“You are an old rose” – The label could feel like a relief or a hindrance.
When I wrote last week about the idea of The Highly Sensitive Person, it felt like a relief to me. I mentioned that it felt like a turnaround—a new kind of self-acceptance that comes from finding an unexpected opposite.
And I heard from others who echoed this feeling of relief at better understanding themselves. But I also heard from people who had identified themselves as highly sensitive people years ago and felt that it was a label that was more limiting than freeing.
Let’s look at labels a little more closely using this example.
A description is simply an observation. When studies were done, 20% of the population exhibited this trait called “highly sensitive” as defined by the researchers. It’s like observing someone and saying that some people have black hair and others have blonde hair. There is no label in the description itself, just information.
A label on the other hand is the identification with a description. You ARE a highly sensitive person. That defines you. There’s no getting around it. It’s your new identity. Or likewise, you ARE a blonde. The label takes on a life of its own. The person becomes secondary and the trait becomes primary. And one feels confined by the narrow definition.
The value of distinctions of any kind is to gain understanding. With understanding, we find compassion for ourselves and others and we learn how to take care of ourselves better. For example, when I came to understand that I am a highly sensitive person, I felt a kind of permission of sorts to be myself even if my ways are different than others. And I gained a greater appreciation for my need for rest.
But if I start to define myself as a highly sensitive person, I can also become limited by the concept. I might start protecting myself too much. I might start withdrawing from others too much. I might even use it as an excuse not to do things that I want to do. I’ve let the label become who I am, instead of letting who I am be described in part by the idea.
Often, I’m so happy to be free of the old stressful story of myself that I inadvertently build a new story on the opposite side. This too is not who I am. The reality includes a bit of both sides: I am sensitive but I am also not that sensitive.
Turnarounds are there for one purpose: to bring in balance. If you have a story that you are one type of person and you question your label and find that you are another kind of person, don’t make that your new label. Just let the two labels balance each other out. Then you can be free. Then, you are not defined by anything, even though you are. 🙂 Yes, it’s a paradox.
This is what The Work of Byron Katie offers: a balance. I am sensitive but I’m also not sensitive. I am a man but I’m also not a man. I am intelligent but I am also stupid. I am a good pickleball player but I am also not a good pickleball player. Each concept balances with its opposite leaving the real me free to play in any direction it wants.
The danger of any understanding is that it can become a substitute for direct experience. If I take the turnaround to heart, I have a new perspective: being sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m neurotic. That can be a relief, but it can also become a place to hide.
What is helpful about the turnaround is that sensitivity and neurosis are no longer seen to be the same thing. What is not helpful is thinking that because I’m sensitive, I’m not neurotic. This swings too far away from experience again. What is more helpful is to find understanding for my sensitivity while at the same time keeping a lookout for neurosis (the result of believing stressful thoughts).
I see that some things that appear to be neurotic are not actually neurotic for highly sensitive people. They only look neurotic from the outside. But at the same time, I remain open to seeing any real neuroses when they do show up. After all, sensitive people can get deranged more easily than most. Only I can tell the difference from inside—if it’s stressful, it is not who I really am, but rather an imbalance.
That’s why I love The Work. Without having to understand much, I can trust that my stress will tell me what to question. It will inevitably lead me to question my neurotic thoughts, not usually my sane ones.
If you feel trapped by any label, consider that a label is also just a concept. Who would you be if you didn’t see a particular trait that way, as a label? Can you just let the trait be a part of who you are without it defining who you are?
If so, you can walk around with lots of labels sticking to you and they won’t affect you. You can own the truth in them without letting them define you. That is freedom, a kind of freedom within boundaries.
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Have a great week,
“As you lose the filter that I call a story, you begin to see reality as it is: simple, brilliant, and kinder than you could have imagined.” Byron Katie, A Thousand Names for Joy
Further reading: How The Work Works (With Destructive Interference Of Waves)