Being “sensitive” was not a characteristic recognized in my culture growing up. But since then, I’ve learned to treat myself with the self-compassion we HSPs need.
One year ago, on the day when I wore the veil for the first time, I stood in front of the door on my way to college with a clenched fist and a tight chest. In a faint whisper, I prayed the words: Bismillah, Bismillah, Bismillah, Bismillah four times before leaving my house. I prayed that God would protect my blackness, that he would protect my womanhood, that he would protect my faith, and, lastly, my high sensitivity.
Growing up, I would frequently get flooded with emotions. I now realize it was due to being a highly sensitive person (HSP). In countless memories of mine, I’d sit with my hands covering my ears as though I’b been begging for protection or refuge from the overwhelming impressions and stimuli the world shoved onto me.
My life has been a constant search for rooms and spaces that were quieter and more calm. At times, it felt like I was walking toward a mirage in the hottest of deserts, since finding tranqulity was an ever-moving wishing well for me as a Black Muslim woman who’s also highly sensitive.
How My High Sensitivity Is at Odds With My Culture
Before I understood what it means to be an HSP, I remember being a young Black, Gambian girl asking God what to do with myself. At every celebration or gathering, I feared the dreadful moment when I’d have to greet my elders or the women in the kitchen cooking delicious food like meat pies. All the adults would be gathered in the crowded living room, and I’d have to greet each of them, one by one.
It was unbearable — not because I was shy or embarrassed, but because I was highly sensitive and, therefore, highly aware of each recipient’s energy toward my greeting. Whether I received a pleasant smile or a judgmental gaze, it was all too much, too exhausting, too overwhelming. Still, I carried on because to be made an outcast or seen as ill-bred would have been much worse.
The tolerance of highly sensitive children in a loud and lovely Gambian community is indeed low and unspoken of. My culture is vibrant, colorful, outgoing, and outspoken, and it sometimes asks more of me than I am able to give as an HSP. This does not make my community vicious; it just makes my culture like thousands of others: unsure of how to best protect, understand, and help its HSPs.
Then there is the anomaly in today’s society to be a Black woman and highly sensitive, two dimensions that are constantly contradicting one and another due to the images, stereotypes, and prejudices the world has narrated about Black women. We are, for the majority of the time, expected to be the life of the party. As for me, however, I would be content if I managed to just attend the party.
As mentioned, I am in constant search of shelter and spaces where it is calm enough for me to hear my own heartbeat. When the world pushes me to nauseating extremes — and its hills are too steep — I seek refuge in my religion, in the greenness of my Quran and its mosques. While I was knee deep in worship, it found me though, my high sensitivity and reaction to too much stimuli, during the Jummah prayer on the calmest of Fridays.
First, the hair on my hands rose as I stooped low. Within minutes, I fled the mosque in central Stockholm city as more and more people came rushing in for the Jummah prayer. Islamic hadiths and scrifts speak of the countless blessings believers will be granted when praying together with others, the numbers of angels guarding the group praying together, and still, I left my heaven and my blessings. But I was unable to stay as the Imame gave the adhan and called to prayer — the anxiety and panic attack I was experiencing made me a stranger in God’s house and my own body.
On my way out of the mosque, the loveliest woman rested her eyes on mine and said, “May peace be upon you” in Arabic. Even if peace was not what I felt in the moment, I knew that this was God’s way of telling me, “Mariama, you, too, deserve peace. May you find it.”
That Friday, I prayed at home with my door closed in both silence and in grief. Later, I indulged in self-acceptance and the utmost vulnerability, which allowed me to not only treat my highly sensitive self kindly, but also to treat myself with dignity and the self-compassion we HSPs must make sure to give ourselves daily on our quest for peace.
Trying to Control Situations That Trigger My Sensitivity
In a world where the fetish of Black suffering is remarkably grotesque and capitalized, there aren’t many lighthouses for one to hold onto. I’m among those who did not watch When They See Us on Netflix, who closes their eyes when the gun goes off in Childish Gambino’s music video This Is America. I could not finish Twelve Years a Slave, well aware that it would require 12 years of recovery, at the least. The highly sensitive Black person cannot watch Black people die on social media, although it feels we are forced to.
Last year, an acquaintance of mine changed their profile picture on Facebook to a three-second-long video loop of George Floyd’s final breaths, displaying the knee pressed against his neck till he was no more. And when the world posted their Black pictures in
solidarity on their Instagram feeds, highly sensitive Black people (and Black people in general) probably had a blackout of their own due to the increasing anxiety reaching its climax.
All this to say, these past several months — and past year — have been difficult, to say the least. With the death of Oluwatoyin Salau, and many more precious souls we lost, Black women and Black nonbinary people have been struggling to get out of bed in the morning while mourning the death of women that the media does not seem to treasure as much as we do. And the Black highly sensitive women? We lay wide awake, because there is no such thing as shutting down or ignoring news when you are highly sensitive, Black, Muslim, and a woman. This is because we HSPs process thoughts and images in greater depth than most.
One event in particular that caused me to further tailor my life around my high sensitivity trait (and spare me from a countless number of exhausting situations) was the revelation I had during one of the last demonstrations I attended. It was a demonstration against the current slave trade in Lybia and it took place at Sergels Torg in central Stockholm city (where I myself have given speeches before). There, the Mediterranean Sea and the backway to Gambia drowned me during the demonstration, as all of my feelings rebelled. Unable to say anything, I started crying and looking for a way out of the crowd.
Then one of the initiators of the demonstration announced that they were going to read testimonies from Black African women held in the slave camps in Libya, making me feel as if death had come to collect me from its collection of lost goods. Suddenly, the speaker folded her paper. She told us that the stories were more than one could stomach within the short time span she had on stage, making it unjust for those women imprisoned and enslaved, whose stories deserved a platform patient enough to listen. Never before had I felt such gratitude, for desperately wishing to be spared, kept in the dark, and protected. Yet I also felt such shame for not being able to hear the entire truth. My highly sensitive mind was at its limit, though — if not on the threshold to completely breaking open — making it the last demonstration I attended. (I now know there are other ways I can still make a difference in the world as an HSP.)
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They Say ‘Black Don’t Crack’ — But, as a Black HSP, I Beg to Differ
In a world which has been led to believe that “Black don’t crack,” we highly sensitive Black people know that blackness does not only crack, it shreds. Since we are unable to turn away from the falling apart, we bear the mighty task of creating softness and change, of mending the broken in order to begin the healing process.
Black women are often forced to become social change agents because we are natural sociologists due to our social positions and hawk vision that Tressie McMillan Cottom mentions in an interview with Roxanne Gay.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine N. Aron similarly draws attention to the HSP talents of leadership, social work, and the ability to observe and understand their surroundings. One example she gives is of a man who truly loved working at a farm, but had to give up his calm life to stir his country toward stability before they were thrown into war. This was because he was equipped to solve their crisis and save thousands of people from great misfortune due to his traits as a HSP. Often, I cannot help but feel that the “farm” I truly wish for is always within reach, yet so far away, because of the responsibilities and balancing act I have to juggle due to my three identities and the social work they all embody.
It is rare to be all that I am, and yet it is not, as there are numerous others out there like me: Black Muslim women and highly sensitive people. Most importantly, we must not forget that we are highly-valued, regardless of what society and the world would have us believe. Whether it’s rising up from racial injustice, sexism, or Islamofobia, I’ll rise and will continue to do so — just like I rise up from the prayer mat for fajr at night (and whenever I am emotionally and mentally flooded or overwhelmed), with my melanin, my hijab, my trait, and my whole self still intact. I rise.
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