Birds and meerkats are about the most alert, vigilant creatures I have ever seen. Their attention is attuned to their real world, a world where they can easily be prey with a careless moment of inattention. Their lives depend on staying vigilant. People in the modern world seldom need that type of vigilance to survive, yet we live like we do. Looming in our minds are the thoughts of crime, violence, terrorism, and aggression. Although it’s possible to be a victim, the general probability is low. Yet we all live in a state of heightened awareness of our environment, in an almost perpetual state of fear. Watch the news at night for a daily downloading of fear based information and it’s no wonder that we live our lives in a fearful state.
The average person feels that real fear. They may not carry it around in conscious awareness, but it lingers in the subconscious, activating the preamble to stress – the call to flight or fight. Yet, non-HSMs don’t generally find the need to retreat often to an imaginary comfort zone in order to cope with this underlying stress. They often deal with fear by becoming more aggressive, focusing outward: buy guns for protection, vote Republican, join the military, and think of protection in a moderately to heavily aggressive way often externalizing their individualism, pointing outward to deal with the stress or threat.
HSMs, on the other hand, especially the ones that I know, don’t place as much attention to the fear of attack by a dark other, but rather fear the destruction of the planet, the demise of species, the spiritual decline of the population, and perhaps, jokingly, the aggressiveness of non-HSPs. They fear things of an existential and abstract nature, things that are deeper and more pluralistic. Instead of living in a pride of lion hunters, alert to threats and ready to attack, HSPs are more like meerkats. It seems that we are always, vigilant, alert, aware, highly charged and sensitive to the environment, looking just beyond the tall grass to see if there is something coming, ready at a moment’s notice to herd the gang back down the hole into the comfort zone of underground.
We internalize the perceived threat and thinking of self and others. Balancing that world of vigilance, watching the world for outside threats is always a compromise between risk avoidance and risk taking. Determining which is the greater risk: starving (dynamic change) or being annihilated (static sameness), much like the meerkats, we have to determine to either move forward or be safe.
We all know that lions are aggressive hunters. They have often been characterized as kings or queens of the jungle. They are at the top of the food chain and they rightly fear nothing. They are comfortable and in the flow. They eat what they please. The meerkats, on the other hand, are far less aggressive, and instead are vigilant and watchful. They display sentinel behavior and alert the group to imminent danger. There is always someone on point to watch the surroundings. We, my HSP friends are like that, in a metaphorical sense. Certainly, we are not meerkats, but our nature is to be cautious and watchful and alert. We do not attack first and ask questions later, we usually find a way back to our comfort zones, our cocoons, our burrows, when something threatens our comfort level.
Now with that said, is one of the two species better adapted to survive? And speaking of comfort zones, does it even seem that lions can be bothered with having a comfort zone? Would it be fair to say that in comparison, that only the meerkats are concerned about safety first – a kind of comfort zone mentality? And, if so, does that make them less adaptable? When adaptation helps form an ecological niche, a way to live and cope with an environment, is living in a comfort zone a true adaptation?
From a survival standpoint that would make sense, replacing brute strength with vigilance and self created protection zones. But does that favor long term evolution? Maybe. It should be noted that the one of the few survivors of the last mass extinction of dinosaurs was a furry little rodent like creature-- the first mammal. Smaller footprint, smarter, more cautious, better design, better adaptation characteristics.
So why do comfort zones have anything to do with meerkats and lions? Last blog we talked about expanding the comfort zone. What then would it mean to leave the comfort zone for longer durations? Can HSPs even manage to do this consistently? Some of you might say that it’s a maladaptive strategy, akin to walking amongst the dinosaurs for a small defenseless and cautious mammal. Why risk it, when we are safe in the comfort zone? My point has always been that as individuals, not just HSPs, but as individuals, we have to expand our comfort zones to grow. As HSPs, we often strategize not to push those boundaries, because we become overwhelmed so easily.
But, by expanding our comfort zones we hand over that additional information and processing to our unconscious mind, which learns the necessary adaptation for our particular nervous system. Overwhelm occurs when the conscious processing lacks the experience to cope with the overload or new information. But the unconscious will adapt if we let it. Because of the lack of experience with stressful new environments, we can literally through experiencing, however stressful, expand our comfort zones to grow our experience. Repeated experiences will encode new learning, new pathways of experience, and a new expanded comfort zone.
In an aggressive and distracting world, HSPs need sanctuary for recuperating our psyche. This, I believe, is different than our comfort zones. Comfort zones are defined by fear boundaries, ego bound perimeters where safety, sameness and familiarity reign. This is our perimeter fence staked around our external lives and how we face that aggressive world. When I say we all need to learn to expand those boundaries, it is not about abandoning the sanctuary, it is about moving the fence outward for growth. I think we all get that confused. One need not abandon the sanctuary or move far from it to expand the comfort zone of experience.
The comfort zone, therefore, is the distance from one burrow entrance to the next, to continue with the meerkat analogy. The boundary of your comfort in the external world. Is it safe? Can I make it? How far can I push my limits? Sanctuary, on the other hand, is the burrow. The place of retreat in the internal world of our own undergrounds. They are not the same. HSPs need the sanctuary and we need to occasionally expand our comfort zones. One is our safe room, our re-energizing spa, the other marks our boundaries in the external world.
One final example. Living in a big city is stressful for most everyone, but especially for HSPs. After a day out in the world, we retreat into our sanctuary, likely our home or apartment, and relax and rejuvenate. If we are new to the big city, the first months will require an adjusting period. Each day we face the same stressors, each day we gradually adapt and learn to live in the hustle and bustle of the big city. At some point, we have expanded our comfort zone to live and work in this environment, it may have been hard, but we did it. Yet, we never abandoned our sanctuary, our place of rejuvenation. There I believe lies the difference. Something to think about.
Thanks for stopping 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.