Welcome to Focus On Emotions, a series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them. This article was written by Dr. Sarah Thompson, Clinical Psychologist, originally published Dec. 8, 2016 on ryersonstudentaffairs.com.
Want to find out if you are an orchid or a dandelion?
There are various ways to find out if you are a dandelion or an orchid (also known as a highly sensitive person (HSP) or a “super-feeler”). For those wishing for conclusive evidence, you can take a genetic test to see if you have the protective (dandelion) or risky (orchid) variants of several alleles that can contribute to the development of challenges with attention or mood. If you are approaching this from a more playfully curious place, or don’t want to wait several weeks, try Aron’s quiz that can be completed in under 5 minutes which can help you identify whether you may be a highly sensitive person (orchid) or not (dandelion).
Imagine the following scene: Orchy the orchid is attending a large and important committee meeting regarding a new Student Affairs initiative. Dan the dandelion is sitting at the same table.
As the meeting is called to order, Dan is thinking about the materials he has prepared for the meeting. He flips through his speaking notes to ensure they are in the correct order. He is wondering what is for lunch, and pats his growling stomach in anticipation as he shifts his attention to the speaker who is opening the meeting and laying out the issues. He’s feeling prepared, calm, and a little hungry.
As the meeting is called to order, Orchy takes her seat. She notices that the air circulation system seems particularly loud today. Perhaps she’s sitting under a vent. Orchy appreciates that the new conference chairs are so much more comfortable than the old ones, and smiles in greeting at her colleagues around the table. She notices Aisha and Chen are smiling broadly as they quietly finish a conversation, and feels a tiny surge of energy and curiosity about what exciting ideas they may be discussing. Orchy notices the committee lead glance her way, pause, and then shift his attention to Dan who is flipping through papers and then begins gently patting his stomach. Could Dan be feeling anxious or unwell? The team lead’s brow furrows slightly for a moment before relaxing. Interesting. Orchy feels a bit chilly, curious about new plans and directions, slightly concerned about Dan, and a little stressed about deadlines that await her attention following the meeting. Taking a moment, she pushes other thoughts to the side, takes a deep breath, and focuses attention specifically on the speaker who is beginning to lay out the issues.
As SA professionals, we work with diverse colleagues and diverse students. Areas of diversity not often discussed include diversity in emotional reactivity and sensitivity to one’s immediate environment, both of which can underpin diverging reactions to similar stimuli (why different people react in different ways to similar things, even when they have similar lived experiences). Being able to understand others’ big and small reactions through a lens of emotional reactivity and environmental sensitivity can help us to communicate more effectively and empathically with our colleagues and our students, and can help us to better understand our own and others’ needs. Learning survival tips to help you thrive within your particular style of feeling and sensitivity can also make our personal and professional lives easier.
I am going to review today three general “types” of feelers: orchids (aka “super-feelers” or “highly sensitive people”), dandelions (the most common type of feeler), and those with alexithymia, or low-emotion feelers, who are less aware of their emotions than most. Whatever kind of feeler you are, I will share a few tips for thriving in the feeling realm.
(As well as super-feelers and highly sensitive persons.)
Orchid individuals have BIG feelings and are more impacted than most by their environments.
Inner Critic: How can you write this inconsequential piece when there is such fear and uncertainty in the world? This is pointless! You’re wasting your time.
Self: Inner critic, you’re depressing, literally. When you say these things to me, I feel inadequate and defeated and I just want to give up. Critic, these are uncertain times on so many fronts, but attacking me is inappropriate and unhelpful. Stop being so mean. I’m not going to listen to this anymore.
Orchids can spot a feeling from a hundred paces, whether it’s a one millimetre arch of an eyebrow suggesting skepticism (ok, that would also require phenomenal visual acuity, but you get my point), or a full blown temper tantrum. This can be a significant strength—orchids tend to be attuned to others feelings and have a very high capacity for empathy and flourishing.
This can also be a significant weakness—orchids may be especially susceptible to feeling overwhelmed or shut down by others’ feelings, to being negatively impacted by pervasive emotional misattunement, and to being most heavily impacted by systemic barriers and traumatic events in their environments.
A Look at Theory: Orchids
…orkidebarn or “orchid child”, might better describe the context-sensitive individual, whose survival and flourishing is intimately tied, like that of the orchid, to the nurturant or neglectful character of the ambient environment. In conditions of neglect, the orchid promptly declines, while in conditions of support and nurture, it is a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty. – Boyce and Ellis, 2005
In this context, the term “orchid” comes from the orchid hypothesis (note for theory geeks: see also plasticity hypothesis, differential susceptibility hypothesis) named after the Swedish idioms of orkidebarn (orchid child) and maskrosbarn (dandelion child). The orchid hypothesis posits that about 20% of the population is born with a genetic predisposition to be highly responsive to their environments. Stemming from a more qualitative body of research, Dr. Elaine Aron has coined the term Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, again finding that approximately 15–20% of the population meet criteria. Based on her research on highly sensitive people, Aron suggests that it takes less stimulation to put an HSP above their window of tolerance (feeling frazzled or overwhelmed) than it does for others.
What is the “optimal window of tolerance?” It’s a construct often talked about by therapists, especially trauma therapists. People tend to feel most comfortable, learn optimally, and be most productive when in their optimal window of tolerance—that is when subjective stress or physiological arousal is neither too high (e.g. feeling like your mind is racing, your body is buzzing, your feelings are too strong) nor too low (e.g. feeling sleepy, bored, unmotivated, disengaged). When arousal is optimal, you feel curious, alert, interested, and engaged.
Any of you who have taken an Intro Psych class may be aware of the diathesis-stress model, or the idea that individuals carry genetic risk factors, that—when exposed to certain stressors—can result in the development of psychological illness. What the orchid hypothesis adds to this model is that, for orchids, there is in fact an interaction between genes and environment that can result in more negative outcomes or more positive outcomes. Dandelions, on the other hand, tend to be less impacted by both negative and positive aspect of their environments. This has important identity implications for our students, and for us. If we have genetics that predispose us to strong negative outcomes based on life stressors, we are not doomed. Rather, we must attempt to curate our environments, and reach out for help when needed, because those same genes may predispose the most “at-risk” individuals to flourish with appropriate support.
What Does It Mean for You: Orchids
So, what does it mean to be an orchid? It can mean many things:
- Feeling your feelings more strongly than others.
- Feeling deeply with and for others (empathy and compassion respectively).
- Being an early detection system for others around you; being the first to notice small shifts in your team, your relationship, your child. You may be the first to notice, or to respond when things are going wrong…or going right!
Like Orchy in the meeting, orchids may be aware of, and/or impacted by many variables in their environments on a regular basis.
How To Thrive: Orchids
Stay in Your Window of Tolerance
One of the most important things you can do is spend the time and energy necessary to learn to manage how to stay in your window of tolerance. This will involve learning how to regulate your feelings.
1) Experiment with your environment to help upshift or downshift your emotions. Feeling sleepy? Turn up the lights, play some upbeat tunes, and move around; choose people and places that help you feel more energetic. Feeling overstimulated? Get out in the sunshine for a gentle walk. Spend time with someone who calms you. Or, stay put, turn down the lights, play some calming music.
2) Learn to use your attention to shift your feelings up or down. Take the time to learn mindful awareness and mindful meditation strategies to help you learn to direct your attention to calming things: whether aspects of your immediate environment, or retreating into your imagination. We’ll learn more this in the next article as we learn to identify and manage emotion triggers.
Read Your Feelings
Fine tuning your signal detection skills will help you learn how to read your feelings and act accordingly.
1) Know how to name your different feelings, and learn to recognize and understand what your feelings are telling you about what you need. Take action to meet those needs—know when to set a boundary, celebrate, retreat to a safe place, and reach out to a friend for support.
2) Learn to check out your assumptions. Learning to decode what your “gut” is telling you will help you to interpret signals from your emotion system, but this comes with challenges. In my experience, one thing highly sensitive people need to get really good at is telling the difference between what they notice, how they interpret what they notice, and what is objectively verifiable. In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists talk of cognitive distortions, one of which is “mindreading”, or making an assumption about how someone is reacting to you without checking it out. This can be a particular challenge for super-feelers who are likely to accurately see a change in someone’s expression, or in the dynamics of a group, but may not attribute that change to the correct source. For example, if I saw a flicker of annoyance cross someone’s face as a child, I was very likely to assume that someone was annoyed with me, rather than feeling annoyed because they just realized they had forgotten to do something important. While this is understandable in childhood, as adults, we must learn to ask direct questions like: “You seem annoyed; is it related to what we are talking about?”
3) Self-reflect to understand shifts in your own emotions. Another trap super-feelers can fall into is making false assumptions about the reasons for shifts in their own emotions. When you notice your feelings shift suddenly, look for three possible sources to start:
- Are old, familiar feeling patterns being triggered by someone or something in your environment? Another way of framing this is: Are someone’s current behaviours or an event happening in front of you triggering “your stuff” from the past? When this happens, you will likely notice that you are feeling something familiar and ‘“bad” that tends to come up for you again and again. You may notice that your feelings seem “bigger” or more intense than the current situation warrants.
When this happens, take a time out and ask yourself if these feelings feel familiar, and where you may have felt them before. If you have felt them before, what do those old circumstances have in common with your current circumstances? Do you tend to have this reaction when someone is angry at you? When receiving criticism? When facing a possible loss? Take time to separate out old feelings from current ones. Ask yourself how the current situation is the same and different from past circumstances? Ask yourself if your current strong feelings are really about the present moment, or if the target of your feelings is someone or something in your past. If the latter, acknowledge that some work needs to be done to let go of old hurts, and refocus on your reaction to the current situation.
- Are you resonating with a change in someone else’s feelings? If someone in front of you suddenly shifts from neutral to bursting into tears, your feelings may also suddenly shift as you begin to feel a bit of what the other person is feeling—this is an example of empathic attunement.
- Are you reacting appropriately to a change in someone or something in the here and now? Are you having an understandable feeling, at an understandable intensity given your current situation? If so, ask yourself what this feeling is telling you about what you need—these feelings are likely to be a good source of information to act upon. For example, if someone cuts in front of you as you wait in line for your morning coffee, irritation may be the appropriate response to a (pre-caffeinated) boundary violation.
Inner Critic: Sarah, this tightness in your chest is fear. You are trying to summarize too much and are sure to make mistakes. You are going to be laughed at and criticized.
Response: I’ve been writing for awhile this morning, and there is so much I want to cover so I am feeling a little stressed, it’s true. But, inner critic, you’re making me anxious. When you say these things to me, you awaken old feelings of having been embarrassed. Please stop it. Right beside the tension of feeling uncertain and overwhelmed is a feeling of energy and expansiveness in my chest. I value this project, and I need your support, not you scaring me.
At Work: Orchids
To thrive at work, I recommend orchids follow a few basic tips:
Pick Your Environment Wisely
- When possible, work for a boss that “gets you.”
- Seek out a work environment where you can regulate sensory stimulation.
- Clearly communicate both your learning style and your communication preferences to your managers, peers, and supervisees, and learn from these same people what their preferences are. Clear communication and expectations can help you to understand people’s responses in your environment.
Not Everyone Can “Super-Feel”
Understand that not everyone is an orchid—know that your feelings are valid. They are your own; they are also yours to manage.
When working with dandelions, know that they may not see shifts in your emotions so easily, and may have even more trouble decoding shifts in your experience. As they say in preschool curriculum, you must “use your words.” Don’t assume your dandelion or low-emotion friends can read your emotions or your mind. Work to identify what you are feeling, to give it a name, and to communicate it to your peers using “I” language.
Don’t assume your dandelion and low-emotion friends are aware of the emotion signals being communicated by their bodies, even if the signals are evident to you. Talk to your colleagues. Ask permission, if you believe you notice a change in their emotions, to check it out with them. Respect if they say “no”. For some, it can feel incredibly vulnerable to have someone see things in them that they may not be aware of.
Dandelion children or maskrosbarn “survive and even thrive in whatever circumstances they encounter, in much the same way that dandelions seem to prosper irrespective of soil, sun, drought, or rain. – Boyce and Ellis, 2005
My son loves dandelions. They are his favourite flower, especially—as is true for so many children—when they go to seed and become magical purveyors of tiny little windblown delights. In seeking to better understand the experience of dandelions (beyond thinking of my experience of a few close friends, and that of my partner), I found myself reading about “influencing” in management circles. The following quote caught my eye:
“Leaders are catalysts. Managers are stabilizers. A boat with no leader has no sails and fails to catch the wind. It might sit beautifully at the dock but it won’t move forward. But a boat without managers has no stabilizer and will capsize as soon as the wind blows.”
Team members like Dan may come into an environment prepared, and focused, and may remain in that state much of the time. Orchids, being super-sensitive to environmental changes, may be the first to pick up a hint of a change in the wind, will begin to react to change, and may begin to prepare for or implement change. While both dandelions and orchids may find themselves as managers and leaders, on average, dandelions are more likely to find their comfort zone in bringing stability to their work and personal lives. When working well in combination, dandelions will trust that their orchid counterparts are seeing and responding to something, and will then work with their colleagues to collectively turn their attention to gathering information to make informed decisions.
What Does It Mean for You: Dandelions
Being a dandelion, too, can mean many things:
- It can mean being reliable, stable, predictable, and resilient.
- It can mean being guided by a stable and continuous experience of self across situations and settings.
- It can mean being a calm anchor in a storm—being buffeted less by environmental influences.
In my experience, dandelions’ behaviours may be guided by internal factors (instead of moment to moment reactions to the environment) more heavily than their orchid counterparts. An orchid may wilt or perk up quickly in response to changes in its immediate environment, to changes in sunlight, moisture, and temperature. A dandelion will also respond to all of these variables, but often much less dramatically, with changes evidenced over longer timescales. Where different parts of an orchid’s personality may quickly and noticeably come to the fore in response to changes in the environment (e.g. an anxious watcher at signs of possible danger; a curious investigator when faced with something new and non-threatening; a warm care-taker in the face of grief or suffering; a confident leader when feeling safe and relaxed), dandelions may be more likely to demonstrate a predictable and consistent demeanour across settings bringing an internal stability with them wherever they go.
How to Thrive: Dandelions
Be aware of both your thoughts and your feeling to better identify and respond to your own and others’ underlying needs.
Learn to dial your emotion signals up and down. At times, your emotions may be active, but lie outside of your attention or your signal detection range. Learning to actively seek signs of emotion in your life may help you to notice when your feelings, thoughts, and values are in alignment. When this is a case, the plan of action you are contemplating or the circumstances underlying this alignment may reflect an optimal decision.
If you tend not to notice your emotions until they are so strong they overwhelm you, learn to quickly de-escalate strong feelings so you can more accurately make meaning of the information embedded within your strong emotions. (In our next article, we’ll review some specific strategies focusing on identifying and managing triggers and feelings.)
At Work: Dandelions
While your feelings may not be your most obvious compass, tuning into feelings periodically at work can help you to identify boredom and can motivate you to seek out new challenges before you find yourself stuck in a rut. Tuning into your feelings may also help you to identify when stress is high and rest or change are needed to avoid burnout, or may be the gateway to some new creative spark.
Practice cognitive empathy or perspective-taking. Practice imagining yourself in others’ shoes: How might you react if you were in a colleague’s situation? What does that tell you about what supports might be needed for this person at this time?
Be patient with your orchid colleagues. They aren’t trying to be difficult or sensitive; they may simply feel a lot and need some time to sit with feelings and to make meaning of them before they can provide a response to a question or a proposed new direction.
(As well as Autism Spectrum Disorder and Traumatized Orchids.)
For some individuals, feelings are truly a mystery.
Individuals living with alexithymia experience the world of feelings in a different way, often needing to rely more on cognition and behaviour than on awareness of internal sensations to understand their own and others’ feelings. About 10% of the population lives with features of alexithymia including an inability to identify or to label their feelings. Many will experience difficulty with empathy, being unable to identify emotions in others based on facial cues or vocal tones, and will experience a fantasy life that is less rich than their non-alexithymic peers. All of this may be associated with difficulties with something therapists call mentalizing—or being aware of one’s own mental processes and imagining other’s internal mental processes. (Bermond et al., 2007).
How to Thrive: Alexithymia
If you think you may experience alexithymia (and yes, there is an online self-assessment for that), Deborah Serani recommends taking an active approach to learning about emotions such as reading novels, journaling, engaging with creative artistic discovery, or participating in group or individual therapy. Use of active learning strategies is particularly helpful when we are trying to learn about things that lie outside of our strengths.
Identify behavioural signs that you are experiencing a certain feeling. For example, you may notice that when your fists or jaw are clenched, people tend to perceive you as experiencing anger, and when a tear rolls down your cheek or you want very much to be alone and quiet, people may perceive you to be sad. Working with friends who understand emotions easily may help you to figure out your own behavioural signals for particular emotions.
What Do Feelings Need?
Learn about common needs associated with each feeling. For example, anger needs a boundary to be set, sadness needs support and compassion, fear needs a retreat to safety. Learning what to do in response to a specific feeling will help you to be calm and satisfied more often. As discussed in my last article in this series, explicit teaching about how to recognize emotions and what they mean can be helpful.
Accept that it will sometimes feel like those around you have some kind of 6th sense, or talk about their own or others’ feelings in ways that may seem exaggerated or even impossible. Trust that they are speaking from their experience, and that it is simply different from your own.
Well, obviously, she’s feeling very sad, because of Cedric dying. Then I expect she’s feeling confused because she liked Cedric and now she likes Harry, and she can’t work out who she likes best. Then she’ll be feeling guilty, thinking it’s an insult to Cedric’s memory to be kissing Harry at all, and she’ll be worrying about what everyone else might say about her if she starts going out with Harry. And she probably can’t work out what her feelings towards Harry are anyway, because he was the one who was with Cedric when Cedric died, so that’s all very mixed up and painful. Oh, and she’s afraid she’s going to be thrown off the Ravenclaw Quidditch team because she’s flying so badly.’ A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, ‘One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.’ – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Autism Spectrum Disorder
While approximately 50% of individuals living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also have alexithymia, 50% do not. Those living with ASD, with or without alexithymia, also tend to experience the world of feelings and interpersonal communication in different ways than their neurotypical counterparts. One of the things I have learned in researching material for this article is that I have a lot more to learn about ASD, including understanding differences in experience for those who do and do not also have alexithymia. I have enjoyed Cynthia Kim’s blog, Musings of an Aspie, where she talks about the experience of living with late-diagnosed ASD, along with her experiences of marriage, motherhood, work, and life; you can read all about informed musings and tips for surviving and thriving from someone who herself lives and loves with ASD.
A Note on Trauma and BIG Feelings
Remember that some environments are more likely to lead to optimal growth. In the realm of feelings, this may include environments where parents have the knowledge, the time, and the emotional energy to help their children label feelings, tolerate and accept feelings, regulate the child’s behaviour in safe and accepting ways, and where parents can meet their children’s emotional needs. In environments where parents are overstressed, face systemic barriers or danger without adequate safety or support, are trying to cope with their own emotional demons through drinking, drugs, or workaholism, or who have learned that expression of feelings is unacceptable, environments may be less than optimal. This is especially true when traumatic events occur in the life of a child or the child’s entire family.
Following traumatic events, children and adults can become hypervigilant. In the second article in this series, I talked about emotions initiating a mode of processing within our nervous systems. Hypervigilance occurs when your nervous system gets stuck in hyperalert “fear-detection” mode, ever alert for signs of danger in an effort to stay safe—even in safe environments. This can look like frequent worries about safety and security, or feeling anxious for “no apparent reason”—something I see often when working with clients.
In a future article, I will write more about the impacts of trauma on emotional development. For now, know that in someone who is already a super-feeler, and is therefore especially impacted by their environments, trauma responses can be particularly painful and evident. Trauma-based emotional responses can lead to particularly strong changes in emotion—sometimes in ways that are unpredictable even to the person having the intense feelings. In such cases, compassion for the emotions felt, alongside assertive boundaries around acceptable behaviour in a given context, are important for all parties. If you notice persistent and unpredictable strong emotions that appear to periodically take over your life, I recommend you seek help from a trained mental health professional to learn to understand, manage, and transform painful emotional response patterns. In my experience, there is always an understandable reason for such patterns to have developed and persisted.
Thank you for accompanying me in this journey through the dandelions and orchids, and I look forward to you joining me in the new year as we discuss strategies to help you to identify your triggers for strong emotions, and tips for how to manage the feelings that result—just in time for the return from the holiday season!