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Changing the World when you are a Sensitive Soul

Close your eyes and picture a ‘change maker’ in your head. What kind of person do you see? It might be somebody giving a passionate speech in front of a crowd, protesting in the streets, or facing the ones causing injustice. However, what if you’re somebody who desires to create change, but your nature is more sensitive or introverted? The spotlight might be your least favorite place, and the high-paced dynamic nature of social and environmental justice work might be very challenging for you. As you will see, sensitive souls have much to contribute to bringing about a more beautiful world when they can shine in their unique way.

changing the world

The Struggle to find your Place

As a young child, I felt deeply moved by the immense beauty of our planet. Nature felt like home, and a place of infinite wonder and play. At the same time, I already started to sense how we humans were failing to take good care of her. This hurt my young heart. Growing up, adults like Jane Goodall I watched speaking in defense of nature on stages and tv screens became my superheroes. I decided this was what I needed to do too: devote my life to helping the planet by trying to have a big impact, reach as many people as possible, and through that protect as much as I possibly could.

Once I became an adult, I entered the nonprofit sector with high hopes and ambitions.  After finishing my degrees I dove head first into a managerial position. Different organizations and roles followed. Each was filled with idealism, but also with tight deadlines, big responsibilities, constant meetings, travel, and an unceasing pressure to always do more. While I really appreciated the idea of contributing to change I wanted to see in the world, I constantly felt exhausted, overstimulated, over-asked, never enough, and on the verge of breakdown. Being in hectic and demanding environments left me feeling terrible. Thoughts of self-doubt and criticism constantly bounced around in my head. Why was it so hard for me to keep up? Why was I feeling so exhausted and anxious? I developed a pattern of constantly telling myself to try and work even harder, causing a vicious downward cycle of even more overwhelm and burn-out. What was wrong with me? As I found out years later… nothing at all.

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The ‘Ideal Activist’

Caring about a cause and committing yourself to a vision of a more beautiful world that you want to see is a precious endeavor. In the world of idealists and activists, many of our hearts are deeply affected by the great number of pressing issues that exist in our time. Our work therefore often comes with a constant sense of urgency and responsibility to solve the ever-growing mountain of problems. In doing this, for many of us there seems to be an image of what a successful activist looks like. This person is bold, fearless, outspoken, action-oriented, and they are fully committed to their cause. They stand on the barricades, lead marches, speak passionately on stages, meet with important people, confront wrongdoers, and work late nights and weekends in constant service. 

In some social and environmental justice circles there is peer pressure to conform to this activist ideal, and to always selflessly give all you have -and more- to your cause. Living up to this ideal proves to be an enormous challenge, however, and even impossible to attain long-term. There is always the next pressing issue that could urgently use support, yet our human bodies, minds, and hearts can’t be in high energy mode 24/7, and need rest and self-care. As it turns out, operating from this mindset is leading to widespread and chronic burnout in the world of activism. For some of us trying to live up to these standards is even more challenging than others: the sensitive ones.

The Challenge of Sensitivity

All of us humans are built a bit differently. Some of us are born more sensitive. The nervous system of highly sensitive people (HSP) has an increased sensitivity to physical, emotional, and social stimuli. Because of this, we experience things more vividly, feel and process more deeply, and are affected by subtleties that some others don’t even notice. With that, we also get more easily overwhelmed than the rest of us.

While being sensitive in this way gives us HSP wonderful qualities, it also comes with a unique set of challenges. In our fast-paced world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli, it's hard to remain centered for anyone. It's extra challenging when your system is wired in a way in which everything comes in even more intensely. 

Research shows that highly sensitive people are detail-oriented and process information more deeply than others. We are more reflective, and often have a natural drive to meticulously search for robust, inclusive, and meaningful approaches and solutions. Because of this we usually take longer to make decisions. Our hard-working brains are constantly processing new information, details, and connections. These characteristics offer the potential for great results. At the same time, our way of being causes us to easily get overstimulated and overwhelmed by everything we are trying to take in and process. This means that for us to create or problem-solve successfully, we need time, the right pace, and an environment that is calm and relatively stress-free. The field of social and environmental justice often offers a setting that is quite different than this. There is a sense of urgency, many campaigns are under-staffed, overworked, and constantly scrambling for funding. While caring greatly about a cause, in justice communities it is often challenging to properly care for one another, let alone to prioritize practicing self-care. Care and recuperation are needed by all humans, but even more so by highly sensitive people.

In the world of social and environmental justice, we are constantly exposed to painful realities that exist in our world. Whether we want to protect forests, stop the abuse of animals in factory farms, or help free Palestine, in order to be able to create change, we have to expose ourselves to their realities of the suffering we want to end. This is a difficult aspect for anyone, but even more so for highly sensitive people. Research has shown that compared to people with low sensitivity, for HSP the areas in the brain that focus on emotions and empathy are substantially more active in social situations. Because of this higher capacity for empathy, we feel and absorb the suffering of others more deeply. If we’re not careful, our hearts will collect the pain of the world, and we risk developing elevated stress levels, deep emotional wounds, or permanent burnout. We can experience ‘secondary trauma’: trauma caused by indirectly experiencing a traumatic event. In navigating our endeavors of changing the world, for us sensitives it is therefore crucial to understand our own strengths and limits, and act with self-awareness and intentionality.

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Pursuing Change as You are

After trying to be an ‘ideal activist’ for many years, and after numerous warning signals from my body, mind, and soul, I realized my approach needed to change. It took time to start to understand what this could look like. Here are some of the things I've learned thus far.

Finding acceptance

Before starting to explore what your unique place in social and environmental justice work could be, a first important step to take is to find acceptance about the fact that you as a person are built in a unique way. Yes, in your life this has caused you to experience certain challenges, but let's also celebrate the precious gifts you have! Your strong sense of perception, depth of processing, and intuition are of great importance when looking beyond the surface of a problem, anticipating challenges, and making well-informed decisions. Because you feel deeply, you also have the special gift of being able to more easily empathize and bond with others at the core of who they are and what they need. Because of this, you are likely a great emotional supporter and connector, building strong and meaningful relationships with others, even people that are quite different from you. Your creativity and vivid imagination can help spark new meaningful ideas, and transform how we see, think about, and act in relation to a societal problem. Seen in this light, you might realize you are needed as a changemaker exactly as you are. While exploring your unique qualities doesn’t take away the challenges you have been facing, seeing the gifts in them helps to create space for acceptance, and even love and appreciation for what makes you uniquely you. They also offer you important clues for how you could adjust your life and activism in a way that helps you shine instead of survive.

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Having Boundaries

Boundaries are guidelines that you create to help you clearly communicate behavior you will and won't accept from others, as well as which behavior they can expect from you. Having boundaries is an essential part of being a healthy and balanced person. For us highly sensitive people, who are more easily affected by stimuli, demands, and the emotions of others, it is especially important to know and protect our personal boundaries.

It takes some courage to set boundaries, but we need to do this to take care of ourselves and the relationships we have with others. Whether at home, at work, or when visiting family, they are important in each part of our lives where we interact with other people. When, where, and how they need to be emphasized is different for each person and situation. If you are not sure in a moment if it is needed to set a boundary, go inside: your body will give you signals that they have been crossed. You may for example experience your heart racing, tension, anxiety, or have a gut feeling. You are having this experience because your system is sensing a threat to your well-being, safety, and self. It is important to practice noticing and trusting these important protective signals of your body, and to in a non-violent but clear way express your needs and the boundaries connected to this. While not everyone will respond to this in an accepting way, those who care about you and your well-being, will welcome your boundaries. They will be glad to have learned more about how they can best love and respect you from knowing them. Surround yourself with people like this.

Whether what you need in a moment is some time to rest, to be treated more kindly, or to decline taking on more tasks, your boundaries are valid, and deserve to be spoken to. Only when you take good care of your own well-being by expressing your boundaries, can you also continue to support your cause in a balanced and personally sustainable way.

Becoming Resilient

Being resilient means that you are able to adapt well when facing adversity, emotional pressure, instability, or other significant sources of stress. This doesn't mean you won't be affected by these experiences; it means that you are equipped to bounce back from them. When you are someone who feels and experiences deeply and your nervous system is more easily overwhelmed, working on becoming more resilient is extra important. Just like when we are training our body to get stronger, if we want to become more resilient, we have to challenge ourselves so that we can grow. We can do this by exposing ourselves to what is called 'eustress', a level of stress that challenges us and gives us some discomfort, but is still manageable. Practicing navigating this type of stress pushes us towards better performance, coping, and the development of new skills, while not overwhelming us to the point of breakdown. When we practice dealing with this type of stress, we will see that over time our capacity to remain balanced in the face of stressful situations will increase. Challenges that cause an experience of eustress are usually ones that we want to tackle, and believe despite being a hard, we will have the capacity to prevail in. Which types of challenge suits you best to practice this, is unique to each one of us. They might never become your favorite thing or forte, but whether it is public speaking, navigating busy conferences, or completing time-sensitive tasks, the more you practice challenges with reasonable levels of stress, the better you can get at remaining balanced while performing them.

Another aspect of resilience is to design your life in a way that it supports balance. It is important to find a rhythm that allows a mix of activity and times of rest and restoration that works well with your needs. You will likely need some more time to recuperate than the average person. It is important to designate sufficient time for practices and activities that separate from your activism and feel nourishing to your body and soul. These could for example include yoga, walking, journaling, or creating art.

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Finding Belonging

Accepting who you are, protecting your boundaries, and becoming more resilient are crucial steps to finding your way in the world of activism as a sensitive soul. These aspects are all focused on creating a better inner environment for yourself. Next to creating this solid foundation within to help you navigate through life, another important aspect is to consider the external environment you expose yourself to every day.

If you, like I did in my younger years, let your idealism fully drive your decision-making about what you do, whom you work with, and what environments you expose yourself to, you will likely end up in situations that are not conducive to your needs as a highly sensitive person. Navigating loud and chaotic settings, work roles requiring regular confrontations, or having colleagues with intense personalities can easily leave you more and more depleted and decreasingly able to contribute effectively to your cause. It is therefore very important to consider your personal needs for wellbeing, and prioritize these. Some questions you could contemplate are:

  • What types of topics, activities, and responsibilities do I enjoy, and which ones cause me to experience stress?

  • What were moments and situations where I felt balanced and energized, and when did I feel I needed to disengage and recuperate? Why was this the case for each?

  • What characteristics do people have that make me feel good and balanced when I'm around them? Which ones cause me to experience stress and discomfort?

  • What do I need my surroundings (e.g. workspace, home, team) to be like in order to feel comfortable, balanced, and productive? What things really bother me?

When you evaluate your answers, you can get a clearer idea of which areas of your activist life might require some adjustment. The people you choose to surround yourself with are of great importance. Their personalities and way of communicating and collaborating with you will affect you. Find your tribe: people who accept and welcome you as you are, and whom you can build meaningful relationships with.

While you might not be the person speaking passionately to crowds on stages, there is much other meaningful work out there that is equally important. Just as you need the one with the powerful voice to reach many, so do they need you and your unique gifts. So let your art move hearts, your empathy heal emotional wounds, your emotional intelligence build bridges between people, or your eye for detail create robust data needed for a successful outcome. Whatever the unique gifts are that were given to you to express in this life, they are very much needed. You deserve to flourish in the gentle ways that you are uniquely built for. The world is in great need of your gifts, so take the space to claim what it is that you need so that you can express them freely and confidently.

In a gentle way, let's shake the world.


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