Being intense, seeing the world through different eyes and feeling the world on a distinctive wavelength means you by default function outside of the ‘norm.’ You may be the misfit, the mystic, the visionary, and it is not an easy path. At the same time, no matter how hard you try, you cannot be what you are not.
It is a natural human instinct to reject what is unfamiliar, strange, or beyond comprehension. That’s why it takes tremendous courage to be a non-conformist. Even if you had done nothing wrong other than honouring your values and integrity, even if the way others treat you is entirely unjust, situations in which you are being silenced, misjudged, or attacked may still evoke intense feelings of vulnerabilities and shame, especially if they touch on some of your unhealed childhood injuries.
As we discussed in last month’s letter, one of the most significant challenges for the gifted and intense person is learning to manage the tension between authenticity and belongingness. How can you be yourself, even when you are different? Can you be an individual, and at the same time be a part of a group? Can you stay true to your values and live with full integrity, without being attacked or annihilated?
In today’s letter, we shall explore how to survive situations and conventional settings in which you don’t neatly ‘fit in,’ or even inadvertently attacked or put down. We will discuss how to manage painful emotional flashbacks, set personal and psychological boundaries, bounce back from interpersonal injuries, and ultimately, use these hostile situations as opportunities to learn and grow.
“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” – Einstein
1. FIND YOUR BOUNDARIES- WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON HERE?
If you come away from a situation feeling sad, angry, resentful, it may be a sign that your boundaries have been compromised.
Your boundaries are what protects your emotional health. Healthy boundaries are flexible but not porous. They tell you what belongs to you, what you are and what you are not accountable for. Many sensitive and highly reflective people tend to take on too many responsibilities for what happens in a relationship, and allow other people’s unprocessed psychological materials to not only exhaust their energy but even erode their self-image.
To find your boundaries, it is useful to have an understanding of group dynamics and behaviours, and what people naturally, consciously or unconsciously do in situations where they are confronted with differences and conflicts. This includes the human tendency to project insecurities and frustrations outward.
You may be on the receiving end of other people’s negative projections without realising it. If you have made life choices that are outside of the social convention— not conforming to the mainstream social/ relationship/ work structure, or ways of expressing yourself— others may not know where to ‘place you,’ and become bothered by not being able to neatly fit you into a preexisting category in their mind. Perhaps to them, your actions are too progressive, too unconventional, too daring.
People do not like what is different, and your progressive thinking may have exposed the fact that they did not dare to honour their true voice. Maybe you act out what they did not dare to feel, voice, or do. If what you stand for threatens their existing worldview or their choices, either consciously or unconsciously, they may try to cope with their anxiety by denying you. This is when they say you are being ‘aggressive’ for being honest, call you a ‘drama queen’ for your sensitivity, or name you the ‘trouble-maker’ for your moral integrity.
Most criticisms and name-calling come from a place of fear— from people’s internal struggles, insecurities, jealousy and inability to hold multiple perspectives. These are their judgments and not the truth. What you saw as ‘rejection’ was not a ‘rejection’ of you and your real essence, but merely a product of their limited perspective in a very particular time and space, based on the knowledge and information they have about the world and you.In other words, the psychic attacks you experience is the result of another person not being able to bear some degree of inner tension or ambiguity.
In fact, most of the time other people’s opinion of you have very little to do with who you are.
It is crucial that you can identify other people’s hostility as what it is, especially when they are disguised in a facade of passive aggressive comments and actions. To start, you can imagine taking a ‘helicopter view’ of what is going on, imagine that you re watching a TV drama and watch other people’s behaviours play out in a way that is not personal to you. Then, see if you can draw an imaginary line between your own energetic and psychological space and their hostile energies— that line is your boundary. Having intact boundaries help you feel safe, emotionally resilient, so you can love and give freely without worrying about depletion, have compassion without excessive care-taking, and forgive those who have wronged you without disowning your power.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems
2. RECOGNISE THE TIMES WHEN YOU HAVE TIME-TRAVELLED
What about those times where even the slightest signal of judgment and rejection causes a seemingly disproportionate emotional response, triggers intense feelings of shame, and sends you down an emotional downward spiral? When you are emotionally triggered, even the adult, logical part of you know that others’ disapproval of you can do no real damage, you may still be- uncontrollably and viscerally- taken over by a disproportionate amount of shame, fear, alienation, and rage.
If your early life was full of experiences of being misunderstood, sidelined, and boycotted, and you had not internalized a solid sense of safety, you may find yourself always anxious, expecting rejections, and reacting strongly to any hint of disapproval. You may identify with ‘symptoms’ such as sensitivity to criticism, fear of abandonment, or frequent anger outbursts, or you blame yourself for being ‘overreactive,’ ‘irrational,’ or ‘out of control.’
When an emotional flashback strikes, you get into sudden and prolonged episodes of emotional storms, overlaid with toxic shame, guilt, feelings of humiliation and even self- hatred. What triggers you might appear minor— someone had looked away or interrupted you, or that you were uncertain about how they feel towards you. But somehow these situations bring back the childhood wounds that had hurt you the most (e.g. you have always been dismissed by your siblings, your teacher did not take you seriously, or your parents always cut you off when you were about to say something). They may represent some of your lifelong battles (of others not getting where you are coming from, not being able to keep up with you, or projecting negative qualities on you). These events lead your memory system to release all the locked up images of being misunderstood, bullied, alienated. Although you live in an adult body, inside, you have regressed into the psychology of an abused child, or a humiliated teenager. In other words, you have temporarily lost touch with your actual reality, and psychologically ‘time-travelled’ to a time in the past.
It is essential to become aware of your state when this happens. Then, instead of blaming yourself further for your suffering, see if you can separate your current reality from your traumatic memories. Your usual reaction might have been to beat yourself up, but having emotional flashbacks is not a logical response that you can consciously control! A flashback does not only affect you on a cognitive level— but your body also goes into a shock, either becoming hyper-activated and adrenaline-driven or turning numb and cut off. When your locked-up traumatic memories are released, your whole body goes into a panic, as if something life-threatening is happening. As your fight-flight system gets activated, amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for your emotions, hijacks the rational part of the brain, blocking your capacity for reasoning and self-control.
Your feelings are real, but they do not always reflect your current reality. Just because you feel like a helpless 5-year-old with no place to turn to and no one to support you, does not mean that that is the truth. However painful, remind yourself that 99% of your fears live only in your mind, in your fearful anticipation and your memory.
To move forward, see if you can imagine relating to a younger, more vulnerable part of yourself as you would with someone you love, and giving her the protection and validation she had wanted all her life. Remind yourself: ’The worst has already happened.’ This flashback will pass as it has much time before. You are no longer a helpless child, and you can always walk away, stand up for yourself, and solicit help.
Only when you can gain some space between your old, horrid wounds and your present resilience, will you be in a position to see ‘whats yours and what’s theirs,’ and not be vulnerable to other people’s hostile and negative projection.
“The traumatic moment becomes encoded in an abnormal form of memory, which breaks spontaneously into consciouness… Small, seemingly insignificant reminders can also evoke these memories… even normally safe environments may come to feel dangerous, for the survivor can never be assured that she will not encounter some reminder of the trauma.” – Judith Herman
3. STEP BACK FOR A SECOND- YES IT HURTS, BUT IT IS NOT PERVASIVE, AND NOT PERMANENT
When we are triggered, it is easy to get into a psychologically collapsed state and allow one unpleasant experience to take over our entire reality. This happens because you are in shock and your fight/flight/freeze system gets activated, and you are having a nauseating upside-down flip of perception. The world suddenly becomes a dark tunnel with no end, the ground is shaking, and you feel unable to stand on our own two feet. However, if you can take a step back and look at the full picture, you will see that the interpersonal injury, however painful, is not pervasive.
To practise not losing perspective is not to lose sight of the good even as the ‘bad’ happens. I am not saying that the good can fix the bad, or that love cures it all. But it is important to hold somewhere in your mind that one person’s disapproval of you does not bleed into all other areas of your life. This is not about positive thinking, but REALISTIC THINKING. After all, it is not all good, but it is not all bad either. Someone’s negative opinion of you does not take away all the love, kindness and goodness in your life.
Not everyone can see your sparkles, receive your light, and love your intensity. And that’s okay. A flower does not blossoms dependent on who walks by. Shine as you are, and those who are attracted to your qualities will come to you.
In fact, the times when you feel the most vulnerable are the golden opportunities for you to practice grounding in all that is intact, pleasant and loving in your life. Anchoring yourself in love is not just an intellectual exercise. It goes beyond mere recognition, but genuinely internalising the love and the warmth, feeling them in your body and making the message ‘I am a lovable, worthy, dignified human being’ a part of your inner reality.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson suggests that we make conscious effort to internalise positive and loving everyday experiences: when you feel someone’s affection, love and respect for you, you can reinforce the positive neuro-pathways by taking in 5, 10, or more seconds to protect and stay with these experiences and open to them in your body. The longer and more intensely these good feelings are reinforced, the more you are ‘wiring’ inner strength into your brain, and they eventually form the source of your self-reliance, emotional balance, and confidence. This is known as positive neuro-plasticity.
Another useful reminder when we are in the midst of a toxic psychic attack is that however unpleasant, these experiences are not permanent. However intense your feelings are, be mindful of thoughts that involve words such as ‘always’ and ‘never,’ as they can reinforce a rigid storyline and breed feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Would anyone take notice of this with time’s passing? Would it matter in 5, ten years time? Any moment gives you an opportunity to change your story, and there is no ‘rest of my life,’ no ‘for years.’ It hurts, and it passes. When it does, you will still be standing firm in your integrity.
“The empty spaces of your soul are the ones you search for, pray for and want so desperately to be filled. They are also the spaces that will never be filled, until you are ready to do something you have never done.” – Shannon Alder
4. ALIGN WITH YOUR VALUES- WHY ARE YOU HERE ANYWAY ?
To live in this world with other people, some degree of self-editing is inevitable. However, it is useful to establish where and when you do draw a line. For example, if you are working in a job role where you are oppressed, silenced, or sidelined, your contribution consistently diminished or devalued, you may find yourself burning out very fast. In particular, because of your innate drive to be authentic, not acting in accord with their values can pain a gifted person a great deal.
You are never without a choice as to how often and for how long you put yourself in situations where you ought to hide your true self. And when you do, be precise with yourself regarding the purpose of you being there.
Let’s say you are stuck in the dissatisfying job role for the pay cheque, then, what will the pay cheque brings you that is aligned with your broader desires? Perhaps it helps you contribute to your dream, or that it feeds your need for safety and security so that you can be freed up to be creative?
You may feel less resentful if you can at least identify what is it about the situation or your choice to be there that is aligned with your values and your soul’s purpose.If you can become clear about your intention, even if the situation is imperfect, you will be able to draw stamina from within you.
“When you give yourself permission to communicate what matters to you in every situation you will have peace despite rejection or disapproval. Putting a voice to your soul helps you to let go of the negative energy of fear and regret.” – Shannon Alder
5. ALLOW YOURSELF TO NOT TO FIT IN
This is an important one. It is also potentially the most profound and powerful mental shift you can make in regards to your place in the world.
Perhaps you have spent your whole life trying to fit in- with the majority of the population, with the conventional ways to be, with the cultural ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts.’
In school, you wanted to be with the ‘popular clique’.
At work, you wanted to be recognised via traditional institutions and qualifications.
And some part of you is sick of being the misunderstood and the sidelined black sheep.
You may desperately want to ‘fit in,’ but what if what your deepest self needs is TO BE ALLOWED TO NOT FIT IN?
There is a difference between what you think you want- partly driven by your more primal instincts, old fears and hurt—versus your deepest self’s longing.
What if what you need is to be okay with being different?
Perhaps your authentic seat in this world, however much you want to fight it, is indeed on the fringe.
You can find tremendous peace and relief in coming to terms the fact that you will never quite ‘fit in’— in most groups, in a conventional setting, or when it comes to social norms and what the majority does.
I would also encourage you to get honest with yourself about your feelings towards those who ignore, dismiss or attack you. You may feel hurt by the fact that certain people don’t seem to ‘like’ you— but do you like them? Before you make yourself small and shrink into the position of a small person that is at the mercy of their acceptance, be honest about your real feelings towards them. Life is finite, and at the end of your time, only be a handful of people will matter. Are they a part of them? Perhaps this is a time to say to yourself and to the world: “I don’t have time to worry about those who do not like me, I am too busy loving those who love me!”
Sometimes, though not always, the price of being authentic, being real, of honouring your true self, is that you cannot please everyone. You may attract toxic envy, negative projections, and criticisms. However, if your number one goal in life is to make sure that everyone likes and approves of you, then you risk burying your unique gifts and stifling your potential. One of the most freeing things we learn in life is that we don’t have to like everyone, everyone doesn’t have to like us, and it’s entirely OK.
“An enlightened man had but one duty – to seek the way to himself, to reach inner certainty, to grope his way forward, no matter where it led.” – Hermann Hesse, Demian
6. RECONSIDER THE MEANING OF BEING DIFFERENT
You might have spent your whole life thinking there is something wrong with you for being different, but what if there is a meaning to your unique life path? What if you are an inspiration? What if it is the others who need to learn to be tolerant of diversity?
We no longer live in homogenous tribes and villages, and exposure to the unfamiliar is inevitable, even when it is uncomfortable at first. By honouring your idiosyncrasies and demonstrating self-acceptance, you are actually serving others, and helping them grow. What if by the universe’s design, that is your mission of this lifetime? There is so much mystery to what we are here to for each other that is beyond our comprehension, but perhaps you are a gift to the group because you have opened their eyes to the unfamiliar, broadened their horizons, and equipped them and the next generation for our increasingly sophisticated and hyper-connected world.
Just because others reject you doesn’t make you wrong. Even if the MAJORITY of the world rejects you, that is still not ‘evidence’ that there is something wrong with you. You are different, yes. But that doesn’t make you bad, wrong, defective in any way. Your life is harder than most, yes. You will be misunderstood and sidelined, but that still does not make your values and the way you are inferior in any way. It does perhaps mean you need to be better equipped for bruises and attacks life has in-house for you, it may make you scream, again and again, that ‘life is unfair.’ But life has never promised fairness. What it does promise, though, is that if you do not resist, but rather, live out your legacy- what you are REALLY here to do, you will find joy and fulfilment in growing into who you are.
“We must never be afraid to be a sign of contradiction for the world.” – Mother Teresa
7. USE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO DEEPEN SELF-LOVE
Finding your place the world calls for deep self-love.
Before you busy your mind in feeling hurt and resentful by other people’s rejection, here is a chance to examine: Do YOU reject yourself?
Do you lie to yourself about how much you want to be in certain places, doing certain things?
Do you allow your judgemental side, angry side, resentful side also to have a voice, or do you shut them down because they are ‘not nice’?
Do you see accept your own needs and quirks?
Do you honour your own physical and emotional bodies’ signs and signals? Or are you the first one to condemn your own body’s aches and illnesses for what they are trying to tell you?
Are you there for yourself, unconditionally, no matter what happens?
Ultimately, are YOU on your side?
We often see in self-help books and online media the idea that empaths ‘absorb’ other people’s ‘negative energy,’ that they fall prey to ‘emotional vampires’ or ‘energy suckers.’ But this notion can seem deterministic, vague, and not very useful. It somehow portrays sensitive people as passive victims to the woes in the world, rather than passionate and resilient souls who can expand their field of awareness and capacity to love continuously.
In reality, the distinction between ‘your stuff’ and ‘others’ stuff’ is not so clear. All human interaction is a kind of co-creation. If you have a strong emotional reaction to something someone presents, it most likely points to specific unprocessed materials in you.
Here is a thought experiment, the next time you notice a hurtful thought about another person’s judgment on you, for instance: “I am hurt because she criticises me for being a crybaby, a spoilt drama queen. It hurts, and I am furious.” Now experiment with replacing ‘the other’ with I. In this case, it would be “I am hurt because I criticise me for being a crybaby, a spoilt drama queen.’ It may feel jarring at first, but if you can take a breather and dig deeper, you may find some truth to it: Is there a part of you that DOES not accept your own fullest expression judges and reject the parts of you that can be perceived as too sensitive or intense? Is that what is making you vulnerable to other people’s criticism?
When we feel hurt, we can use this as an opportunity to examine parts of ourselves that we are not entirely accepting of. In other words, this was an opportunity to expand our field of self-love, to increase our awareness and to embrace more part of ourselves, to stand up for yourselves.
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. “ – Henri JM Nouwen
Becoming okay with not being ‘normal’ (thinking and feeling ‘within the norm’) can bring enormous sadness and even temporary despair. We can grieve what we never have- after all, your yearnings to belong, to be part of a tribe, to feel like a part of humanity has been a big part of you. But alongside your sadness, there can also be an undeniable undercurrent of relief – finally you can stop trying to be what you are not, gone is the burden of false impressions. With a new slate, what might life brings when you are just you? What people, possibilities may you attract now? With the courageous acceptance of your authentic place in the world comes both beauty and terror. See if you can embrace both.
“Placing my head on my knees, I let the irrational tears fall unrestrained. I am crying over the loss of something I never had. How ridiculous. Mourning something that never was – my dashed hopes, my dashed dreams, and my soured expectations.” – EL James
Honing the skill to survive other people’s judgments and attacks is an ongoing practice. It involves you learning to stay grounded in your secure base (made up of your self-love, a firm system of beliefs, an inner circle of those who see and accept you, and a sense of spiritual trust that life is on your side), despite what goes on outside of you.
It is not an easy dilemma, but you are not alone in this. We are all doing this human dance and finding our ways through. In order to live fully and wholeheartedly, we ought to develop a strong mental muscle that holds the multiplicity and complexity of human dynamics. Gradually, you will find a still small space even amongst the tension between sameness and differences , anger and compassion, actions and acceptance.
When it comes to human relationships and finding your place in the world, I do not wish for you an ‘easy’ path, but one that is rich, stimulating, fulfilling and vividly alive.
“I finally know the difference between pleasing and loving, obeying and respecting. It has taken me so many years to be okay with being different, and with being this alive, this intense”
― Eve Ensler, I am an Emotional Creature.
I hope some of the above resonates. Please only takes what works and leave behind the rest.
As usual, words on pages cannot describe my gratitude for your time and support!
With love and colourful balloons,
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.