For most of my life, I couldn't see all the things I was doing out of habit, but that I truly didn't want to do. The belief that I had to was so engrained in me.
It's very easy for highly sensitive people like us to betray ourselves. We don't even know we are doing it. Especially if the circumstances of our upbringing brought us to overuse our empathy in service to others, it's become our default setting. And often to the detriment of our own self-preservation and our own joy.
Empathy is such an important (and needed more than ever right now) human quality. It allows us to understand and share the feelings of others, to know what others need. It is essential in building a resilient and creative society. In fact, I think it should be part of the school curriculum because it is the building block for everything else if we want to lead a healthy and meaningful life.
Empathy is at its strongest when we are young kids. If it is modelled to us, it stays intact within us. But when there is substance abuse, neglect, or mental illness in the home, highly sensitive kids will use their empathy on others as a mechanism to stay emotionally or physically safe and belong to the family and the culture they are in, even if it means they will lose their core empathy for themselves.
Empathy for oneself is a primary and life-sustaining human impulse. It is there for our survival as a creative species. Losing our connection to that impulse affects our ability to stay connected to our creative source and to the sameness that unites all of us.
It's healthy to check-in with our self-empathy. Notice how you talk to yourself in your own head, how much soul-esteem you carry within you, how quick you are to stand up for yourself, to keep yourself emotional well, and to speak up against injustices done to you. How often do you check in with yourself, with your needs, with your desires, with the dreams in your heart, and share them with the people around you?
It's not always easy to know what we truly want. Decades of ignoring our true desires have quieted the voice of the soul. We hear people say "Just speak your truth," but what if you don't know what that is or where to start? Instead of starting with what your soul truly desires, start with what your body doesn't want. The deep desires of the soul have a more subtle way of communicating. It's much easier to feel your body's response to an "I don't want". So start by noticing the physical reaction/sensations in your body when you are with certain people, in certain places or situations, having a particular conversation or argument with someone. And listen to the cues your body is sending and take action by putting up a boundary, by saying no, even if your mind doesn't know yet why you don't want that.
See, the body never lies. But we weren't taught that in school. No one told us that truth communicates through the cells of the body, and no one explained how to listen and decode this communication.
I remember an event that happened when I was 18 years old, in my apartment in Montreal. I was making out with an older guy I had invited over to hang out because I had had a crush on him since the night we met at a friend's party weeks before. I was feeling curious, a little shy, but mostly excited about this new feeling I felt. When his energy changed to not playful anymore, and things started to go too fast for me, I could tell because my body began to change. I wasn't feeling carefree, curious, opened anymore. Excitement had left my body, and I had cramps in my stomach from nervousness. By that time in my life, that was a familiar feeling. And I was skilled in pushing through it, overriding it. I had already lost my direct connection with my body and my innate ability to listen and take action when it spoke to me. I'd lost touch with the language it used to express my wants, my don't wants and my ability to clearly translate that into sounds and words. That night replays in my mind so clearly as the night I betrayed myself. My body was speaking, and I didn't listen.
I can't tell you how many times I have done things I didn't want to do, but did them, for the sake of other people's needs, or what I perceived they wanted from me: school programs, jobs, sex, trips, staying in unhealthy relationships, staying in toxic situations. I know this was the cause of my physical ailments in my young adult life. Saying no was so difficult. Because my whole body was wired to betray me first. Even after I learned to say no, I needed a good reason others could understand to make it stand. It wasn't enough for me to just not want to.
So, "I. Don't. Want. To" is enough of a reason to not do something. Period. People will ask for a reason, let them. You don't owe them an explanation. Your wellbeing is enough of a reason. You might feel compelled to explain it to them in a way they won't be hurt by it, in a way they can feel good about it, but that might not be possible. You are not responsible for how they receive your truth.
It is crucial to honour the body and what it says to you, even and especially when the mind can't make sense of it. The body is the gateway to understanding who we are and what we want, on a soul level. Pay attention, and be brave enough to say: "Enough. I can't explain why yet, but enough is enough." And you will begin to see how your body will talk to you more and more. And soon enough, you will hear the whispers of awe, of joy, of enchantment. And those truths will require the same level of protection, nurturing, and engagement from you.
My invitation is this: Can you stay in the presence of others' discomfort long enough to retrain your nervous system to know that it is safe to voice your needs; it is meaningfully to choose differently, and it is life-enhancing to speak your desires.
And let the chips fall where they may.