I am nine years old and sitting in a classroom in France, terrified. My seat is at the back of the class because we are seated according to how good our grades are. I am ranked 20th out of 24, partly because I have earned it, partly because I’m American, and partly because I am the son of Protestant missionaries.
The teacher is at the chalkboard with her back turned, but every muscle in my body is tense, poised for the possibility of a piece of chalk or an eraser being thrown at me or at one of the other nulle (“worth nothing”) students here in the back. I have to use the bathroom but I know that even if I got permission to go, I couldn’t actually go. There are no doors on the stalls, and the older kids hang out there, smoking and bullying any younger kid who happens to walk in. I’ve already wet myself twice this year.
I feel the wrongness of this — of the whole big picture. Yes, I feel my own fear, my own pain, my own discomfort. But I also feel the hopelessness of the teacher, the fear of my classmates, the bitterness of the older bullies, all stuck in a system they see as unavoidable. “This is just the way things are,” they say if I ask. All these feelings overwhelm me, depress me. I feel like I am drowning in everyone’s suffering every time I go to school. I hate that feeling.
Later, I am twelve and sitting in the lunchroom in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we moved after coming back from France. Once again I am terrified. I’m sitting on the “white” side of the cafeteria, because I am white, but I cannot understand why it is this way: why it must be white vs. black. I am at a school of over 800 students, and it’s only that large because the state-wide integration program sends all of the sixth graders in the city to the same school.
Integration is a good thing, but looking around, it feels like a joke. Everyone is still separate, and no one feels safe. I have just been offered drugs, which for a sheltered Christian kid feels like something out of a movie. I have been bullied by kids of all races who are big enough to grow mustaches and dunk a basketball, but who have failed so many times they are still in the sixth grade. I am desperately trying to figure out this Southern dialect, these new idioms, these euphemisms, which it turns out are mostly sexual.
Once again, I feel the wrongness. I feel the pain of all of the students, most coming from poverty, looking for a crude joke or a hit of something to lift their spirits even for a moment. I feel the despair of the teachers, who know their efforts mean very little in the long run for most of those they teach. Once again I am drowning. It is too much. Way too much.
I am a highly sensitive person, but I don’t know it yet.
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Why Sensitive People ‘See Behind the Curtain’
For many years, I do what most sensitive people do, pushing all the pain deep down and trying to fit in. I move from a high school system to a college system to a graduate school system to a work system. So many systems.
I move through religious systems, too; I join and leave organizations, groups, and even several occupations; and with each one, I try even harder to fit in. I think that maybe I finally learned how, how to ignore everything I can see and sense, how to push things down. But the wrongness doesn’t go away. It becomes overwhelming.
And what baffles me is the people around me cannot see it. They are drowning in fears, yet they cannot see the threat isn’t them, nor is it the “bad guy,” whoever they think that is, nor is it just the way things have to be. No, the problem is they are being let down by a system that was not built for them. A system that feels big, universal even, but is in fact small. Small in its scope. Small in its ambitions. And very, very small-minded.
I wonder why I can feel what others cannot.
And of course, I doubt myself. If I’m the only one feeling all these feelings, then I must be wrong. I must be broken, right? I must be untrustworthy. So I put my feelings aside and try once again to buy in to these small little systems.
Finding out that I’m a highly sensitive person takes many years. Understanding what it means for my life takes even longer. But, as I begin to appreciate my superpower — that I am part of the small percentage of people whose brains process things very, very deeply — realization dawns.
All of the feelings that I feel, both from my own heart and empathically from others, have given me clarity: I am not wrong. I am not broken. I just see the patterns, the throughline, the behind-the-curtain. I am accurate when I say the systems we have built are hurting people.
That is what is broken. That is what’s too small.
The Gift of Seeing a Better World
As I begin to trust my feelings, I start to feel other things. Better things. Signs of a world that is much too big to say I’m nulle. Much too big to assign value based on skin color.
I start to feel the joy of people, not just their fear. I feel the freedom of nature. I feel the steadfastness of a tree, the depth of the ocean, the wonder of a waterfall. I realize that my ability to feel can do so much more than just see the world’s pain. I do feel that in the world, but I also feel the love.
Suddenly, things look bigger than even I thought.
Because now, my ability to peer behind the curtain has a purpose. I can be someone who doesn’t accept the wrongs as “the way things are.” I can be someone who doesn’t accept cruelty as “how the world works.” I can be someone who sees a blueprint for a much, much bigger world. A better world.
Any HSP can be that person.
Not everyone in the world needs to feel everything. Some people have a different purpose. But as highly sensitive people, we can be the connection to something truer.
How to Know When It’s Safe to Use Your Gift
Many years later, like many HSPs, I am still complicated. I love who I am and my ability to feel, but I am also still overwhelmed in certain situations, especially with the expectations of others and of the systems they have chosen to be a part of.
I find myself asking the questions that many of us ask:
- What things are safe for me to feel?
- When do I set a boundary and remove myself from a situation?
- When do I open myself up to the world?
- When do I cocoon?
- When do I radiate the superpower that is inside?
There are many answers to these questions, and undoubtedly they will be different for all of us. However, for me, a simple rule of thumb is this: Am I feeling the pull of a system people buy into, or am I feeling the pull of something bigger?
A pull from a “system” looks like this: You need to act this way, you need to be here at this time, you need to parent like this, you need to give of yourself in this way, you need to think of the community first. When this happens, I choose whether or not to give in, but either way I keep my walls up.
If the pull is from something bigger — here is a beautiful view, a radiant soul, a broken heart, an authentic mind, a steady presence, a free path forward, an open hand — I can choose whether or not to give in, and I can risk more openness. I can be vulnerable, I can give of myself more freely. I’m still careful, but the more secure the situation, the more I can utilize my superpower: to feel in a way that has never been felt before.
Often, these are the experiences that end up being transformational not just for me, but for others. The person who opens up to me may feel healed; the person who was finally “seen” may feel encouraged; a moment of wisdom or compassion may pass from something much bigger than myself to others. Or it may not.
Because if there’s anything I’ve learned about living in a big world, it’s that none of us can ever control it. We can only be open.
Do you relate to this post? The author, David Jones, has just released a new song that encompasses his feelings as an HSP — dedicated to all the sensitive people in the world. Called “Charles,” it’s meant to be a source of hope when the world feels like too much. Click here to listen for free.