Are you intimately familiar with your HSP pause-to-check habit? Understanding it will help you approach new situations with both confidence and self-acceptance.
Remember the rule we learned when we were old enough to start crossing the street by ourselves?
“STOP! LOOK! LISTEN!”
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have our own internal version of this traffic safety mantra. It’s called “pause to check”, and if you are an HSP, you’ve certainly done it. In fact, “pause to check” is a key hallmark of the HSP trait. The phrase describes the way we prefer to “stop, look, and listen” before we enter a novel situation.
In Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person (P&THSP*), Elaine Aron comments that HSPs prefer “to be on the sidelines in a situation for a while before entering it… generally exploring a situation more by observing and reflecting than by moving about within it.” In other words, “pausing to check” is a perfectly normal behavior for HSPs.
However, if we (or others) don’t know that, we (or they) may mistake our hesitation for one of several mental disorders… and it is true that some HSPs do suffer from these disorders.As Dr. Aron puts it,
“[HSP’s] desire to pause to check before entering a novel situation can appear to be, or become, shyness. Their preference to revise cognitive maps after a failure rather than plunging immediately ahead again (Patterson & Newman, 1993) could be mistaken for compulsiveness, or their desire to consider all the consequences of an action could appear to be chronic anxiety—and again, some sensitive people do develop these disorders.” (P&THSP, p. viii).
Clearly, we need to understand our thoughtful HSP approach well enough to appreciate it and capitalize on its advantages, while also recognizing when we cross line into unnecessarily self-limiting fearful behavior.
Are HSPs “chicken,” “wimpy,” or “weak?”
Unfortunately, others may judge us as excessively cautious when we are merely doing our HSP-style due diligence. As a result, we may conclude we are cowardly or “chicken.” We aren’t. Observing from the sidelines in a reflective way before plunging in does not mean we are timid or faint of heart.
Case in point: an HSP friend planned meticulously and trained extensively to climb a 19,000-foot peak in the Andes. Her caution was prudent: she took the (real) risks seriously, and did all she could to minimize them. (During the climb itself, she made the extremely disappointing but life-preserving decision to turn back just short of the summit, knowing she and her climbing partner could not go further and be sure of descending safely.)
Because I’m an HSP myself, Elaine’s description of observing from the sidelines sounds logical, rational, and, well, right. It probably sounds right to you, too. But if you think back on your life, I’m guessing you can remember times when people around you—parents, coaches, teachers, even friends—misread your “pause-to-check” behavior.
Perhaps they concluded you were obstinately unwilling to try something new and just needed a push. Or maybe they judged you as a chicken, a wimp, or a scaredy-cat. Unfortunately, kids—and adults—can be merciless towards others who are different from them.
A terrible dilemma
If you felt compelled as a child to decide on the spot between prudent restraint and immediate (but possibly risky) action, you faced a dilemma. Your instincts screamed “Wait!”However, like most kids, you wanted to please the authority figures in your life, and you wanted your friends to respect you. These conflicting pressures may have frozen you in place—or pushed you to act with uncharacteristic impulsiveness.
Faced with these very pressures in my seventh-grade gym class, I chose the latter solution. I acted impulsively. My “pause-to-check” self was screaming, “Don’t do it!” I ignored it.
Before I describe the outcome of that ill-fated decision, though, we need a bit of back story. By now, I am quite a decent yogi. But I’ve never mastered the art of the handstand. Why?Because on the elementary school playground, I “paused to check” as I watched the other girls turning cartwheels, holding handstands and performing back flips (my friend Margie, a petite, wiry redhead, could do three flips in a row.)
Upon reflection, I concluded that any move that required me to throw my head at the ground was a terrible idea. I suspect I came to this conclusion at the early age of three after flying out of a swing and landing on my head. I ended up with a concussion, two black eyes, and a permanent fear of head-first falls.
By the time I got to seventh grade gym class, my “no throwing my head at the ground” vow had been in force for over a year. It was about to be challenged. To pass the gymnastics unit, I had to complete a sequence of three skills. Handstands, cartwheels, and flips were out of the question, and the balance beam meant certain death.
I was left with the least of the remaining evils: the vault.
If you found yourself in this sort of situation, how did you handle it?
Before I continue, search your memory for a situation in which you desperately needed to pause before acting, but plunged ahead anyway. Does an incident come to mind? If so, hold it, and yourself, with kindness as you read on. You might hold the younger me with kindness, too: she could use it.
Back in gym class, the fatal moment arrived. I gazed down the long runway to the vault. I was paralyzed, for good reason: I knew I could not do the required vault. Though I’m a Gumby doll when it comes to forward bends, I’ve never been able to do the side-to-side “splits” this vault required.
On the other hand, I had never failed a test, either. The thought of walking away and choosing to take a low grade did not even enter my 13-year-old mind.
Something had to give. Thus, it came about that the irresistible force—my HSP fear of criticism—met and overcame that immovable object, my sheer terror. I took off running down the long mat, hit the springboard, and planted both hands on the horse, hoping wildly for a miracle.
No miracle occurred. Instead, not one but both of my ankles hit the horse. To my horror, I had done the very thing I had vowed never to do: I threw my head at the ground.
Luckily for my survival, the gym teacher caught me. Not so luckily for my self-esteem, she was angry and disgusted. In retrospect, I’m sure that underneath her anger, she was scared. She was right to be. I could have broken my neck. All the same, the humiliation I felt seeing her response was the cherry on the sundae of this adolescent nightmare.
The price I paid for overriding my own better judgment
As we reflect upon this grisly scene—giving thanks for not being 13 any more— notice that I did “pause to check.” I knew I was making a bad decision. But under external duress from the teacher, and internal duress from my own fear of getting anything less than an A, I overrode my own common sense.One good thing came out of that humiliating episode. I learned to take my own fears seriously. I realized that I could have been badly hurt, and that I had made a mistake overridingmy fear.
The problem was, I let my inner pendulum swing to the opposite extreme. A part sprang up in me that lumped all of my fears and hesitations together. It concluded that if I felt fear, I must be in real danger.
This overcautious part of me took charge of my inner department of risk analysis, and ran it with an iron fist. As a result, the effects of my impulsive vault attempt lasted long after the pain, fear, and humiliation of the crash itself had worn off. I was at times paralyzed by my fears.
The way out of excess caution: a solid inner relationship
Now I understand that the problem was not my HSP pause-to-check habit itself. The problem was letting a part of me take charge of it. My parts are just that: partial selves. They never have the full picture, and they certainly don’t have access to my spiritual guidance.
The scared one did not have the perspective to see that my life experience had grown and that I could trust myself. I needed to develop an inner relationship with this part, to bring it up to date.
I also needed to nurture an inner relationship with the part of me that was so afraid of being criticized or “failing” in gym class (or any class) that it overrode all my better judgment. This part believed I was only as good as my grades and my achievements. To it, disapproval from other people was unbearable.
How did I create these inner relationships? Inner Bonding® (click here to read my brief description) gave me a framework to understand my inner world, and helped me connect to my spiritual intuition. Focusing gave me wonderfully specific, practical, reliable ways of developing relationships with my scared inner parts so I could discern the messages my fears were trying to convey to me.
Are you exercising your HSP pause-to-check habit in a prudent way? Or is a part of you in charge, acting in ways that are needlessly fearful and self-limiting? With the complementary practices of Focusing and Inner Bonding, you can learn to tell the difference.
In the process, you’ll also learn to trust your sense of inner rightness. Even better, you’ll realize it was trustworthy all along. This is the greatest gift for an HSP, because our spiritual intuition has the answer to all of our most important questions.
*Thank you Kaitlyn for the beautiful photo! email@example.com
Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared on this blog on April 17, 2018.
*Aron, Elaine (2010): Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, New York: Routledge.
I have a highschool gym story. I did not know I was HSP way back then, however I did have a ‘pause to check’ radar already built in me. My gym teacher wanted me to complete a backwards somersault. I knew this would hurt my neck. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I proceeded to tell her I couldn’t complete the backwards somersault. She didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and the compliant fear of authority teenager in me did the backwards somersault. I pulled a muscle in my neck, went to the doctor, and was off gym for about 2 weeks. I think that was my last year of gym class in highschool. Which really was a disservice to me on the part of the gym teacher because I desperately needed physical activity.
So it appears that possibly as an HSP child or teen, where other people are in authority above us, whether we go full force and ignore the pause to check, or pause and check, the outcomes were disastrous to our undeveloped emotional minds. I think the pressures of authority, grades, and fear of being criticized were beyond our control and out of balance for us. Hopefully these days gym teachers are more student centered instead of curriculum centered. Like a fat girl (me) isn’t a gymnast. And an introverted teen doesn’t enjoy team sports. Gym class should just be fun and about being physically active even if it is just walking around a track!
Thank you for defining the concept of ‘being on the sidelines’ as I , an HSP , evaluate different situations before deciding to join in or not. One area where I am regularly on the sidelines is when I am in the company of people who are ridiculing or being sarcastic with EACHOTHER. I do not join in and have been criticized as having something wrong WITH ME!!! Can you imagine. People who are emotionally and psychologically degrading eachother are telling me there is something wrong with me (and not them). Now I interact with these people as limited as possible.
(If they weren’t ‘family’ I wouldn’t interact with them at all)
I would love to be ‘a fly on the wall’,so to speak, at a gathering where HSPs were doing all the speaking and non HSPs were in the audience to see how non HSPs would respond to us HSPs TELLING them how unhuman their behaviour, thoughts, ideas, emotions etc etc are at times. The world would be a better place if it was 50% HSPs !!! (or more)
Some rainy day I need to sit down with the computer and pen in hand and write out a phrase or two from each of your blogs about the uniqueness of being HSP. Reminders, validations. I only know one other HSP person and she is older and didn’t even realize there was a term for her sensitivities although she embraced her sensitive nervous system and has understood it for years.
Thanks again for your varied topics on being HSP and how to navigate them.
You are most welcome Suzanne. I like your idea of validating your uniqueness as an HSP.