This is a guest post by Ritu Kaushal, a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ritu writes about the gifts and challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) on her website. Her work has been featured on various websites including Tiny Buddha, Elephant Journal and Sensitive Evolution.
As an empath, I am often affected by other people’s emotions. I feel their curiosity, irritation and worry jumping out at me. When I am off kilter already, these feelings can easily wash me ashore. Of course, there’s also the other side to the coin. I entrain easily with the energy of joy and wonder. These feelings help me expand. They connect me to my very being.
But for a long time, the negatives of being an empath often outweighed the positives in my life. While I wouldn’t change myself, I had become entrenched in unhealthy behaviors that sapped my energy. I often felt like a “blood doll,” a person with little boundaries, always giving and giving, without finding a matching energy in return.
One of the main resentments I had (that I still struggle with) was that while I listened deeply to other people, I often felt unheard, unseen, discounted. It felt like people were “talking to” me, not “talking with” me. I felt like a place to vent to, instead of a person, a place that people came to in order to clear the gunk forming inside them.
Why was this such a hard dynamic for me to nail? Why did I often end up feeling like this?
Over the past year, nudged by a deep need to shift this pattern, I started setting boundaries consciously, recognizing how I played my part in “Always Being the Listener.” While things shifted after this and I started feeling better, this pattern still remained true. I couldn’t quite get to the root of why I kept on playing this out.
Then, recently, I came across a book that shifted my perspective on this bedrock issue that comes up again and again for me. The book was depth psychologist Bill Plotkin’s wonderful Soulcraft. In it, Plotkin tells the story of a woman named Allison that deeply resonated with me.
In the book, Plotkin tells us about how Allison had come for a retreat that he was leading, deep in the Southern Colorado mountains in the United States.
Allison was at the retreat for a reason. She was was the fourth of five children from a middle class family of artists and intellectuals. She had struggled all her life as the odd one out in her generally extroverted family. She was sensitive and reserved, and her sacred wound was her feeling of being unseen by her family. The struggles that she was facing in her relationships followed this familiar pattern from her childhood.
Again, it was the same story. No one else seemed to be able to see her. Again, she felt invisible, unseen.
One day at Plotkin’s mountain camp, Allison went out for a full day of solo wandering. This was an essential part of the retreat, this element of communing with nature and inviting it into an alchemical partnership for your own spiritual growth. Allison ventured forth, hoping to encounter something essential that might come forward by being alone with the earth, by listening to the sounds of the wind, something that would help her take the next steps in her life.
So, she resolutely hiked high up the mountain for a long time, till she came onto a lonely, rocky ledge. Alone, without any human company, held in the palm of the universe, at last, she plummeted deep into her wound and into her pain. She let herself feel her suffering, feel the loneliness that threatened to overtake her entire psyche. She wept for hours and then summoned her animus – what depth psychologists call the masculine principle inside every woman – to be a witness to who she really was.
Doing this practice called up images to the surface. Soon, she could sense this Other in her own soul acknowledge her raw pain and her talents that still haven’t found a path.
This Other told her that she was not just a victim of someone’s refusal to see her. She shared the responsibility for being invisible just as she shared the responsibility for being seen. Most surprisingly to her, this Other spoke about how her true beauty came from the fact that she, Allison, at her core, was someone who sees. She not only saw the world clearly, she also had a wonderful talent for interpreting the world through her art. This was the key to her larger soul story, a story on the cusp of being born.
At the end of the day, Allison returned to the camp, after this essential encounter with the Other, bearing not just the marks of her wound, but the light of her unique gift. The people at the camp could see that something had changed. Till then, Allison had been self-effacing, almost diffident. Now, she seemed radiant, as if she was full of her own being.
What this encounter had taught her was that her Soul Wound and Soul Gift were closely interlinked. It had, in fact, “served her to be the one not seen, to grow up in a family that did not see what she saw. Just because she had felt so vulnerable, she had learned to “watch very carefully,” as she put it, to pay attention to the relationship dynamics and to avoid most of the tussles and arguments.”
In the book, Plotkin tells us that if Allison had grown up in a safer family, she might never have developed this ability to see so well. And if she hadn’t dared to re-encounter her wound, the gift might have remained hidden forever. Because she let herself feel her hurt and suffering, the wound became an “opening for recovering her gifts.”
Her wound was not meaningless. It was, in fact, essential on the path of her soul.
Knowing this, she could look at her past in a new way. She could unhook from the feelings of unworthiness that had clouded her being. She could see that her experiences had been essential for her path. Now, it was time to claim the fruits of her experience. Now, it was time to let herself offer the world the gift of being able to see into the hearts and minds of those around her. She could shed her own cloak of invisibility, and not just see, but let herself be seen as well.
Some of us might have gone through similar experiences as Allison. Like her, we might have grown up feeling invisible, feeling unseen. We might have carried this hurt with us for decades, and felt like victims. But like Allison, if we can see our Soul Wound can be a portal to our own unique Soul Gift, then we can see that the muck was necessary to give rise to the lotus.
Now, we can not just see, we can start letting ourselves be seen. That means revealing parts of who we are, and consciously unhooking from always listening, always observing. That ability served us well once upon a time. But now, we have to decide to shed the old and let our new skin show.
We have come to the point where we can pick out the jewel from the undergrowth of our experiences.
As an empath, this is sometimes hard for me to remember, this visceral understanding I felt when I read Allison’s story. My wound and my gift are closely tied together, and I have to unravel the skein to see that my reactions at feeling unseen today are based on my feelings of long ago. I don’t need to hide any longer. I have learned what I needed to learn, and the next step in my journey is not just to offer others the gift of being seen, but also offer myself the gift of taking off my cloak.
If you are an empath, this is something I hope that you will remember too.
Our wound has served its purpose.
We have formed our own unique offering. Now, we can look at our hurts in the light of this awareness. Now, we can move forward.
We have a gift to give to this world.