A strange calm has come over neurotic me and I don’t trust it.
In a few days I turn 40. I expected crises of self, of life choices, of personal demons.
But they’re not here yet, and I don’t think they’re coming.
Almost all of the past year has been clouded by selfhood panic. (Lest that seem dramatic, one month of every quarter of every year of my life has been in that same category. So while it was a marathon session of exploration, longing, and frustration, a year of existential melancholy was still within the realm of my normal.) I spent the year mourning decisions long since irrevocable. Convinced of terminal failures of self and of dreams. Planning the next month, year, and decade. Revisiting the knowledge that there are no right answers and beaten down by the perception that mine are all wrong answers.
I’ve been poring over psychology books to try to tame perfectionism, gain perspective about parenthood, manage expectations, soothe wanderlust, and jump start solutions. I have notebooks full of exercises to reveal my true passions, potential paths toward happiness, and actualizing mantras.
It’s like binging on every Oprah magazine ever published.
This process of self discovery has been going on, in stops and starts, for sixteen years. I remember the first book I bought, too, when a series of massive roadblocks thrown up in my path made me crumple, defeated for the first time in my general pattern of goal-oriented, driven pattern of achievement. The death of, “I know what I want so I will charge toward it full force; I’m choosing to change direction and will charge toward the next thing full force…” rocked me to the core. And I’ve been foundering for most of my adult life.
So a milestone birthday should really freak me out.Why isn’t it?
Because the notebook is working. The “find the person I’m meant to be” stuff is netting out results I’ve always known, and that is more reassuring than I thought it would be. And maybe feeling less lost because I’ve been found all along is part of my existential calm.
Perhaps it’s watching how normal my crises of selfhood are just makes me feel comfortable to freak out amongst friends.
But over the past few years, two realities came to me thanks to personality assessments. One was borne of end-point confusion over how to handle my son. The other lucky is happenstance thanks to a book I flipped through at someone’s house.
What I found actually shocked me. It shouldn’t have. I know I’m an extroverted INTJ. I know I’m a red yellow. I know both my son and I are highly spirited. Name the assessment and I can tell you my score.
But perhaps I’ve missed the forest for the trees. I thought everyone abandoned their shopping cart and ran out of stores when the overhead pages to the deli got to be too much. I thought all humans absolutely lost their ability to think straight when three children are laughing and jumping joyously and safely nearby. I believed everyone could taste the hint of mold in that batch of soda. I thought that when trying to cook with two small children clamoring to watch all moms flipped from Hercules to Medusa if an additional person then quietly asked where the car keys are.
I hit sensory overload with too many stimuli, and I thought that was normal.
It is, of course. But my Too Much, as with about twenty percent of sentient creatures, hits way earlier than for others. Sensory input (sights, smells, temperature, sounds, complex combinations) often feels a lot like constant panic to me. What some people find fun I find physically stressful.
And I didn’t really notice until I became a mom, in part because I could follow my own needs before I was a mom.
I’ve written about how I used to retreat to the corporate bathroom when work got too stressful. And how I need days to calm down after a party. Not because I don’t like work or parties. Because it takes all of my energy to function in intense situations and it takes a lot of solitude to get that energy back.
Turns out that highly sensitive people feel that way, too.
[Note: I refuse to use the acronym HSP or the phrasing that makes being sensitive to stimuli seem like a diagnosis. Hating loud sounds and bright colors and intense smells, and feeling that daily life is unbearably chaotic does not make me a clinical type. It’s who I am. Finding out it’s a category of personality helps me frame my reality differently. But I refuse to label it. Labels simultaneously feel like condescension and crutch.]
The remedies for those who process sensory information differently make sense, but are laughable to a full-time parent.
Take frequent breaks in a quiet, calm environment.
Take time off at least every three months.
Keep healthy calorie intake steady through the day.
Keep lights and sounds low.
Get lots of sleep.
Wear noise-reducing headphones or earplugs.
Have a space in your house to which you can retreat when overwhelmed.
Bahahahaha ha ha ha ha! Let me go propose that list to my children so we can all laugh together.
As reassuring as it is to find that my reactions to stimuli are actually different from others’ and that there is a simple and normal reason I process input the way I do, this information initially felt as though I’m destined to be a bad mother. I don’t want to play for long periods of time. I don’t want to scream and sing and jump and run wild. At times I want it quiet, and I get overwhelmed in a lot of very typical situations. I Capital-N need to be alone.
Sorry, but none of that fits with what I think a successful mom is.
The intense, complicated, chaotic, or new situations that make me feel overstimulated are pretty much the default of parenthood.
So I’m naturally built to be overwhelmed by and upset by parenting?
That’s a problem, yo. Because I chose to stay home to raise amazing human beings. I chose to redirect my creative and intellectual energies into enjoying, teaching, and modeling behavior for my kids. So I need to not be daunted by the hourly realities.
Since I stumbled upon this information I’m much more gentle with myself. I choose to lock myself in the bathroom during tantrums where I’m being physically assaulted. I choose to gently tell the boys that I love them and support their feelings but need a time out when their screaming and crying overwhelm me. I choose to take a break from their really raucous play to get
caramel a glass of water, which reminds me to take a deep breath and functions as my moment of restorative calm.
And now building and accessing those small escape valves doesn’t feel like wanting to escape my kids. It feels like giving myself what I need to stay engaged with them.
If you frequently feel overwhelmed in your day, check out this site by a researcher who studies sensory-processing sensitivity. There’s a quiz for adults and for kids to assess highly sensitive processors. There’s information including books.
Information abounds online, including a discussion at mothering.com of moms who are dealing with the love of children and the tendency to be rocked by the noise and sounds and colors and smells of semi-public life. That’s what a family is, right? Living with people eliminates privacy. Living with small children makes restoring a sense of intact and independent self almost impossible. That feels really good when the family rings with love and joy and laughter. And yet it’s a challenge for highly sensitive parents even if blissful all the time. (Shocking revelation to the childfree: it’s absolutely never blissful all the time.)
I’m guessing if you’re easily overwhelmed, you already know it. And perhaps I am the last mom on the planet to realize why I’m so rocked by the rather simple realities of parenting. Or to acknowledge that the too much of our family life is actually just too much as defined by my brain. And that I can find positive ways to handle it.
I’m awfully relieved to find out that I don’t hate parenting. Can you imagine the burden of investing your entire life in your children for seven years and thinking that you secretly hate parenting? It weighed pretty heavily on my self-esteem.
I already knew that I can’t calmly, patiently, and lovingly handle fourteen hours of my children without breaks. Now I have permission, it seems, to acknowledge that I actually can’t handle an hour without a small break.
That knowledge feels like power.
That power feels like permission to breathe.
And my, a long deep breath and a glass of water feels really good.
There is much too much for me to say in response to this for a blog comment. Thank you, Nap. I needed to read this – and in all honestly, I had to read it in bits because I can’t even READ online without taking breaks. It’s like the words on the screen are making NOISE.
Also, it’s been much too long since I’ve been here. See above. Reading online is tough for me, yo.
Of all people to understand, Sarah, you found the right place. I welcome you whenever you can get here.
I’ve been grappling with selfhood panic for years. I can’t say I’ve figured anything out. My trees must need pruning so I can better see the forest, or something like that. My lack of success feels like terminal failure. I would like to think it’s just a misguided conclusion.
I too get overwhelmed. By everything. I’m going to visit the websites you referred to.
Great post-I’m sure there are many more of us that can relate!
I wish you luck. I’ve had that lack of success that feels like terminal failure for, as I mentioned, nigh on 20 years.
And I’m not sure it’s disappeared. But it feels good to understand something finally.
I’m glad you’re feeling that permission to breathe. It isn’t always there when we most need it.
As for those crises of self-hood, they can be brutal to get through but we usually end up better / stronger / more focused / more appreciative as a result – at least in my experience, even if that wiser, better self occasionally longs for a more innocent state, or at least a simpler one.
As for 40, it’s a piece of cake. The 40s in generally are pretty damn good.
And that calm – something to enjoy when it comes. Whenever it comes.
Thanks, BLW. I fully believe that 40 will be easier, fuller, and more relaxed than 30s or 20s.
I look forward to that space to spread my wings a bit, not that I’ve seen them unclipped.
Yes, my secret, what works for me, is wearing industrial strength ear plugs. My husband laughs but they take the edge off of everything. Kind of like someone’s 5 o’clock gin and tonic. I still hear, but it doesn’t trigger my migraines.
I go through them like popcorn and buy the full size bag at our pharmacy.
When my oldest was little, he tried to stick marshmallows in his ears, saying, “I mommy. I mommy.”
They’re worth it, though I caution against taking a nap with them in, you’ll dream someone’s boxing your ears.
My college roommate swears by them.
They bug the heck out of me. Can’t stand even a few minutes with them in. I used to try on airplanes, where the engine noise makes me agitated and the earplugs make me agitated.
Needless to say, I avoid flying.
Funny, because I stumbled upon the exact same thing about two months ago. I took the most-well-known of those quizzes and answered yes to every single question. Great. And my reaction was kind of like yours, “And what am I supposed to DO with this information, now?”
But it does help to recognize it, to know that other people feel this way. I once told my husband (who is possibly the least sensitive person in existence) that at the end of the day with two screaming kids, I feel as if I have a mild form of post-traumatic shock. He thought I was joking. I was not.
The days when I have the opportunity to force myself out of bed at 5 a.m. and have one quiet hour to myself before the chaos begins are so, so much better than the other days. Those good days are getting more frequent now that the newborn is not so new, and I appreciate that so much.
I have loved the few times I got up early, walked, showered, and read before the little ones arose. Pure heaven. And it does carry through the day.
Maybe I’ll try that again in the spring. Walking in the dark freaks me out. (Shocker. I guess I should come right out and say that most things freak me out.)
i love this path of discovery! i am also a highly sensitive INTJ. good on you for figuring out how to manage it all with kids. seriously impressive! i hope your arsenal of coping strategies gets bigger as time goes on.
have you looked into the enneagram personality type system as well? it is my favorite system and has been most useful for my own personal growth. i have about seven books on it, and still haven’t even come close to feeling like i’ve exhausted the knowledge it has for me.
I looked into enneagram briefly years ago, but don’t remember anything about it. I’ll look into it.
When things seem to be going well and I’m in a groove, I forget all the personality, self-help, self actualization stuff and just go. But when I’m writhing in self doubt, I enjoy the research and get a lot from it. I often feel silly for that, but too bad, right? Anything that helps pull me out of a funk.
Anyway: welcome! Nice to meet another highly sensitive INTJ. If enough of us come together and support each other, we’ll change the world!
INFP, here! It takes me days and days and days to recover from a social event.
How in hell are we friends if you’re an INFP? ;-)
No wonder your stories are so rich and subtly melancholy.
Awesome post. Isn’t it nice to have a better understanding of who you are and what you need? That’s why I don’t mind the aging part so much. I would way rather know myself and all my triggers and buttons and how to cope, than be 25 again and always reeling. Guess that’s the upside of having been an emotional train wreck in my 20s. On to bigger and better. Happy early birthday!
Yes, yes, and YES! Seriously, what a train wreck 25 was. I still feel keenly the emotional pain. Gah.
You’re right, though, and this is why I love every grey hair. Huzzah for learning about the world, self, and others!
Thanks for the birthday wishes. I’m pretty darned excited!
Here are some of the things I just said out loud to myself while reading your post (while sitting in a dark room with a white noise machine on): Oh my God. Wow. That’s me. That’s so me. That’s exactly me.
I’ve lately been increasingly fascinated by the realization that I am an introvert, but I had never really considered the degree to which my sensitivity dictates my moods.
Again, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Off to check out these links.
So glad to have shined a light somewhere you needed it.
I’m still relatively baffled to call myself an introvert, because I’m so extroverted in some ways. I enjoy confrontation, recognition, applause, and being on stage. I enjoy presenting to a crowd.
But my moods are entirely fueled by whether I have to quiet time to reflect and process. I get my energy by being alone, and that is introvert. I gladly give away my energy by performing, which suggests extrovert.
Good luck. Check into some of the books that have been recommended lately, including Quiet.
Ummm. wow. THIS IS ME. I did the quiz. yup. I even took the one for children—no, not my children but ME AS A CHILD!
You just did an amazing public service, you know? I need to think about this some more, but just recognizing this definitely eased my guilt about faking a migraine so I could spend an hour in a dark room with the fan on for white noise at the end of a great, but very loud and together-y weekend.
Ana, I’m so glad this helped. As I wrote it, I fought the urge to think “Geez, could you be more self absorbed?”
But it’s my blog, after all. And this information was really important to feeling less overwhelmed. And making myself and maybe one or two others feel less totally under water was the point of starting this blog.
So. Post successful. Come back and let me know how this process develops for you.
And enjoy your quiet time. Every single person is entitled to a break when needed, but it’s really hard to justify when small people genuinely need you. Hope we all find small ways to restore without leaving our kids to the knives and wolves.
I taught 3rd grade for 17 years and had very little problem with this with the exception of someone coming in early and interrupting my “alone” time at the start of each day. It was only fifteen minutes but it sure affected the success outcome of a day. As I have gotten older and no longer having children around all of the time, I find that I am way more sensitive than I have ever been in the past. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to deal with it. Now I am a grandma and I steel myself to behave during the times we visit, which I cherish but, boy am I glad to have that quiet time again when they leave.
As far as feeling your a bad mother, don’t beat yourself up so much. Children are very forgiving of the mistakes that adults make. You are obviously a good one, staying home with your kids. One day, they will remember that and be happy that you did.
Thanks, Mrs. P.
I do believe that we’re all able to handle pretty much what we’re used to, plus a dollop more. When you were teaching and had small kids, you could go for long stretches but needed a foundation of solitude. Now that things have quieted for you, it makes sense that you can’t just re-immerse at 100%.
I’m glad you steel yourself for those beautiful grandbabies, though. They might take a lot out of you, but I believe grandparents underestimate how desperately and wildly they are loved by grandchildren.
Thank you for being there for those visits, which they probably cherish intensely.
And thanks for your years as a teacher. I marvel at how stellar most teachers are. And I’m sure you were one of the good ones.
I found you through Freshly Pressed – congratulations – and I loved the recent Translations post, but it is this post here that speaks to me so sincerely. I have just turned 42 and spend about the same amount of time as you on these selfhood questions, most especially since becoming a mother. And, I get so overwhelmed with stimulus that an invitation to a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party is reason to lie in the fetal position in the bathtub and weep. As a high school English teacher I used to realign all of the desks at the end of the day to bring myself some peace. But, I wasn’t really, truly aware of my stimulus issues until my oldest child began having trouble with large groups and too much stimulus in preschool. It was through helping him navigate and cope that I’ve learned to cope myself. I find this a fascinating paradox. Thanks so much for this post.
Thank you so much for wading in deeply enough to find this post.
I noticed more about my need to renew through silence through helping my preschooler navigate issues about being overwhelmed, especially with too many children at a playdate.
Do you feel that your responses are heightened as you age? I feel more touchy and less able to cope as I crest 40, but perhaps that’s motherhood. Or lack of sleep. Or just awareness.
What do you think?
I do think my responses are heightened as I age, though I think this is a function of becoming more self aware. Once aware of my sensory needs, I became more adept at managing them. As an introvert, teaching was like being on stage all day. I needed a lot of down time after work. With motherhood, it’s like being constantly on cue, and finding down time is a bit trickier I think. My kids are 6 1/2 and nearly 4, so as they’ve become more independent it’s become a bit easier. My next challenge will be returning to teaching and then finding a way to balance my need for silence between work, kidlets and husband. Can you imagine the learning curve on that one? Yikes!
Oy. Good luck! ;-)