Early rite of passage or coping tool
Well, I’m running late on the blog this week, largely because my son and his girlfriend came up from Los Angeles to visit. We spent a week of hanging out at night, visiting the local breweries and restaurants and I must confess, I drank a wee bit more this week than I normally do. Which is a perfect segue to this week’s topic of HSMs and strong drink.
I have had my fair share of spirits during the course of my life, often to simply celebrate, sometimes to fill a void, frequently as a social lubricant, and very seldom to improve my mood. Growing up in the Southeastern United States, where drinking is sport and young men are often required to prove manliness by the quantity of alcohol consumption, I was baptized in this rite of passage during the early days of high school. Alcohol is the great social leveler and for brief moments made me equal to the socially adept.
It was so wretched to me that I began a second vice, that of cigarette smoking to combat the bitter and often burning taste of alcohol. It was at the time a seemingly fair trade to help a tall and skinny, pimply faced young man gain social confidence amongst peers. I drank -- I got confidence and, an inner personality emerged that was affable and full of social grace. At least until I, as all young men do, overconsumed and promptly deposited my day’s food intake into the back seat of my best friend’s parents’ car. Not cool, but repeated again and again, until the lesson of moderation was learned.
But, all this really said about me was that I was prone to overwhelm, to shyness and to social awkwardness, and that I believed that I needed to consume some external substance to make me more of what I thought the world wanted from me…the nerve to be cool.
I am sure that many young men and young women face similar challenges, but as an HSM, these seem so much more exaggerated internally, and alcohol seemed to offer comfort and relief.
When overwhelm seems too much, does alcohol really help?
As HSPs and particularly HSMs, we often pretend to be not overwhelmed by our environment so as to fit in and to project being in control. However, since our nervous systems are keenly and tightly wound, we feel and experience sensory information much more intensely than some of our peers. It’s hard to process what we feel and what we sense without some coping mechanism.
For many HSMs alcohol serve that purpose. Just look around at the world of art, music and creativity. How many great artists mire themselves in addictive habits of substance abuse to quell the waves of emotions, expectations and demands of their creative endeavors? Many of these creative creatures are HSPs and in particular HSMs.
The burden of being misunderstood and feeling too much becomes being too much and at some point there is a crossing of a threshold that drives the need for quick, albeit temporary relief. The price that is paid is often devastating, and the damage greater than bearing the burden unassisted or alone.
Turning an HSM introvert into a raving extrovert
As stated earlier, one of the primary reasons I started drinking alcohol was to disinhibit myself in social interactions. It made me more comfortable and talkative. It was easy for me to make small talk, to be a bit more casual and speak my mind. I was more like an extrovert. And for those times at parties, celebrations, gatherings - that was a convenient persona to take on. I could mingle; I could be loud and yes, a bit cocky.
As HSPs we are typically not risk takers. So fully engaging in drinking behavior, makes us feel like we are being a bit edgy and it pushes us to poke at our own boundaries. Yet, we tend to be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and more easily pay the price of over imbibing. But, alas, plow ahead we do, at least some of us. We feel the social pressures to drink more intensely, and conform to please. That offers an altered state of our personality helping with the anxiety of social overload. Forgive me for generalizing, but visualize the bespectacled, quiet admin or the nerdy computer tech at the annual Christmas party cutting loose on the dance floor and propositioning half of the room. Yes, it could get dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be.
Tamping down versus numbing
So, what is really going on here? Are we really trying to change our personalities to fit in? Or is there some effort to tamp down or numb down some internal pain, anxiety or fear that we feel that we can’t overcome otherwise. Is overwhelm so poorly misunderstood among HSPs, that we follow a path that is neither natural nor safe for us to follow?
Since many HSPs are introverts, (not all, but most), and introverts tend towards some degree of self-loathing at some point in their lives -- which can lead to depression. What are the dangers that substance abuse can become problematic for introverted HSMs? It appears that there is a correlation between alcohol abuse and depressed introverts. Sadly it’s strong enough to raise eyebrows and flag as a warning. I think this is especially true for HSMs who easily panic, get anxious or are otherwise uncomfortable in social situations. Again, yet another thing to be cautious about as HSMs.
Dealing with our stuff
All in all, I think we need to continue down the path of owning our stuff. This notion that we are so fragile and prone to overwhelm, although not overstated, needs to be ameliorated in ways that allows us to function in the world more comfortably. The idea that we can control everything in our environment tends to box us in, retards spontaneity and limits us in so many ways. Having that drink at the office party or loosening up at the company picnic or family gathering with a beer or a glass of wine is a way of coping with heightened sensitivity.
Granted it shouldn’t be our go to solution for every life challenge, but occasionally bellying up to the bar, could actually teach us about our inner selves. Alcohol can introduce us to an alternate reality as it were. It can teach us how to overcome fear, to let loose and celebrate with others, especially our non-HSP family and peers. In the end, our nature is different. I think we have a gift, but one that is very high maintenance. The people around us feel it; we feel it and can easily set us apart, which creates isolation.
Celebrations with alcohol can bring us to together. It can open us up to the world. But it has to be used with respect and caution. Granted, it’s not for everyone. It can be used as way to ease into social situations that might otherwise challenge us. It’s not so much the alcohol, but the context in which it is used. I see no problem using a drink or two to alleviate and relax what many see as a difficult, but not life threatening situation. Conversely, I don’t advocate its use as a way to numb pain, depression or deep seated anxiety. There are better ways to tend to those problem areas. I think we all know that.
As for myself, I will continue to be a social drinker. I’m older now, know my limits and boundaries and stay within them. I like the little buzz of a slightly altered state, the relaxed calming feeling of a few drinks. My HSP characteristics, and a cautious, risk averse nature, keeps me from over indulging. It’s a good balance. I would think there are many of you out there who would agree.
Thanks for dropping by, until next week…
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.