Monday, July 7, 2014

The Roller-Coaster Relationships between Highly Sensitive People

I should perhaps title this blog post:

The Roller-Coaster Relationships between Highly Sensitive People and the Toll they Take on Those Around Them.

I told Geoff on Saturday that he'd better be praying regularly for my ongoing health because he'd have a hard time managing without me.

I was talking about how critical I am to the relationship he has with his children...specifically Matthew this weekend.

Geoff and Matthew are cut from very much the same cloth:  Both highly sensitive, to the point of fragility; both prone to volatility of emotion and mood and in how they react to things that aren't working for them; both brooders (Matthew is more on the philosophical side of brooding, whereas Geoff is more on the sulky/defensive side of brooding); both feel things deeply and are wounded easily; and for both, life is very overwhelming at times.  The fact that Matthew still has a soft heart without a lot of defences/walls is a credit, I believe (without any desire to tout my own horn, frankly), due to the fact that I know him very well and know how to help him grieve those things that don't work for him; that grieving process is critical to his adaptation to a world that he cannot always manage and that often overwhelms him.

Geoff and Matthew have become quite close over the past year or two, thanks in large part to Geoff working hard at the relationship and in small part to Matthew's maturing.

But there are still times, like this past Saturday, when I feel like throwing my hands up into the air and shaking myself loose of the dynamic between them.

The cycle goes something like this:  Matthew didn't have quite enough sleep on a given night and is extra fragile the next day; Geoff comes home tired from work and is dealing with his own issues and is left also quite fragile/vulnerable; Matthew might do something that doesn't work for Geoff (fart, speak with a bit of tone, etc etc); Geoff gets a little irritated in his tone towards Matthew; this ramps Matthew up a little because Geoff's tone sounds to him either as if his father is angry (hard for a highly sensitive person to bear) or as if Geoff's merely tolerating him rather than engaging him; next Matthew might do something else that any kid might do but which might irritate an already irritated Geoff; Geoff's back gets up and his tone of voice gets a little less tolerant and maybe a little snappy; and eventually something happens that doesn't work for one or the other of them; and Matthew blows up and might throw either a hairbrush or some hateful words; Geoff retreats with a sense of defeat and Matthew retreats elsewhere in a state of frustration and they both lick their wounds until...

...well, until...

...I enter the picture.

It usually takes us about 90 minutes to help them work through the full cycle that happens thereafter: From frustration or sadness (Matthew) or helplessness (Geoff); to grief about the futility of what's not working; to a point of rest where they might begin to be able to look at the other again; to a state where (with the help of a bit of match-making facilitated by moi) they begin to talk; to the point where Geoff opens his arms up wide and Matthew's ready to enter them and they unite in full attachment again.  At this point, all is finally well again with the world.

That's when I'm usually exhausted because, even though from an outsider's perspective it would seem like I actually say or do very little during this period of recovery time, the truth is that I'm in a casual state of high alertness and observation and I'm watching for the precise right moment to say or do some little thing that will move them in the same direction...and another little thing a while later...and another little thing a while after that...and so on and so on.  My action might be merely to stop by where one of them is and offer a cup of water (because a small distraction is occasionally helpful from the dark place they're at); or I'll take one second (no more!) to run an oh-so-casual hand down Matthew's back (while watching for how much of a flinch I get in reaction to my brief touch, because that flinch tells me precisely where he's at); or I'll mention to Matthew (later in the cycle when there's not much flinch any more, which means he's a little more receptive to my match-making) how much what Matthew's doing right then is something that Daddy also loves and would Matthew mind if I told Daddy that and then I'll mention to Geoff what Matthew's doing and how he would love it later if Geoff would participate with him (also match-making); and at some point I'll note to Geoff that things are going to be ok and that it's normal to be frustrated when our efforts to parent well aren't met with enthusiasm and that nothing has to be solved immediately but to give it time; and eventually there might be tears on one of both of their parts, which I'll be there to help with; and ultimately an adaptation is made and they are able to reunite; etc etc

It really is tiring, emotionally.

But it's what needs to happen when two of our family of five are highly sensitive.  My hope is that in raising Matthew the way we're raising him, we can teach him to grieve the things that overwhelm him so that he learns also how to adapt to the world he's in and without too many of the defensive walls/barriers that many highly sensitive people develop.  Adaptation never happens unless we first grieve what doesn't work for us, sometimes many times over.

And, ever so slowly, it's working.  Matthew's become quite insightful, in the past number of months, into his own behaviours and inner workings.  He's also slowly learning to take care of himself so that, before he reaches crisis point, he's sometimes now able to pull himself out of a situation and do something to ease his anxiety - come see me; take some time to recover in private; hit the grass outside with a baseball bat; whatever works in the moment to shed enough of the emotional turbulence so that he can regain his mixed feelings before entering the fray again.  His mixed feelings, absent for the first two years after Seth's and Lizzie's entrance into our family, have come back (though not when in full blown crisis mode - it's challenging even for an adult to maintain a mix when in crisis mode!) and he's more able to think something like I'm so frustrated that I want to hit/yell/throw something, but I know I can manage myself differently until I feel more in control.  It's great to see.

Sometimes Geoff gets a little frustrated by how things can still be strained between the two of them when they've had a rough morning, but I have to say that I'm far more encouraged than discouraged about their relationship (and about Matthew's emotional health).  Theirs is a far better relationship today than just a year ago and, despite the ups and downs, they always end up in each others' arms.  It is a balm to my heart is to see Matthew, at the day's end, embracing his father and tell him that he loves him...even on a day that had a rough start, like this past Saturday.  That's a testament to the investment that Geoff and I are making (albeit in very different ways) in his emotional well-being, and it's a testament to the maturation that I believe is taking place in my first-born...and maybe in Geoff and me, too.

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