Chronic Fatigue and the HSP

There’s pattern which repeats itself pretty much each time I find myself home alone for a few days - which with the presence of the COVID pandemic is not that often right now. It goes something like this,

I drop my wife off at the airport - living on an island, that is usually the start of the home alone period. On the way home I run a few errands, pick up groceries, and perhaps go for a walk. Over the the days that follow, as commitments are crossed off my todo list and I get into my bachelor rhythm, I notice a weariness start to creep over me. It is more than just feeling tired. It is a fatigue that seems to come from deep within my bones.

With my home life running quieter, and with nothing planned socially I find myself just resting. A phrase comes to mind - I “sit deeply”. I am perhaps reading or writing, or just sitting and watching the world outside. As I do so I feel exhaustion rise up from my body calling me to rest, and so rest I do.

As I say, this is a pattern. Whenever I find myself spending time alone for a prolonged period of time, the weariness manifests. I want to explore here what has brought this about, so first let me step back and give some context.

Pushing myself too far

Weariness and exhaustion have had a presence in my life for many years now, I am going to say for two decades. I used to push against the fatigue. I was aware of its presence, though due to peer pressure, that is me wanting to be seen to be able to be keeping up, I would deny its presence and try to push through. “Keep going, keep up with others, don’t show any signs that you are not up to the job (read weakness as my self-imposed put down).” That was the place that I lived in, measuring myself against those around me.

More importantly, and with the benefit of hindsight, I did not have a context for how I was feeling and so put my feelings down to something wrong with me. I think if I understood the reason for my feeling fatigued and had the support behind me, I would have acted more responsibly towards myself much earlier.

So, how was I feeling?

This is maybe not an easy one to answer, as at the time I wasn’t clear myself! Tired and weary, yes. Another symptom was a racing heart. I use to describe it as feeling like I had put my heart beat through an amplifier. There was this intensified beating happening in my chest and “yes,” it was uncomfortable. I could also add to these symptoms a pain in my left wrist, as if a lot of pins were being stuck into the wrist. So there was physical pain and discomfort, but no cause that I could relate these symptoms to…and so I just pushed on.

Eventually my discomfort became too much and I went to see a doctor, however the visit was not of any help. My vitals all checked out fine, and I came away with no diagnosis. Dissatisfied and now desperately wanting an answer I went to see separately a Tibetan doctor and an Acupuncturist/Chinese herbalist. From those initial consultations I choose to receive treatment from the acupuncturist/herbalist, but in their own words they both gave me the same diagnosis. It was,

that I was pushing myself, physically and mentally beyond what I could cope with, and that I needed to stop and take a look at what I was asking of myself. My batteries were drained and needed replenishment.

Relief

When I heard those words, I had a sense of relief.

I believe that deep down I knew what was going on with myself, but that I was sitting in shame (see below). With so many around me being able to operate in a different way to me, I felt as though I had to step up - whether I could or not. These doctors were giving me permission to own my pain, physical and emotional, and to step back and take a look at what I needed and who I was. They gave me permission to stop and take stock.

That diagnosis pulled the wind out of my sails. I collapsed. The next two years were spent receiving regular acupuncture and Chinese herbs. I owe that doctor so much, and regularly think of my gratitude towards him. I rested a lot and paced myself. Some days I could not get up from my sofa. I just lay there. This was fatigue, not tiredness. Like the fatigue that I spoke of at the beginning of this article, it ate through to my bones. Although no formal diagnosis was given, for those two years I now say that I had chronic fatigue.

I believe that the seeds of chronic fatigue still rest within me. I now allow myself to rest or sleep if I need to. I am so much more in control of my energy levels now. If I do feel a drop in energy manifesting, I wind things down as soon as I can. Some previous symptoms can still arise, but I take them as warning signs and use them as a signal to slow down.

So what was going on with me?

To what do I put my exhaustion down to? I identify as an introvert and highly sensitive person. I don’t let knowledge of these traits in my personality run my life, but they do inform me. I now understand where overwhelm and exhaustion are coming from when they manifest in me. I now understand the ”why” if I don’t feel like engaging in some social activity while others around me do. I understand and I listen to my needs, and don’t let shame run my life…quite so much. I used to not only not listen, but also not understand what my needs were. I told myself that I should show up just as those around me were showing up in the world, and so pushed myself to keep up with them - shame was running the show. This was not only a physically exhausting thing to do, it was emotionally and psychologically exhausting as well. As I increased the demands on my body and mind, with my reserves slowly disappearing as I wore them away, so fatigue crept up on me.

Once I started to learn about introversion and high sensitivity, I was given a context for what gave rise to my limits. With that understanding and finding a supportive community, I started to change my behaviours.

Shame

Shame is a focus on self. It is feeling bad about who you are because of what you did or didn’t do. It is equating your’s or others’ judgement of an action you did or didn’t do as a reflection of who you are as a person. Brené Brown says,

shame is a fear of disconnection,

and,

shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better.1

That makes total sense to me when I look back at what I did to get myself into such a fatigued state. For me shame and lack of understanding not only corroded self belief, but also personal health. It was driven because of fear of being judged and with that, of being left out.

The blessing behind that, the silver lining is what I learnt about myself, and about shame and self-worth. I can now look back at that time of chronic fatigue with a sense of gratitude, of lessons learnt.

When you are the lone one amongst many

When you are the solitary introvert or HSP amongst many who are not. When you are the quiet one and your actions or needs are looked on as being off or odd. When you are looked on as not fitting in, and the sole justification is because of what everyone else is doing. When your different needs are seen as wrong because and simply because no one else present has them, and everyone else is doing something else. When societal expectations tell you that something is not quite right in how you show up, and you are judged accordingly.

Just remember, you have have the right to be who you are.

Two tools that I would like to offer here can help you build resilience against the messages that you are receiving and to trust in your own worthiness.

Tackling the beast

Feeling inadequate and alone is a debilitating experience that can take the wind out of the sails of even the most well intentioned endeavour. These beliefs can feed a lack of worthiness, and knock our self-esteem. At the same time we stand there knowing that how we feel and act is who we are. We are not trying to be awkward or act different, this is simply who we are.

If I build a belief and trust in who I am and my own sense of self-worth, it is harder for the outside world to sway me when I’m challenged. A sense of worthiness is always a work in progress. Just as you conquer one critique, another challenge that you hadn’t dealt with before will find its way in and you will feel knocked down again. But as long as the wish is to build your worthiness is there, it will only get stronger with time.

Fear

Fear is the beast that gets in the way of us believing in who we are. Fear of loosing connection with those around us. That in turn feeds into shame, the shame of being different, of standing out and being alone. Of being different and being criticized for it.

Those who have a strong sense of self-worth have the,

  • courage to be different and accept themselves for who they are.
  • compassion for themselves first, not despite others, but recognizing that for worthiness to be there, they have to have compassion for self. It has to start at home.
  • vulnerability, to fully embrace vulnerability with a recognition that without it, they cannot embrace their self-worth. One cannot exist without the other.

This path to self-worth is not necessarily comfortable, but it is necessary. Without one the other cannot exist.

Shame

The critique of others or even simply judging ourselves against others will see the rise of shame within us. The path to self-worth sees one having to face the beast of shame.

Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better.
~Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Shame quite often gets mixed up with its near relative, guilt. There is a difference between the two and it lies in the object of identification. Shame identifies with self, guilt identifies with action.

  • Shame - “I am bad, because of an action I did or did not do.”
  • Guilt - I did something bad, ie “I broke the vase.”

Guilt is an honest admission of an action that I did. Shame is identifying with the action to the degree that I believe that it speaks to the nature of my character.

Shame resilience

If we are to build our self-worth, we need to build a defense against shame, catching it when it arises and countering the story that it is telling us…and that we are believing. Essentially pulling the rug out from under its feet.

Shame resilience as developed by Brené Brown is made up of four stages,

  1. Recognizing shame and understanding the triggers - get to know how shame shows up for you. How do you feel in your body when shame is presence? What needs to be going on for shame to show up in your life?
  2. Practicing critical awareness - counter the stories in you that are feeding your shame. How realistic are the expectations that you are putting on yourself? Do I really want to be like that? Start pulling the rug out from under your shame by telling the true story.
  3. Reaching out - find an ally, someone who you can trust and who will listen. Someone who loves and respects you for who you are. Someone who will not try and solve the problem, who will not judge you but will listen and hear your story. Connection wounds shame.
  4. Speaking shame - naming shame’s presence. Shame does not like that. Speak to how you feel. Ask for what you need.

The bumpy path

This is not a comfortable path. Dealing with fear, shame and vulnerability will never take us into a comfortable place, but it will take us to a courageous place. It is from a courageous place that we can start to build connection with who we are and stand in our own power. Then despite the voices that come from outside we are no longer the lone one amongst many. We might be different in our needs and how we act, but at the same time we are at home with ourselves.

From that place I can say, "I am worthy."

What I am learning from Microblogvember

Microblogvember is a challenge that is taking place on the micro.blog platform through the month of November 2019. Each day Jean MacDonald, Community Manager at micro.blog, uses a random word generator to get the prompt for that day, which she then shares with the micro.blog community. Those taking part must then write a post containing the word.

I decided to take part. Why?

The short answer is because I wanted the challenge that would push me to post each day. As this is a micro.blog, I do not have to produce a post any longer than 280 characters. However, as someone who can very easily silence himself by wanting to “sound good”, or in other words post the perfect post, the character length does not necessarily make things any easier.

I can take a few days over a blog post. There can be nothing wrong with that. I write, edit, fine tune and finally post. However, more often than not I extend that process by too much, simply because I am not happy with how I am expressing myself. I edit and fine tune, edit and fine tune, edit and fine tune, etc, etc.

Perfectionism

Author and researcher Brené Brown says of perfectionism1,

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.

Perfectionism is a block to the world that I want to create or offer. As long as my words do not see the light of day, the thoughts and ideas that I want to share will also never see the light of day. As long as I do not allow myself to publish a post, I do not get the opportunity to improve my writing through practice. Words might come out messy, my expression could be fine tuned here or there, but unless I allow myself to be vulnerable and speak to where I am in that moment, I will not be able to move beyond that moment. I will be stuck.

Commitment - Stepping Beyond Perfectionism

A commitment to Microblogvember asks me to step out of my comfort zone and just post. I post using today’s word today, as tomorrow will be tomorrow’s word. I play with the word in my head to come up with a context that I might use it. Next I play with two or three sentences in Drafts, and then post it.

Today, November 15, the challenge has reached the halfway point and I am happy to say that I have posted everyday. My plan is to make it to the finishing line. My hope is to take my experience from this challenge into my longer blog posts, and see a quicker turn around with them, from idea to post.

You?

Where is perfectionism blocking you in your life? What small step can you take to step beyond perfectionism?

When Shame Hits

Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better.
~ Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown

From my experience shame can come out of nowhere. It hit me hard yesterday, and it can be a real gut wrencher.

I met up for breakfast with some friends from my men’s group. I value having these men in my life and we were having a great conversation. Another man happened to walk into the store where we were eating and joined us. I hadn’t seen him in a long while. I appreciate these moments in my life.

Then one man said something to another. Innocently, nothing wrong with what he said, but it hit me in the gut. The pain from that blow slowly expanded over through the rest of the day, putting me in a space such that I found it hard to be productive for a few hours.

Shadow

Shadow - The part of ourselves that we don’t talk about. It is the part of our personality that we deny to the world, and often to ourselves. That which we repress, hide and deny.

That is what had been hit in me yesterday, shadow. I have a context for this now. My men’s work has shown me shadow and given me a safe place to bring shadow into light. Something that had innocently been said had touched a shadow within me. As the day went on, those very men who I had had breakfast with also became my support.

Shame Resilience

The work of author, speaker and researcher, Brené Brown, through her own research on shame has developed a four step process for dealing with shame. Brown calls this process Shame Resilience. Here are those four steps:

  1. Recognising shame and understanding our triggers - Shame is biology and biography. What are your physical responses. What does shame taste like, smell like, feel like?
  2. Practice Critical Awareness - Can you reality-check the messages and expectations that are driving your shame?  Are they realistic?  Attainable?  Are they what you want to be or what you think others need/want from you?
  3. Reaching Out - Are you owning and sharing your story?  We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting.
  4. Speaking Shame - Are you talking about how you feel and asking for what you need when you feel shame?

This was also a big help. When I bring light to that which I did not know was there, or had hidden due to shame or fear of being judged, it starts to loose its power. When I bring that shadow to light within the context of a person or community who does not judge me, who sees me beyond my struggles, the power of that seeing becomes all the more stronger.

Shadow and shame does not disappear over night, but a willingness to expose, challenge and look at them will wear down the foundations upon which they stand.