The Highly Sensitive Poet

Here we post conversations between Understory members. This time, poet and prose writer Lorna Dowell talks to Charlotte about one particular book that had a lasting impact on her, and why she believes The Understory Conversation will appeal to other highly sensitive creatives.

Lorna Dowell: When I arrived on your website, your Other Resources page gave me many ‘Aha’ moments – I think it perfectly illustrates the difference between The Understory Conversation (UsC) and many literary, writers’ or creatives’ websites. There are so many speakers and authors I recognise on your page, but not as the ones on my literary reading list: these are on my complementary reading/listening list; the ones which I guess you might file under Personal Development/Psychology – the work of Brené Brown, Rick Hanson, Bessel Van der Kolk, to name but a few.

It came as no surprise, then, to discover The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron, there. This is a book I first came across about fifteen years ago, when I was facilitating cross-art workshops for children. I was lucky enough to work with a lovely artist called Sonia with whom I soon became friends. Sonia was the first creative I’d met who talked openly about being ‘highly sensitive’. She spoke of it as if it naturally came with being creative and was an asset, and she also shared with me her feelings about some of the drawbacks. I was intrigued.

Charlotte Gann: She sounds great, as does your connection / encounter, and mutual recognition. I love it when I meet someone and we click like this, often unexpectedly…

I also really valued The Highly Sensitive Person when I read it – I think it’s a brilliant book, a massive eye-opener for so many of us.

LD: Reading it was a revelation for me – as I know it has been for friends to whom I’ve recommended it since. I instantly recognised myself (I don’t like labels, but Elaine Aron is very good at recognising both their usefulness and their drawbacks in her introduction, so for the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to use the term ‘HSP’). Realising that what I ‘had’ was not abnormal or a sign of madness or insufficiency was the first relief. The second was discovering that there were others like me. As if that weren’t enough, I was then being told that being this way was a gift and of value to friends, family and society in general!

CG: Ha. You sound as if that came as a surprise? I really can relate. I know when I was a child I often felt odd: over sensitive, over emotional, over involved (with that judgement in there). I know that I felt ‘different’.

LD: Yes, I grew up in an environment in which I had been led to believe that my sensitivity was a negative – to have this upturned was the biggest revelation of all. Of course, I knew rationally that it was good to be sensitive, if that meant being kind, thoughtful, etc. But I had not been labelled as ‘highly’ but as ‘hyper’ sensitive – in a pejorative sense. It’s an interesting distinction, I think: being highly sensitive might, like other things, be highly prized, but to be hyper anything has all kinds of negative connotations. And that’s how I’d come to see my sensitivity – as an abnormality, a fault I should work to eliminate, or modify. Of course, with that came shame. So I did what I now know a lot of HSPs do: I tried to hide who I was.

CG: It’s strange, isn’t it, the lengths we find ourselves going to to ‘hide’ when wrapped in shame? I first read The Highly Sensitive Person not long ago, actually – a year? At most, two. A poet friend put me on to it, after we’d shared quite a bit of our own respective Understories, and responses to them. He said he’d read it a long time ago, and had instantly, as you describe, seen himself. I did too.

And I really like how Elaine Aron stresses that it’s not that she’s saying HSPs – which I think she suggests account for fifteen to twenty per cent of us – are better than non-HSPs; simply that we aren’t worse – though we live in a culture that rewards and celebrates and upholds the majority (non-HSP) way of being. ‘Think about the impact on you of not being the ideal for your culture. It has to affect you – not only how others have treated you but how you have come to treat yourself.’ (p.15)

LD: Yes. Absolutely.

CG: It takes a while for the full ramifications to sink in. No more hiding!

I utterly recommend The Highly Sensitive Person: it’s clearly a potentially life-changing read. And isn’t it anyway wonderful when we stumble on the right book at the right moment for us? Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés was one for me, when I was about thirty: every page full of treasure.

Or when I was a child. Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Williams was perhaps my favourite – a book that made my heart ache with longing for belonging!

There’s quite a lot of ‘hiding’ I explore – or own up to – in The Girl Who Cried. I was so glad to receive your email about this collection. This, of course, is how we first directly connected – although I know your pamphlet, Crossing the Ellipsis, with its vignettes of domestic claustrophobia, was also published by HappenStance.

This is another whole way of connecting too: through our work? Sometimes I think writing poetry is like burying a secret in the sand. It’s so brilliant when a like-minded other arrives and says they dug it up.

LD: What a wonderful analogy! Yes, I was very much reminded of The Highly Sensitive Person after I read The Girl Who Cried: few poetry collections have moved me in such a comprehensive way. I was immediately struck by the multi-layered way in which you explore feelings of isolation and, in particular, how we live with the consequences of early experience.

And reading it led me to look you up, and find The Understory Conversation. I felt the same sense of awakening.

Looking at it now, I would say that this is because HSPs are often in touch with the idea of the Understory. We can’t help seeing and responding to things that many others don’t even notice. I know there’s a downside to this, but at the same time there are many pluses. I often sense when I’m engaging with another HSP – I recognise traits, often despite or even because of the attempt to conceal them.

In both your collection and this enterprise you seem to be defying the convention that says we mustn’t speak about these things, we must fit in, put on a front (what I call going undercover). But what you’re doing is ‘coming out’, normalising it and, in so doing, making a space which allows the rest of us to do the same.

This is generous. It’s always been thanks to others who have taken that step, who – like Sonia, like you – have the courage to be open and honest about themselves, that I have been able to confront and accept things in myself with more understanding. It makes me feel ‘normal’ and gives me that nurturing sense of connection with others too.

CG: Ah, thank you, Lorna. And it absolutely works both ways: your mirroring back to me makes me feel hugely less alone, in turn. (I love your idea of hiding as going ‘undercover’.)

We build courage over time, I’m finding? Take one step, then another. Put out a poem. Write a post. Take a risk. Tell the truth. And the Conversation builds and grows.

LD: Yes, and books and research are great for identifying and validating who we are as people and for helping us navigate ways of dealing with a world that doesn’t always understand, empathise with or appreciate us. But The UsC is providing that all important further thing – I think what you’re doing by opening up the conversation and actively seeking to bring together a community of like-minded/hearted people is exactly what’s needed – a movement of sorts.

It’s one thing to be told there are others out there, but quite another to connect and feel you belong. This is different from being with others who accept, appreciate and understand how we are (wonderful as this is), but don’t share our way of experiencing life.

It’s about connecting with people who know and understand from the inside. And gaining that sense of belonging in a wider community. I think we’re not only healthier in mind and body for this, but feeling connected and understood can strengthen us to stand alone and stand up for our work – for who we are.

Ultimately, surely, both we and the work can only benefit?

CG: Oh, I do hope so. And, of course, I’m finding the same thing: feeling less (and less!) alone the more people connect around this. Suddenly, I feel surrounded by rich connection. It really is fortifying.

And we’re just at the beginning of this Conversation…