This is an initial introductory article to start to explain how these traits and experiences can overlap and cause us great confusion and struggles. I am also primarily talking about my own personal experiences and process of working through this detangling process in this initial article
Key takaway: All of these things can leave us thinking and believing that we are fundamentally flawed; which we are not. We DO have challenging traits and we may also have had a very challenging childhood, none of which result in us actually being a flawed person. This is vital to understand and take as a starting point. This in itself brings huge relief and considerable healing.
The many overlaps between these traits and experiences can be very confusing to live with and start to untangle. Yet, it is crucial work to undertake as some of these are indeed innate traits which, when understood and worked with, can be highly advantageous to us including in our choice of career. Equally, our early childhood and relational experiences, whether they were traumatic or not, can leave long lasting and very damaging effects on our quality of life and in particular, our quality and quantity of relationships, particularly intimate relationships.
It is not uncommon that those of us who have the trait of Highly Sensitivity, as identified by Dr Elaine Aron, are also likely to be introverts, and possibly also intuitive types in terms of our typology. This is a triple whammy of specific innate traits that can make living in our busy, noisy, flashy modern world, where the majority are extroverts and thinking types, very challenging indeed. It can leave us feeling very misunderstood, overwhelmed, struggling to cope and fit in anywhere and ultimately, very isolated and alone.
Therefore, identifying which are our innate traits that we were born with and are a fundamental part of our make-up both psychologically and biologically is vital. As is discovering what the impacts were of our early childhood experiences with our parents, siblings and the environment and culture we were born into. [NB: Our INNATE traits can be highly obscured by our upbringing, we can even entirely switch to behaving in an opposite manner if we have to REALLY shift out of who we naturally are in order to stay safe and fit into our immediate family of origin and community. E.G: An extroverted type might become an introvert in order to surive long-term hostility and/or neglect, they might retreat entirely to stay safe, thus burying their natural extroverted capacities. Our longings and dreams will eventually highlight this discordance and enable us to gradually re-shift back into our natural selves.]
This process of disentanglement, learning and healing takes places in stages in my experience, and most definitely not all at once. But rather, gradually over years we learn which parts of us are innate and which parts have developed as a result of our early childhood experiences, and are therefore were once essential, protective defences that now need to be gradually released in order to free us to live in alignment with our true self, AND then to make best use of our innate traits and qualities.
This is probably a journey of a lifetime from the point at which we discover who we really are versus who we’ve come to believe we are as a result of our earliest experiences with others and the world.
We can live well into mid or even late adulthood enmeshed in all of these things, confused and feeling adrift at sea; often trying different types of jobs and places to live, and often also resulting in breakdowns or ill health due to the toll of living out of synch with who we are actually are.
I am speaking from personal experience. Up until the age of 33 I had no idea I was Highly Sensitive, empathic, intuitive or an introvert. I had no idea what boundaries were, or how emotionally and energetically we are effected by those around us and even places. And, I was working in highly stressful, inner-city jobs with marginalized and traumatized people. Eventually, my body and my mind made me stop. Out of sheer exhaustion and desperation I went on long-term sick leave from a job. And that was when I finally took the time to learn who I really was and what I needed to function well, and crucially, how these innate traits were in fact, the foundational tools which enable me to start living my true soul purpose in this lifetime.
Fortuitously, this journey back to my true self all began one day when I was reading a self-help magazine. As I flipped it over at the end I found that the back cover was an entire piece on the trait of high sensitivity. Astonished, I started reading and couldn’t stop. Every word was resonating deeply in me. I then began ticking next to the checklist to assess if I might be an HSP and I ticked every single one. I was floored. Yet, at the same time an immense sense of relief washed over me, as if an enormous burden and state of lifelong confusion was literally lifted off me in that moment.
For the first time in my life I felt understood, recognized and validated by a complete stranger who had written this article. This point is crucial, because part of my profound wounding was that I had always felt so deeply misunderstood by my own family, and so out-of-step with all of them. I had always struggled and felt alone. So to read another person's take on who I might actually be and to receive some understanding and affirmation in this way was huge.
Here it was in black and white: I was NOT fundamentally flawed; there was NOTHING seriously wrong with me and my whole life struggle up this point began to make sense. The sense of relief is hard to convey, it was simply immense. After growing up in a highly insensitive household with a majority of extroverts where I had always felt so utterly of out place, the sense of recognizing myself and of potentially finding my place in the world at long last was incredible.
That was the starting point. I went online and began researching the trait of High Sensitivity. At that time back in 2004/5 most information and people working with Highly Sensitive People were only to be found in America. I found a Life Coach for Highly Sensitive People in California and we began working together on the telephone each week. My work with her was again utterly illuminating and ultimately, life-changing. She helped me learn about self-care, again nothing I had ever known about or experienced. She helped me learn about energy, boundaries, energetic protections, how HSPs get overwhelmed and flooded, how to get grounded, again not something I had EVER felt, and about how this trait of high sensitivity was actually one of my greatest gifts.
Part of our work together also involved very positive exercises to help me uncover my core traits, qualities and gifts, to discern what I truly loved the most and then to start to bring these all together to help me work out how to go forwards in terms of work, as I knew I could not go back to the kinds of jobs I had done previously. Astonishingly, as if all that wasn’t enough, in our very first session she asked me what I loved the most. My instant reply was simple: Horses. She then told that she'd heard about a woman in Arizona doing some really cool work with horses and people and recommended I look her up and find her book. That was it. I had found my professional calling in our first session together and I haven’t looked back. We also incidentally, identified that I am a natural writer, and a long-buried love and talent for writing began to stir within me. (I did indeed publish my first book a few years ago connected to my work with horses and people).
After that experience I also read all of Elaine Aron’s books and articles and co-hosted the first European/UK Gathering for HSPs here in the UK in 2006, all of which helped me consolidate my understanding of the trait and helped me learn how to turn the challenges of being highly sensitive into gifts that help me live a more fulfilling life than I had to that point. As well as finding a community other other sensitive, kind souls at long last.
One things I should add is that during my twenties and up until this point that I refer to as my first mid-life/spiritual crisis, I had not been around horses. Having spent all of my adolescence with them including as my first area of employment, I had put them aside to study and work in other fields. What I hadn’t reckoned was that in so doing I had removed a vital source of nourishment, joy and necessity from my life. For me, not being around horses leaves me feeling stale, uninspired and ungrounded; utterly lifeless in fact. Not only do horses help me stay physically and mentally present and in my body, but they also impact me on a spiritual level. But most of all, they are the air that I breath. I was born with a deep love and resonance with these beautiful animals, so to deprive myself of their company is soul-destroying and has adverse effects on my mind, body and soul.
So, that was the beginning of my journey into self-discovery, which I am still very much on, as well as the beginning of embarking on an entirely new career as I indeed went to Arizona and trained with the woman my coach mentioned and I am still involved in this work 17 years later. What I discovered on my training was how to integrate my innate traits with working with horses and people and it was nothing less than a perfect fit me for me. Horses are naturally very sensitive mammals, even after hundreds of years of domestication, and so I understood them and could work sensitively with them, bringing out the best in both of us in our work to help people grow, learn and heal themselves. Horses are also master teachers around energy, boundaries, empathy, being true to yourself and listening to your gut instinct; your intuition. So again, they are the perfect fit for supporting Highly Sensitive people. In the past I ran a unique workshop for Highly Sensitive People with horses and many of my 1-1 clients are themselves HSPs.
The next stage for me and which I am still in, was learning about the impact of my early childhood, my family environment and in particular that of my parents and siblings. This is where through in-depth psychotherapy I discovered my core and very deep wounds, particularly in relationships, but also to my core sense of self and worth. It was only in the past twelve months that I went even deeper into these explorations and discovered that I have developed Complex PTSD as a result of my childhood, that it was indeed highly traumatic and is still having deep painful repercussions on my life. I’m often alone and I’m often lacking confidence despite all my accomplishments to-date. I am yet again in therapy and I am still trying to make a viable business practice out of my life’s passion and work after going through many painful losses, re-sets and regressions due to my deep core wounds to my self-esteem and confidence.
And this is where it gets really tricky. I am definitely an Introverted Intuitive type, and so learning about my typology through reading Jung and other Jungians has also been crucial and very helpful. I am clearly as well a Highly Sensitive Person and I’m deeply empathic. Yet, I also have a lively extroverted part of my personality which is the opposite and very sociable and confident. But, because of my early experiences and the results of the complex trauma I have a tendency to isolate myself from others. And, equally as painfully, I hugely doubt myself in terms of my worth and my capacities to work. I struggle to hold my own against peers and I really struggle to speak out, so giving talks and being in large groups of my peers is still excruciating for me.
In addition, last year I discovered that I definitely suffer greatly from a highly inner-persecutory figure. This is much more severe that the inner-critic that everyone has. It is the part of the self that develops very early-on to protect our vulnerable inner-core from the environment we’re born into [profound emotional neglect in my case]. But left undeveloped, it takes on a life of its own and eventually becomes independent of our conscious sense of self and our ego and it can turn very, very nasty, aiming its distorted attempts at still protecting us long after the real danger has passed, onto ourselves and those in our lives. Jungian analyst and author Donald Kalsched calls this the "Protector-Persecutor" which forms as part of an essential inner Self-Care system to protect us from repeated neglect or abuse when we are so tiny and defenceless. If you have an incessant inner-critic, lack self-confidence and struggle in your relationships and your profession then I highly recommend that you read his two books, information on these is included below. They have been revolutionary for me and another starting point at a much deeper level to get to grip with how this inner persecutor works to prevent me from engaging with life in so many ways. I must add, that this type of deep work must be done with a good trauma-aware therapist, it can’t be done alone and is probably dangerous to try to do so. For me, most of my clues to this horrific autonomous part within me came from very disturbing dreams, so working with a depth psychologist and particularly a Jungian was crucial for me. As well as doing my own reading on the topic.
There is much, much more I could say on all of the above, including how trauma impacts us on the interface of mind and body particularly when we are also innately highly sensitive and empathic. But that’s more than enough for now as a starting point to help people try to see how all of these traits and experiences become entangled and how we can mistakenly believe we are something that we are not, and vice versa. I will probably write more on each aspect so watch out for further articles.
The best way to follow me is on Facebook or LinkedIn where I always publish new articles and blog posts. And I’ve given some essential references below for further reading and there is also a recommended reading list on my website under “Free Resources”. If you would like to work with me in a coaching or professional mentoring capacity we can do so online, so location is no barrier. And if you are in the UK or Europe there is the possibility of working together with horses, so please get in touch via my website if you feel called to do so.
©Angela Dunning, 5th January 2022, The Horse’s Truth, www.thehorsestruth.co.uk
Books referenced in the article and other recommendations: