The humble slug is a great role model for HSPs. Here’s why.

During a walk in the woods this week, I passed a juicy golden slug. I realized belatedly that I wanted a picture of him. I ran back. My haste was unnecessary, however. Being a slug, he had barely moved.

I thought, “What a great role model for highly sensitive people!” I’m the first to acknowledge that HSPs come in all shapes and sizes. Our cultural conditioning is different. And we are given wildly divergent opportunities in life. For all these reasons and more, I can’t possibly make a generalization that applies to all HSPs.

I can say this, however: a faster, more aggressive, style of being and doing is spreading from countries like mine (the U.S.) to more and more places in the world. We are moving faster, cramming in more information, using more data. This is hard on HSPs. Our need for downtime has never been more pronounced—or more threatened.

Resting, being quiet, taking it slow—these ways of being are becoming harder to pull off. No wonder that slug called to me, in its sluggish way.

Do you feel better when you create more space in your days and weeks, allow yourself downtime, create opportunities for reflection? I’m guessing you do. Do you nonetheless find it difficult to create this downtime? Many of us do.

Why is this so? We must have really good reasons, considering how much this particular kind of self-care impacts our well-being.

HSPs and “trying hard”

For many HSPs, trying hard is a central go-to strategy for coping. We play to our strengths when we are under stress, and conscientiousness is one of those strengths. We are also highly observant and good at considering possible outcomes.

All this leaves us vulnerable to perfectionism. We are fueled by a false belief: “If I were just_____” (fill in the blank: “smarter, thinner, more athletic, more considerate, less sensitive,” etc.) then I would_____ (fill in the blank again: “not feel so anxious; get the love I need; be more popular; feel safe,” etc.)

Here’s what comes up for me, when I fill in those blanks:

“If I just work hard enough, I can get everything on my list done, and then I can relax and feel good.”

Pause for a moment to fill in those blanks for yourself:

“If I were just______, then I could be/have/do_____________.”

The word “just” looks so innocent, doesn’t it? But make no mistake: “just” is a four-letter word. It will get you in big trouble. You can keep doing “just one more thing” until you are exhausted.

When our perfectionism leads to exhaustion, can’t we just stop and take a break? Unfortunately it may not be that simple. When we try to step back and slow down, we run into another four-letter word: “slug.”

Why we have a problem with slowing down

As Merriam Webster will tell you, a slug is “a slow, lazy person:” an idler, a loafer, a layabout, a do-nothing couch potato. After spotting that slug the other day, I realized I call myself a slug all the time, as in, “I’ve been a total slug today.”

I’m not complimenting myself. Rather, I’m expressing—in a supposedly-humorous-but-not-really-funny-at-all way—my ambivalence about giving myself the down time I need.

Even after all these years of studying the HSP trait, teaching other people about it, and learning to take better care of myself—including taking extra time to rest, be quiet, and just to “be”—I still judge myself for doing it.

Some of this judgment is pre-emptive. If I’m around other people and I’m afraid they might judge me for doing less than they do, ruefully calling myself a slug beats them to it. But I see an additional source of this self-judgment. This habit, painful as it is, is a vestige of the vigilant stance in which I held myself for many years.

I’ll explain. When I don’t feel safe, I become vigilant. I direct my focus outside myself. I observe closely how events are unfolding. I watch others like a hawk. I read the room. I sense the mood.

These actions in themselves are neutral. However, when a scared part of me is the one doing the watching, reading, sensing, and observing, then I’m in a state of hypervigilance.

When I rest, reflect, and engage in “down time,” I’m the opposite of hypervigilant. You’d think the hypervigilant one in me would be relieved to have a break. On the contrary, though: for our hypervigilant parts, relaxing is terrifying. They are terrified they will miss something.

The slug-slinger is something in me

The inner critic that still calls me a slug—half-heartedly, after all these years, but still—is one of these vigilant, terrified-to-miss-something parts. It is trying to keep me safe. After so many years of believing that relaxing is dangerous, this part of me still worries, even though I know it’s not true. (The opposite is true, in fact: pushing myself too hard endangers my health.)

This critic has been struggling recently, watching me carve out more time than usual for sleep and processing. For the record, I’m reasonably sure this need for more sleep is related to some intense grief work I’ve been doing. In fact, I made a conscious decision to let go of my usual morning routine temporarily.

I’m still doing all the elements (breath work, meditation, and exercise), but stripped down to the minimum, to give me the flexibility to sleep more if I need to. In other words, I—the “whole me” that has all my needs in mind—made these choices, and I am comfortable with them. But this inner critic is still worried.

In Focusing, we turn within to develop a relationship with parts like this one that calls me a slug. We can also turn towards the one in me that is afraid she truly is a slug (this is an important clarification: where there is a critical part, there will always be another part that feels criticized. If that second part wasn’t still slightly worried I might be a slug, the accusation of being one would just roll off me.)

What happens if I turn inwards right now?

I’ve been having trouble getting out of bed in the morning recently, and my inner slug-slinger (SS) has been activated, in response to what it sees as lazy, unproductive behavior. I will go in and give it some attention:

Slug-slinger (SS): Oh my god. You didn’t even get up until 8:15 AM this morning. Duke [my partner] had already worked out, showered, and started his first meeting by then.

Criticized one (CO): &%#$. It’s true. I’m lazy. What’s wrong with me? There’s no way I can keep this up. I’ve somehow been lucky until now, but the other shoe is going to drop. It will be a downward slide and then I will go broke.

Notice how quickly this exchange happened. I didn’t have time to get a word in edgewise with these two parts of me. So, I take a breath. I feel my feet on the floor. I feel my body here in the room. I notice I’ve shifted my body to sit up straighter. Next, I need to go back in and be with these two parts.

I let each of these parts know I hear them there. I step between them, like a school principal would do with two kids tussling: I gently but firmly grab each one by the scruff of the neck. I hold them apart. I let them know they’ll each get their turn to talk.

Being with the harsh one

I can tell that Slug-slinger needs attention first. I can already feel my attitude towards her shifting, feeling how scared she is underneath her harsh tone.

Me: Slug-slinger, I hear that you are alarmed seeing what time I got out of bed today.

SS: Are you kidding?! It doesn’t matter how late we push the start of our day, you’ll just use up the time! We need to exercise more! We need to sit more! And how on earth will you ever write a book at this rate?

Me: It sounds like you are really scared we are not getting to all the things we want to do.

SS: We aren’t even getting to the things we absolutely NEED to do! If you sit and breathe this little, you might get anxious again! We absolutely cannot risk that.

Me: Oh, wow. No wonder you are terrified. You’ve been scared we might fall back into the horrible anxiety we felt in the “bad old days.” [I’m sensing if this is accurate.]

SS: Oh my God, that would be—I want to cry even thinking about it. I couldn’t stand it. That was hell. [I can feel tears in my throat.]

Me: I’m hearing how terrifying that is, that even conceiving of feeling like that again makes you want to cry.

SS: Yes.

The conversation isn’t over yet. However, hearing even this much of it, you can sense how everything shifts when I turn in with the intent of creating a relationship with whatever is going on in me.

This is the “way through” this old pattern—a pattern I share with many HSPs —of criticizing myself internally for being a slug when I take the rest time, the processing time, and the down time I need.

Letting go of shame

Once you’ve done this inner work, the actual problem-solving—tweaking your schedule, asking for help, whatever is needed to create the down time you need—becomes straightforward. As long as you feel shame about needing what you need, though, the problem-solving won’t go well. Even if you do it, you’ll fail to follow through.

In other words, accepting the value and validity of your own need for down time is your essential first step. Even when downtime is nearly impossible to come by—during a family emergency, or when parenting a newborn—you can still appreciate and empathize with the unmet need. The situation won’t be easy, but it will feel worlds better than telling yourself you shouldn’t even need the downtime in the first place.

This brings me to one last wonderful slug lesson. The slug can pull in its little horns. That is, it can choose to stop directing its antennae towards the outside world. As HSPs, we need this role-modeling. No matter how much lovely downtime you carve out for yourself, you won’t feel relief if you continue to be vigilant, continuously tuning in to others’ feelings, needs, and moods.

If you’ve made time to slow down and it’s still hard for you to come to rest within yourself, you may need more trauma work, along with a steady practice like coherent breathing to regulate your nervous system. Persevere until you can truly let go and rest. The ability to take and fully enjoy downtime is essential to your happiness and well-being as a sensitive person.

Photo: 2023 Emily Agnew