Then, the thought: ‘we are just too different!’ arises in them and the accompanying feelings get really distressing. The crushing hope, the hurt of trying and failing, the confusion and loneliness.
Yet, in their loneliness they are not alone.
Many sensitive people experience the spiral of overwhelm so acutely that they conclude incompatibility just to get a break from unbearable stimulation.
This article will not advise on the “should I stay or should I go?” dilemma. Rather, it’ll show why that question is best asked last, not first and how to look after yourself so you don’t need to ask it often.
Question: Who’s rocking the boat?
It’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to be – emotionally speaking – in the same boat with someone else. It makes you affected by and affecting another person’s wellbeing.
How scary THAT is when the boat is beginning to rock violently from uncontained, anxious movements.
Your self-preservation and culturation combined call for the rescue strategy: identify and remove the rocker!
But who, or what is rocking the boat?
Anyone who’s ever done any family healing knows that words or behaviours that cause arguments are only the
tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to tell where ‘waves’ really start. Is it the person’s mood that day or how their parents acted in a similar set up? Is it the unkind words or the pain underneath them?
Who is to tell? And if you knew, the answer is still TBU: True But Useless. Because your biggest hope is not knowing ‘what happened’. It’s in your ability to respond calmly in the boat NOW.
Paradox: Why, to steady the boat, you first need to steady yourself
Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book ‘Being Peace’ speaks of the Vietnamese people in the Gulf of Siam. The so-called boat people attempted to leave the country in small boats during the war. Many died in the commotion.
What happens if, They asked, if caught in the rough sea, all of the distressed people in the boat panic? They inadvertently scare one another and the boat is then very likely to capsize. A tragic yet not inevitable outcome.
What if even one person remains calm, lucid and therefore able to know what’s helpful to do and not to do? That person’s expression – their face and voice – communicates much needed clarity and calmness. It draws in previously non-existent co-operation because people respond not to what’s said but to HOW it is offered across.
The same goes for the boat of relationship. You can’t sail it well by demanding that the boat or the other improve.
You influence it by managing your own anxiety.
Exploration: Where do you fish for emotional safety?
I believe the culture at large has safety and wellbeing backwards. Would you really feel happy enough if your relationship ticked all the boxes there are or would you then have a new worry: about when those things might go away? No, I don’t think there is a ‘happy ever after’ that way.
Safety is not at its core about the external set up. You can be scared in company on a glorious day and radiant alone when it’s raining. Yet, you always, always, always have the freedom (and your innate intelligence) to explore and create better alternatives. That is if you’re not too anxious to remember that.
Vulnerability is pretty much guaranteed as part of human experience but you get to decide how you relate to it. You can dread it and try to avoid it or you can choose to engage with it and let it teach you how to respond. For safety is all about wise response and owned vulnerability is the best guide you can have for that.
Practicals: How do you learn to keep calm in your type of storms?
When you look at the type of storms you tend to experience within your relationship, what do you notice happens again and again that you can’t cope with? That’s where you’ll want to find an alternative: a scenario that works.
If you know what sets you or your partner off, you can devise an alternative way of handling those moments that will be kinder and more satisfying to both of you. You start with noticing and being on alert for signs of distress and then make a study of both of your tendencies and needs so that the alternative way is successful.
Accessing alternatives happens on two levels: long term preparation and practice and the resulting personalised map that provides a pathway of helpful choices to hold you and lead you home in tricky times.
It works because the main reason relationships get in trouble is not the differences. What trips you up is not knowing how to remain safe in the face of not-yet-understood expression: your partner’s words or actions that you find distressing.
Self-reflection: Where do you go from here?
As a sensitive person you can suffer a lot because you are extra susceptible to overstimulation. And both differences and tense feelings in the absence of compassionate understanding add to stimulation big time.
When you consider that the world, as people have arranged it, tends to be generally overstimulating for sensitive souls, you can appreciate that anything extra can rock the boat beyond bearing and do it quite easily.
The effective response to this situation is not protection against stimulation. You’ll do better investing in the regular
wellbeing of your state (nurturing) and having a tried and tested plan for navigating tougher places.
To that end, take a moment to consider your existing choices:
1. What already doable things help you most to access the state of calm and wellbeing?
What makes you well and at peace inside and is accessible without depending on something else to happen first? Name 3 things.
2. Given the insights above, are you exposing yourself to that nurturing enough to be able to meet the reality of your relationship without distress?
If not, are you willing to balance the energy input/output?
3. Who can help you figure out the particular pattern of your overstimulation: what sets it off, what aggravates it and what soothes it?
Can you sketch an alternative scenario, a mini-plan to help steady yourself in the boat when needed?
Here’s to successful navigation! You won’t avoid fog or storms but you’ll do better with sincerity and a map to hand.