Personal Reflections of the June 2008 HSP Gathering Retreat
held at Walker Creek Ranch, Petaluma, California
by Sherri Neilson, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia
The spring of 2008 dropped on me like a load of bricks. After years of relative peace in my life, everything started to go wrong at work and home. When I signed up for the WCR June 08 HSP Gathering, I wasn't just looking for a fun, new experience. I was counting on it to fix my life (and sanity). Luckily, it did.
When I arrived at the ranch in my rental car after touring the California coast, which was therapeutic in itself, I looked at the endless landscape of tan hills and thought: I am truly in the middle of nowhere. Perfect! It was very hot. As an Eastern girl who's used to humidity and once got dehydrated on a desert trip, I started to wonder if I'd perish before the retreat had even begun. Instead, I thrived, enjoying the abundant wildlife, scents of eucalyptus and buckeye, and the cool, quiet nights great for sleeping - with the windows open.
Moving into the lodge reminded me of being a freshman college student where everything is new and a little scary yet full of possibility. After being stuck in the same routine for years, I was going to have a brand new life for a few days. I could completely reinvent myself.
Meeting new people always challenges my Introvert side, and this was no different. Whenever I attend a conference, I'm happy if I connect with at least one person in a meaningful way. Here, I connected with a lot of people. After the first day, I felt completely at home. It was like being with family.
Unlike other conferences, I didn't have to take frequent breaks from being overwhelmed. I didn't feel pressured to make small talk. When I shared a picnic bench with a fellow HSP to relax, we knew we didn't have to talk so we didn't. I realized other people were wrestling with the same life issues I was like where to live and how to find jobs that replenish instead of deplete us. We networked like crazy without even trying, and I filled a whole piece of paper with those valuable tips.
The most amazing thing of all was that I didn't get annoyed by anyone! Everyone was quiet and considerate. As a physical reactor type of HSP, one of the things I realized about myself at this retreat, is that I'm very bothered by unnecessary noise like loud talking or hysterical laughter. I didn't even think it was possible for me be in a big group of people anymore and not have to wrestle with a "fight or flight" sensation -- a too familiar feeling that I've subconsciously allowed to plague much of my life at home, work, and even parties -- do I let the stress response accumulate, or just walk out? There are, of course, a variety of coping strategies for this dilemma, and some good books have been written addressing this challenge. (To read more about the HSP Subcultures please go to: http://www.lifeworkshelp.com/hspsubculture.htm.
Sadly, I had pretty much given up on people (outside my close circle of family and friends) altogether. Wherever I went, I always felt like I was on the wrong planet. I couldn't help but wonder how I could be so different from everyone else and why I had to be in the minority. Words can't describe how good it felt to be among like minded people on a planet I was not only comfortable on, but knew intimately.
One day when I looked in the bathroom mirror, I couldn't help thinking, "gee, I actually look sort of good today." Was it the California sun? Was I having a good hair day? Or was I just being vain? No, I was really happy and in my optimum environment, and it showed. It was a glow from within.
"I was really happy and in my optimum environment and it showed. It was a glow from within."
Everything ran so smoothly it was like being on vacation. The classes were great. I thought I knew everything about the Myers-Brigg personality test, but I learned so much more. There were lots of fun events to choose from too. We went to the beach at Point Reyes, hiked up a mountain for a summer solstice sunset ceremony, then danced and got totally crazy in a rustic barn like a bunch of carefree kids.
The best part was sharing our creativity on talent night. Reading one of my stories aloud was scary, but that feeling soon went away when I realized how supportive and safe the audience was. They laughed so much at the humorous parts, I felt like a stand-up comedian. Maybe next time I'll be brave enough to actually try stand-up comedy.
Because there will definitely be a next time -- East Coast, West Coast, or maybe even the UK in April of 2009!
The last day was appropriately foggy when we said our goodbyes and shared what we'd learned. I've never felt so much emotion and goodwill in one room before. It was powerful enough to move a mountain.
I learned so many things. I learned I can choose to act instead of react to situations, how to commune with nature and find answers to problems, and how to recognize when I'm in a stress pattern. Instead of feeling out of control, I just apply what I learned from the personality classes and tell myself "I'm just in the grip of my least preferred function" (the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory) or "I'm not in my happy, integrated place" (Enneagram).
I also took away a quote from a fellow HSP about being too hard on myself for not being able to handle all the noise and stress in the world. She said, "When you need glasses, you just wear them." To, me that says it all about being an HSP. We have to accept ourselves for being different. Celebrate the good parts and take whatever adaptive measures are necessary to handle the bad parts. No guilt, no judging. Just taking care of our needs.
The most important thing I got out of the experience was not a specific coping strategy but an overall feeling of empowerment. There's no magic wand to make our lives perfect, but if we feel empowered instead of helpless and hopeless, we can tackle our problems and maybe even solve a few.
Once the retreat was over, I went to San Francisco for some sightseeing before going home. When I walked around the wharf area, I was bombarded by all the stimuli -- flashing lights, traffic, yelling, blaring music. What a shock after being in the quiet HSP environment. Instead of feeling alienated, I let it wash over me. The HSP world was temporary. This is the world I have to live in, but I feel strong enough now to thrive in either world.
Each HSP Gathering Retreat has its own Yahoo discussion group, and I really enjoy staying connected to everyone and looking at the pictures people took. This still has not been an easy year for me, but when the stress gets overwhelming, all I have to do is think about the ranch and that special, empowered feeling I walked away with. It's still there somewhere, buried under the clutter of everyday life. All I have to do is think about it and I'm there. And strong.
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