I recently picked up a book in an attempt to understand one of my children better so I can parent better. It is a book on the concept of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I heard about the book from a congregant who thought I was a HSP. As I read some of the book this morning, thinking both of my child and my self, I found both confusion and clarity.
My Presuppositions: We are all broken, though in different places and to different degrees. As a result of Adam’s sin, we are not only sinners but we are also affected physically and emotionally. We are a mess, and while Jesus doesn’t keep us as messy we don’t always understand the mess. Is that messy? Some aspects of our brokenness are there from the beginning of our lives. They are genetic. The author mentions this with regard to HSPs. She sees them as “naturally occurring” on the spectrum of sensitivity. There are some, I gather she’d say, who look like HSPs but aren’t: they’ve been traumatized by something. Their increased sensitivity would not be innate, but picked up from their environment or circumstances. Some of our brokenness comes at the hands of others after birth: parents, friends, strangers. It is hard for us, much of the time, to tell which it is.
The Problem of Pop Psychology: Often times symptoms overlap. A condition is describe in such terms that too many people see themselves there. If you read too many books, you can think you’ve got everything. Or just the wrong thing.
Years ago I read Driven to Distraction on the recommendation of a friend who struggled with ADD and saw a similar struggle in me. Don’t confuse ADD with ADHD. I never saw myself as hyperactive, but I struggle to remain focused. I am easily distracted and have a hard time in environments like airplanes for anything much longer than an hour. I get restless leg syndrome, I can’t read anything more engaging than a novel and end up fairly miserable.
But do I have ADD? I can check enough boxes in the self-test to say ‘yes.’ But not only are we a mess, but a mysterious mess. Our symptoms could be explained by other things. For instance, the author of the book on HSPs distinguishes it from ADD (this was helpful!). They differ, apparently on where the blood flows more in their brains.
“Children with ADD probably have very active go-for-it systems and relatively inactive pause-to-check systems. … But ADD is a disorder because it indicates a general lack of adequate ‘executive functions,’ such as decision making, focusing, and reflecting on outcomes. HSCs are usually good at all of this, at least when they are in a calm, familiar environment. For whatever reason (the cause is not known), children with ADD find it difficult to learn to prioritize, to return their attention to what they are doing once they have glanced outside or know the teacher is not talking to them personally. … another reason HSCs can be misdiagnosed as having ADD is because, if the distractions are numerous or prolonged, or they are emotionally upset and thus overstimulated already from within, they may very well become overwhelmed by outer distractions and behave as if agitated or ‘spacey.'” Elaine Aron (The Highly Sensitive Child)
I can prioritize, reflect on outcomes and have a pause-to-check system. I am not a big risk taker. I am thoughtful. But I may be easily overwhelmed by data or sensory input. I can study to music and TV, but not to talking. Or apparently with an internet connection at hand. I may be distracted, but for different reasons.
So, I pondered my many and various problems. I used to cry quite a bit as a child. I’ve learned to not cry (often) even at times I should cry. My family struggles with tears, with sadness. When my maternal grandmother passed away, I was told to stay at college (only about 40 minutes away from where she lived). I didn’t get to grieve. When my paternal grandmother died a few years ago there was no funeral so “we could remember her as she used to be” before she shrunk, gained weight, lost hair and forgot who we were. No ritual of grieving.
Being a pastor doesn’t help. At times we have to turn off our own grief so others can grieve. I remember and elder’s memorial service. He was on the search committee that called me to that church. I had a great deal of respect for him and his wife. I wanted to cry but you can’t weep your way through a liturgy and homily. In a sense I’ve been trained to stuff my sadness.
But there is so much more where you aren’t sure why you are the way you are. Is my hyper-vigilance connected to HSP or sexual abuse or both? This is when it is like an onion. In a sense all I can do is cry out to God because I seemingly notice everything I shouldn’t (and tune out things I should like my wife’s requests).
Am I uncomfortable (noticeably so) in new places because I’m an introvert or is it really just a HSP thing? The same thing for my tendency to have only 2-3 really good friends (which the increased mobility of our culture wrecks havoc upon). I could go on but you don’t want to know all my issues and problems.
We aren’t necessarily the best judges of why we are the way we are, why we are the mess we are. Reading a series of books from the self-help section isn’t very helpful since symptoms overlap. (I read them more out of work research than a neurotic desire to fix or understand myself.) We are all a mixed up goo of innate and environmental/circumstantial problems thanks to Adam’s sin and the sins of others (including ourselves).
This doesn’t mean we get reductionistic and call everything we don’t like about ourselves on sin.
First, where have you always struggled? Those are most likely innate issues. If you have your first clinical depression when you get divorced it seems more circumstantial than an innate weakness. If you struggle with depression periodically you probably have a genetic predisposition toward depression.
Second, what traumas have you experienced? If you’ve been sexually abused you may want to investigate the ways it can affect a person to see how it has affected you or amplified any innate predispositions (all people sin sexually, abuse often amplifies it). If you have been in an accident, irrational fears may emerge. Post-traumatic stress is a real thing to take into consideration.
Third, how have you sinned profoundly? There can be serious repercussions to some sins. If we break barriers, we struggle to maintain those in the future. This is why all addictions are so difficult, there are broken barriers as well as idolatry and brain chemistry to combat. We can also begin to sear our conscience if we commit a sin frequently. It becomes harder to realize we’ve even done it.
As you understand something about the mess you are, as you understand your broken places, you can begin to bring them to Jesus, the Great Physician. He can work in all of those places. We should avoid the extremes of triumphalism and defeatism. Boast in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12) but don’t underestimate the power of the Spirit to get you unstuck. Don’t get discouraged when you don’t see immediate change, or what seems like paltry incremental change. The truth is somewhere in the middle: you will always need Jesus, you will always be more sinful than you want to be, but there will be progress as Jesus applies the gospel to our sin AND the wounds of our heart, setting the bones that have been broken. You may walk with a limp, but you will walk.