Dr. Elaine Aron recommends these four key HSP life tasks to heal old pain and create the foundation for a joyful, sustainable sensitive life.
It’s getting colder here in upstate New York. The days are getting shorter. Soon, we’ll have to pay the piper for our summer harvest of flowers. Most of our blooming plants require no more than a drastic haircut for the winter, but the dahlias are another story.
Dahlia tubers can’t stay in the ground over winter in this cold climate. So, in the late fall each year, we bring in the last of the blooms, then cut down all the dahlia bushes. We have 13 plants this year. Most of them are taller than me, so the resulting foliage will fill several tall garden bags.
Each tuber we planted in the spring has now multiplied to 10 or more. We dig up these clumps and hose the dirt off them. I cut the tubers apart and select the ones with viable “eyes” that will sprout a new plant next year. We spread the tubers out to dry, dust them with sulfur, wrap them in Saran wrap and label them. Finally, we take them down to the basement, where they will live for the winter in a small refrigerator kept, just for this purpose, between 40 and 50 degrees.
Why on earth do we do this?
Are we crazy? Who would go to that kind of trouble over a flower?
Good question. However, if you look at the photo above of a new variety we tried this year, called Labyrinth, you can see why we bother. Dahlias are simply beautiful. Each plant blooms non-stop for four months. Even better, the more blooms you cut from a plant, the more it produces.
I chose the dahlia as a logo for my website because highly sensitive people (HSPs) have a lot in common with dahlias. The care we require is quite specific. It is also non-negotiable: if mishandled, we wilt rapidly. On the other hand, in the right environment, with sturdy, flexible self-care routines in place, we can bloom spectacularly…and we are generous with our gifts.
I’ve written many articles about HSP self-care (see the “self-care” heading in the sidebar to access a whole list of them.) For today, though, I’d like to take a bigger picture look at the four key HSP life tasks as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron.
Dr. Aron, as you probably already know, identified and named the HSP trait in the mid-1990s. Since then, she has spent her professional life tirelessly advocating for HSPs through her books, movies, lectures, recordings, and her blog.
She has identified these four key life tasks for HSPs:
- Learn about the HSP trait
- Reframe your life in terms of your sensitive trait
- Heal old pain and trauma
- Spend time with other HSPs.
Let’s unpack each of these.
1—Learn about your HSP trait
The apparent obviousness of this first task is deceptive. Thanks to Dr. Aron’s advocacy, many more HSPs now know that they are highly sensitive. However, surprisingly few know about the specific attributes of the trait or understand how these attributes have affected their lives.
As Dr. Aron herself has often commented, simply learning more about the HSP trait can be transformative. For example, did you know that the more cautious approach that HSPs take to new situations–called the “pause to check” impulse—is an evolutionary strategy so successful that virtually every species in the natural world has a similarly sensitive cohort?
Simply knowing this fact, and others like it, can begin to dissolve the too-common belief that your sensitivity is a liability or even a weakness. So, learning the specifics of the trait is a key life task for you as an HSP.
Learning is the first half of this first task. Next, you need to reflect on what you’ve learned. How does this new information about the HSP trait apply to you in particular? Ask yourself—
“How was I received as a sensitive child?”
“How did those around me respond to my emotional intensity, my deep-thinking questions and concerns, my intolerance of scratchy clothes, loud noises, etc.?”
“How has my sensitivity—particularly my sensitivity to criticism and my tendency to overarousal—affected my relationships, my job choices, my living situations?”
Taking in the reality of the many ways your sensitivity has affected you may be a joyful experience for you, if your caregivers understood you and “got” you. On the other hand, you may experience heartbreak or even anger on behalf of your younger self as you realize you didn’t get the support you needed to learn how to handle your sensitive nervous system.
2—Reframe your life in terms of your trait
As you take in information about the HSP trait and digest how you’ve been affected by it, you will begin the second key life task: reframing your life in terms of your sensitivity.
For example, I can now look back on my first career as a musician and see how my sensitivity contributed in positive ways, including my deep love of the music itself and my high level of conscientiousness and reliability as a professional. It also created challenges in the form of anxiety about being constantly evaluated, and overarousal.
Now that I’ve been through the process of reframing, I’ve come to see my dogged pursuit of a musical career as an expression of a deep yearning for spiritual union. In performances I sometimes experienced that transcendent experience in which all sense of self fell away.
I see now that I was so deeply affected by the spirituality of that experience that I would do almost anything to experience it again. In spite of the awful performance anxiety I suffered around auditions, I willingly subjected myself to dozens more of them in an attempt to improve my playing so I could access that blissful place more often.
I also see now that while I knew nothing about high sensitivity back then, I was attempting to create a more sustainable life for myself. I loved my job in the Honolulu Symphony, but the 36-week season forced me to put all my stuff in storage in the summer, scrounge a place to live on the mainland, and go on unemployment. This was intensely stressful and discombobulating–not a viable long-term plan.
3—Heal old pain and trauma
As you go about reframing your life in light of your sensitive trait, you will almost certainly encounter old pain and even trauma. Addressing this pain takes time and cannot be rushed.
For example, I’m still working on healing subtle trauma I incurred in 12 years of school. The long days on the bus and in classrooms, the boredom alternating with intense overarousal due to the noise, the smells, and the social complexities, and the lack of alone time took their toll.
To this day, I feel subtle dread as the summer winds down, even though I haven’t attended school in decades. The experience left me with an aversion to taking on work commitments that are inflexible in any way.
In addition, I’ve mentioned the anxiety and overarousal I dealt with as a professional musician. It has taken me a long time to let go of the perfectionist approach I resorted to back then in an effort to manage my intense emotional reactions.
In the process, I’ve mourned the effects on my music career of my difficulty with auditions. I was told—by authorities I trusted—that the quality of my playing at its best was good enough for the best jobs. Yet I could never represent myself well enough at those auditions to win one of those jobs.
Through the reframing process, I understand much better now what I was dealing with in auditions: overarousal so intense it was nearly incapacitating. Paradoxically, this has given me a new appreciation for the success I did achieve in my orchestra playing and freelance career. I’ve also come to keenly appreciate the sheer patience and perseverance I displayed in the face of so many setbacks along the way.
4—Spend time with other HSPs
The fourth HSP life task—spending time with other HSPs—is instantly and surprisingly powerful. When you hang out with other HSPs, you immediately perceive their wonderful qualities. You can feel a palpable spaciousness in a room full of HSPs. along with a sense of mutual consideration, a receptive quiet, and a striking range of creative expression.
You may be so accustomed to being self-critical about your sensitivity that you can’t accurately see your own exceptional qualities. But it’s easy to see these qualities in other HSPs. From there, you can make the leap to more accurate self-perception. Simply ask yourself this question:
“How does this quality I’m enjoying in my HSP friend reflect my own HSP nature?”
Is your fellow HSP an attentive listener? Are they thoughtful, perceptive, and conscientious? Can you count on them to be there for you when you are low? (Not that this is always true: everyone has bad days, and an HSP on a bad day doesn’t want to be around someone else’s bad day.)
Above all, HSPs possess an inner quiet which is an essential element of our deeply personal spirituality. Dr. Aron has commented that when she speaks to a group of HSPs, she can hear a pin drop in the room. The quiet is more than just physical. It’s a kind of receptivity, even a reverence.
For all these reasons, the fourth task is particularly important. It makes all the other HSP life tasks easier. In appreciating each other as highly sensitive people, we learn to appreciate ourselves more. This appreciation will fuel the patience and perseverance you need to sustain the long-term project of honoring yourself as a sensitive person and creating a life that truly works for you.
Image: ©2022 Emily Agnew