A Personal Note to Highly Sensitive People in This Time of Crisis

Two highly sensitive people touch hands over coffee in a time of crisis

An older friend once told me, “There are weeks when you need coffee. There are weeks when you need black coffee. And there are weeks when you need whiskey in your coffee.” I don’t keep whiskey in my writing desk, but today I did add a drop of Amaretto in his honor. The past week has been one of those weeks for me, as I’m sure it has for many of you. Turns out, it’s not so easy being highly sensitive in a time of pandemic. Who’d have thought, right?

Here at Highly Sensitive Refuge, Jenn and I have struggled to adjust to the new normal. Like many of you, we’ve been waking up with anxiety, scrubbing our hands, staying in as much as we can, and disinfecting when we have to get food. We’ve checked on our loved ones, worried about the future, and read way too much news.

Y’all, it’s exhausting.

And all of it left me needing some heavy-duty advice (other than the whiskey).

Not the kind of advice you get about the stock market or the right way to wash your hands (although, yes). No, I was looking for guidance. What should I be doing when people are sick or out of work? How can I handle everyone’s anxiety? What do I DO to make it all OKAY?

And I gotta admit, most of what I found fell a little short of the mark.

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‘Toughen Up’ Is Not an Ethos

When I need advice, I turn to the greats. First I tried Georgia O’Keeffe, who tells me, “Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.”

Hmm. She’s right, but it doesn’t quite do it for me right now. I’m guessing Ms. O’Keeffe wasn’t talking about people being laid off.

Toni Morrison, may she rest in peace, hits me on the other end: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Good Lord. Toni, I hear you, but give me a minute to breathe!

Even the great Stoic, Seneca, whom everybody seems to adore these days, couldn’t pick me up. His advice?

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality…

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

I don’t know what Seneca’s life was like as an upper-class Roman, but I can tell you I don’t think the pandemic is my imagination. And, respectfully, I’m pretty sure the suffering is real.

I do see the wisdom here, of course. Yes, we should be strong; yes, we can make do with less; and yes, if we panic, we’ll only suffer more.

But surely someone, in the history of great thoughts, must have an insight that doesn’t boil down to toughen up, buttercup?

The War of Empathy

The answer came in one of my all-time favorite books, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Steven doesn’t pretend I can just wave away all the suffering. He doesn’t say it’s not real. Instead, he meets it head on:

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

If he’s right, then our worries right now are useful. And they’re a big screaming sign that it’s time to put our talents as sensitive people to work.

Of course, Steven was talking about artists — about how the most important artwork comes in troubled times, not easy ones, driven by the artist’s need to process our collective pain. But I think it applies to empathy and sensitivity in any form. Highly sensitive people are a live wire carrying the high-voltage feelings of everyone around them. With that comes the potential to be a source of power, for ourselves and for others. Because absorbing feelings is only half of empathy. The other half is compassion.

In that sense, my fear right now — for the elderly and at-risk, for the unemployed and the evicted, for the small business owners losing their shirts — is a reminder that there’s work to do.

A Voice for HSPs

Doing that work may look different for different people. It doesn’t mean big saint-like acts of change. It can mean supporting a friend, calling a loved one, running one errand for one neighbor, or doing the self-care needed to nurture your own inner strength. (I’ve had to do all of those things this week, and looking back, they are the parts that feel right.)

Often, it’s what actors and artists do all the time: simply giving voice to what everyone else already feels, and doesn’t know how to express.

Which is exactly why the Refuge exists. As much as possible, Jenn and I have been scrambling to get together HSP voices on the current crisis. You’ll see those voices appearing on the site all this week, on topics from calming anxiety to what other HSPs are feeling right now — and why it’s so different from everyone else. (If you have a piece of your own you’d like to add, please do see our guidelines and submit.)

I hope you’ll join us for each post this week. I hope you’ll take some time and space to care for yourself. And when you find yourself with a little bit of calm, I hope you’ll do one piece of “the work” — whatever that looks like to you — that we all need to do together.

And don’t worry: I won’t ask what’s in your coffee.

On behalf of Jenn, myself, and two blissfully clueless cats,

Andre Sólo
Co-Founder, Highly Sensitive Refuge

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