I’ve often wondered what people really mean when they say someone is ‘oversensitive’… because to me what I’ve nearly always heard is more along the lines of, ‘Your feelings don’t matter’. So, if anything, it’s more about the other person being UNDER sensitive! And when it comes to childlessness, it’s rare (not impossible, but rare) to find those who aren’t childless who get how hard it can be to walk this path of being ‘different’ from our peers and the wider world when that wasn’t our choice…
As a child, I was full of wonder about the world and when we moved out of the city to the countryside it felt like heaven. It was the 70’s and I had a lot of freedom to play outdoors and explore by myself. I remember lying on my back in fields watching the shapes in clouds, hanging upside-down from very tall branches and, one of my favourite activities, sitting in the woods talking to the fairies that made their homes inside bluebells. I lived in the world of my imagination, either reading stories, writing stories or making up grand adventures as I whizzed alone down country lanes on my bicycle. To me, the veil between the ‘real world’ and the ‘otherworld’ was very thin and just because grown-ups couldn’t see and feel the things I could, I didn’t take that as proof that they weren’t there. I haven’t changed much, although my tree-climbing skills are pretty poor these days!
But that sensitive, artistic, creative, spiritual little girl had a hard time fitting in at school and later in the rough and tumble ‘real’ world. I developed a tough shell to hide my gentleness, and it wasn’t until the grief of childlessness broke me open that I began to recover her.
One of the many things that has helped me recreate myself after the devastation of childlessness has been to work out what parts of me ‘before’ my childlessness felt right to take forward with me into my Plan B. Because, if creating a Plan B is about creating a life of meaning, and if only things that felt meaningful were able to hold the interest of my fragile, freshly-hatched, post-grief identity, I had to go much deeper to understand things. When ‘normal’ life closed its doors to me after divorce and then long-term singleness and childlessness, I came to understand that the road ahead was washed clean away and that what I faced was uncharted territory because life as a middle-aged, childless woman in the 21st century is still a surprisingly radical identity. For me, in many ways (although I didn’t understand it at the time), my desperation to be a mother was partially driven by my desire to be one of the ‘normals’ – to fit in – finally. But once I’d fully accepted that I’d never be a mother, right down to my very bones, I realised that I’d been given something very rare and precious; I’d been given a second chance to choose the kind of person I wanted to be, and the kind of life I wanted to live. Freed from the rules of womanhood, invisible to society and my peers, I could start again.
Probably the first thing that I began to understand about Jody 2.0 (as I sometimes think of myself!) is that grief and childlessness had revealed a much deeper side to me, a more introverted side. I’d always condemned myself for those qualities and saw them as character weaknesses – that I hated telephones, crowds, loud noises, strong smells, trivial conversations – that I couldn’t watch TV news nor violent films and that sometimes I’d have such a strong reaction to an environment, person or situation that I’d simply have to leave (parties, social gatherings, supermarkets, department stores…) I felt that these were wimpy and unsociable elements to my personality so, imagine my incredible relief when, a few years ago, I discovered that they are simply expressions of the way my nervous system is wired – that I am one of the 20% of the human population who is an “HSP” (a Highly Sensitive Person).
HSP is a biological trait, not a personality style, and understanding this about myself has given me permission to make space in my life for those parts of me that crave tranquillity, depth, beauty, authenticity, creativity, sincerity, equality and harmony. And why I care so damn much about making the world a fairer place for childless women.
My HSP traits are not me being ‘too sensitive’ – they are they very engine that drives my work. There would be no Gateway Women without my sensitivity. And I would never have discovered my HSP-ness if it were not for the work of Maria Hill. She runs a website called Sensitive Evolution, dedicated to helping HSPs understand themselves, so that they are better able to operate in a world that was not built for us or by us. It’s usually the noisy ones, the ‘thick skinned’ ones that make it to the top, that get to make the rules that the world lives by. And we can all see how that’s working out for humanity!
Maria is involuntarily childless herself and has been an amazing support to me, and to all the members of the Gateway Women private online community as one of our longest-serving, most-thoughtful and wise moderators. She runs an astoundingly in-depth, year-long course at Emerging Sensitive which educates and connects HSPs through the study of cultural frameworks, such as philosopher Ken Wilber’s ‘Spiral Dynamics’ and Bill Plotkins’s soul-centric nature-based framework. And so much more! And with her usual generosity, she’s offering Gateway Women readers and members 20% off her Emerging Sensitive programme.
This is a chance to learn from Maria Hill, one of the absolute pioneers in HSP studies to help you claim your voice as a sensitive person. The year-long course starts again on January 1st 2019 and, to claim your discount, simply put the code “gateway” into the coupon section when you checkout. The course can cost as little as USD$45.00 per month for 2019’s annual enrollment. Enrollment closes on 31st December 2018.
- To find out more about the Emerging Sensitive course, click here (course applications close on 31st December).
- To find out more about Maria’s work at Sensitive Evolution click here
- To read Maria’s book, “The Emerging Sensitive” click here
To test whether you are an HSP yourself, you can do this quick questionnaire on Dr Elaine Aron’s website (she discovered and named the trait). She’s also featured in this film ‘Sensitive‘ which gives a lot of the scientific and sociological background to the trait. (Please note that the film has a lot of footage of HSP children, as this is a trait that is present from birth).
I’ve often wondered what people really mean when they say someone is ‘oversensitive’… because to me what I’ve nearly always heard is more along the lines of, ‘Your feelings don’t matter’.
I heard this, “You’re too sensitive,” most of my life. It’s dismissive and I would agree that it comes from people who are insensitive and who lack insight and awareness. They lack empathy. I would also add that it’s characteristic of those who lack boundaries and who don’t take any personal responsibility for their behaviors. The consequence was the same for me hearing, “Your feelings don’t matter”. And ditto when I heard, “Don’t take it personally.” I also read the book about HSP’s (a Highly Sensitive Person). I also was told that I “think too much”.
The thing is these same people want me to demonstrate sensitivity and nurturing towards them, yet it is a one-way street. Likewise their behaviors are so predictable and narcissistic. The thing about sensitivity (caring, thoughtful and creative) is that it draws the wrong kinds of people to you–people trying to benefit themselves at your expense. I know that narcissism is over used, but it’s accurate in describing such selfish and obtuse behaviors.
I used to hear a lot of complaining from people with kids. I’ve often wondered if some people who don’t have kids had to listen to this type of miserable kvetching and if somehow that may have factored in to their decision to not have children. Without fail these types are always trying to manipulate with some type of self-pity angle and martyrdom. I’ve met a lot of martyr moms who are always trying to impose their problems on me and then rationalize their exploitative behaviors. It had a huge negative impact on me. So I actively avoid them as a means of self-protection. I don’t care to have one-way relationships with thoughtless people, which are all about them and their problems.
I agree about empathy being rare, although I tend to view it as a much wider problem. I mean I see it towards people who are different or who choose another path (for whatever reason or circumstance) that conflicts with the idea of what is “normal” or EXPECTED. What exactly is “normal” anyway and why is that “the” standard to strive for. This makes me consider the story of people with rare genetic disorders such as Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) and others like him. They were treated poorly, exhibited at circus freak shows and exploited as spectacle for the amusement of the public, so called working class people. He wasn’t a freak. He was a human being who suffered greatly due to the cruelty of other people.
I know this blog is about the specific struggles of childlessness, yet I wanted to chime in because it has always helped me when I’ve grappled with people being unkind, hateful or prejudiced to see it more broadly–to see the bigger picture and that way it doesn’t feel so personal, despite it being personal. When I see it as part of the human condition then I tend to focus more on problem-solving and I’ve had to adopt strategies for dealing with thoughtless, selfish people. I tend to actively avoid people with children for that reason, because they are the worst offenders, which I do realize is a tragic comment to make, yet at the same time it’s my experience. Thank you for your blog.
Dear KD – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that a lack of empathy towards people who are ‘different’ in any way whatsoever from the ‘status quo’ norm is a HUGE problem in our societies and at the root of so much human suffering and social division. Jody x
Thanks for posting this, Jody. I can relate to moving from a history of rejecting my introverted qualities towards embracing them as the strengths that they are. I’ll have to get back into my downloaded Ken Wilbur recordings so we can discuss:-). In the meantime, I of course chuckled at your right on interpretation “So if anything, it’s more about the other person being UNDER sensitive.” Here, here!
Hi Sarah – thank you for your comment and, gosh, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone, HSP or not, learned to be a bit more ‘sensitive’. I do feel that our human struggle to deal with ‘difference’ of any and all kinds, including, for example, gender, parental status, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, ability (it’s a dispiritingly much longer list…) is THE issue that underpins all the struggles human civilisation is dealing with. And with 7.7 billion of us currently on the planet, and world population expected to top out at 13 billion, that’s an awful lot of wiggle room for catastrophic misunderstandings!
Yes! Since my experiences with infertility and childlessness have taken root, I often find myself contemplating empathic capacity (along the lines of ‘sensitivity’ and ability to accept and assimilate difference, I suppose). One of my main takeaways has been that it’s much more of a missing component of human behavior than I would have thought prior to my experiences. How much of it is nature (innate potential of one’s individual amygdala, perhaps?), and how much of it is nurture? Oh, the things we now wonder!
Thanks Jody, for the work you do. I don’t often comment but it has been on my mind recently to say thank you to you for all the emails. You really help me, I’m proud to be in your tribe. Keep going, you are much appreciated
Dear Claire – thank you for your appreciation of all the work that goes on behind the scenes! I’m so glad it’s helpful to you and I’m really glad that you feel proud to be part of our tribe. I hope that in 2019 we will continue to increase in visibility! Hugs, Jody x
Thank you for another thought provoking post. The paragraph about being freed from the expectations of womanhood struck a chord with me. While I have to confess that I do still struggle with feeling “less than” or not a “complete woman” because I don’t have children, I have become aware of another side of the coin. One of my friendships had seemed to be able to navigate the choppy waters of her becoming a parent, while I couldn’t. However recently it has reached the uncharted waters of her being envious of me and my life without children. It has made me think more about why we have children (if we can) and why we want them. I guess the flip side is that, painfully, we childless ladies have been freed from the conventional expectations of womanhood and have had to carve out new identities and meanings for ourselves and our lives if we don’t want to just become invisible. But I am becoming aware of the mothers out there, whose bodies played ball, who are are feeling chained by the conventional expectations of womanhood and are grieving too, for precisely what life have given us (whether we wanted it or not) which was the opportunity to find ourselves and know yourselves with a depth, which might not be possible when you are just trying to keep all the balls in the air with raising children and holding down a career ( all of which society expects).
Hi Emily – yes, I’ve experienced this too – the envy coming back the other way. Now that I’m no longer actively grieving motherhood I’m able to see more clearly the cost of it to many women, and how it narrows their lives to that one focus, and how hard that can be. I guess I’d love to see a bit more empathy come our way from ‘mothers’ (I hate grouping anyone like that, there are exceptions of course!) about the existential dark night of the soul many of us childless women have to navigate to create a life of meaning; some awareness that the cost to us of creating a life that might seem enviable can be as high as the ‘cost’ of motherhood — it’s just a lot less visible, definitely less understood and even ridiculed…
Yes, I share that frustration too at the perception, by some people, that we were given a get out of jail free card that was denied to them and I still find myself getting angry about it for precisely the reasons that you state. This path has been a damn hard one to walk, and sometimes still is and any peace of mind that we have is hard earned.
I really appreciate this post, Jody! The intersection of childlessness and HSPness is certainly a rich, interesting, and challenging one. Reading this reminded me of some additional support and skill building items I want to include in my 2019 planning. Can’t wait to watch the movie and check out Maria’s course!
Thanks Kara for your comment. It’s been a huge area of growth and understanding for me too. Having spoken with Maria about the course in preparation for writing this article, it’s even more amazing than I first thought! It would be worth it just for the chance to explore Ken Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics with other HSPs, as it’s a fascinating way to look at the evolution of social change and development and something I’ve read about but never found anyone else who knew what the flip I was talking about to discuss it with! Jody x