At some point in our lives, we have probably come across someone or several people that told us that we should change something about ourselves. It could have been a casual suggestion like a new hairstyle, a personal probe about our health and diet, or social concern about how we come across to others.
For most people, unsolicited inferences can put us on the defense and imply that we are doing something wrong and need to be corrected. That’s not to say that there can’t be any truth to others’ observations–or advice– but on the other hand, how much good does it feel to be judged?
Let’s consider for a second that we all respond to life differently; that our starting point is unique and relative to our own experience. For example, my hair is curly, and no matter how much product I put in it, it will still frizz. Some of my straight-haired friends have often suggested that I straighten or put product in my hair, to make it less frizzy. I’ve tried practically every product on the market (and I can’t help but think that someone reading this now has the perfect product for me to try!!!) and no matter what or how much product I use, my hair will still frizz an hour or two later. Not only that, trying to change my hair from its natural state only causes it damage.
Moreover, if a friend is struggling with weight, and finds that running 7 times a week and cutting out carbs helps her reach her target weight, she will maintain this lifestyle even if it is causing more harm than good. Torn ligaments, knee braces, a hernia… nothing can deter her from running, it just ‘feels’ so good to her. It’s cathartic, ‘her form of therapy’. However, being born with scoliosis is her starting point, and despite being told to stay away from rigorous activities to lose weight, she feels better about herself when she is thin. Because thin is the desired norm.
It is becoming more and more socially acceptable to tell people to change all the time. Not only regarding hairstyles, fashion, or physique, but also when it comes right down to our emotions. Showing too much of any emotion can get you easily labeled (and in some cases ostracized from the herd). You can be angry–but not too angry because that could be viewed as ‘aggressive’. Don’t be too happy either, that could be viewed as phony or overly enthusiastic. And my favorite: sad. Why are you sad? What’s wrong? Why are you so sensitive? Do you suffer from depression or anxiety? You are just too emotional.
Our biology and habits have a lot to do with all of the above. Biology says our hair is curly or straight. Our habit is how we react to a stimulus. If cultural acclimation is a trigger and we want to ‘fit in’ culturally, our hair habit will be dictated by how we react–do we go au naturel or change our natural hair? If our biology is comprised of slower metabolism, do we accept it, and find our own moderation? Or do we react to the countless triggers that tell us that our body is ‘wrong’? And finally, do we embrace the genetics that may make us more prone to feeling more, or do we allow others to tell us that feeling too much is a burden and there are ways to change that?
Despite what society tries to tell us, there isn’t a right or wrong way. There is a way that may be considered the norm, but trends change all the time. Once curly hair was celebrated (think 80’s and early 90’s perms), voluptuous women were once the definition of beauty (have you seen Rubens’ painting, “The Three Graces”?), and being sensitive used to mean that you were more in-tune with your own feelings and those of others. HSPs (high sensitive person) notice things that other people miss (as opposed to being labeled a mental case).
While I do not ‘suffer’ from what has been termed “social anxiety”, I am highly sensitive. My reaction to a seemingly normal situation can feel very intense to me and come across as ‘abnormal’ to others. In 2011 there was a study conducted illustrating how high socially anxious individuals exhibited elevated mentalizing and emphatic abilities. Or in layman terms: they could accurately sense what other people were thinking about them and that made them anxious.
While studying psychology as an undergrad, I will never forget learning that people who are depressed have a more accurate perception of themselves than individuals who are not depressed. Perhaps we HSPs have a gift rather than an impediment? Maybe our culture could benefit from listening to what the HSP feels rather than shaming them for their honesty?
The Gift of Being Different
Clearly, altering our biology, and more importantly, changing our habits, isn’t as simple as changing a pair of underwear. Truly changing one’s self does not happen overnight, nor does it happen with a new hair-do, weight loss, or ‘chill pill. Sure those things may make us feel better, but all of our habits and patterns remain and will always resurface if we don’t recognize, acknowledge, learn and then take a pause from them.
While it has become socially acceptable (and encouraged) to tell a person to ‘relax’ when they seem uncomfortable. As if they could somehow wish away or undo this imbalance they are feeling, namely, if they could just “get over it” or “let it go” they would “feel better” and everyone else could go back to what they are doing. Sounds so easy right? Maybe an obese person could just stop eating and an angry person could just stop shouting and a sad person could just stop crying and then everyone and everything would be ok. Sounds simple enough. Why on earth haven’t they figured this out yet?
Someone who never struggled with weight can’t possibly understand the level of awareness of food that someone who is trying to lose weight has. An inherently peaceful person cannot understand the rage unless they walked their way through it and found peace. And someone who has not yet experienced pain, cannot relate to someone who has. Yet, to the outside world, the person who is not in-line with what is current, whether it be fashion, healthy lifestyle, relationship or social status, it is another reminder that they are somehow wrong—that they are disrupting the status-quo.
It is so hard to change because we don’t want to feel like the way we have been living our lives has been wrong. That level of cognitive dissonance makes us want to hold on to our habits even tighter because we think we are our habits. Who would we be without them?
Undoing habits is a foreign concept to most people. It certainly was for me. I didn’t even know what habits were. The only thing I ever associated habits with was smoking. However, what I learned through years of study and still today, is that working on our habits is the hardest thing we will ever do. It doesn’t stop, our habits are so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we often don’t even know what they are. A good starting point is to identify triggers or thoughts that make you tighten your neck.
Does pleasing people make you tighten or relax? Does running make you tighten or relax? Does looking for a partner or spending time with a partner make you tighten or relax? Does your job make you tighten or relax?
Even if any of those things make you tighten, it doesn’t mean that you or your job or relationship are doomed. But it does point out that they could be triggers for a tension that needs to be identified. Furthermore, does running make you feel relaxed while running? After? What about 5 hours later? Sure, it’s an adrenaline rush, it’s cathartic. I also know many runners who have pulled muscles, wear knee braces, and can’t give it up, because they have decided that it’s their only form of therapy. This is an example of a habit; doing something, again and again, despite the consequences because it feels “right” or familiar. These things are the hardest to change.
I believe that there are wonderful medicines, supplements, health professionals, friends, family members, and mentors to help us on our path, whatever it may. A wise man once told me that it is silly to think that we can do it all alone. However, there are no short-cuts to life’s lessons and there is no greater gift than the one that makes us unique, and subsequently, the gift of being different.