Five years ago, I moved from India to the United States as a trailing spouse. It was soon after that I read Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. The book felt familiar, and yet new, giving me a context for the “too sensitive” label that had followed me since childhood. Now, I was once again face to face with my sensitivity, once again in a tussle with overwhelm. In the first few years of the move, I often met people who told me that adjusting was simply a matter of a few months or a year. Maybe, they were hardier than me. Or maybe, they had just forgotten what their own shift had been like.
This wasn’t my experience, and so in the beginning, I felt extremely isolated. As usual, it was taking me longer to make changes. As usual, there were people ahead of me. As usual, my own experience was not mirrored back.
Rediscovering The Need For Nurturing
But after five years living in the States, which has been a roller-coaster ride, sometimes feeling intensely alive, sometimes feeling as if I am going to topple over, I have come to a place where I think that I might have started off the move asking the wrong questions. Most of my life, I have tried to ask: How can I get people to understand me? How can I find someone else to look and see me?
But with this move and living in a culture very different from the one I grew up in, has nudged me towards different questions. If others might not see me, what options do I have? How can I see myself? How can I feel stable when things are shifting around? How can I become my own good mother?
This learning of self nurturing has, and continues to be, a difficult process for me. After all, self-compassion is not as easy as 1-2-3, no matter how many motivational quotes we read. For some of us, the template for a nurturing figure is missing in our own psyches. We often come up blank and feel at a disadvantage when we compare ourselves to people who seem (at least on the outside) to take great care of themselves. Even when we fall down in our attempts to take care of ourselves, we judge ourselves. Where is that nurturing voice in our own self?
If you have had trauma or neglect in your past, you might struggle with your attempt to construct this positive care-taking nurturing figure as well. I understand your struggle. I know it feels terribly unfair. I know it can make things doubly hard.
For me, this nurturing voice is something that is still finding its feet. It still falters and regresses. But ten years ago, or even five years back, this was a voice that was very feeble. Feeding my nurturing voice has made it stronger.
Over the past five years, I have chanced on and used some tools that have helped me become more intimate with my own nurturing self. Some of them have helped me manage the emotional intensity that is at the center of my own experience. Some have held up a mirror to my wounded parts. They have shown me ground reality. There is more work to be done. Here are some of those tools. I hope some of them might resonate with you or give you a clue that helps you on your own path:
Here are some of those tools. I hope some of them might resonate with you or give you a clue that helps you on your own path to self nurturing.
Self Nurturing Through Dream Work
I have always had vivid dreams and been deeply interested in knowing about dreams. But I grew up in a rational-minded family that had left the dreams and dreamers of old India behind. My interest in dreams had seemed superficial. But when I moved to the States, my dream world intensified and beckoned to me once again. In the beginning, there were often lakes and rivers overrunning their boundaries. That meaning seemed pretty simple.
I was overwhelmed in real life, feeling as if my emotions were going to run me over. But more than a year after my wedding and the move, I was still having dreams of wedding ceremonies taking place. What did all this mean, if it meant anything at all? Who were these characters roaming on the stage at night? It was then, with my building curiosity, that I finally followed this deep interest. I started writing down my dreams before they disappeared into thin air.
I started reading books on Dream Work. The more I read, the more I realized that some of the most intelligent minds in the field of psychology had worked seriously with dreams. Carl Jung, the great psychologist who gave us the concepts of Introvert, Extravert and Persona, thought that dreams were the bridge to the unconscious, a part of us that not just included what we had repressed but also our creative potential (in stark contrast to Freud who thought dreams were merely about things we had repressed). Working with dreams is a major part of Jungian analytical psychology.
In our dreams, we come across many different parts of our self. Many of us meet our Shadow, those parts of us that we don’t consciously identify with. In one of my Shadow dreams, I walk behind a woman who in real life is very task-focused. In the dream, I notice that there are amethysts growing on the side of the road. But I ignore them, even though my heart pulls me towards them, and I trudge obediently behind. We are afraid we will miss a train, and this woman is keeping me on task. But in the end, the train is there, and a feeling comes over me that I shouldn’t have hurried. I puzzled over this dream for long before I realized that not just the obedient woman, but the task-focused woman was me as well. I was driving myself forward, trying to control the outer world and I was missing the gifts of the move, the things that I had to pause to ingest and make mine. With dreams like this, I saw my Shadow and its different aspects.
As I owned it and made changes in my waking life, my dreams changed as well. In other dreams, I came across other characters. One of these is the “other” in each of our psyches. Jungians tell us that every woman has a masculine principle inside her – “the animus”, just as every man has a feminine principle, “the anima”. Sometimes, the animus is negative. In women’s dreams, we often have male figures chasing after us, holding us hostage even when we are pretty secure in everyday life. We then have to turn to see how we relate to the masculine. What does it mean to us? How has it been modeled?
Dreams provide a mirror for what we are experiencing right here, right now, even if we are not consciously acknowledging our feelings. Dreams also seem to provide a commentary, almost as if there is an objective observer/principle inside us looking at what we are doing, and giving us its opinion. For me, working with my own dreams has been the most wonderful adventure I have taken in years. If you are interested in dream work, some accessible, yet layered books are Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill by Jeremy Taylor who has facilitated Dream Workgroups in places as fascinating as the San Quentin prison and the great humanistic psychologist Erich Fromm’s book The Forgotten Language. Dreams really are a language we all share, whether we realize it or not. Like I did, maybe you will find that these books will lead you onto many more, or to people that could help you work with your dreams and relate to parts that have fallen by the wayside.
Self Nurturing Through Colors
I think of myself as an artiste in the broadest sense. I used to perform as a classical dancer. I write. I love photography. One sense that I did not feel as connected to was my visual sense. I have always felt as if people who see in images or have pictures pop up in their head had access to a way of being that felt missing for me. That was until a few years ago, when I started writing by hand. This was a time when I had just started blogging, when I was still trying to find that elusive thing writers search for, my “voice.” As I did some playful writing exercises by hand, I had the experience of images popping up in my head. It was as if connections were being made, one note was struck and reverberated. Like much of creativity, it was a mysterious, but at the same time “normal” process. It did not feel jarring or otherworldly. In fact, it felt like “me.”
With these images and my interest in following my intuition and feelings, my interest in colors heightened. I had always loved colors. Now, I was curious about them. Like always, I read any books I could find and listened to other people’s experiences with color. I remembered how there was a time in my life where I wore a lot of yellow, a color associated with the solar plexus chakra, the chakra for personal power, at a time when I sorely needed more will and power in my life. I noticed how I often unconsciously reached for reds, at a time when I was creating a structure for my new life here in the States, a color associated with grounding. I started making art and instinctively using colors that called to me – purple and green and red and orange. One tool that I have discovered, love using and highly recommend are Inna Segal’s
One tool that I have discovered, love using and highly recommend are Inna Segal’s The Secret Language of Color Cards. These color cards come with a booklet that explains colors and their healing properties and include meditations to bring those energies into your life. My experiences with these meditations and observing what colors different people are drawn to has deepened my already deep belief and interest in colors. For example: I know people with breathing problems who use Peach intuitively, a color Inna says helps with breathing. Another instance: after I made a painting with peach as the main color and shared the image with a friend, she talked about how she was having a hard day, and seeing the painting gave her relief. She could feel herself “breathing slower and deeper.” That, I think, is the magic of colors. I think working with colors has also shown me that there is a deeper part of us that intuitively picks out what is right for us. This is important for us to remember as sensitive people, who might have gotten the message that our way of being is faulty. It’s important to realize that we don’t even have to buy a book or look at what an expert has to say (although that can be insightful). Something in us is already self nurturing, reaching out for the things it needs.
Self Nurturing Through Art
If you are an HSP like me, whose struggles with their sensitivity are often centered around the intensity of their feelings, you have probably thought: What do I do with these intense feelings? How do I become more “normal?” These questions might have come cracking at you time and again. As I think about these questions now, I am in my mid-30s. I have spent decades trying to slay the dragon of my feelings, wondering why I am so “intense.” It is only in the last few years, in sporadic, embryonic bursts, that I have started thinking, maybe, This is my normal. Without the way I respond to the world around me, I would be less than I am. Maybe, what these feelings need is a channel, so they flow through. They are almost like raw materials, to be painted, to be written about, to be shaped into characters, to be photographed in the shimmering shadows all around me. Maybe, what we need is not to contain feelings we don’t like (which is impossible) but to re-frame our intensity and see that we are also on the verge of drawing back the curtain on the beauty a little bit. Then, we can actively search for those beautiful, succulent moments that we feel as deeply as we feel all our hurts and pain.
Right now, as I write this, I am travelling. I am in Austin, Texas. Yesterday, I went to see a sight that this city is famous for. Up to 1.5 million bats live under a bridge in downtown Austin. Every summer night, hundreds of people wait for it to get dark to see North America’s largest urban bat colony emerge.
The show, as it was, went on for more than half an hour yesterday. After sunset, the bats came out. In the backdrop was a cityscape that felt like Gotham city. The bats flew over the flowing water below, searching for insects. There were boats on the water, one with a red light, pointed towards the bridge. Some people clapped. As it became dark, after some time, all you could see were quick flashes as the bats flew. There were some precious moments when I felt connected to the magic of this world. Something opened, and the world belonged to these bats that have become an emblem for Austin.
Once upon a time, the city did not want these bats. They thought they were a menace. It was only with time and the effort of conservationists that they realized how helpful the bats were in keeping even agricultural pests down. Now they are emblematic for a city that has this as its slogan – Keep Austin Weird.
Weird is enchanting. Weird is something not so commonly seen. Weird is something living out its own kooky life.
As people who sometimes feel on the margins, who sometimes fall down the crevices in an attempt to be “normal,” weird is that something which shows you the world in a way that others don’t view it, as yet. It connects you to the bigness of this world. It helps you take flight.
Whatever it is you feel, whether it is an interest that has no decided path, a nudging curiosity about something that only you seem interested in, that irrational something is probably the call of your own path. Why wouldn’t we, just like everything else that exists, not have it inside us to find our own direction or to rise on the currents around us? Why would we have to struggle so much to find our place in the order of things? Maybe, it’s because we have been taught to look outside at others for direction, and not at our own inner world, our own promptings that tell us to first turn this way, and then that.
If we could just listen to it, then we could take wing. Maybe, then, we could be part of the magic of this world.