It’s a powerful thing to know who you are. I mean to really know and accept who you are, at your core. The YOU underneath all of the self-doubts and judgments and fears. It seems like such an obvious thing, doesn’t it? I mean, of all the subjects in the world, you’d would think the one thing we would be absolute authorities on would be ourselves. And yet, at 34, I’m really only starting to get a handle on who I truly am.
I suspect a big part of the confusion is that we spend so much of our lives trying to fit in. First in our families, then with our friends, schools, and society at large. Sure we’re always told “Just be yourself!” and “We’re not meant to fit in, we’re meant to stand out!”, but in reality, certain parts of us are rewarded, and other parts of us are not so well received. Slowly but surely, we learn that there isn’t room for all of us, and we hold certain things back, wish those parts of ourselves away.
“You’re so sensitive”.
Ugh, that dreaded word. Sensitive. I wonder how many times I’ve been told this in my lifetime. How much shame I’ve built up around it. This idea that I somehow feel too much. That this is a defect, a weakness in me.
Why couldn’t I just be like other people? Why did things that others barely noticed dig into me so deeply? Why did I always jump to the meaning behind someone’s words or actions or tone, never taking anything at face value? Why did I take everything so seriously?
One day in university my roommate told me that I was “more emotional” than she was. I remember the moment so clearly. It was obvious that she felt superior in this regard, and that bothered me because, to be honest, I thought she was rather insensitive. Thoughtless, even. “I just feel things more deeply than you do”, I replied. It was the first time I reframed this ‘flaw’, both for myself and someone else. The first time I started to own this part of myself in some small way.
“You’re so slow!”
God. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told some version of this in my life, I wouldn’t even have to work.
Reading over my childhood report cards, a pattern emerges. Year after year, “Karen struggles to complete assignments on time”, “Karen is very thorough but needs to complete work in the assigned time period”, “Karen needs to work on time management”, etc, etc. Until finally, Grade 7, my report card reads: “Karen seems to rush through assignments, not doing her best work.”
I could have cried when I read that. Honestly. There’s that dreaded sensitivity creeping up again, but it hit me like a ton of bricks to read those words. All those years of being told to hurry up, just go faster, just do it faster. And then finally, I do what I’m told. And it’s not good enough. I’m not good enough.
It gave me immediate insight into why I have so much anxiety around time. Even just the hint of being in a rush and I can feel stress coursing through my entire body. My stomach gets tight, my breath gets shallow, and my brain feels fuzzy so I literally can’t think straight.
I hate being in a rush. Hate it. Because not only am I in a hurry and I can’t do things the way I want to, but there’s also this sense that something is wrong with me that I just can’t just move more quickly. Nothing like a little anxiety and shame cocktail to really get you going in the morning, am I right?
Some people find time pressure exhilarating, I am sure. Some people do their best work that way, their best thinking. In fact, I’m married to someone who likes to cut things close to the wire, happy to pack in a hurry, get to the airport in a hurry, make it just in time for a flight. He enjoys it. I suppose it feels like a victory of sorts, to cut things so close and still make it. To “make the most” of his time. Meanwhile, in the same situation, I am giving myself an ulcer and about ready to murder him, swearing I’ll never do this to myself again.
I’m a slow moving person, I just am. Especially if I am trying to create anything of value, I can’t be in a hurry when I’m doing it. It’s just that simple.
I love the expression “How you do small things is how you do all things”. For me, that’s slowly and thoughtfully. And while that doesn’t always seem like a great fit in a world that keeps speeding up around me, it simply is what it is.
I’m learning to accept this about myself now. To work with, rather than against, my natural tendencies. And yes, I’m still learning to navigate the line between having high standards and taking my time with my work, and being a ruthless perfectionist who never feels anything is ever good enough or done enough. But hey, it’s a journey.
This whole sensitivity thing has been a journey too. It’s not something I really understood about myself until I read Quiet, which I highly, highly, recommend if you’re on the introverted end of the spectrum. Or if you find yourself easily overwhelmed by the world.
Being a highly sensitive person basically means living life in really high definition. Everything is amplified. Sights, sounds, smells. Any sensory experience really. For me the most important piece was recognizing how much I am affected by the energy and moods of people around me. That I literally feel other people’s feelings. The man at the park yelling at his kid. I feel his anger, in my body. The kid’s fear and confusion? I feel that too.
It’s a lot.
Sometimes I wish it were different, wish I was different. But what’s really interesting is now that I’ve finally stopped denying and resisting this part of myself, I am actually starting to get a handle on it. Starting to notice when there is anger in my chest that doesn’t belong to me. Starting to recognize the stress or negativity of people around me. To feel those emotions move through me, but not take them on and make them mine.
Realizing how much other people affect me helps me understand my deep needs for solitude. As a result, I’ve finally learned to make this a priority in my life. Just being by myself, without the pulls of other people’s emotions and energy. This is where I find peace. And when I take care of myself in this way, it gives me the strength to go out in the world and deal with whatever comes, without feeling overwhelmed or having to compromise myself in the process.
It’s amazing what happens when you start to accept the things about yourself that you’ve always wished away. Because what happens next is permission.
Permission to be what you are.
I’m a slow moving person. It takes me half an hour to drink a cup of coffee and eat my breakfast. Sure I could slam it down in 10 minutes and rush out the door if I needed to, but then I’d be anxious and have a stomach ache all day. So I have options. I can accept what I am and honour my needs, or I can deny them and suffer the consequences. Now, 99% of the time I choose option A. I get up early enough that I can take my time eating and having my coffee, easing my way into the day in as relaxed a manner as possible.
When I take my time in the morning, ideas come to me. Ideas for things to do with my clients, ideas for things to write about, ideas about myself, the world. Sometimes I pull out my journal and write. Other times I just sit and stare out the window. I’m sure this sounds like absolute torture to those of you who like to ‘maximize’ every minute with podcasts or news or social media, but for me it’s mornings like these that lead to the best, and yes, most productive days.
And I don’t check my phone until I’m done eating. I can’t see any reason why I should concern myself with the fate of the world or the needs of other people before I’ve eaten my breakfast. And while that might not be for everyone, it certainly works for me right now.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson