July 26, 2016

Self-care for the gifted & highly sensitive person (HSP)

While life as a gifted individual is full of intensity, complexity, and drive—it can also  include anxiety, doubt, loneliness, disillusionment, and disorientation.

To help gifted individuals with their unique challenges, I put together the following list of self-care resources geared-toward-the-gifted.

I designed some of the resources myself, while others are adapted (original sources are cited). I hope you find the resources helpful.

I encourage you to contact me if you are interested in exploring your giftedness in a more intentional manner. I specialize in assisting gifted and highly sensitive people cultivate whole lives in my in-person (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) and online counselling & coaching practice.


Relaxation

Living with sensitivity and intensity—day in, and, day out—can take its toll. It is important to find times and places in which you can unwind and relax.

Finding a rhythm that works for you is vital to cultivating a whole life.

Below is a list of helpful relaxation tips and exercises.

Connecting with nature

Gifted and highly sensitive people often find nature therapeutic. A friend of mine finds water, in particular, very soothing. Personally, I love trees—especially red oaks (Quercus rubra).

Perhaps you already often visit and a nearby natural place. Or, maybe, you remember a special natural place you used to enjoy when you were younger.

Set some time aside to visit a preferred natural place as regularly as you can (daily? weekly?).

Below is a list of questions (from Hasbach, 2012) that will help you enter your nature experience more deeply:

  • What drew you to this particular place?
  • What thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations do you experience while in your place?
  • What interconnections or relationships do you notice in you place?
  • What do you feel compelled to write about when in your special place?
  • What are you curious about regarding this place?

Accessing outdoor nature can sometimes be difficult.

Fortunately, there are other ways you can connect with nature. For example, you could spend time with a pet, place indoor plants around your home, and/or listen to soothing nature sounds for free on-line (e.g., naturesound.tk, calmsound.com).

Meditation

Wherever you go, there you are – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Meditation has become a very popular relaxation activity. And for good reason. In addition to reducing stress, meditation has also been shown to increase immunity, improve sleep, and expand brain functioning. This cool infographic provide a helpful summary of some of meditations many benefits.882357884_orig

One great thing about meditation is that you can meditate anywhere.

While meditation is quite simple, it can be surprisingly difficult—particularly as you are starting out.

For most people, however, the hard work pays off many-fold. You just have to keep practicing.

There are several online places where you can access free meditation resources and exercises. For example, there is mindful.org and the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. There are also many good books about meditation that you can use to guide you. For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, is a classic.

I encourage you to give meditation a try, each day for a couple of weeks. You may be surprised where it takes you.

Nutrition

Eating a healthy, balanced, allergen-free diet can be very important to creating calm.

I know this from personal experience.

Several years ago, I discovered that I am gluten-intolerant (and probably had been so for my entire life). While removing gluten from my diet has been difficult (I especially miss doughy pizza—a bit a of a sore spot for me), it has transformed my life: not only do I no longer feel continuously bloated, I also feel more grounded, more of the time.

I know of several gifted/highly sensitive individuals that are extremely sensitive to refined sugars and artificial colours. Consuming such substances sends them up the wall! You may want to consider visiting your doctor to get allergy-tested or experiment with removing suspected allergens from your diet.

You might want to consider the following suggestions when considering how you might modify your diet:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Eat plenty of free fruit and vegetables
  • Choose whole grains
  • Avoid processed foods (as much as possible)
  • Watch out for refined sugar, artificial colours, and artificial flavours
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Nuts are a great source of healthy fats, among other things
  • Look for foods rich in folate (folic acid, vitamin B9), tryptophan, vitamin D, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, magnesium
  • Try calming herbal teas (e.g., chamomile, lemon balm, etc.)
  • Try researching and trying supplements
  • Eat local (better for the environment and local business—couldn’t help myself!)

Physical activity (getting into your body)

I find exercising regularly vital to managing my sensitivities and intensities.

Physical activity also gives my psychomotor overexcitability a much needed outlet.

Over the years, I have discovered that running—particularly in natural settings—to be very therapeutic. As an introvert, I usually enjoy running on my own.

There are many ways you can get moving (other than running, which many people loathe!). Some of the following activities can be done on your own and others with a friend or two (or many). Which activity appeals most to you?

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Strength training
  • Individual sports (e.g., tennis)
  • Team sports (e.g., soccer, baseball)

True self (soul) recovery

Mary-Elaine Jacobsen (1999) notes that many gifted individuals deny their true nature (i.e., their true self, their soul).

Reasons for true self denial are varied: early trauma, bad school experiences, growing-up in an anti-intellectual culture, and feeling like “too much,” can all contribute to a person—usually, unconsciously—choosing to live an inauthentic, soulless life.

The consequences of true self denial can be drastic:

The danger’s of denying one’s true nature can be very serious, not only because self-denial is a bad choice that causes persistent feelings of frustration and anxiety, but because inauthenticity threatens one’s quality of life at the deepest level (Jacobsen, 1999, p. 182).

Recovering and living out of your true self is vital to cultivating a whole life.

I hope the following resources/exercises help you unearth your soul.

Seeking counsel

Gifted individuals often prefer to do things on their own.

This is definitely true for me: I enjoy my autonomy and savour my solitude.

When it comes to carving out true self, however, an insightful counsellor can be a vital resource. When I went though my “quarter life crisis”—a tumultuous period of positive disintegration—counselling sessions with my therapist catalyzed my growth.

My therapist listened non-judgmentally, affirmed my lived experience, and provided a safe-place in which explore and recover my true self.

I encourage you to seek out a counsellor or therapist familiar with giftedness to accompany you in your journey toward wholeness.

I specialize in helping creative, gifted, and highly sensitive people in my own counselling & coaching practice. If you think I might be a good fit for you, feel free to contact me.

Journaling

Taking time to regularly write out your feelings and thoughts can be both illuminating and therapeutic.

Putting thoughts and feelings down on paJournalingper allows you to get some distance from your inner world and see your experience(s) from a different perspective.

When I went through my own life crisis, regular journaling—combined with the insights of my counsellor—was vital to unearthing my true self.

I often go back to my old journals for soul-reminders—to remember just how far I have come (and continue to grow).

It is important to make journaling a regular part of your life (daily, if possible). If you can, set aside chunks of time when you will not be distracted by other demands (i.e., away from other people, children, cell-phones, computers, etc.)

Nature and the human soul

Natural settings can be ideal places to find true self.

Ecotherapist Patricia Hasbach (2012) notes that outer nature experiences connect us with our true, inner nature (i.e., our soul):

Part of our ‘deep knowing’ can be accessed if we are willing to move out into nature and experience it mindfully, with awareness and presence. Direct experience [of nature] affords heightened sensations and perceptions that connect our inner world with the outer landscape (p. 128).

Hasbach’s words definitely ring true for me.

Not only do I find nature relaxing, I often come away from my nature experiences more in tune with true self and its purposes for my life.

In addition to serving as a true self mirror, nature also provides a setting for you to separate from your everyday roles and responsibilities.

Through such separation and self-reflection, you may begin, perhaps for the first time, to hear a new voice—a voice you will recognize as your own.

Developing a mission statement (adapted from Webb, 2013 and Jacobsen, 1999).

Carl Jung once wrote: “Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

While I would modify his words slightly (“man” = “humans”), Jung nevertheless hits on a universal truth.

Humans need to feel that they are fulfilling a meaningful role in the universe.

Gifted and highly sensitive people in particular need meaning in their lives. They need a sense of purpose, a mission.

When I lose track of my own purpose (connecting people with nature, inside and out), I begin feeling listless and lethargic. Life seems drab.

The previously presented true-self recovery tools (seeking counsel, journaling, and spending time in nature) should help you get a better idea of who you really are. In addition, Mary-Elain Jacobsen’s (1999), The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating Everyday Genius, provides a number of helpful insights and exercises to unearth your life purpose(s) by identifying your multiple intelligences, gifted traits, and level of advanced development.

Combined, the above tools can help you develop a personal mission statement to guide your life, including:

  • who you really are (like, really);
  • what you want (or must) do (career/vocation/lifestyle);
  • and the values and principals upon which this being and doing are based.

While living “on purpose” is not easy, it is the greatest gift you could give to yourself—and the world.


Authentic Community

Because of our giftedness, we tend to think, feel, and act differently from most other people.

These idiosyncrasies, combined with a propensity to bury our true selves, means many of us lack authentic relationship with others (a term which I define quite broadly—as you will see below).

Real relationships are vital to living a whole life, however. Humans, after all, are social animals.

I hope the following exercises/tips help you cultivate authentic community in your life.

Expanding (beyond) the ego

Ecopsychologists (and others) argue that dominant model of self (the isolated ego) commonly adopted in Western culture lies behind many of our society’s psychological, social, and environmental issues.

When we think of ourselves as individual, insecure egos, it is very easy to feel lonely, see other people as threats to our security, and view the natural world,

“as a clutch…entities waiting to be manipulated and engineered” (Abram, 2014, p. vii).photo-1444703686981-a3abbc4d4fe3

You can re-imagine your self, however.

Spiritual practices can help you expand your sense of self and experience a oneness with others—and the universe.

Loving-kindness meditations, which originally emerged out of Buddhism, serve as one way to experience this oneness. In the following exercise, I invite you to engage in a loving-kindness meditation.

Start by developing a loving acceptance of yourself. This can be done through visualizations (bring up a mental picture of yourself experiencing joy), through reflections (reflecting on your positive qualities) or through auditory expression (repeat a mantra or phrase such as ‘loving-kindness’).

Next, send out loving kindness to wider relational circles. Start with someone you respect and love (a mentor or teacher).

Next, someone you love (a close friend).

Next, someone you feel neutrally towards (an acquaintance).

Next, someone you feel hostility toward (someone who you feel has wronged you).

Do you now feel differently about your “self” and your relations?

Developing real, deep, (human) relationships

So many of our relationships in today’s world are superficial ones, and bright, idealistic people often find this to be shallow and unsatisfying (Webb, 2013, p. 153).

Relearning how to relate will cause insecure moments at first, especially as you dismantle the thickest parts of your false-self (Jacobsen, 1999, p. 345).

Cultivating authentic relationships with other people is vital to living a meaningful life.

Developing real relationships can be difficult for gifted people, however. One problem is that it can be hard to find others that “get” you; people who you resonate with and seem trustworthy (particularly when you have just unearthed your soul and feel particularly vulnerable).

Psychologist James Webb (2013), in his book Searching for Meaning, suggests one great way to connect with other gifted idealist is by getting involved in causes (social movements, environmental groups) that you believe in. Likely, other people seeking world improvement are also deep thinkers and feelers—people who may very be on your wave-length.

As an introvert (a common giftedness trait), I prefer depth to breadth in my relationships.

I find having one or two “deep” friendships meets my social needs well. Perhaps you too are an introvert? Or, maybe you need a wider circle of intimate others? Time will tell.

Nature as supplementary supportive community

From the wider web in which we take life, inner resources—courage, endurance, ingenuity—flow through us if we let them. They come like an unexpected blessing (Macy, 2013, p. 155).

The natural world can serve as a supplementary supportive community.

While most Westerners tend to view the natural world as an inert backdrop to human activity, indigenous peoples have, from time immemorial, known and taught that humans are intimately related to—and physically, psychologically, and spiritually supported by—non-human others.

Interestingly, I often experience nature intimately, in (what seems like) indigenous ways [and from many of my readings, it seems many other gifted people do too (e.g., Prober, 2016)].

Nature has felt like my true home since I was a young child.

I regularly connect with nature not only relax and self-reflect, but also to receive emotional and spiritual sustenance.

Does nature feel like home to you too? If so, I encourage you to seek it out more often.


Giving-back

While learning to relax, self-reflect, and cultivate community are all important, many gifted people are not fully satisfied until they feel they are contributing significantly and meaningfully to the wider world.

As Jacobsen (1999) notes:

In a very real sense, benevolence is the fait accompli of our exceptional gifts. It…implies that personal fulfillment must join forces with meaning on a larger scale (p. 374).

Interestingly, as your ego expands, you begin realizing that giving-away is actually a form of receiving.

Involving your self

giving backPreviously on this page, I presented the “developing a mission statement” exercise (taken from Jacobsen, 1999). Your personal mission statement can guide you to meaningful movements and causes to which you can contribute.

There are several advantages to getting involved in communal causes, in particular. For example, working with others can make you feel you are actually making a difference. Many hands make light(er) work, after all. Further, working collectively toward a common ideal can help to alleviate our existential aloneness. It is heartening to know that others too care deeply and are willing to invest their time and energy in matters outside their own skin.

It is important to invest your (limited) energy in causes you feel are of “ultimate concern” to you.

The world needs so much. And unfortunately, you (and I) cannot do it all.

Educating others (adapted from Webb, 2013)

Gifted individuals are often great storehouses of information and wisdom about the world in which we live. We also often love sharing our ideas and insights with others.

Mentoring and teaching others can be great ways to share our gifts, while concurrently developing authentic relationships with others.  education giftedness

Mentoring and teaching can be done with friends and family. However, it can sometimes be easier to educate less intimate others. Sometimes those who are closest to us cannot handle our intensity and insight (something you may already know well).

When reflecting on what, who, or how, you might mentor and teach, consider your personal mission statement:

what knowledge, values, and ways of living do you need to share with others?

I find James Webb’s (2013) following (very) short story inspiring:

Not long ago, a close friend of mine lay dying of cancer. Throughout his life, he had enjoyed teaching others and seeing the pleasure they got from learning. Now, he knew he had only weeks to live, yet he earnestly told me that he still had one more thing to offer: he could teach his children how one should die (p. 159).

Leaving a legacy (adapted from Webb, 2013)

Life will always involve suffering.

There, I said it. Even if you unearth your true self, take care of it, cultivate authentic relationships, and give back regularly, you will still face times when your self-doubt is stifling; your intensity, overwhelming.

During these difficult times shifting your life perspective can be very helpful.

What legacy do you want to leave? To your family? To your friends?  To the planet?

I find psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s idea of “rippling,” powerful:

Each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even generations (Yalom as cited in Webb, 2013).

Rippling reminds me that each and every day is important.

Each and every one of my choices and actions sends a ripple out into the wider world. These ripples can create positive change beyond my wildest imagination.

What ripples can you create today? What legacy do you want to leave?


References:

Abram, D. (2014). The experience of nature: Phenomenologies of the earth. In D. A. Vakoch & F. Castrillón (Eds.), Ecopsychology, phenomenology, and the environment: The experience of nature. San Francisco, CA: Springer.

Hasbach, P. H. (2012). Ecotherapy. In P. H. Kahn Jr. & P. H. Hasbach (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Science, totems, and the technological species (pp. 115–139). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Jacobsen, M.-E. (1999). The gifted adult: A revolutionary guide for liberating everyday genius. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Macy, J. (2013). The greening of the self. In L. Vaughan-Lee (Ed.), Spiritual ecology: The cry of the earth (pp. 145–156). Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center.

Prober, P. (2016). Your rainforest mind: A guide to the well-being of gifted adults and youth. (S. J. Wilson, Ed.). Olympia, WA: GHF Press.

Webb, J. T. (2013). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.