Just like there isn’t a right way to “do life”, so there isn’t one right way to navigate covid-19. At the core of my work with anxiety is the recognition that because highly sensitive people have been told their entire lives that they’re “too much” – too sensitive, too dramatic, to emotional, too specific with their needs – they develop a shame layer that says, “I’m broken. I’m wrong. I should be feeling/doing this differently.” This is the layer that I’ve seen arising in spades over the last 5+ months as we continue along the twisty road of the pandemic. It sounds like this:
“Everyone else seems to be finding their way through this pandemic – going camping, going to the grocery store, sending their kids back to school, seeing friends. But I can’t do any of that. I feel paralyzed, and like I’m the only one who’s still struggling to find their way. What’s wrong with me?”
My response: “First off, there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not the only one. Who are your friends that you’re referring to? If you’re not surrounded by highly sensitive people, you’re going to feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling. I’m surrounded by HSPs so I know that you’re far from alone as I’m hearing the exact words you just said every day.
“Secondly, you may have a different covid boundary than the people around you and that’s okay. Your boundary is your boundary. The work right now is to learn how to accept your boundary and address the shame-and-judgment voices that are arising in response to your boundary to see if you can start to replace those with compassion.”
“What does that sound like?”
“It sounds like: ‘Self, it’s completely okay if you can’t go camping right now. That might feel safe for some people but it doesn’t feel safe for you.’ Remember: as a highly sensitive person you’re wired to scan the horizon for the slightest inkling of danger. You’re going to be more attuned to possible risk than other people. And there is real risk happening right now. Yes, most people who go camping are fine, but the anxious mind is going to latch onto the word “most” and assess that the risk is too much.”
Of course, the situation becomes more challenging when you’re in a couple or family and others are affected by your choice to stay home. You may have a partner who is longing to go camping with you or children who are going stir crazy from loneliness and boredom and need to be around other kids, or possibly in a school environment. Parents face a particular challenge right now because we’re weighing our kids’ social/emotional needs on the one hand against the physical risk of exposing them to covid-19 on the other. I’m right there with you; it’s a wrestling that gnaws at the soul of a parent daily. I’ll share what this looks like with a story from our life.
About halfway through the summer we could see that our older son wasn’t doing well emotionally, and the reason was obvious: He needed to fly, which is his calling and his medicine. Just days before shutdown, he received a generous scholarship from the Jeppessen Foundation through the Wings Over the Rockies museum in Denver. He worked hard for that scholarship, walking through a rigorous interview process, and when he received the email that he had received it, he was over-the-moon elated. Two days later, we received the stay-at-home orders from Boulder County. There would be no flying for months.
At last, the gliderport opened back up. But could we send our son into a small cockpit with his instructor? Yes, they would both be wearing masks and would keep the windows open, but it’s not possible to socially distance in a glider. My husband was clear: This is our son’s passion, and if we didn’t continue his instruction he wouldn’t be able to sit for his licensing exam when he turned sixteen. Not only would this crush his lifelong dream, but it also meant that if we have to quarantine again, he wouldn’t be able to fly. As a student pilot, he would still need to fly with his instructor, but as a licensed pilot he could fly on his own.
I wasn’t so clear. Why would we risk his physical health and the health of our family so that he could fly? But the more closely I watched our son, who was wilting under the isolation and understimulation of this time, the more I saw that it was a risk we needed to take. I weighed in all of the factors: Covid-19 incidence is very low here; our son is young, strong, and healthy; we, as a family, are healthy. I knew that none of these factors were guarantees, but when I calmed my mind and came into stillness, I received the green light to let him go.
It would also have been okay not to let him fly. I share this story not to encourage you to push yourself in one direction or another but to share what it looks like to struggle, and to illuminate the additional layers of internal conflict we’re wrestling with as parents. None of this is easy. For anyone.
What I try to impart to clients and friends who are struggling with the shame layer that says, “I should be doing this better” is to trust the limits of their comfort zone. Usually when working with anxiety I encourage people to push themselves gently just outside the outer limits of their comfort zone, for if we never take risk we don’t grow. But I’m not applying that same approach to covid-19, for in this uncharted territory the stakes of risk-taking may seem too high for the anxious-sensitive mind. Instead, I’ve been saying to those who are struggling:
“What would it be like to give yourself full permission to trust your covid boundaries completely?”
I can hear an audible exhale when I say that. And the person will often say, “I just exhaled, like I’ve been holding my breath for five months.” Nothing feels as good as being given complete permission to be where you are, and sometimes we need a trusted other to us you complete permission to be where we are in order to trust our boundary.
And yet… immediately on the heels of this permission comes another layer of the highly sensitive person’s wiring: caring what other people think.
“If I do that, I have to be okay with people being disappointed, and also their judgment.”
“Yes, that’s right. What are you afraid people will say or think about you?”
And here comes the list, which is heightened during this time but also precedes it (meaning whatever you’re telling yourself now about yourself are things that you’ve been telling yourself for a long time):
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “You’re a party-pooper.”
- “You’re such a dork.”
- “Get over it!”
- “You’re too sensitive. It’s fine.”
- And the list goes on.
As always in transitions – and we are in a global transition – our places of wound are highlighted for the purpose of healing several layers. Transitions, as ruptures in the soul, soften our typical veils of defense and denial so that we can see with painful clarity what needs attention. One of the places that needs attention right now for the highly sensitive person is their lifelong shame about being who they are.
That’s why when I ask, “What would it be like to give yourself full and compassionate permission to honor your covid boundaries completely?” they exhale and then hear the voices of judgement. It’s not likely that anyone in their actual, current life would think or say any of the above statements; rather, they’re the introjected voices of judgment that have creased into the inner folds of psyche due to years of hearing them during the growing up years. And now, seeing and hearing them so clearly, you have an opportunity to respond to them from a compassionate place inside of you. This is how we heal.
And so, I ask you… what is your covid boundary? How are you doing with honoring it? What layers of self-judgment are being called into focus for the purpose of healing?