I believe that I am what’s called ‘a good listener’ and I think most people who know me would agree. It sort of goes along with being a hugger, the welcoming-ness of open arms = open ears and heart. Well, I think I need to re-examine that self-perception. Its not that I don’t listen, but I guess that I don’t just listen. Have I always been this way, or has this habit evolved over time? I listen and then I try to fix. When I am not called upon to fix; when I am not asked to propose solutions. Unsolicited advice. Ouch. And to make me even more uncomfortable in this self-reflection, I can see that in many cases, I respond in that way because the speaker’s emotions are painful to hear. Although I pride myself on being a ‘safe person’ for others to confide in, and I do keep confidences, on some level I want the emotional disturbance to go away.
Listening obviously involves the ears. I have some hearing loss and don’t hear certain levels of sound, especially in a crowded setting. But if I am one-on-one, my ears are fully functional. And empathetic listening obviously involves the heart and that seems to be my natural response. This personality trait, if I can call it that, has just always been who (and how) I am, all my life. I can’t say it has always been easy to be so tuned in to the feelings of others. In fact it is not.
A series of articles was brought to my attention recently that actually label and to some extent explain to me who I am. Tendencies that I have always considered maladaptive have been studied and it appears that I am an HSP, which stands for highly sensitive person. They say that I am ‘biologically wired’ to behave the way I do. Imagine that!
There have been fMRI studies of the brain activity of HSPs. Can’t say that I understand all of the scientific facts, but here is a link to a 2014 article entitled: “The Highly Sensitive Brain: an fMRI Study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions” by Bianca P. Acevedo, Elaine N. Aron, Arthur Aron, Matthew-Donald Sangster, Nancy Collins & Lucy L. Brown. In a section on page 11, ‘The highly sensitive brain: empathy and integration of others’ emotions’, I find this statement:
These results suggest that highly sensitive individuals “feel” and integrate sensory information to a greater extent in response to others’ affective states…
A slightly more accessible article appeared in the Huffington Post this past summer.
[HSPs are] easily overstimulated by their surroundings. Loud noises, big decisions and large crowds don’t bode well for HSPs without a little downtime to balance them out. This is because they have a very active emotional response, according to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person and one of the original scientific researchers of the personality trait.
“The reason this happens is because they’re processing everything around them so thoroughly,” Aron told The Huffington Post. HSPs process their surroundings or life events based on emotions. In other words, the more overwhelming their circumstances get, the more deeply they feel.
It’s interesting that I was about to write about the third element of listening, or rather, my intention to practice listening without offering advice or solutions. As I said previously, listening requires the use of ears and empathetic listening requires the use of the heart, but I want to engage my brain to be more conscious about just listening. I’m not quite sure how the HSP research connects with my desire to practice non-intervention listening. However the idea that my brain is ‘wired’ to be empathetic and the established fact that brain circuitry can be rewired through changing habits means that I have a good chance of achieving my goal, n’est pas?
The HSP research validates my experience of feeling porous, as if I cannot block the emotional vibrations that other people emit. What I choose to do, going forward is to embrace the ‘biologically wired’ skill of empathy and combine it with a conscious awareness of boundaries. To protect myself from absorbing too much of the emotional overflow from others and at the same time to hold myself back from rushing in to wipe up their (messy) painful feelings.
I am beginning to suspect that this particular type of care-taking behavior has served me as a shield, keeping me occupied and too busy to have my own feelings. That’s another ouch, but a healthy realization, I think.