I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), which I have always known to some degree. I only recently discovered that there is an actual area of research in psychology surrounding this type of persona. Not all people are highly sensitive. It is not a defective personality trait. It is a gift, according to Dr. Elaine Aron. I am not sure I am yet in agreement on this front, as I have been struggling to move through what therapists have described as Complex PTSD from trauma during my childhood and repeat traumas in my adulthood, which placed me in a space with an abusive person in a parental type of position of power and where I was trapped and powerless to escape.
The gift part feels less evident while in the midst of trying to learn healthy defenses for the seemingly endless barrage of sensory experience from the world around me. The more I discover and become aware of my sensibilities and the effects of sounds, smells, etc., the more vulnerable and more keenly I experience the impact on my delicate system. I am currently at a place where I have been able to determine how and why affects my system; however, I have not yet been able to create healthy defenses so I am not completely overwhelmed.
I have been studying the concept of self-sustainability for the past 10 years. I began with doctoral research and have continued with autoethnography as life research. I study and reflect on my experiences in the world. Then, I write about it.
In my opinion, sustainability (for the Self, ecosystems, other species, etc.) is the ability to exist and thrive ad infinitum in such a way that is balanced and does not inhibit other beings, ecosystems, etc. from doing the same. When a system is thrown out of balance, there must be healthy ways to bring that system back into balance. When I say healthy, I mean ways that do not detract from other systems being able to carry on existing on their own sustainable path.
For self-sustainability, the definition is the same. It is simply a microcosm of the larger earth perspective of sustainability. In my process of learning to create a sustainability existence as an HSP, the element of helping my system return to equilibrium in the wake of an interruption is of the utmost importance, mostly because the more aware I become of my sensitive system the more often I notice that it is out of balance.
It is like discovering something and then suddenly seeing it everywhere. When I bought a Toyota Prius, suddenly I was seeing this car all over the place when I had never really noticed before. It isn’t that there weren’t Toyota Prius all over the place. It’s simply that I had not trained myself to take notice.
When I first began birding, I was amazed at how my colleagues and friends were able to hear birds and identify the species and also to readily find them with binoculars. I didn’t seem to hear or see these supposed birds that they were witnessing. Similarly, when I returned home to visit my parents—I was working in the Pacific Northwest when I first began to learn about birds—I couldn’t believe how many birds were in their backyard. Had they always been there? Surely, I hadn’t gone through my entire childhood completely unaware of their existence? And yet, this is exactly what had happened. I had to retrain my senses to notice.
So, too, with my own path to sustainability. I am now hyper aware that I am highly sensitive. I notice the feeling in my mind and body when a sound causes the alarm bells to go off. Before, my mind and body were likely ringing all kinds of warning bells. I just wasn’t paying attention so I didn’t respond.
This is awareness.
It’s a mixed blessing, this heightened awareness. I am at a stage where I am now trying to combine awareness with mindfulness practice.
One of my favorite yoga teachers defined mindfulness as the act of doing something, on purpose, ???
For me, this translates to seeking alternative methods to help create balance in my mind and body when I am feeling overwhelmed.
In my doctoral research, I discovered that playing music and writing songs about events that were disruptive to my system could be effective and positive ways to restore balance. For example, when someone drove by my parked car and knocked off the side view mirror, I wrote a song about it. This was more sustainable than trying to track the person down (which already would have been difficult since it was a hit and run) and then thrashing their car in response. Sure, it would have felt good, but it would not only have perpetuated the unhealthy energy and emotion from the situation.
There are many such methods I have discovered that can be quite effective for restoring calm to my system; however, I would not list them as sustainable methods.
I have found that the following action can be quite cathartic when my system is on overload:
- Screaming at the top of my lungs
- Breaking something
- Throwing something
- Texting my husband non-stop in a state of extreme emotion, be it panic, fear, anger, resentment, etc.
These all work well; however, they are not sustainable. Since I no longer live in rural Alaska, I can’t just walk outside and issue a bloodcurdling scream without frightening neighbors and shifting their own systems out of balance. Breaking something, throwing something can destroy objects I like and also do damage to my house. Texting my husband causes great duress for him, particularly if I am experiencing a meltdown and he is not nearby to help calm me down.
My husband has suggested that I scream into a pillow, but it just doesn’t have the same effect to muffle the scream. I have found that only screaming with complete abandon is effective.
So here is what I know: Playing music can be effective. Thrashing something can be effective.
The trick is that in the heat of anger, I want to scream. I do not want to get my ukulele out of the case, tune it, and sing and strum…unless I am screaming punk rock/heavy metal songs.
So how can I combine music with thrashing?
I discovered the answer at a folk music concert in the fall 2018. I had been invited to fill one of three floor spots before the main performers, The Lasses, two musicians from the Netherlands who I instantly fell in love with from the moment they began their first set. My husband told me later that he knew from the moment of the two musicians began playing an Irish drum that I, too, would want to learn to play one.
Let me know that I have both a natural musical ability to begin learning any instrument and an equal distaste for practicing. This means that I instantly fall in love with many instruments, buy one, play it for a few days or weeks, and then never play it again.
I spent several months researching this drum and trying to determine if it would indeed be something that I would play. When it occurred to me that investing in a drum could be equal parts music and therapy, I decided it was worth a shot.
And I have not regretted the decision. I don’t practice every day, but once I start playing I experience an instant relief. It just feels so good to bang on something. And the benefit of banging on a drum is that this is exactly what the instrument was built for.
Recently listening to bodhran musician Alison Boyd on Spotify describe the origins of the instrument, I feel even more convinced that this instrument and I were destined to meet. “Basically, it’s a war drum that you used to lead the armies into battle.”
Now, the part of me who has studied yoga, meditation, Buddhism, mindfulness, etc. wants to believe that I can be graceful and gentle. When I see or experience injustice, I am not quiet about it. Likewise, when something upsets me I am often not quiet about it, at least to those people in my inner circle who I trust the most. The traumatic events of my life that led to PTSD and the latent rage that seems to now be boiling over as a result were in situations where I did not feel safe to speak up or advocate for my Self.
So the warrior part of me, the part of me who wants to honor my authentic Self and to overcome PTSD realizes that gentle is not always the way and certainly is often not my way.
I am not subtle. I am an energy force. I think most people who have met me who agree with this. One of my Anusara yoga friends told me that it was unlikely that anyone who had ever met me could forget me.
Even within yoga, there are many warrior poses. And I think this makes sense. You have to work hard and fight for the sustainability and healing. It doesn’t just happen. It takes concerted effort, determination, willpower, and a willingness to move through all of the layers of trauma, emotion, whatever you want to call it as you peel them back, one-at-an-oft-painful-time to get down to the true essence of who you are.
Hence, my decision to work out my rage on a drum.
If you are also seeking a healthy way to work through some emotion, I highly recommend getting a drum.