Why Does Empathy Scare Us?

I grew up in a family where our “bad” emotions (jealousy, anger, rage) were not validated.  My parents weren’t unkind people, but true empathy was not their forte.  We were a highly emotional bunch of kids, and we were told, sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently, to brush it off, stop crying, don’t be so dramatic, smile and be nice.  I think they truly believed that was the best way to handle negative emotions. As a highly sensitive child who struggled with a lot of fears, bouts of melancholy, and anxious feelings, I never felt fully understood or free to express myself.

I became a parent and stumbled upon Janet Lansbury’s writings about respecting babies and children.  She suggests staying unruffled during the craziest of tantrums, and acknowledging and validating the ugliest of emotions.  This seemed radical to me, but I tried it. Instead of my go-to strategies of distraction or just shooing away the feelings (“You’re ok! No more tears!”), I really leaned into them.  I said the feelings aloud and made them even more real. “You are sad that I had another baby.  It makes you angry and makes you want to head butt your brother.  I understand you are sad and mad, but I will not let you hurt him.”

Empathy and validation absolutely works with my kids.  They simmer down quickly and seem to have good emotional intelligence for being so young. There are few grudges, little anger bubbling underneath the surface.  Best of all, we’re on the same team.  But it took a lot of getting used to for me.  In fact, such radical empathy felt scary.  To not contradict, correct or ignore negative emotions seems indulgent, too loose.  Shouldn’t we stand our ground as parents?  Shouldn’t we re-train a child’s emotions?  Isn’t that our job?  As a Christian, old testament verses are sometimes thrown around as proof that we need to spank, punish, and control.  Yikes.

When Sisi needed surgery for her broken elbow, she and I were both frustrated by the way the doctors are nurses distracted and redirected Sisi instead of listening to her fears and questions and answering them straight, even if she didn’t like the answers. It was then that I realized my radical empathy and straight talk was truly counter-cultural.

 

Here’s the thing. I think about how I like to be comforted.  Does it really help for someone to tell you your feelings are wrong, immature, and you just need to get over it?  To give you lectures or advice that you’re just not ready to hear? Do you like being ignored or banished when you are having your adult tantrums (and we all have them, right?) No.  We just need someone to say, “You sound really upset.  I’m so sorry you are having such a hard time.  I’m here for you.”  How healing are those words?  The older I get, the more tragedies I’ve experienced and the more I realize that’s ALL you can say most of the time.  There are just no other words. Assuming I am not abusing, lashing out  or manipulating you, please don’t try to rationalize or punish me in my sadness, grief and moments of near-insanity, because you will get nowhere.

I have a loved one who suffers from a severe mental illness.  During flare-ups, this person’s thoughts and emotions are in another galaxy.  In the past, I have tried to convince, contradict, correct, distract.  All the things we try with tantruming kids.  But like tantruming kids, my loved on is not in a frame of mind to hear my great reasons and arguments.  Rather than convince this person to get help and get back on meds, I pushed the person away even more.  I became someone not to be trusted.  How very sad.

The book I am not sick, I don’t need help! by Xavier Amador reminded me so much of Janet Lansbury’s strategy, but applied toward those struggling with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  The book argues that poor insight into their own symptoms is a symptom of the mental illness itself.  This means that a schizophrenic or bipolar person is not just being irrational or stubborn when they say they are not sick, don’t need meds, or suggest something crazy like aliens are speaking to them through a blink 182 song on the radio (I’ve heard it.)  They truly believe this, and there’s no way to convince them otherwise.  It’s wasted breath.

Next time I get to talk to my loved one, I will stop saying “You need help.  You are just paranoid. Your plan is not going to work.”  Instead I will say, “Tell me if I’m hearing you right.  You don’t want to take meds because they make you feel terrible and you don’t think  you need them.  You don’t want to stay put because  you think someone is following you.  It must be scary to be in your position right now.  Nobody likes to feel followed.  I’m here for you.  I love you.”  And then I’ll wait- weeks, months maybe, until my loved one is ready to hear me and my wise suggestions for his/her life.   (Of course, if someone is a harm to himself or others, it’s important to step in and force help. But this should be the last resort.)

So radical empathy isn’t just for tantruming kids.  Or grieving adults.  Or mentally ill loved ones.  It’s for every single person.  Let’s not be afraid of radical empathy.  It will make the world a kinder and more emotionally intelligent place.

Introversion, HSP, or Social Anxiety? The blurry line.

 

Introvert? Check. HSP? Check. Social Anxiety? Dunno.

I refill my cup of energy with alone time (introversion.)  I am highly sensitive to stimuli of all kinds (HSP.)  But do I often fear being judged or negatively evaluated by other people (social anxiety)?  If so, does that fear permeate most or all of my social interactions?  Dunno.

I will admit:

  • I often worry about what people think of me.
  • I fear saying too much or too little.
  • My nervous, frantic energy around people often causes me to say weird things, stumble over my words, ask strange questions, talk too much or completely clam up.
  • I have trouble sustaining eye contact.
  • I am flustered when introduced.
  • I dread being the center of attention (although a part of me thrives off it, too!)
  • I spend a lot of time during and after social interactions identifying flaws in my social performance.
  • (More symptoms can be found here. )

So often, I feel frazzled inside.  I feel a buzzing sensation in my body which makes it hard to even hold a conversation.  I feel short of breath and my muscles tense. I dread that feeling.  I also dread the criticism I give myself during and after the social interaction. I find myself wondering often, is this normal? Does everyone feel this way?  And if not, can I just chalk it up to HSP or introversion?

Social anxiety wasn’t really on my radar until recently when I read the novel The Husband’s Secret.  One of the characters, Tess, suffers from social anxiety, but covers it with humor, sarcasm, and faked confidence.  Of course, the constant covering up begins to take it’s toll.  I related to Tess’s quirks so profoundly that I started to wonder if I suffer from social anxiety.

Since social anxiety is a continuum, do I have enough of it to be considered a full-blown mental disorder?

I don’t feel socially anxious all the time. Certain people and situations bring the anxiety out of me more than others.  I click with certain people right away. Others intimidate me immediately, and I don’t understand why.  Most people would call me  friendly, warm, enthusiastic, even social. I don’t usually avoid parties or people- I push through the anxiety and try to be present (See this post about party anxiety for proof!) I force myself because that’s the person I want to be. It’s inside me somewhere.

My therapist believes it’s impossible to completely separate HSP from introversion from social anxiety . They are overlapping circles- separate but related, influencing one another.  A Venn diagram with me in the middle. Part of me wants to rule social anxiety out.  After all, while introversion and HSP are neutral traits- good in some situations, unhelpful in others, social anxiety is always a bad thing: something to be cured.  But then again, at least it can be “cured”.  

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, also believes it’s difficult to tease apart social anxiety from HSP.  One of the FAQs on her website is “Do I have an anxiety disorder or am I just highly sensitive?”  Dr. Aron answered that anxiety is only a disorder if the anxiety doesn’t make sense or is excessive for the particular situation.  For an HSP, the anxiety often makes sense!  We are programmed to be cautious, notice everything, try to predict the future, deeply process our mistakes, etc.  This way of thinking often causes anxiety!  To tell an HSP to stop worrying is like telling an HSP to stop being an HSP.

In social situations, we are very attuned to others’ facial expressions, sighs, yawns, subtle eye rolls, and tone of voice.  If someone is indeed judging us, or offended, or bored by us, we are apt to pick up on it.  We probably won’t forget it, either!  The social “traumas” that everyone experiences during childhood and adolescence- awkward first dates, feeling left out, having fallouts, might make a deeper impression on an HSP, and might make us cautious of any situation resembling those past traumas.

Something else that blurs the line is that overstimulation feels a lot like anxiety.  Overstimulation produces the same physical symptoms as anxiety- quick pulse, sweating, dry throat, headaches, muscle tension. Sometimes I can coach myself out of my feelings of social panic by telling myself, “It’s just overstimulation.  There’s a lot going on right now.  You are doing great.  You’re fine.”  I instantly feel better and find the strength to press on.

So I’m still not sure if I have social anxiety.  My therapist told me the label is less important than the goal: RESILIENCY.  What pep talks do I need to give myself to work myself out of these frazzled states?  Sometimes I can blame it on overstimulation, and I feel better.  Sometimes I can blame it on introversion and make sure I get more alone time, and that works.  But sometimes I have to admit that I’m feeling anxious becauase I feel I’m not good enough, or not worthy enough.  It’s humbling to admit.  I’m trying to figure this stuff out pronto because I want to teach my kids what it means to be confident, authentic people.

Do you feel the need to label yourself?  Do you find labels helpful or harmful?

 

Camping is Stressful and Awesome

camping-is-stressfulI just returned from a camping trip to Joshua Tree National Forest.  It was an awesome trip, but I had to apologize to my whole family for being such a complainypants.  I was pretty stressed out and I think I set a bad tone for the trip.  The point of a camping trip is to relax and unwind, right?  It just showed how much control I like to have over my environment, and you can’t control nature.

So why do I camp?  Many HSPs have a special connection to nature.  Open spaces give us permission to slow down, daydream, and breathe.  For example, a day at the beach tingles all 5 senses just enough to keep us pleasantly stimulated, but not overwhelmed the way city life can be.  I also believe strongly in the benefits of physically grounding oneself in nature– digging your feet in the sand, hugging a tree, wading in the water, bathing in sunlight.

As a kid in suburban California, I never got to camp.  My dad was not interested, and my mom was too busy working and holding the family together.  My one and only camping trip took place in 7th grade when my best friend’s hippie family invited me on their backpacking trip in the high Sierras. I’m sure they  didn’t realize what a dead weight I would be.  I remember complaining.  A lot.  About: being devoured by mosquitos (they always like my blood best!  So unfair!), ear pressure and faintness from high altitude, being afraid of slipping off the side of the mountain or falling off the log bridge, etc.  With that family, I’m still infamous for being a complainypants on that trip.  They love me nonetheless, and understand that I’m a product of suburbia.

As an adult, I make it a priority to camp.  My daughter loves it. She’d chose a humble camping trip over a fancy hotel trip any day.  As an HSC, I see her thrive in wild, open spaces.   I am hoping my kids will be rugged and confident outdoors like my husband is, and camping regularly will help nurture that quality.

matteo-nook-1

But let’s be real- camping is called “roughing it” for a reason.  It’s not easy, and nature can be scary, especially for someone who is highly sensitive.

Things that stress me out about camping…

  • Packing light, but not too light.
  • Mosquitoes. Why do they love me and my daughter so much but barely touch my husband and baby? Do mosquitoes like HSP blood more perhaps?  Just a hypothesis 🙂 Also my bites become golf ball sized welts.
  • Fear of wild predators (bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, etc.)
  • Keeping the tent clean and uncluttered and mosquito free.
  • Going potty in nature.  It’s just sooo hard for me.  Perhaps a gadget like this pee funnel might help next time?thanks for your support!
  • Making sure the kids are safe and comfortable.
  • Dangers in general, like falling off a cliff.
  • Worrying about food poisoning because the cooler didn’t keep things cool enough, or I didn’t wash the dishes well enough.  This amazing germ busting cloth helped ease my worries about the latter.  I used this cloth to clean EVERYTHING on this trip, including myself and the kids.
  • Worrying about breaking the rules of the park or getting yelled at by the park rangers. I’m such a goody goody.  I also fear accidentally setting a forest fire.
  • General discomfort of being sweaty, itchy, too hot, too cold, dirty, smelly, etc.

I read this list to my husband and he couldn’t believe all the things going through my head on a camping trip.  He’s the ultimate bare-footed, tree-climbing, rock-scrambling outdoorsman. It’s hard for him to even imagine being stressed in nature.  I’m hoping that by camping several times a year,  I can desensitize myself to some of these worries/fears/discomforts because camping is totally worth it.  The best things in life aren’t always easy, right?

When you read this list, can you relate?  Do you have a complicated relationship with camping, too?

camp-site cholla-garden-2   pesto view

I Don’t Enjoy Roughhousing With My Kids

don't like roughhousing

Is this an HSP thing?  A woman thing?  A me thing?

When my daughter wrestles, jumps and crawls on me it can really stress me out.  I have such a low tolerance for when she accidentally kicks me, grabs my neck, or pulls my hair.  The bigger she gets, the harder this time is for me.  I feel like such a wuss.

As I learn more about my HSP tendencies, I can totally see why I don’t like (and have never liked) rough play.  HSPs can be more sensitive to pain.  We might worry more about injuries.  We might be more ticklish, and need a little more personal space. I definitely prefer quiet, calm play- puzzles, origami, art projects, reading.  I always joked that I’m a nerd, but I think I just like to be calm within my own body. That’s how I liked to spend my time as a kid, and that’s how I’d like to play with my kids.

I wish it weren’t so because she just loves to play that way.  She’s always asking for “wild time on the bed” which is a routine we’ve done since she was an infant.  It’s our time to bounce, roll around, have pillow fights- to burn off excess energy before bed.  It was easy when she was a baby, but now she’s bigger and is a firecracker of flailing limbs.  There are lots of articles about the benefits of roughhousing, and I see firsthand how much joy it brings her.  She is in the BEST mood after some wild play with me, dad or friends. I know it’s necessary and good.

Is it ok that I don’t like playing in this way? Can I honor my own needs/preferences, or am I depriving my kids of something essential? Can I leave the wild play to dad, who genuinely enjoys it and doesn’t worry as much about injuries?  Would love to hear your thoughts.

Party Anxiety

party anxiety tipsWhy can’t I be good at parties?

I ask myself this all the time.  I sometimes leave parties thinking I failed somehow.  Like I didn’t make a good enough impression, connect well with others or make good small talk.  Maybe I felt overstimulated and worried that others could totally tell.  As I’m driving home, I might replay an awkward scene in my head and wish for a do-over.

The weird part is that I’m usually at parties with people that I actually like, and it’s fun.  I laugh, I chat, I give hugs.  But I still leave with a heavy feeling in my heart, a sense of failure. A sense of missed connections.  And I feel drained and ready to sleep for 10 hours straight.

It makes me wonder:

  • Where does this performance anxiety come from?  Parties have always been a bit intimidating.  Even as a young child I had mixed emotions about parties- equal parts excitement and dread.  I think I tried to suppress these complicated feelings by being super outgoing and excited.  To this day, I can feel myself overcompensating at parties by being very social, trying to talk to almost everyone in the room, and being one of the last to leave- almost to prove to myself and others that I’m “good at parties”.  I totally suppress my HSP introverted side.
  • Are people really judging and evaluating me, or is it in my head?  Possibly, but not likely.  Most people are probably enjoying themselves too much to care, or are equally self-conscious and inward-focused.  Anyway, what does it matter?  You’d think in my 30’s I’d learn to stop caring what others think of me.  But since HSPs are especially empathetic, we’re good at picking up on others’ reactions.  It’s hard not to wonder how others’ are perceiving you, and if they are picking up on your anxiety.
  • Why do I get so overstimulated at parties?  I remember in social psychology learning about the cocktail party effect- the ability to tune out irrelevant background noise and focus on the conversation at hand.  I suck at this.  My brain has a hard time separating the relevant from irrelevant stimuli. I take everything in- the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and social cues- and that can be draining.    It takes so much energy to focus on the person I’m talking with, and even if I’m having a nice conversation my body might feel on edge.  This overstimulation produces a fight or flight reaction in me, which makes me think I’m stressed and anxious even though I may not be.
  • Am I missing the whole point of parties?   While my ideal social scene is a coffee shop with 2 or 3 girlfriends sharing deep conversation, parties are a totally different vibe.  Just because it’s not my favorite scene, are parties worthwhile?  I think so.  Each party has a purpose- to celebrate a person or event, to catch up with pals, to just enjoy some treats and keep each other company.  While I can occasionally connect in a deep way with people at parties, this is not guaranteed.  And that’s ok.  Togetherness for togetherness’ sake can be a good thing!

My solution:  This holiday party circuit, I decided to honor myself in these ways.

  • Plan ahead: This is such an introvert thing, but if you’re not a fan of small talk, maybe make a list of 3 or 4 possible answers to the question, “So, what’s new?”  My recent go-to’s: baby just turned 1, just got back from Costa Rica, signed up for Stitch Fix, planted my winter vegetables.  Much better to give a specific answer than a blank stare or “Oh, nothing much!”
  • Pep talks on the way to the party (and during).  I mean literally talking to myself on the drive.  I say things like, “You feel a little nervous about the party.  That’s totally ok.   It might be noisy and crowded, but you can handle it.  Take a break if you need to.  It’s ok to just grab a drink and sit on the couch.  It’s ok to just observe.  No one will be judging you; they have other things on their minds.  It’s not a popularity contest.  You were invited because someone wants you there.”  This helps so much!
  • It’s ok to just sit and watch for a while.  To get your bearings.  It’s actually kind of bada$$ to be zen and quiet in the midst of a chaotic party.  Get a drink, sit down on the couch. Let others entertain you. Chances are, when you’re ready, you’ll find yourself in a conversation and it’ll be swell.  No need to force it.
  • Take a breather!  Go to the bathroom.  Step outside for some fresh air.  Leave early if you really need to.  You came to the party and made an appearance even though it took some courage, leaving early is not a sin.
  • Pat yourself on the back when it’s over.  Don’t do what I used to do- replay all the awkward moments and chastise myself.  Instead, think of some good moments- funny things that happened, cool people you met, a delicious appetizer you enjoyed.  You are a work in progress, and you’ll have many parties ahead to keep sharpening your party skills.

These intentions have worked!  I’m not totally cured of my party anxiety, but at least I know where it comes from and how to help curb it.  I really did enjoy myself at all the parties I went to this holiday season, and did minimal Kristin-bashing afterward.

Did you experience party anxiety as a child?  Do you experience it now?  How do you cope?  

 

I Don’t Belong Here

siena tripSometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong time.  Or maybe the wrong place.  This modern life is not the ideal environment for an introverted HSP like myself.  All the information overload.  The packed schedules.  The social media.  Advertising. Piles of possessions.  Constant noise and light.

As the book Quiet emphasized, we live in a society where loud, outgoing, fearless extroverts are the ideal.

Introversion- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

It makes sense- who can best survive and thrive in this kind of world?  Who can handle all the noise and information? Who can compete with the chaos and clutter?  The loud, outgoing, fearless.

It sucks when who I am at my core- sensitive, observant, cautious, slow to speak- is not what our society values most.  I’ve learned to embrace my HSP qualities even though they are often misunderstood or devalued.  The trait of sensory processing sensitivity exists because it was once very useful to our ancestors.  Imagine a time when being an HSP was seen as awesome, the ideal.  

mrs. ingallsI think of Ma from the Little House on the Prairie TV series.  I haven’t seen the show in decades (I’m dating myself here), but from what I remember, Mrs. Ingalls was soft-spoken, gentle yet resilient, industrious, and tuned in to the needs of her family and townspeople.  She was respected and admired by all, unlike that chatty, fire-tongued busybody Mrs. Oleson.

I think I’d do quite well in back then (aside from the spiders and cholera and whatnot). I think I’d like the quiet and the stillness.  The forced relaxation at night (not much of a night life on the prairie). I’d like reading by candlelight or having quiet conversations by the fire.  I’d like socializing with the neighbors at church or at the occasional town fair, but would probably be immersed in my family duties and my tiny house most of the time.  Some things I’d be good at as an HSP:

  • Foraging mushrooms.
  • Remembering which mushrooms are poisonous.
  • Distinguishing bird calls.
  • Spotting poison oak.
  • Tending to a garden.
  • Preparing for the winter.
  • Mending stockings or embroidering by the fire and not getting bored.
  • Singing lullabies to my children.
  • Perfecting my apple pie for the fair.

Not all of these are terribly pertinent for my Orange County suburban life, right?  Ha.thanks for your support!

So what’s an HSP to do?  I have two options.  

A. I can move somewhere off the grid and buy some land and actually live this slower paced, old fashioned lifestyle. Believe me, I’ve thought of it.  It’s not totally out of the question for us to buy some acreage in the wilderness someday.

B.  I can try to carve out calmer, slower, more peaceful life right here where I am.

The more practical option for me is B. Forming a little cocoon around me.  That’s the tagline of this blog: Longing for a calm heart and home. It’s the only way I’ll have the energy and drive to go out into this crazy world and accomplish things and be part of the community.  This book has helped me craft that more peaceful lifestyle for myself and my HSC.  I highly recommend it if you’re feeling like you don’t belong here, either.

lavender-367574_1280

P.S. There are cultures where HSPs are still the ideal.  Japan is one of those places.  I’m not moving to Japan though.

 

 

Too Much Empathy?

too much empathy hspIs there such a thing as too much empathy?  Sometimes I think I’m pathologically empathetic.

I refuse to have pet fish in the house because it’s like pressing a little sadness button every time I walk by the tank.  I feel awful if they are looking bored or sick or if they just don’t have a sparkle in their eyes.  But I thought I could handle having pet fish for Sisi outside in a little container pond.  Ponds are peaceful, right? Zen?

I must have checked on them 20 times a day expecting them to be dead.  They looked scared and were hiding under the plants.  Did they hate our pond?  Did I set it up wrong?  Was this a big mistake?

As I vented my concerns to Joe he said, ” They were supposed to bring you joy.  They only cost 79 cents, please don’t spend too much time and energy worrying about them.”

He’s right!  Being super emotional about goldfish is like being super emotional about worms or crickets. But I felt a connection to these fish and a deep sense of responsibility.

How much time and energy have I spent (or wasted?) empathizing with pet fish, roadkill, fictional characters and strangers?  This level of empathy is a heavy burden to bear. I really wish I could turn it off sometimes because it’s draining. Here’s a quote from a study about HSPs’ increased brain activity in response to emotional stimuli.

This survival strategy is effective as long as the benefits of increased sensitivity outweigh the costs (such as increased cognitive and metabolic demand). In addition to potential costs, those with the sensitive survival strategy will always be in a minority as it would cease to yield special payoffs if it were found in a majority (Wolf et al. 2008). (source of quote).

There are times when the benefits of increased empathy DO outweigh the “cognitive and metabolic costs”.  Motherhood, for one! I am definitely in tune with my kids’ needs and emotions.  My empathy has helped produce secure sleepers.  My empathy has helped dissolve so many conflicts and tantrums.  My empathy has helped me establish good communication with my newborns before they can even speak.  And anticipate their needs before they turn into meltdowns.  And much much more.

But I have to remember, empathy has a cost.  I do not have infinite amounts to dispense.  How can I keep from “wasting” my empathy on things that I just cannot change or aren’t worthwhile or that just aren’t my business?  I’m getting better at this the older I get.

Here are some of my HSP empathy energy savers…

  • No super disturbing, emotional, or scary movies.  Just not worth the stress.
  • Letting go of dysfunctional and drama-prone relationships.  Or at least putting up strong, healthy boundaries to protect myself from the drama.
  • Choosing my causes: I can’t save the whole world, but I can carefully choose causes that speak to my heart and do what is within reach to contribute.   For example, a few causes that speak to me are North Korea, ethical shopping, and sustainable farming.
  • Prayer:  God made me extra sensitive to the needs of other people and creatures, but that doesn’t mean I am able to meet all their needs.  So I can lift up those needs to God who IS able, instead of dwelling on them myself.
  • Mind yo’ business:  I’m such an eavesdropper.  I get wrapped up in peoples’ conversations. I’m in a coffee shop right now, half-typing, half-listening-to-the-saga-at-the-next-table.  Seriously, I don’t need to be empathizing with the college girls next to me.  I need to learn to tune out what doesn’t involve me.
  • Therapy:  My therapist is really good at helping me cope with my overactive empathy and find outlets for it.
  • Pep talks:  Sometimes all I can do is coach myself through the moment, “Yes, you are feeling an overwhelming burden right now.  You were designed this way.  Sometimes your empathy is beneficial, sometimes it’s a hindrance.  Which one is it right now, and what can you do about that?”

Update on the Pet Fish:  The recent heat wave took both of their lives.  I guess Southern California is not the place for a small container pond.  I cried and felt so awful that I didn’t protect them from the elements.  Sisi looked at me with such empathy and said, “It’s ok mommy, we can draw pictures of them to remember them.”  Gotta love my HSC 🙂

container pond

Leaving My Family for a Week

costa rica mamaAlmost every year, my dear friend invites me to join her at a Costa Rican surf and yoga resort.  Each time I answer, “Now is not a good time, but someday I will!”  Except this last time I told her give me a few days to think about it.  I thought about it, and booked my trip.  It was incredibly exhilerating.

Is it crazy to leave my almost 5 year old and nursing 11 month old with my husband for a week-long surf getaway?  Is it brave? Is it selfish?

Since booking my trip months ago, I’ve had wild swings of emotions.  Excitement, regret, pride, guilt…

Excitement because duh! It’s surfing! It’s Costa Rica! Surfing is one of my favorite hobbies. I rode my first tiny wave in college and have been hooked ever since.  It fills me with peace and well-being as I get to be quiet and connect with the sun, ionized air, and ocean. It’s the perfect HSP hobby (if you can handle the intensity of wipeouts and rare but possible shark sightings). But I rarely get a chance to surf.  For the past 5 years, I’ve been pregnant, nursing, pregnant, miscarrying, pregnant, nursing. My body has not belonged solely to me, which means I don’t have the freedom to spend hours frolicking on my board.  And let’s be honest, any beach trip with kids is not quite relaxing.  You can’t take your eyes off them for a minute.  A whole week to surf all day every day without kids is literally a dream come true.

Regret because saying goodbye to my kids for a week will be torturous.  It hurts my heart just thinking about it.  I’ve left Sisi with Joe before and it went great, but will Matteo be ok?  Will he be mad or feel abandoned?  Am I jeopardizing our nursing relationship?

Pride because as an HSP, I totally surprised myself by saying yes.  I normally play it safe. But as I did a quick risk analysis of the situation, I realized that the benefits of a trip like this (to my confidence, physical fitness, well-being, and friendship with my travel-mate) will probably outweigh the risks. The timing will never be perfect time for a trip like this.  YOLO!

I’m also proud that I have a husband who is totally game to take a week off work and watch the kids.  I have no doubt he will do great.  Our kids are on a pretty predictable routine/rhythm, which makes it easy for someone else to take over. They are as comfortable with Joe as they are with me, which is not the case in all families.

Dread because as November gets closer and closer, I realize how much I need to do before I can relax in paradise.  I need to pump enough milk, make and freeze meals ahead of time (I’m not expecting Joe to cook much during that week), type up the daily schedule and make sure the household is set up to run without me.  One thing about Costa Rica- packing is easy.  Bikinis and sun dresses.  Oh, and a breast pump.

I’m also nervous about leaving the country.  I’m meeting my friend at the surf resort, but I have to fly there on my own and take a 4 hour taxi ride through the jungle.  I’m in my 30s, so this shouldn’t be a big deal, right? I often wonder why traveling alone makes me so nervous.  I love to travel internationally, but I’m very reliant on Joe to plan and navigate and solve all the little mini crises that arise.  Joe is like my lovey, and I’ll be so very far away from him.

My wonderful therapist reminded me that no one is FORCING me to go.  There is always a way out if I need to take it. I shouldn’t completely block out that voice in my head that is telling me this is risky, because it is.  But I don’t want that voice to completely take over, because…

I know it will be awesome.  It will be worth the emotional roller coaster.  I am investing my myself, getting better at a hobby that I hope to pass on to my kids someday.  I am facing fears, letting my husband make memories with the kids, and taking a little break from my everyday mom life.

I know many moms would never even think about leaving their kids for a week. They’ve told me so. I get it.  But something inside me said Yes, and I want to honor that part of me.

Question:  Have you left your kiddos for several days or more?  Did you experience any of the emotional swings I’m going through?  Any tips on making the whole process easier?

HSPs need more sleep.

hammock in sayulita, mexico.

I need my sleep. Really I do.

At least 7.5 hours per night, preferably 9 hours to function at my best. I had a friend in high school who just didn’t need much sleep to function well- she slept 6 hours a night at the most, and woke up perky and ready to go. Her mom frowned upon sleeping in late so she used to wake her up early on Saturdays to clean the whole house as a family. My mom knew that I needed to sleep in til noon on Saturdays to catch up from the school week. She wouldn’t even think of waking me up early, probably because I would be a hypersensitive grouch the rest of the day.

Turns out, most HSPs need more rest. In The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron says, “HSPs do worse than others working night shifts or mixed shifts, and they recover more slowly from jetlag.”thanks for your support!

This is definitely true for me. Why is this? Maybe it’s because daily life as an HSP is so stimulating for me, I need tons of sleep (and rest and downtime) to recuperate. Maybe it’s because I can’t rely on coffee to perk me up (HSPs are generally more sensitive to caffeine). Perhaps it’s because I just can’t deal with the sensation of tiredness- the heavy, achy, almost painful feeling of sleep deprivation (HSPs often feel sensations like tiredness, hunger, and pain more intensely.)

Every new mom expects to sacrifice some sleep, but my first child’s sleep issues caused me so much stress and despair. I do believe our sleep situation (both the feeling of failure I felt when she wouldn’t sleep, and my own sleep deprivation) contributed to my postpartum depression and anxiety. Thankfully, because both of us couldn’t tolerate sleep deprivation (highly sensitive children don’t wear sleep deprivation well), it forced me to come up with solutions to our sleep issues early on. I was determined to find a compassionate yet effective sleep method to help us all get the sleep we need. I’m so grateful that both my kids are great sleepers. Not perfect sleepers, but at least I can expect to get my full 8+ hours of sleep most nights. Just because I typed that, I bet both kids will wake up tonight.  Isn’t that how it works?  Never brag about your kids on the internet!  ha.

my soothing bed.
my soothing bed.

Why I Had to Quit My Floral Career

i quit being a floristWedding floral design seemed like the perfect job for me. I adore flowers. I can spend several minutes just examining a single perfect fuchsia or gloriosa lily. It sounds weird but I feel like flowers speak to me and tell me how they want to be arranged. I’m inspired by color and scent. I also love the planning aspect: coming up with a wedding vibe and color scheme, writing recipes for each arrangement, and making it all a cohesive visual experience. Brides told me I was really good at transforming their vision into reality, which makes sense because HSPs are good listeners and have great imaginations.

But now that I know I’m an HSP, I understand why owning my own wedding floral business was perhaps one of the worst jobs I could choose for myself. I had a fair amount of success in the industry, but the stress and anguish I felt pretty much all the time far outweighed the success.  The job required skills that don’t come easily to me (or most HSPs) at all.

  1. Pressure: Like most HSPs, I don’t do well under pressure. Talk about pressure: wrong flowers sent, flowers dying, crazy mothers of the bride, picky grooms with way too many opinions (the worst!), pulling all nighters to finish, stuck in traffic with a truck full of flowers on a hot day, huppah blows over in the wind 1 hour before the wedding ceremony. I’m getting all flustered just remembering these things.
  2. Selling myself. For days before each consultation I’d have to pump myself up. I am not a natural saleswoman. It was like having to do job interviews multiple times a week, every week, which is kind of hellish.  This did become easier with practice. I got quite good at consultations and booked a majority of the clients I met with because I’m friendly and can connect well with people in a short amount of time.  But I never stopped getting butterflies/mild panic attacks. I felt wired for hours after each consult- a mix of adrenaline and relief- even after 7 years in the biz. Just being honest.
  3. Responsibility: I took my job so seriously. Too seriously. It’s just flowers, right?  I wasn’t solving world hunger.  But I felt like there was so much at stake. I had one chance- one day- to wow them. I often feared being sued, ruining the wedding somehow or getting horrible reviews. Thankfully, these things never happened, but I’ve had friends who have had to deal with some serious issues.
  4. Delegation: As I hinted in the previous point, delegation, especially under pressure, is hard for me. When I am flustered it’s so hard to think logically. I was often so stressed out that my brain would kind of shut down and I couldn’t come up with a plan of execution, much less divvy up the work and clearly communicate my expectations to each employee. I’m also a perfectionist, so sometimes the temptation to just do it myself got in the way of handing things off to others.  Since becoming a parent, I’ve had to get better at delegating things to my husband and other helpers.
  5. Thick Skin:I definitely don’t have this. Thankfully, I had mostly wonderful, appreciative brides. But I do remember a few parents and grooms that were so hard to please.  HSPs tend to dwell on others’ criticisms and take them to heart.  As I get older though, I care a little less about what others think.  One of the best things about aging!
  6. Charging Enough: I also had a hard time pricing my designs.  I probably should have charged much more for my flowers, time and expertise. I respect my peers in the industry who continue to make a great living off of wedding planning, floral design, and photography. They know what they are worth and they have no problem charging for it. It doesn’t bother them to be turned down based on price. They are confident that the right clients will come to them.

    wedding florist career
    photo by Trista Lerit Photography.

So basically, owning my own floral design business was just not right for me. I kept at it for 7 years. When I had my daughter, there was no question I would quit. I felt a slight sting of grief, but never regretted my decision. Actually, I think it was brave of me to finally admit that a big part of my life needed to change.  Yes, sometimes you have to stretch yourself to fit your career, and I did, but don’t stretch yourself so thin that you disappear. Life is too short- find a career that suits your passions, skills, talents. Maybe it won’t be a perfect fit in every way, but at least you won’t be spinning your wheels wishing you were a different person.  You’ll be thankful that you’re you because you are awesome for that job.

I still get my flower fix doing flowers for friends’ small weddings and events.  It’s all the parts of the job that I LOVE, minus the pressure and stress.  I also wouldn’t mind helping out other florists if I needed some income.  If they want to do the business stuff and leave the pretty flowers to me, I’m all for it!

wedding flowers for friends: the best way to get my flower fix. Photo by Orange Turtle Photography.
designing flowers for my dear friends is the most satisfying way to use my talent. photo by Orange Turtle Photography.

Is your current job a good fit for your HSP qualities? What do you think is the perfect job for you, and are you going to go for it?