You see your partner is stressed, and you want her to take it easy. You want her to let go of the things that are stressing her out. You want her to stop helping the crazy people and the ones who never have enough.
Here’s why she can’t:
She has an awareness about what is going on around her that surpasses your own. She may not see the forest for the trees like you do, but she can see the trees, all of them, and knows them by name. It’s one thing to chop down a forest. It’s something else to say to every single tree that they will need to die.
That may seem like an exaggeration, but that’s what it’s like for her to “let go” of the forest of her worries and responsibilities. It requires her to look every single tree in the eye and say: “ain’t got time for you buddy”.
And then, not only that, if she is very very empathic, she will feel the hurt and sorrow for that tree. She’ll feel the disappointment, perhaps the rage and disdain. Once she’s made her decision to let go, and acted on it, she’s opened herself up to a whirlwind of hurt and accusations. You want to tell her to let it all roll off her back, but it’s not amassing on her back, it’s all moving straight into her heart, where it hurts the most.
Imagine this: you might be really assertive about not letting a vandal into your house, and tell them what’s what but then, if they muscle their way into your home regardless and are threatening to smash all your valuables, you change your tone, right? You want to stop them from swinging that axe and destroying grandma’s antique table.
That’s what the HSP heart deals with. The door is open and the valuables are at stake. You can’t just muscle the intruders out of the way. This is not to say that your partner is helpless in all of this. It doesn’t mean she should just suck it up and be nice. In fact, you’re right that she needs to let go and relax. It’s just that, doing that is a more complex and intricate procedure than you realise.
Your partner has been congratulated and encouraged to take care of everyone else. She’s been rewarded for it by society. Care taking is what makes her feel valuable. For her to relax and let go requires letting go of all that too. It requires learning a whole bunch of completely foreign life skills and also -by the way- reinvent herself.
Her “gotta keep going and hold on” patterns are deeply wired into her current identity. Right now she’s the caterer, the nurse, the mom for everyone. Deep down inside she’s convinced that it’s her job to look after everyone else. It’s what she’s been rewarded for and it’s what she knows.
Your very true, caring and innocent comment that it’s o.k. for her to let go and relax would actually require her to quit her 24/7 nurse job.
Not only that, she’d have to switch careers. She’d have to get a job that is more nurturing for her. She’d need training to learn how to be that way and still feel like herself. (I’m talking about her deep sense of identity here, not her actual job. The world needs nurses, and nurses can relax for sure. Yet, if your partner believes on a deep deep level that being a nurse to everyone else’s needs and wounds is all that she is then that’s a whole different story, and that’s what we’re talking about here.)
That’s why telling her to relax and take it easy doesn’t work. Doing so would require her to change her whole life from the inside out. The idea of that is completely overwhelming to her, naturally.
What can you do to help her?
What you can do for her is help her validate her “I can’t take it anymore” experiences.
Internally, she is berating herself for being tired and fed up or not being able to live up to other people’s expectations. She believes it’s her life job to do all that. Yet, she also has an intuitive voice, and she has emotions that are trying to tell her that she is hurting. When that intuitive voice, or the sadness, hopelessness or fear pop up, you can support her by validating those feelings.
While she is trying to “get over” feeling that way, you can let her know that it’s normal to feel depleted and exhausted when taking on the world, but that she deserves to be happy. Not just deserve, she needs to be happy. She needs to be happy to have the energy she needs to do all that she wants to do. It’s not a selfish thing, it’s a matter of life fuel.
She might not listen, or might not seem to. But somehow, slowly, that validation can create a readying process. It can introduce the idea into her heart that maybe she is not wrong for being tired. Maybe she isn’t wrong for feeling overwhelmed. Maybe she is not wrong for not being able to let go. She’s not wrong because for her, it’s a new skill. Not just that, there are more complex mechanisms at play than for other people.
Being ‘Superwoman’ isn’t sustainable
It’s easier to say no to someone when you have no clue how your no affects them. It’s much harder when you feel their disappointment. It’s easier to say no to extra work when you don’t look at how that affects the workplace. It’s harder to say no to extra work when you can intuit that without extra work getting done, the workplace is a sinking ship.
In other words,
Highly Sensitive People typically feel and know the implications of their “no” more deeply.Click to tweet
As a result, HSP women end up sacrificing themselves for the greater good and they’re rewarded and applauded for it. They haven’t been taught to track how all that affects their own well-being. They haven’t been taught how to even notice what all this helping of others is doing to their own health. They downplay and minimize their own needs. They see the needs of everyone else and convince themselves that because everyone else has such strong needs, they themselves can’t expect to get any support.
These women become superwomen. They try to pull themselves out of any swamps they may step into, as well as saving everyone else along the way.
This kind of “job” is not sustainable. Yet, underneath all that seeming superpower there is also a deep fear and a deep knowing. Many of these women didn’t get the love and nurturing they needed when they were little. They learned that the people around them were suffering too much to be there for them.
Perhaps they were made wrong for having needs. Perhaps they had parents who had no idea about being present and actually lovingly caring. Perhaps there were numerous crises and the adults were overwhelmed and barely coping. Either way, they learned that it was their job to take care of everyone else and they couldn’t expect much in return.
They also learned that having needs and asking for things was disappointing and painful. Hence, they shut down that vulnerable part of themselves. They may tell you that they’re fine when -clearly- they’re close to a nervous breakdown. They may not know how to ask for what they need. Most importantly, they believe that, even when they do ask, they won’t get what they’re asking for.
They take it for granted that they can see what others need, but nobody can see what they need. On a deeper level, they feel invisible. Caring and taking care of others and staying busy worrying about others is a way to avoid that fear and pain. Chances are that your partner will only become interested in letting go and relaxing when she has completely run out of other options.
Somewhere deep inside she’s convinced that being needy is pretty much equal to dying. She can’t feel her deepest needs because she has plenty of evidence that her needs don’t count. She’s dissociated from them because she’s convinced they will just lead to more pain, not a solution. She will need to be the one to start turning this around and ask for help with this when she’s ready.
Help her by starting small
Meanwhile, you can help her start small. When she says it doesn’t matter which tea you bring her, bring her the one you know she likes most, or grill her on it: get her to pick one she really really likes. When she asks for her favorite tea, and gets it, that will make it easier to ask for bigger things down the road, and trust that she can get those too.
I’m not saying you have to ask her about tea. Maybe it’s cheese, or what tv programme she wants to watch. Either way, when she says it doesn’t matter and any option is fine, that’s not true. She’s telling herself that what she really wants is not important. You can challenge that and help her discover the little things that light up her world: simply by asking her about them and not taking “whatever (is easiest for you dear)” for an answer.