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July 16, 2019

When your Biggest Danger is also your Greatest Gift: a Love Letter to the Sensitive Ones.

 

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A Lotus Flower and Love Letter from Southeast Asia

Two years ago, I visited Southeast Asia for the first time.

It was a manic, frangipani-scented, epic adventure to Bali and Hong Kong, full of ocean floating, beach handstands, temples, fruit bowls, yoga, dim sum, and the sweatiest, dirtiest scooter rides ever through the utter chaos that is Denpasar at rush hour.

It was a much-needed trip that started to wake up my sleepy soul, which had gotten into quite a rut of stress and overwork and routine (and trying to make a little business fly all by my little self). 

I was happy, and finally doing the thing, in so many ways. In other ways, I was scared sh*tless.

And was I, a counselor for women with depression and anxiety, actually depressed myself? It seemed so.

Here’s the thing about being an ENFP, my personality type, or really any strong feeling type: we won’t often see our depression. It’s usually quietly camped out somewhere on the inside of our soul, somewhere dark and musty and safe, holding silent vigil behind our highly exuberant, charming, optimistic, and happy personality. 

Sometimes our closest friends and partners don’t even know about it. We aren’t trying to lie or deceive anyone; nor are we trying to keep something from those we love. Actually, we are just so familiar with challenging and intense feelings—and the world’s utter discomfort with them—that we have learned how to protect the people we love.

And we’ve learned to protect ourselves. 

We know that while people mean well, hearing about the reality of our inner experience will usually scare them. And we care deeply about our people, so we tend toward self-reliance. As children, we often coped with these feelings by escaping into a highly developed imaginary world. I recall writing my first stories around the age of six. One was about my perceived notion of my dog’s sadness at not being played with enough—you get the idea.

As adults? Many of us cope with drugs and alcohol. Why? Because the people society labels as “addicts” are sometimes the world’s most intuitive, sensitive, and kind souls. Nobody wakes up wanting to be an addict, but many of us can’t bear the weight of what we feel and why the world seems to keep moving and functioning just fine, when we seem to feel too much.

Some of us create: we write, paint, act, design, sculpt to channel the intensity of our feelings into something out there. Something to get it out, energetically. To help us make sense of it.

Many of us have therapists. And often a highly selective, curated group of intimate friends with whom we can talk about it. Like really talk about it. Unedited, in all its terrifying truth. Like the person you call when death starts to whisper a pretty seductive lie that all that pain could go away if you just slept like, forever.

And some of us just don’t make it.

The day that Anthony Bourdain died, I broke down in a puddle of tears. I didn’t know him. But the comments around his death broke me. I absolutely and totally understand how someone as alive and vivacious and expansive as him could also be experiencing a completely different internal reality, and wish for nothing more than an escape. 

So he chose it.

Because feelings are not selective. Those of us who feel great joy and optimism and hopefulness also usually know the opposite side of that broad spectrum. We know immense pain. We know what it feels like to walk through the world with the daily experience of a breaking heart, incapable of “managing” this world’s intensity. We do not have a thick skin. Our sensitivity is both our greatest gift, and also our greatest danger. If we don’t learn how to manage it, we can quite easily be taken out by it.

When I was younger, I’ve was often told that I was “too much.”

Too sensitive.
Too independent.
Too weird.
Too reactive.
Too assertive.
Too excited.
Too indecisive.
Too opinionated.
Too diplomatic.
Too feminist.

Too sensitive—this one deserves more than one mention, because I heard it so frequently. Only decades later have I begun to manage the intensity of my feelings and my internal world. And in doing so, have been able to help so many others.

Before then, I would question myself and wonder what was wrong with me. Why wasn’t anyone else noticing the girl crying in the lunchroom after being made fun of? Why did a friend’s meaningless, teasing words wreck me for days? Why did the poaching and pain of the elephants in Africa feel like it was happening inside my very body?

But I was one of the lucky ones. 

At the same time the world was bombarding me with those messages, I was also receiving other ones. I had parents who told me to try anything I wanted when it came to sports and activities. Don’t like it? No problem! Try something else. But work hard at it.

Teachers who saw in me a creative spirit and nurtured that by giving me extra assignments to work on that fueled my love of writing and travel.

And best of all, my family’s decision to move me overseas with them when I was 11, which catapulted me into an international playground of different ideas, people, countries, and languages. While my family didn’t make it out of that move intact, I did—precisely because of the independence and resiliency that living in a foreign culture promotes.

Fast forward to Southeast Asia…

I’m in a sweet season right now. The glow and joy on my face here in Cambodia and Vietnam is real, down to my core. I wake up in the morning with a pounding joy in my chest and a childlike awe that this is my life. What?!

This is my life, and it’s glorious.

But you should know that two years ago, in a yoga class in Ubud, Bali, I sat in meditation bawling my eyes out in front of about 25 people. The yoga instructor asked us to participate in a lotus mediation: placing our hands together in the shape of a lotus flower, at heart level. She invited us to meditate on something we needed to let go of, or ask for, or offer to the Divine—and when we had that thing in our mind and heart, we should raise our lotus flower up over our heads as a sign of offering this thing up.

I sat there for at least 10 minutes as tears spilled out of me, endless tears, my hands shaking in front of my heart. I had no clue what I needed, wanted to offer, or ask for—just that I needed to feel the Divine and to somehow feel myself as alive again, or I literally might die. I was so sad. And so scared. And angry and lost and unsure and numb and hurting myself.

I felt something inside my chest, as I often do when something higher than myself shows up. It felt like warmth. Like a gentle promise. Like a whisper telling me that I am the lotus flower—just currently in the darkness, in the mud. It felt like a lover telling me to wait, to hang in there. There was growth happening I couldn’t see. I was skeptical.

But I wept harder as I raised my lotus as an act of desperate faith. It was a plea for rescue, for a reality of joy and peace that I could not find on my own.

Two weeks later, I returned home from Bali, and upon checking my mail at work found a handwritten envelope addressed to me from a former client, one that I hadn’t seen in years. As I opened it, a silver lotus necklace fell out on to my lap, attached to a card that read:

“The lotus flower grows up through the dark and out into the light of the sun. Let your necklace be a reminder of the incredible beauty that can come from change. Grow and believe!”

I burst into tears. Because there is nothing more miraculous than God herself sending you a f*cking lotus necklace in the mail as a reminder of a promise made in Bali. (For the record, I am aware that it is ridiculous how blatantly the Divine acts in my life. And I swear on my life that I do not, and could not, make these things up.)

The handwritten note from my client was a thank you for the years of investing in her life; she shared how happy she is now, which always moves me to tears. She also mentioned that she had been keeping an eye out for the perfect gift to say thank you for several months. When she saw the lotus necklace, she felt as if a higher power was saying: “This one.”

I wore that lotus necklace for over a year. And then a few months ago, sitting again in a morning meditation, I started to notice a shift—a lightness, a peace in my chest, in that place I feel the Divine.

It grew stronger, pulsing, gaining momentum, until after a few weeks it full-on exploded into joy. The joy I’d been praying for for years. And it stuck. It wasn’t leaving.

I say joy intentionally—because joy is not happiness. Happiness is a fleeting high, a rush, a fun hit of adrenaline. 

Joy? Joy is rooted and strong and deep. It does not break when hard things happen or life gets real. Joy laughs and means it. Joy is the preferred state of the Divine. Joy wakes up daily in breathless wonder at the very ridiculousness of the gift of being alive. 

While I am still the same sensitive person who questions herself, so much has changed. The way I feel about my life is completely different. I walk through the world in so much more awe. I find that I can feel grounded and exuberant at the same time. When I choose to listen for that still, small voice, I notice an endless affirmation that I am exactly where I’m meant to be, doing it all exactly as I’m meant to do it. 

There are no right words to describe what this feels like after flirting with darkness for longer than I care to remember. And the more I relax into who I really am, right where I am, and stay connected to Source, the more the blessings and signs and opportunities keep coming.

And as if the Divine hasn’t already loved me into oblivion and back again, the other day in Cambodia I got unintentionally separated from my group. Ever up for an exploration, I decided to follow some side streets, to follow my intuition. I turned a corner and found myself staring squarely at a giant lake, hidden in the middle of the city, filled to the brim with lotus flowers in their fullest bloom—standing tall and proud, having journeyed from the mud through the dark to the light and out into the air.

They went as far as my eyes could see. Bright, brilliantly loud, hot-pink flowers, taking up all the space.

And in that moment, I whimpered a breathless thank you to the Divine, because she is faithful, and she does not lie, and when she makes a promise, she keeps it. It took me two years to bloom, to breathe from that place, and while I know there will be many more challenges ahead, there is nothing quite like the feeling of coming up for air when all you knew for so long was a suffocating sense of stuck sadness.

So if you’re reading this and you’re in the mud and the dark and it’s not ending, not even when you think you can’t bear it any longer, know that I see you and I feel you and I know that it’s utterly horrible.

But hold on. Ask the Divine to talk to you, because she will. Sometimes we just have to get still enough or uncomfortable enough to hear her.

Travel helps, even if it’s just to a new coffee shop, or to some random forest where we can cry into the dirt. Sit. Breathe. Tell her how bad it is. Tell her all of it. She’s listening.

And she’ll show up. Not always on our schedule, but on a schedule we can trust.

I’m sweating buckets in a Vietnamese tea house as I write this, about to hop on my bike and cruise around town to explore more food, more people, more energy, more wonder. So when you see my smiling pics on social media, know that it’s true—I am truly joyful. But it’s not the whole story.

Like most things in life that are worth anything, it was a long, slow, painful birthing process, this finding my way back to myself, to joy—or perhaps finding my way forward to a new me and a new joy is a better way to say it. And it’s not one or the other. Often our greatest joys are birthed in the most heartbreaking pain.

My heart will always be with those in that darkness, those questioning if they can make it, those who can only see the mud, those who don’t know how to handle the feelings or talk about the feelings or where to put all the feelings.

Write them. Sweat them. Paint them. Talk them. Feel them. Embrace them, but please, please don’t numb them or kill them. Because they can shift, they will shift, and sometimes they are actually too much, and when this is the case, we must dance and scream and share and breathe and write and release them into the world somewhere.

We need you, desperately, because who knows what treasures have been placed inside you to help heal the world and lead you to your greatest joy.

~

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author: Jen Kilgo

Image: @walkthetalkshow/Instagram

Image: Mariano Nocetti/Unsplash

Editor: Nicole Cameron