The last few days, I've gotten a lot of insight into common family dynamics described by clients in my practice. They parallel our collective and individual reactions to the turmoil of the last week, triggering interpersonal tensions that for many existed long before this week or even this campaign, going as far back as childhood and their families of origin (and even before that—there tends to be a persecution theme if we get to past lives).
What I’ve gathered in a nutshell is that every family has a highly sensitive HS member (there are different types with different styles of coping) who tends to hear the canary in the coal mine the earliest and the loudest—often artists, writers, therapists, and healers. This happens in family settings where there may be alcoholism, abuse, or your garden variety of dysfunctions, imbalances, and denial, as exists in every family and person.
The ideal would be to be born in a family and social system where everyone works together as a team and equally values the diverse contributions and gifts of its members. Some would even argue that it may be wise to pay particular attention to messages of alarm perceived by the most sensitive member, seeing these warnings as a gift and blessing to aid the group’s survival. Very often, however, this kind of gift is perceived, at best, as an annoying tendency of crying wolf and being dramatic for attention (yes, there is a gender trend), and at worst, as a curse. While there does seem to be more understanding and guidance around these sensitivities in indigenous cultures, a great deal of ancient knowledge has been lost and these tensions exist here too (Lakota medicine man Joe Eagle Elk describes his struggles about his expanded sensitivity in the Price of a Gift).
The unspoken notions regarding this blessing-curse are internalized starting in the precognitive years of the perceptive child (as described by Mary-Elaine Jacobson in her revolutionary guide, Liberating Everyday Genius, and by authors on the subject of the highly sensitive child and person). While attempts to contain them can and often do lead to more social control at home and at schools, a false sense of self and self-inflicted containment don't necessarily calm this type of HS person. He or she is often not aware of or in control of their inner canary being triggered by invisible outside poisons (carbon-monoxide in the coal mine), just like you and I are not aware of and don’t control the trickle and sensations that determine bladder fullness and that tell us it’s time to pee.
While others in the family may be relieved for not having to constantly hear about the canary (even if this is totally appropriate and called for in an abusive or alcoholic family for instance, where temporary upheaval and separations may end up better for all), this person is now isolated and encaged with the canary—which only causes it to chirp louder.
Their dissatisfaction about this decision and the negative repercussions they experience as a result induce shame, doubt, self-blame, and emotional instabilities, labels—misfit, rebel, trouble-maker, devil’s advocate—, and psychological diagnoses, certifying in their minds that they are the problem.
They become the IP—the identified patient—in the system; whatever this system may be. It's like being in the permanent role of the PMS-ing woman at work, only starting in childhood and not even aware of what's going on. The unassuming child is just hoping to be accurately seen as an integrated, whole, well-intentional self, a privilege everyone else seems to enjoy.
The double-bind that is perhaps more heightened within this subgroup is that redeeming oneself with a self understanding that feels truthful requires standing up and speaking out in a way that inadvertently requires some push back against the usual assumptions about relationships and reality. And sounding lofty. Here's where the blurriness, power struggle, and family bickering and social tensions begin about who started and who’s at fault. Who’s conscious and who isn’t. Who’s coping style is more harmful and on and on. The rest of the system typically wants the IP to adjust, shift, and act "normal" without challenging the status quo, when this isn’t possible or realistic. Yet, they may still try their hardest to meet these expectations just to fit in.
Mary-Elaine Jacobson’s claim about gifted adults (who are often highly perceptive and sensitive) explains the dilemma: “Their awareness of their own difference either fades away or becomes repressed, with possibly devastating implications. Experts in the field identify mental health challenges that may be associated with giftedness and high intelligence, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. While mental health diagnoses can sometimes be accurate (after all, dual diagnoses and twice-exceptionality are very real things), for gifted individuals, there may be another root problem. Gifted individuals are doing their best to cope in a world that doesn’t get what they’re going through.”
Once again, imagine the PMS-ing mind in a child, adolescent, young or lateblooming adult, who’s put back in her place with messages or hints such as, your feelings and perceptions are wrong, your system is out of whack, who do you think you are? how dare you say such things? why are you drawing attention to yourself like this? If they do give a coherent answer, they may hear, so do you think you are better than me/us? Why are you letting this get to you? Why are you disrupting (the status quo) and causing trouble? You are this and you are that, and not this or that (normal, more mainstream, more like me).
In regard to addressing issues involving race and other -isms, as Charlie Gilkey of Productive Flourishing and many authors have described in articles entitled, Why I Don't Talk About Race With White People, communication is often very tense, loaded, and uncomfortable. The most frequent message they get when addressing these issues is, you didn't bring it up at the right time, in the right way—you weren't delicate, empathic, patient, compassionate, open enough. After a lifetime of attempts, they simply stop trying. In the eyes of a defended person, there is no right way to address a challenging topic. Or at least, the times when it’s done with the right finesse can feel like threading a needle while in labor.
The pioneering HS person becomes marginalized, often by their own heritage group as well, for venturing into unknown or forbidden territory (more on this below). The limits to bust are no longer physical. There are no segregated sections and lines to cross. But many of my clients (including the teachers) talk about unspoken rules that monopolize public space in their own classrooms and departments, and how hard it is to put their finger on what's going on, address it, and truly neutralize and equalize it for all. No matter how acculturated, well spoken, compassionate, and attuned they may be, in the quest for their own redemption, sticking their necks out and trying to put words to it often means being flagged as the troublemaker and getting coached on how and what they should have done instead.
They weren't contained enough, calm enough, precise enough, rational enough, judicial enough, referenced enough, warm, nice or kind enough. They were too emotional, too reactive, too intolerant, too divisive, too militant, too provocative, too outspoken, too visible, too public, and yes, even (too) sexist and racist when addressing these issues in very clear-cut, blatant situations. This was a come-back shared with me just last week, "race and gender relations have improved so much—compare them to 50 or 100 years ago. This need to separate yourselves and bitch about these problems is because you have a problem and need to create a wedge where there is none."
During this Trump era, student policing has become a real thing, and has led to the creation of some savvy disclaimers, in therapy, that uncollude and divorce civil liberties and rights from political groups and current political figures in order to make it possible to name something unconstitutional and in violation of civil liberties—even when enforced by those currently in office—without getting accused of being political and liberal. Tricky stuff that HS people with very intuitive canaries are able to hairsplit if given the space so sort through their ruffled feathers.
While it seems like the whole nation is now up in arms about Trump’s executive orders, marching, protesting, speaking out, these are the coping responses of some, not all. I’ve read in a few articles and posts trying to be helpful that activism, protesting, and marching are useless, dualistic, or unprofessional, while I know from my own experience and have heard from so many women, including one of my role models, Brooke Warner, a very outspoken, influential, and accomplished publisher and queer woman, that it was one of the most incredible and empowering experiences in their lives. Marching and protesting are useless and unhelpful to who and based on what outcome data?
Who gets to decide what meaning and value anything we do has? Being as unique as our fingerprints with thoughts and feelings that are unique as we are, I’m imagining that we are compiling our unique answers from our unique data sources based on what gives us that unique sense of worth and validation, whether or not it results in policy change or not. It remains a personal, subjective, and unique solution, even when it speaks to many others who resonate with bits and parts of our message. Or even if it resonates with an entire following.
To claim that our outlook on life and our efforts are not based on our worldview and self perception is like saying we’re choosing not to revolve our lives around air. We’ve got other issues and matters to focus on, and stressing about air is a bad idea. That approach and solution may work well for those who don’t need to worry about their air supply being cut off. Someone else may need to be focused on the threat to their air supply before they can think about much else, and because they are in the minority, they need help from others who recognize the gravity of the problem and who can spread the word.
Interestingly, or maybe not surprisingly, when among their own like-minded people and tribe, these HSP's feel calm, validated, helpful, and centered, and can see how turning the tables on what's constitutes reality would cause the reverse effect if they were the ones in the majority. I find it critical to highlight this perspective switching by showing that all they are doing (often without knowing it) is trying to claim equal footing and social and psychological status, space, and permission to exist like everyone else, in line with their well-being and their sense of sanity, equality, and best presence, for themselves and those most marginalized. And that they are participating in a tug-of-war regarding reality that they didn't create, and may have chosen not to engage in because they have been at the losing, silenced end.
But not participating in the struggle is also not the answer and will not make it disappear. Understanding the high rope that these HS persons are expected to balance on without questioning or quibbling—while listening to external voices guiding them, instead of listening to their own bodies and sense of center to keep from falling—is important. It can help them decide to listen deeply to their true selves and perhaps even jump off the rope.
As Viet Than Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the Sympathizer described, the person who's liberated her or himself enough and is educated and resourced enough to dare to challenge and speak out in a larger context often started doing this while very young and has most likely already endured these same struggles in the family system and close social circles. Some have successfully and effectively reconciled these conflicts, others are still in the midst of them, accruing daily practice, staying on course, doing what they’ve done their entire lives, and eventually fully reclaiming and owning their sensitive gifts as precious assets.
Robert, my husband, said right after watching the movie, Hidden Figures, about three African American NASA “computers” challenging the glass ceiling about race and gender, that this exchange below stood out to him as most illuminating and helpful to keep in his back pocket until needed.
"I hope you know that I'm not against y'all," Dunst's character says to Vaughan, one of the Black female characters whose request for a promotion in the company was shut down for vague reasons.
Vaughan gives her a (smug I'm sure some would call it) look of understanding, and responded, "I'm sure you believe that."
Go and see Hidden Figures for the many wonderful examples where these very astute women were either ruffling feathers or straightening their own ruffled feathers for their own advancement and the growth of all involved.
So thankful for all my rolemodels, including my mother, who gave me permission to be myself and live life to the fullest by going over, through, or around the many mental, psychological, and physical barriers she needed to deal with in her life.
Now onward with this messy work. I hope I inspired you to take risks, be courageous, keep it real, keep speaking your version of truth, and draw on your gifts for healing and wholeness, your own and that of others, and embark upon uninhibited explorations. We need to stretch out into new and diverse perspectives and approaches to meet today’s challenges and strengthen our resistance and effectiveness in freeing ourselves.
Per recommendation of She Writes Press, I've enrolled in the wildly popular www.Opedproject.org core seminar for writers. It particularly "targets underrepresented voices," including women, and "challenges you to think more expansively about what you know, why it matters, and how to use it. We explore the source of credibility; the patterns and elements of persuasion; the difference between being “right” and being effective; how to preach beyond the choir; and how to think bigger about what you know—to have more impact in the world."
Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT, holistic psychologist, depth hypnosis practitioner, and shamanic healer from the Sacred Healing Well, is devoted to helping wisdom keepers, seekers, healers, and teachers dive deep into their self-healing potential and carve out their sacred dream paths in service of their dynamic whole self and the greater good.
Her debut memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper: A Psychologist's Memoir of Spiritual Awakening, is an eye-opening account of her spontaneous shamanic awakening and initiation during her graduate training in the mental health field. What gives her story an added twist is her ability to anchor into her rich cultural background and mystical upbringing near the edge of the Amazon rainforest when standing her ground, challenging indoctrinating double-binds in her field, and placing all bets on her spiritual integrity, intuitive wisdom, and clarity—each one severely tested after escaping the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in her native Suriname and losing almost everything that she knew and loved at the age of 13.
Join a growing wave of deep-divers and wisdom keepers who are yearning and learning to BE at least 1 degree MORE PRESENT in WHOLENESS than in wounding by signing up for her monthly newsletter distributed every full moon.