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love and stuffed animals

March 16, 2012

I just finished reading Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive People, and have begun exercises in the HSP Workbook. The HSP self-test has 22 questions; answering ‘true’ on at least 10-12 questions means you are an HSP. I answered ‘true’ to 20 questions.

For a summary of what this means, Elaine Aron writes:

“HSPs are born with a trait that makes them aware of all kinds of subtle messages from outside and inside. It’s not that our ears or eyes are sharper. It’s that we process more deeply the information we receive. We like to reflect. This sensitivity bestows advantages in many situations. According to research, HSPs are more intuitive, aware, and conscientious . . . . We are good with infants, animals, and plants — and in any situation in which it helps to notice subtle signs. We are great at detail work and spotting errors, yet we are also ‘big picture’ visionaries, unusually aware of the workings of the past and of likely future outcomes. We support rich, complex inner lives, unusual dreams, a concern for social justice, and a spiritual or philosophical talent.

If we are going to pick up on more subtleties, however, it follows that we also would have to be more easily overwhelmed by non-subtle or strong stimulation: Noise. Visual clutter. Scratchy fabrics. ‘Funny’ odors and food that’s slightly ‘off’ or tainted. Temperature extremes and all sorts of sudden changes. Emotionally evocative situations. Crowds. Strangers. And if we process information more deeply, we are going to dwell longer on the meaning of criticisms, rejections, betrayals, losses, and deaths. Some other plain facts about us: we tend to have more allergies and more sensitivity to pain, medications, caffeine, and alcohol. We are usually more affected by hunger and need to eat regularly. None of this makes us weak — just different.

In short, sensitivity is an advantage in many situations and for many purposes, but not in other cases. Like having a certain eye color, it is a neutral, normal trait inherited by a large portion of the population [15-20%], though not the majority.” (HSP Workbook, pp. 2-3)

I found myself reading the first books in chunks, so I could process as I went. Last night after I finished, I played Sudoku on the Web long after I should’ve gone to bed (which I haven’t done in a long time). As I slept, I had a series of highly-detailed but nonsensical dreams. When I woke up, I reread about active imagination, I gathered together my go-to cuddly yarns, and then I curled up on my bed, closed my eyes, and invited my unconscious to talk to me.

I wasn’t getting any imagery, and I was wondering if I should give up, when I noticed I was doing the things I do when I’m agitated: kneading and rubbing my skin, scratching myself. My chest started to feel tight, and it was harder to breathe. So I knew something was coming. But I was a little surprised that it was seemingly-innocuous: a picture of Alfie (one of the two stuffed animals I gave away last year[1]). I gave Alfie and Little Bear away for several reasons. I realized they were emotional crutches that I was probably strong enough to live without. They were reminders of long-dead dysfunctional relationships. And the more I thought about ‘consent’, the more problematic the stuffed animals seemed to be[2]. So I let them go, but periodically I have thought about them since. I’ve also wondered if I should get new stuffed animals.

The year I turned 12 was the first time I remember having a major depressive episode. That spring, my beloved grandfather died suddenly, and I was inconsolable. My parents took me to grief counseling with a local minister. It was easier to tell everyone that it helped (even though it didn’t) than to try to explain to a well-meaning stranger that my grandfather was the only adult that I spent a lot of time with that I actually had a loving relationship with – we talked and listened to each other; we enjoyed each other’s company. With Grampa’s death, I was left bereft. Even then, I knew my parents did not want to, or were not capable of, helping me; they just wanted me to stop crying all the time. So that Christmas, they gave me Alfie, to be my special confidante.

My insight today was that I think Alfie was a symbol of how my mother thought of me. That is, I was an object that could be confided in, well beyond what was age- or otherwise-appropriate. My cuddly presence could reassure her that she was lovable and loved and valued. And then when she felt better, she could ‘put me away’.  When she felt needy (most of the time), she could overwhelm my boundaries, seeking to merge with me; I wasn’t allowed to say no, I wasn’t allowed to set limits. She never asked my permission or apologized later. I didn’t want to be emotionally available to her all the time, but no one ever suggested I could say no. And there was always an undercurrent of abandonment: sometimes she was explicit about wanting to leave me somewhere or ‘give me away’, if I failed to please. My father and my siblings and others seemed satisfied with the status quo — no one ever offered to help, but I frequently heard that I was weak and fragile and ‘too sensitive’.

Then there’s Little Bear, who was a gift from J, my first boyfriend. I had a peculiar affinity for J, in that I often knew what he would do and why ahead of time, despite not being able to explain how I might know that. It wasn’t because our personalities were similar; our family histories and life experiences were very different as well. But just today I think I figured it out. We both had fathers who were emotionally unavailable to us. And we both had mothers who were inconsistent — sometimes anxious and clingy; other times neglectful — producing an ambivalent/resistant attachment style in J and I. He fell in love with women who were just like dear old mom. He didn’t love me; he was in love with my best friend, and the two of them snuck around behind my back having an emotional affair. And when I found out and confronted them, both of them told me that I was being a baby and immature. That I should be happy for them. Then she dumped him for someone else. He let me think we were getting back together, while he was actually having sex with another one of our mutual friends. He gave me Little Bear for Christmas a few weeks before he dumped me.

Written down in black and white, it’s sordid and ugly and obvious that these relationships were so dysfunctional that they weren’t worth saving. But when you grow up with that, you don’t know any different. I only read in books about parents who actually loved their kids, or I saw neighbors who seemed to.

Years and years of counseling, and many years of marriage to Spouse, as well as years of friendship with others helped me achieve ‘earned secure’ attachment.

But I still don’t know how to really love myself enough. Feelings of affection are good, and I have those, but I still tend to treat my body like my mother treated me. I don’t give it what it needs, and then I’m cruel to it when it can’t perform up to my (unrealistic) standards. I can’t be bothered to listen to what it says, until I’m in a crisis, and then I’m very impatient with how long it takes to heal or recover. I want other people to take care of me, but I don’t want to make the effort to understand what I want and need. So whatever those other people do is not sufficient.

I have resolved to change all this, from the bottom up. I want the best possible relationship with my self. And to get that, both of us need to respect each other, to listen to each other, to do the best we can for each other. We need to learn what we like, and do more of that. We need to learn what we dislike, and do less. We need to set limits, and then abide by them. We need to add joy and delight and whimsy; we need to play and to dance and to sing. We need more healthy and enjoyable relationships. We need transcendent moments. We need to love the life we have.

[1] Rethinking the Velveteen Rabbit, posted 8/3/2011

[2] Tasty and Fulfilling Relationships, posted 8/14/2011

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy permalink
    March 18, 2012 21:24

    I found the HSP book and research very helpful in terms of understanding how many of the “truly annoying” things I did as a child (I still do them now; there’s just no one to annoy) are normal for me.

    I’m so glad you found it enlightening as well.

    • March 18, 2012 22:27

      There were all sorts of things that I didn’t realize were part of ‘sensitivity’ – I thought they were part of being an introvert, having panic attacks, or having PTSD.

      What were some of your ‘annoying’ things?

  2. Kathy permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:40

    I can’t stand anything itchy or scratchy in my clothing (not just tags/labels – even a single stitch of more rigid nylon thread). I find having hot or sweaty feet (if I am not actually exercising) very uncomfortable and prefer not to wear shoes or (especially) socks. Glasses tend to smell a little fishy or “wet dog-gy” to me, especially in warm/humid weather, and that can make drinking whatever’s in them unpleasant… food tastes or textures seem “off” (not spoiled, just “not right”) to me when they seem normal to others.

    There were a lot of things like that, or being bothered by little tickles in my throat, etc., that were taken as me being stubborn or difficult as a child.

    I’m also acutely aware of fillings being too high (dentist says a few people can detect differences of 1/10,000 of an inch – at least he just sees it as curious).

    That doesn’t even scratch the surface in terms of being extra-aware when people (or animals) are “a little off” – useful in some ways, but really hard for a “pleaser”!

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