Yesterday afternoon, despite living in a metropolitan area with countless large grocery stores within 5 minutes in any direction, I drove 20 minutes to Trader Joe’s to go food shopping. On a weekly basis I forgo the closer options, not for the stellar food products, but for the simplicity of the store and lack of choices. This particular TJ’s is a hot spot for the upper class, suburban neighborhood where it resides. For this reason, I generally go on Friday evenings about 20 minutes before they close to avoid the constant stream of people. However, I had off, so I figured I’d get it done early. Knowing it would likely be more crowded than a usual weekday afternoon, being a holiday weekend, I started preparing myself mentally on the drive over. Perhaps…even before that. Perhaps……at the precise moment that I made the plan to do this while I was drinking my coffee in the morning.
Before I pulled into the lot, as I turned onto the street, I could see the cars circling like sharks around a chum bucket. EVERY. SPOT. WAS. FILLED. There were about 20 cars dodging and speeding up and braking. I did one big loop around the lot, watching car after car do acrobatics to maneuver around each others impatience and steadfastness to get the spot first. This in itself is enough for me to throw in the towel. The feeling of cut-throat competitiveness in both myself and all of the people is nauseating. I thought about what it would feel like to get a spot and walk into that store – loud and chaotic and filled with impatient people vying for aisle space. And I decided it was not my time. I decided, you know what? I really don’t have to do this right now. And, I didn’t. I turned out of the lot and formed a new plan.
In the past, I would have shamed my HSP self into staying in this super uncomfortable and annoying predicament. I would have pushed through and forced myself to do it because “I made the drive” and, frankly, believing that others would think it was insanity to skip the trip because of crowdedness. But those days are becoming far and few between. The more I accept my limitations, and allow myself to take care of…myself…in these situations when I can control it, the more confident I become. There may be times when I don’t have a choice for reasons beyond my control, and that of course is fine, but when I can control it I sure as hell am going to honor myself and do just that.
Regularly, and for years, I have gone out of my way to plan ahead and keep our apartment stocked with the essentials so that I do not have to urgently go out and purchase items. I used to think it was because I didn’t like the inconvenience of running out of things, which I don’t, but the more I learn about the high sensitivity processing trait, the more I realize that I was unconsciously creating an environment where I did not feel forced to do such tasks when it wasn’t comfortable.
We still did need a few things, but I chose to go to a larger grocery store to increase the likelihood of getting a parking spot easily and being able to move freely about the store without constant awkward maneuvering in tight spaces. Turns out, this store was also more crowded than usual, but as I’d hoped, it was much more manageable. I don’t love this about myself, but I do respect that it is part of me, and I now know that honoring this part of me is much more productive than shaming it.
The first time I noticed my limitations around crowded and chaotic places was in college. It was the winter of my freshman year. I was going through a weird, and my first real break-up. My comfortable wall of defenses was down. I went to the mall with my mom to go holiday shopping, but I was overcome with feelings of discomfort. It was loud and crowded and of course chaotic. We were in a very long line at Victoria’s Secret and tears began welling up and I had to leave. I think we both just assumed it was because of the break up, but I remember it now and I see it was a lot deeper.
It was around the same time when I accompanied my mom and grandma to the casino. It wasn’t my first time in a casino, but probably the first time when I had a bit more self-awareness. I will never forget the feeling in my body, the constant, vibrating, over stimulating noises, sights and smells. I absolutely could not handle it. I don’t believe I left that time, but I remained very conscious throughout the entire time of how it made me feel and I never forgot. It was harder to breath and I couldn’t think at all about anything but making it stop. I remember thinking about these two situations and just blowing them off as me being weird, or isolated bad days. But the truth is, the more therapy I’ve had to re-wire my traumatized brain, the more I’ve re-learned to listen to and feel my feelings and trust my body. These limitations are not a result of abuse. They are just me, my character traits. It’s been a complicated business trying to sort through what has been symptoms of childhood trauma, and what is just me. For a long time, I thought these sensitivities were a result of the abuse, and needed fixing and healing. Thankfully, I’m reaching a point where I am learning to see the difference between PTSD symptoms and just general discomfort due to my preferences.
In certain circumstances, I do believe the “fake it till you make it” method. I have certainly utilized that in most of my jobs throughout the years. However, there are many times when we don’t need the tough exterior. Sometimes we can just be ourselves and follow our gut feelings. It’s actually really important to do just that. To take off the armor we have on as we move about the world, and remind ourselves of our true spirit.
*Photo credit: Kim Dowman*