Being highly sensitive means you have to push your limits sometimes. I keep my eye out for inspirational examples. And the more extreme they are—as in this movie—the more vivid the lessons I take away.
Special note: As I finish this article, the Covid-19 situation here in the U.S. and around the world is changing dramatically. More institutions and businesses are closing by the hour: colleges, sports teams, Broadway shows, places of worship and many more. We need to keep our heads on straight, and that may push us to the limits at times.
The five lessons below are relevant to this challenge we all face. And I would add one more item to the list: be selective about the energy to which you expose yourself. Media coverage tends to be fear-based and highly overarousing. Hashing over the details of the latest development just adds fuel to that fire. Please give yourself permission to minimize your news consumption if that helps you, and focus on whatever helps you stay centered.
I’m fascinated by people who accomplish feats requiring extreme courage, skill, and endurance. My first reaction is to feel deeply moved by their spirit and strength of will. Then my curiosity takes over. I want to learn everything I can about them. What mind state, resources, and preparation made their stupendous effort possible?
Given this fascination, it’s no wonder I love the movie Meru, winner of the Audience Award for Documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. It is a gripping psychological portrait of the three elite alpinists, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, who were the first climbers ever to reach the peak of 21,000-foot Mount Meru in the Himalayas.
Mount Meru is also called the Shark’s Fin. Looking at pictures of it, you can see why. Climbers consider it the most technically complicated and dangerous peak in the Himalayas. The final ascent up its sheer vertical face ends at a ridge so thin you can straddle it with a leg on each side of the mountain. Reaching that point requires every variety of the most technical climbing. And most dauntingly, climbers must carry everything with them.
Because of these extreme challenges, dozens of elite climbers had previously tried but failed to summit Meru. Anker, Chin, and Ozturk had barely survived their own first attempt. They turned back just 100 meters from the top and returned home emaciated and frostbitten.
Why I recommend this movie—even though heights make me queasy
Those of you who are high-sensation seekers may be searching Netflix for this movie already. The rest of you are probably wondering why I’d recommend a film featuring hair-raising heights, accidents, and frostbite. Here are three reasons. For one, it’s a great story of friendship, courage, and trust. For another, the photography is simply stunning. It is even more impressive when you remember that Jimmy Chin shot the Meru footage while climbing the peak himself.
But most compellingly, Anker, Chin, and Ozturk’s feat vividly illustrates the attitudes and resources you need if you want to pursue a goal that pushes you to your very limits. Even better, this wisdom is equally applicable to the specific challenge you and I face every day as highly sensitive people: how to manage our sensitive self-care. In case you really can’t stomach the heights in Meru, here are the five lessons I took away from the movie.
1—Don’t do it alone
As Conrad Anker led the way up Meru, he was literally roped to his two climbing companions. Every move they made had to be coordinated. Their very lives depended upon it. They didn’t talk much, partly because there’s less than half as much oxygen at 21,000 feet than at sea level. Merely breathing at that altitude is challenging, let alone ascending a vertical rock face in sub-zero temperatures with ice picks and crampons, carrying 200 pounds of gear.
But they also didn’t need to talk much, because they were intensely attuned to each other. This kind of highly attuned support is a key need for HSPs as we face challenges of any size. It can make all the difference to have a few people around you who will support you emotionally. Even more importantly, they can help you remember why you’ve undertaken something that is pushing you so hard.
2—Connect with deep personal meaning
The first time they attempted to summit Meru, Anker, Chin, and Ozturk were driven primarily by the mantra of explorers and climbers through the ages: “We want to climb it because it is there.” But when Ozturk nearly died in a skiing accident just six months before their second attempt on Meru, the climb took on a new meaning for all three men.
Though Ozturk’s chances of recovery seemed slim, Anker and Chin realized they would never feel right doing the climb without him. They decided they’d succeed or fail as a team. This bond of shared meaning kept them going through the insanely grueling climb.
If you have a massive challenge ahead, get connected to the reason you are tackling it. If you become confused, exhausted, or overwhelmed, you can get back on track by reconnecting to the underlying purpose of what you are attempting. When you tap into the deeper meaning of a goal, you access a formidable sensitive strength. For HSPs, deep meaning is like a psychological and spiritual American Express card. We shouldn’t leave home without it.
There’s a scene in Meru in which the three climbers sit surrounded by piles of gear: tents, sleeping bags, a hanging tent called a portaledge, and hundreds of coiled ropes, pitons, axes, harnesses, pulleys, and crampons. They will have to carry all their fuel, every bite of food, and every piece of equipment they will use, so every single item has been carefully weighed. And they have a notebook of “beta”—prized climbing notes from the leader of the most recent failed expedition. Climbers extend this courtesy to one another, building on each others’ efforts.
The moral for us as sensitive people: know what you need, and arrange in advance to have it when you need it. Learn from other sensitive people whose lifestyle and energy you respect and admire. Learn, also, from the mistakes of people like me who have stepped in every HSP pothole along the way. Allow for illness, accidents, breakage, lost time, and unexpected expense. Build redundancy into your self-care regimen.
4—Focus on what is right in front of you
Of the many routes that had been attempted on Meru, Conrad Anker chose one based on his own experience and painstaking thought and research. He knew where he was going. But vertical climbing requires an intense focus on each next move. To sustain the effort needed to scale a sheer wall at 21,000 feet in below-zero temperatures, you can’t think about how much farther you have to go. You’ll just overwhelm yourself. And you can’t dwell on the possibility of falling or you’ll paralyze yourself with fear.
As HSPs, we can take an important lesson from this. Our minds are wired to search for meaning and significance in past events, and to generate possibilities, implications, and future plans. There is a time to employ these sensitive strengths. But when you are in the middle of a project or situation that pushes your limits, you have to rein in your mind and focus intently on what is right in front of you. Rather than wondering how you’ll get through or how much longer it will take, it is more helpful to ask specific questions like, “What is my next step? What is needed here, right now?” Concentrate on identifying the next thing you need to do and do it.
5—Manage your bandwidth
At the Chicago premiere of Meru, an audience member asked Jimmy Chin about filming and climbing at the same time. Chin said, “It’s part of my process.” He went on to explain the singular importance of managing bandwidth—that is, his available energy and mental capacity:
The harder the climbing, the more bandwidth you have to put towards the climbing, so…I climb a lot, I train a lot. You have to have a certain level of comfort so that you can reserve as much bandwidth as you can to film. It’s a personal goal of mine on an expedition I’m shooting that the shooting doesn’t impact the climbing.
If Jimmy Chin can manage his fitness well enough to shoot film while climbing a sheer rock face, I can find a way to manage my sensitivity effectively. If I want to keep my bandwidth high as an HSP, I have to sleep, meditate, exercise, eat right, take regular breaks, nurture my support circle, and do my inner work. There’s a mental and spiritual athleticism to being a happy sensitive person. If my HSP “training regimen” suffers, my bandwidth suffers.
Are you carrying extra weight of shame?
There’s a final, overarching lesson I took away from watching Meru. Not once did I hear Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, or Renan Ozturk say they shouldn’t need to spend hours doing practice climbs and working out in the gym. They didn’t question their need to bring along a complex array of specialized equipment, or their need to eat in a carefully calculated way to maximize their energy. They didn’t criticize themselves for thinking ahead in detail, anticipating and planning for countless eventualities during the climb.
In the end, the three climbers carried 200 pounds apiece of food, water, and gear. But they didn’t carry an ounce of shame. As HSPs, we too often shame ourselves for needing what we need. We shouldn’t. It’s not kind or helpful to judge myself as picky or rigid because I’m meticulous about how I eat, sleep, and take breaks. I do all that to maximize my bandwidth. I want to be present with clients and alert enough to do my best work all day. And I want to show up at the end of the day with energy to enjoy some time with my partner.
If you judge yourself for needing what you need as an HSP, take time to think about it, and consider getting support. Shame is a heavy load to carry.