Chapter 1: To Live In an Insensitive Culture
When you lose touch with inner stillness you lose touch with yourself, when you lose touch with yourself you lose yourself in the world – Eckhart Tolle
To be a highly sensitive child in the western world is challenging. Heightened sensory processing capabilities create real distinctions between HSC and other children. Part of their uniqueness comes from the fact that their sensory reactions defy general culture (Aron et al, 2010)[i] as it is mainly through decoding space, not culture and social life, that they can begin to define and understand themselves. This distinction defies our traditional notion of “being”. In an urban world where space has been saturated with men made sensorial inputs, these children have a hard time grounding their “being” and as a consequence they act “out of control”. The invisible nature of how space and its components (such as smell, chemical signatures, heat, noise, etc) affect them, makes it very difficult to understand what is happening to these children and why they are in crisis. Only through an empathic look at their world can we begin to understand what they are experiencing. Unless we retrain ourselves to consider space as a powerful dimension of perception, we tend to confuse these children’s sensory distress as defiance to be eliminated from our behaviors, instead of as reactions to overwhelming sensorial stimuli that need to be reduced. All too often, a common story of insanity, disability and madness is associated with behaviors related to sensitive senses, leading to HSC experiencing deep forms of stress and invisible trauma in places like home, schools or hospitals where, in order to cope with an overwhelmed sensitive body, children learn to suppress their senses.
Unfortunately, by denying the nature of these children, we force those who cannot adapt to “modern” sensorial norms and standards to deny their own senses of “being”, and to believe instead that they are deviant or sick. The more we refuse to look at the sensorial nature of these reactions, choosing medication and other forms of therapy that assume these children behaviors need to be eliminate without looking at the underlying cause, the more we tend to teach them to suppress what they need to feel and sense, and the further away we are from finding solutions that address the roots of the challenges they are facing. This suppression creates an immediate change in their behaviors that allows them to abide to the surface veneer of cultural and social norms and seemingly integrate into our social settings. But from a sensory perspective, I am beginning to understand that without proper development of sensory self-awareness and self-regulation, we are hindering these children’s abilities to develop healthy ways to cope. Without these, we may be turning some of our most talented people, into adults who have no means to adjust or learn how to use the power of their heightened senses without being overwhelmed. In the process, we may be condemning them to an adulthood of extreme behaviors such as suicide, addictions, and other harmful ways of dealing with what they have been taught to consider as inadequacies.
How we, as parents and educators, understand heightened sensory sensitivity and the senses is essential to helping our highly sensitive children. But our understanding of the senses is limited to those of our culture. While it is understood that the body, self and social interaction are intimately interrelated and constantly reconfigured, our western scientific perspective presumes the senses, and our use of the body, to be regulated by the rules of our dominant culture (Walskul and Vanninni, 2012)[ii]. This perspective assumes cultural learning molds us. Subsequently, we become frustrated when behaviors do not correspond to our cultural and social norms. This greatly affects our ability to help our highly sensitive children.
Thankfully, if our cultural understanding of sensory life is deeply rooted in our cultural customs, social norms and belief systems, it is arbitrary and can be altered. We forget that Culture is not “real”, it is a form of learned tacit language that carries the specific values and beliefs of a social group via its narratives and myths. Culture participates in defining a landscape of behaviors and thinking as “normal”. But this definition of “normal” is not the world itself (Sheperd, 2010, p.2)[iii]. Given that the rules of cultural learning become embedded into our sensory, oral and other forms of languages, it passes off as an absolute reality. But we can alter this sense of reality and develop a different approach that can help us insure our children’s senses are included in how they approach life and notions of well-being. This can help us create a framework for them to learn to “be” without suppressing what they feel. Oppression of the senses can lead to extreme behaviors in our children, because if the body of an HSC is not allowed to be, it will rebel.
Not only is this alienation of the senses in Western Culture a recent phenomenon, it is also only one of the many cultural perspectives in existence. Through different time periods and cultures the senses have been understood differently (Howes, 2006)[iv]. Many cultures prior to ours were built on the existence of a close connection between psychological states, our sensory experiences and space. As we will see next.
[i] Arthur Aron, Sarah Ketay, Trey Hedden, Elaine N. Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D. E. Gabrieli (2010). Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 2010 Jun-Sep; 5(2-3): 219–226. Published online 2010 April 13.
[ii] Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip (2012). “The body and symbolic interaction” In (ed Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip 2012.) Body/Embodiment, Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Ashgate.
[iii] Sheperd, Philip (2010). New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. North Atlantic Books.
[iv] Howes, David (2006). “Charting the Sensorial Revolution” in Senses and Society, Volume 1 Issue 1, pp113-128.