To make the tough choices required to create and maintain a sustainable sensitive life, I rely on Focusing every day.
I’ve had a recurring dream over the past twenty years. My vacation in Hawaii is over. I’m driving my rental car back to the airport. And suddenly I’m stricken by a terrible realization: I’ve forgotten to go to the beach.
I wake up crying inconsolably. If you’ve seen the white sand and the turquoise water of Lanikai Beach, where the photo above was taken, you know why. I was lucky enough to live in Hawaii for five years. No wonder many kamaaina (locals) had a bumper sticker saying, “Ho, hum…another day in paradise…”
But back to my dream. I’d wake up in anguish, wondering, “Why, why did I not spend more time at the beach?!” Over time, though, I began to ask that question in a more matter-of-fact, curious way.
Why did I not spend more time at the beach?
The answer was simple. I could not bask in the sun and salt water all day and expect to take care of business in the evening. And business in the evening was a regular part of my job as the second oboist for the Honolulu Symphony. We had concerts or rehearsals most nights.
Still, I felt torn and confused saying “no” to chances to explore the islands. One afternoon when the orchestra was on a tour to Maui, the second bassoonist invited me to hike up Haleakala volcano with him. Conflicting inner voices overwhelmed me:
“When will I ever get another chance to do this?”
“Shouldn’t I seize the day?”
“But we have a pair of children’s concerts in the morning and a full classical program in the evening.”
“Is he serious?”
He was. He hiked, while I closeted myself in my hotel room. I slept. I worked on my reeds. In making this choice, I honored three of my essential needs as a sensitive person: I rested, I took steps to manage my overarousal, and I prepared conscientiously.
To put it another way, I did my best to live my values. I had a commitment to myself to play at my highest level in the orchestra, and I took responsibility for doing what I needed to do to make that happen.
Different parts, different needs
But… part of me didn’t like that, and still doesn’t. It wants to do more. Yet I know something will suffer if I try to do more. This is an ongoing feature of the sensitive life: difficult decisions.
When I say “difficult,” I don’t mean “hard to make.” In this case, I knew very well what the right choice was. By “difficult,” I mean hard to accept.
Hard to accept that my best choice was to give up an opportunity to hike Haleakala. Hard to accept I couldn’t pack in as much activity as others around me. Hard to accept that this “in/out” rollercoaster was a permanent feature of my life.
The fact is, “in/out” balance is key to our well-being as sensitive people. If we are too “out” all the time, we get chronically overstimulated. We end up scattered, overwhelmed, and exhausted. But if we are too “in,” leading a safe, unvarying, unstimulating life, we can start to feel dead, dull, or numb—like life is passing us by.
For the 30 percent of HSPs who are extroverts, your greater need for stimulation can make this balancing act even more challenging. You may feel like you have one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake.
Are HSPs doomed to a life of “stimulation whiplash?” No. I’ve written here about the long game of creating HSP sustainability. To do that, you need to educate yourself about the trait, then find HSP role models, and take action towards your vision for your life.
Today, though, I’d like to focus—no pun intended–on Focusing.* Why? Because I use Focusing every day to sense my way forward as I navigate the “in/out” tension inherent in being highly sensitive.
Focusing: an essential tool to create a sustainable sensitive life
Your sensitive brain is wired to process deeply. This is fantastic—and intense. As you contemplate your “in/out” options, your mind generates implications, connotations, and ramifications like McDonald’s churns out hamburgers. The sheer volume can be staggering.
With Focusing, you can tune into the softer voice of your inner rightness and find your way forward, even in the midst of a din of options. There are many reasons highly sensitive people love Focusing, but its power to support integrated, sustainable decision-making is at the top of the list. At any given moment, Focusing gives you the tools and awareness you need to sense the optimal “in/out” balance in your life.
How much should you take on? When should you push, and when is it better to rest? When you focus, your body gives you fresh answers to these fundamental questions. You know the right next step in your situation.
Here are three levels of decision-making for which I use Focusing, with specific examples in recent months.
I turn inwards in a Focusing way any time I have a moment-by-moment decision to make during the day. For example, this morning, I was running late. Sensing inside, I noticed I felt tense in my body when I thought of trying to squeeze in both exercise and a shower before my first appointment of the day.
I had time after the appointment too, so I imagined delaying the exercise and shower until then, and immediately felt relief. Using your imagination is a powerful way to test out the felt sense of different options. Your body will let you know which one it prefers.
Complex, habit-prone, or fraught decisions
I went through a prolonged period of elevated stress last year. Focusing with it, I realized it had to do with the way I was responding to others’ needs. With clients, colleagues, friends, and most especially with my elderly parents, I seemed unable to modulate my “care response.”
While Focusing about this, I got the image of a hook in my chest. This was an apt metaphor. Any time someone needed something from me, I’d get “hooked.” I’d jerk into action. I—or in reality, a part of me—was making myself responsible for others. I spent Focusing time with this part, and learned to recognize the particular quality of urgency I felt when I was about to get “hooked.”
I taught myself to pause in those moments, in a Focusing way. I’d note that something in me felt a sense of great urgency to respond. Simply by becoming aware in this way, I gave myself more choice how to respond.
My actions sometimes ended up looking the same from the outside. For example, I typically still responded promptly to challenges coming up for my parents. But my energy was completely different. I was choosing from all of me, rather than allowing something in me to choose.
Meta-decisions: staying up reading the news
During the pandemic, I fell into a habit of reading the news on my phone right before bed. Then I couldn’t fall asleep, and I’d feel like death warmed over in the morning. I felt a sense of desperation, yet couldn’t get myself to stop.
This painful pattern took several Focusing sessions to unravel. In one of those, I realized how easily I’d get merged with a part of me that I know all too well. This part has always coped by trying hard. It hatches plans. It creates ambitious schedules. Then it pushes me hard, constantly strategizing about how to be more efficient and effective.
I saw that this “trying hard” part was taking over during the day. Then a rebellious part came out at night, desperate for some unscheduled, unscripted time. For this rebel part, losing myself in the BBC news was a last-call strategy for freedom. I was caught in a painful cycle.
The only way of this kind of pattern is to “hold it all,” and I finally did find a way to hold it all: the wanting to plan, the urge to look at the news, the despair about being up too late. What emerged was a profound shift back to “trusting the return to Presence as the primary strategy.” Over time this led to major changes in my work life, as I created more space just to “be.”
This was an example of a meta-insight—an insight that affected everything I did. There’s nothing wrong with hatching plans, making schedules, and trying to be efficient—as long as I’m doing it from the “bigger me” of Self-in-Presence.
However, if a part of me is running the show, things never go well. So I reaffirmed my commitment to dream, plan, and make lists from my whole self.
You can find your right way forward
When you use Focusing to sense your way forward in the ways I’ve described above, a wonderful thing happens. You realize your choices aren’t the least bit arbitrary: they have a compelling sense of inner rightness that carries through your life like a golden thread.
In that regard, you—and only you—can sense the right way forward for you. This is not selfish, either. Your inner sense of rightness includes all your needs, including your needs for consideration and care of others.
Even better, when you follow that golden thread, you minimize your regret about the things you chose not to do. Having dreamed of the beach for so long, I can tell you that’s no small thing.
*Focusing has many branches. For simplicity, I use the term here to refer to the branch I’m trained in: Inner Relationship Focusing. I write with gratitude to Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin for developing IRF, and to Eugene Gendlin for identifying the process of Focusing in the first place, working tirelessly to get the word out about it, and best of all, making it ‘open source” so the worldwide Focusing community could go in all sorts of creative directions with it—which it has done.
Image: Emily Agnew 2023
Note: This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on March 14, 2016.