leaving her body and focusing all her attention outwards. Or she can meet, befriend, and learn to soothe the young part of her that holds these old beliefs about love and safety.
3 ways to strengthen your ability to be yourself
“Be yourself” is the kind of phrase you see on refrigerator magnets and greeting cards. It sounds so easy. But as Ingrid could tell you, it isn’t—especially if you never had a chance to be yourself as a kid. Remind yourself that it takes deep, patient work and a surprising amount of energy to heal old, unconscious beliefs about love and safety. These three practices will help you feel more comfortable being yourself.
1—Check in often with your body
First, practice simply noticing your body—hands, feet, legs, arms, torso, head—when you are by yourself. If you are reading, working on the computer, doing housework, you can even set a timer to go off every 10 or 15 minutes to remind you to pause and notice where your attention is. If you become absorbed in your thoughts, notice that and see if you can stay aware of your body at the same time.
Next, practice noticing where your attention goes, when you are with others. If, like Ingrid, you are conditioned to be vigilant around other people, you will turn outwards habitually. But you can learn to turn back in. This takes intense effort at first, as if your mind were a big, unruly dog that won’t heed your commands. But with practice, you can do it.
Your highly sensitive brain can be your worst enemy, but it can also be your best ally. Meditation is the best way I know to befriend your mind, by revealing there is a bigger “you” there who can observe your thoughts. HSPs are drawn to meditation and may create their own eclectic practices. Use whatever practice works for you. I practiced Zen for a long time and now practice Kriya yoga meditation, which has a more devotional quality that appeals to me at this stage of my life.
However, when I’m “on the go,” I turn to a laser-like practice of Ramana Maharshi. I simply ask, “Who?” “Who is asking? Who is stressing? Who wants to know? Who says that?” Asking “who” again and again is like looking through a telescope backwards. I get instant perspective and distance, connecting to a bigger consciousness that can hold both my thoughts and my body awareness at the same time.
3—Engage in regular Focusing partnership
Body awareness is a necessary first step for Focusing. You’ve now practiced staying aware of your body in a simple way, and you are meditating to train your mind so you can maintain that body awareness while also being aware of your thoughts. Next, you can use Focusing partnership to practice staying in your body while receiving the undivided attention of another person. For many of us HSPs, this feels like advanced post-doctoral work.
Whether you are the Focuser or the Listener, you can practice keeping awareness in your body. If, like Ingrid, you are worried, whether others will be able to “feel” you with them if you are “keeping some attention for yourself,” you can ask your partner for feedback and reassurance. Far from being a distraction, being present in your own body is a requirement for being fully present with someone else.
Let your true Self come forth
Ingrid shared with me that she does have some moments of ease within herself:
I am very comfortable about just relaxing… for me it is not boring at all. However in relationships I don’t know how to stay with this energy of comfort.
If you, like Ingrid, feel at ease when you are alone, you’ve made a wonderful start. Now, take the next step: believe that it is possible to be at ease in yourself around others. In his yoga sutras, Patanjali speaks of smriti, which is Sanskrit for “spiritual memory.” The Sanskrit root of smriti is “to appear, to shine, to remember.” You need to do the remembering part first. Then you can appear…and you will naturally shine.
Your true Self is like the sun: it has always has been there, and always will be. We never doubt the existence of the sun, even when it is obscured by clouds. Likewise, as you learn to keep your awareness in your body, the light of your unique Self will shine through. Then you will begin to experience your essential worth, value, and lovability—through your own body, and reflected in the eyes of others.
Image: Thanks to Kaitlyn Wyenberg: firstname.lastname@example.org
Is there an or question you’d like me to write about? Please email me—I’d be delighted to receive your request.