Jun 21

“Sensitive”: New Book About the HSP

Sensitivity is defined as the ability to perceive, process, and respond deeply to one’s environment. This ability happens at two levels: (1) perceiving information from the senses and (2) thinking about that information thoroughly or finding many connections between it and other other memories, knowledge, or ideas. (From Sensitive by Granneman and Sólo)

In this year’s Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World, Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo have written about something they know well, sensitivity and introversion. Granneman has the previous The Secret Lives of Introverts (2017) and with Sólo cohosts the online community Sensitive Refuge at https://highlysensitiverefuge.com. Sólo‘s pertinent blog is located on Psychology Today. And those are just some of their credentials.

Like the authors, could you also be a highly sensitive person (HSP)? (See my previous post on this topic.) Take their test here.

From the publisher:

Everyone has a sensitive side, but nearly 1 in 3 people have the genes to be more sensitive than others—both physically and emotionally. These are the people who pause before speaking and think before acting; they tune into subtle details and make connections that others miss. They tend to be intelligent, big-hearted, and wonderfully creative; they are wired to go deep, yet society tells them to hide the very sensitivity that makes them this way. These are the world’s “highly sensitive people”…

The authors note that to be sensitive is too often likened to “a defect that must be fixed.” But in actuality, although it can be a liability at times, it’s also an asset. For example, sensitivity is linked “to increased empathy and creativity” and “finely tuned observational and processing skills” (Publishers Weekly). Another plus can be “advanced sensory intelligence (a close awareness of detail in one’s environment), though this can also result in overstimulation.”

Guidelines suggested for how to lessen overstimulation include developing an “early warning system,” taking breaks, using calming techniques, having a “sensitive sanctuary,” setting healthy boundaries, and making fun time.

Special attention is given in this book to “the pain of empathy.” As sensitive people may be prone to compassion fatigue, it is important to prioritize self-compassion for balance and to “focus on catching positive emotions” around us. Various unique challenges in dealing with relationships are also addressed.

Selected Quotes:

The Sensitive Way is the belief, deep down, that quality of life is more valuable than raw achievement, that human connection is more satisfying than dominating others, and that your life is more meaningful when you spend time reflecting on your experiences and leading with your heart.

Sensitive people, it appears, are not hothouse orchids who wither in anything but the most perfect conditions. Rather, they are akin to succulents: No drop of nourishment escapes them, and they continue to absorb it until they swell with lovely blossoms.

Physical and emotional sensitivity are so closely linked that if you take Tylenol to numb a headache, research shows you will score lower on an empathy test until the medication wears off.

Aug 12

“I Know This Much Is True”: Family Issues

In I Know This Much Is True, the recent HBO adaptation of Wally Lamb‘s 1998 novel of the same name, Mark Ruffalo superbly portrays 40-year-old twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Whereas the former has generally been a reasonably functional guy, the latter has paranoid schizophrenia and has been in and out of institutions since his early adulthood.

During the course of this six-part mini-series so much tragedy befalls the brothers that critic Lucy Mangan, The Guardian, opines that ” few will avoid compassion fatigue before the end.” I have to agree. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth seeing, if nothing else for the performances and a strong lesson in the theme that mental illness affects the whole family.

Perhaps if anyone in the family had ever received adequate help to guide them through Thomas’s diagnosis, things would have turned out different for the Birdseys—that is to say, better. At the start of I Know This Much Is True, Thomas, for example, may be getting by at his state-run facility known as Settle, but he is nonetheless dangerously symptomatic. Out in public he commits an act of extreme self-harm, which leads to an involuntary commitment to Hatch, a forensic facility notable for its cruelty.

Through many scenes that go back and forth in time we learn that Dominick, on the other hand, has struggled throughout their lives to act as Thomas’s guardian, at times appointed by others, e.g, a teacher or parent, at other times self-appointed. The extreme difficulty of this has raised all kinds of uncomfortable feelings and attitudes, including over-responsibility, confusion, guilt, and resentment. To his detriment, he has carried these mostly on his own shoulders.

Several years before Thomas’s commitment to Hatch the twins lose their mother (Melissa Leo) to cancer. Although their abusive stepfather cares about them he isn’t emotionally strong enough to be sufficiently supportive to either.

On top of all this, “Dominick’s mother never told him who his and Thomas’ biological father was, a mystery that eats away at him long after she’s gone. Her parting gift, a manuscript written by his Sicilian grandfather, dangles the possibility of answers” (Melanie McFarland, Salon).

Dominick, who married college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), a match that once had significant potential, is now divorced. His current girlfriend is more self-involved than attentive, which seems reciprocal on Dominick’s part.

In desperately hoping to have Thomas transferred back to Settle, where he at least had a job and a certain comfort level, Dominick grudgingly becomes acquainted with Hatch’s down-to-earth social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) as well as Thomas’s caring new psychologist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi). Both readily recognize that Dominick—angry, aggressive, and decreasingly healthy—needs professional assistance as much as Thomas does.

Whereas Sheffer tries to prepare Dominick for Thomas’s upcoming commitment hearing, Patel wants this therapy-resistant but desperately lost man to talk to her about his issues. (Shades of Nick Nolte‘s character seeing his suicidal sister‘s psychiatrist in The Prince of Tidessans the poor therapist boundaries.) Quality professional help arriving so late in the game, however, fails to prevent mishap after tragedy after trauma in the brothers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dominick feels his life has been “cursed”—a notion reinforced by reading his maternal grandfather’s bio—and that he’s a victim of his various tragic circumstances rather than a participant. By the very end of I Know This Much Is True, though, we do know he’s learned a thing or two about such things as self-care and forgiveness.

Sep 07

Burnout Versus Compassion Fatigue: Latter Sounds Better

Have you ever felt like you’ve become completely fed up with your responsibilities—your job, your relationships, parenting, etc.? And then felt like you just can’t do it anymore? And now you don’t want to get up in the morning and can’t stand the thought of facing a new day? And you’re afraid that what used to be doable is now downright overwhelming? Even reading this is a major chore? You might have burnout.

Burnout is what I describe in the form of a fictional character’s circumstances in my novel Minding Therapy. As the review from FriedSocialWorker.com (site may no longer exist) stated: “What I appreciated most about this novel was the way in which the author weaves the problem of burnout into the overall context of the therapist’s life. Burnout rarely occurs in isolation, does it? It occurs in the midst of all the other burdens we carry through life.”

But the term has its problems. Burnout, in the minds of many, describes people whose flames have died out. Burnout is ugly, depressing, unhealthy. Boring. Uninteresting. Old—as in, Hey man, whoa, like, you’re a real burnt out dude, ya know?

Wouldn’t you rather have a nicer sounding problem than this? “Burnout is a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. If you are experiencing burnout, you may notice it is difficult to engage in activities you normally find meaningful. You may no longer care about the things that are important to you or experience an increasing sense of hopelessness” (DarlingDowns).

Well, compassion fatigue is here to save the day. If you’ve got compassion fatigue, you’re tired because you’ve over-cared, over-helped, over-loved. Isn’t that a whole lot better?

So, next time someone remarks on how haggard you look, how your temper has flared once too often, how you don’t seem to want to do fun things anymore, don’t say it’s because of your burnout—say it’s because of your compassion fatigue. You’ll still feel like crap—but people will respect you so much more.