A Social Butterfly I’m Not

Queen butterfly
Queen (Danaus gillipus) (Corrections welcome if I’m wrong)

As promised, this time I’m showing you butterfly pictures from my trip to the Rio Grande Valley. And I want to talk more about something I mentioned briefly in my last post, the difficulties of traveling and making friends as a highly-sensitive person (HSP). By the way, even if you’re not one of the 15-20% of people who fall into this category, you may discover that someone you love is highly-sensitive. So reading this could help you have a better relationship with your own friends and loved ones. Understanding is always a good thing. (And besides, there are butterflies!)

As I knew it would, this trip put me in a situation where I was over-stimulated and couldn’t get enough alone time to recharge my batteries each day. This tendency to get overwhelmed easily is typical of HSPs, so I’m very familiar with it. It’s been a lifelong struggle for me to manage it, and it’s especially hard when I’m traveling with someone else who doesn’t have the same need for downtime.

Red-bordered Pixie
Red-bordered Pixie

I’d been holding a hotel reservation for my trip to Texas for several months, and could have just kept it and had ample privacy and independence. But because I’m in the middle of a divorce and feeling so lonely, I thought it would be good to push myself out of my comfort zone this time. I was going someplace I’d never been before, and I thought that I’d miss out on too much of the fun if I were on my own. So I accepted a generous invitation from three friends to share a lovely rental house. I first met these friends at the Biggest Week in American Birding in 2013 and 2014, and we’d kept in close contact through Facebook. But the truth is, we don’t know each other all that well aside from our shared love of birds and nature. They’re highly-social extroverts who have incredibly wide networks of friends, so naturally they had lots of party plans during the festival. And, whether I was ready or not, I was along for the ride.

"A member of the Comma family" is as far as I could get in identifying this one.
Some type of Comma butterfly

I want to make clear that none of this is intended to be a criticism of my friends. It’s about how my high sensitivity makes it harder for me to enjoy a busy social life. And for those who may not realize it, there are some hard-core party animals among birders. Talk about defying a stereotype! The social calendars at birding festivals are always crammed full of parties and special events, and I always end up exhausted. Imagine having to get up every day before dawn for field trips, being out in the field looking for birds until mid-afternoon, using every spare moment after that to try to connect with friends you only see a couple times a year, chasing rare birds, and then being expected to party with everyone at night. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the laughter and stories we share at the parties. I really do.

But as an HSP, my experience of a party is so much more intense and emotional than most other people. I stand in a room with dozens of conversations going on around me — people laughing, people drinking — and I soak it all up into my sponge of a brain. Because I notice so many more details and subtleties of my environment, it follows that I’ll be more easily overwhelmed when I’m in a situation where things are chaotic and new for an extended length of time. My brain wants to really think about it all, and there’s no time for that. This is exactly what happened in Texas. I was in a new place, with people who were friends and yet we hadn’t spent all that much time together before, and I was introduced to dozens and dozens of new people every day. (“That person looks familiar, should I know her?” “I don’t understand what they’re talking about.” “Why do I feel so lonely in the middle of this crowded room?” “Why am I thinking so much?!”) Combine this with the physical exhaustion from the travel and the early morning field trips and you’ve got a meltdown waiting to happen.

Zebra Heliconian, one of my favorites from my trip to Texas
Zebra Heliconian, one of my favorites from my trip to Texas

And it didn’t help that a mutual acquaintance felt it necessary to introduce me (several times!) as “Kim, who’s going through a divorce right now.” I went on this trip to get away from thinking of that painful part of my life for a few days, and here it was being thrown back in my face when I was meeting new people. It was embarrassing and certainly didn’t help put me at ease.

Monarch chrysalis! It was only about an inch long.
Monarch chrysalis! It was only about an inch long.

I made it to Friday night before I came to the limits of my social endurance, and after that we all sort of went our separate ways each day. I felt awful for my inability to have as much fun as everyone else was having. I felt ashamed of myself for needing to get away from people. And I felt afraid that my friends would decide that I was just too high-maintenance and that it wasn’t worth being friends with me anymore. We HSPs are accustomed to being judged by others for not being “normal,” and for being so…well, so sensitive. So although this is familiar to me, it never gets any easier. I wish I could be with people all the time and just enjoy it. But it’s never going to be like that for me. My energy gets drained by parties, whereas extroverts and non-HSPs get more energy from being surrounded by other people.

I think this is a Gulf Fritillary (Corrections welcome if I'm wrong)
I think this is a Gulf Fritillary

By now it won’t come as a surprise to you when I admit that I don’t have many long-term friendships. My lack of close friends has always been a sad part of my life, and that weak spot has come under a spotlight now that I’m living alone. When I was married I dreamed of having more space and more time to myself, but now that I have it — all the time — I’m surprised at how lonely I’ve been. Sometimes I worry about how I’ll get through the divorce and the coming months as I adapt to my new single life. Since I don’t work outside my home I don’t have much regular social contact with other people. And until now I’ve been mostly okay with that. But now I really need to be with people. I need to know that somebody in the world will notice if I’m not there, and that there’s somebody I can call to drive me to the doctor if I’m sick. I guess I just need to feel that I’m not so alone in the world. But then again, maybe I’m being overly dramatic.

I feel so very vulnerable admitting all my doubts and insecurities to the world. But for some reason I think it’s important to let non-HSPs see what we go through in our daily lives. I’m guessing I speak for many of my fellow sensitive souls when I say that we don’t expect you to handle us with kid-gloves or bend over backwards to accommodate our needs, but a bit of awareness and understanding would go a long way toward helping us come out and play in the world with you. We can be lots of fun, I promise!

Anyway…I’m going to start working after the holidays, but since I’ll be freelance proofreading, that won’t get me out among people. I’m also planning to get involved with some more charity work too, so that will help. But right now, in the midst of attorney meetings and trying to deal with a rollercoaster of emotions, it’s all I can do to make it from one day to the next. (Not to mention the upcoming holidays…I sure picked a bad time of year to get divorced, didn’t I? I’m dreading the next two months.)

My best guess is White Peacock on this one.
My best guess is White Peacock on this one.

In the meantime, I’m trying to learn how to be more open to new friendships. I won’t ever be a social butterfly, but it won’t hurt to put myself out there more often. I saw an article in Psychology Today recently called “5 Signs You’re Living Too Small,” and it really hit home with me, especially this part: “That’s why you wear a heavy coat of armor whenever you deal with people, whether at home, at work, or out in the world. You are eternally, exhaustingly, braced for attack.” So I think the universe is telling me something: It’s time to come out of my cocoon and seek out a good and happy life. Stay tuned….

People Who Need People

That title is a reference to the well-known song sung by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” The line from that song that has always resonated with me is this: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” I’m a bit of a loner and an introvert, tending to spend most of my time alone or with just a couple other people. But even though I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with being this way, I still feel a bit of shame at my inability to be the outgoing, always-on-the-run, busy-busy-busy personality that is more socially acceptable in this country.

Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk
Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk

As an HSP, I have a strong aversion to crowds and noise. Some people are stimulated in a positive way by being around lots of other people, but I have the exact opposite experience. After spending time at a large social function, I usually feel very tired and emotionally drained. We HSPs take in so much more information in any given situation than most people that our brains just get overloaded with stimuli. Because of this, I’ve learned to orchestrate my life so that I have lots of quiet time for recuperation and reflection on my experiences. Knowing all of this, you might wonder why I would voluntarily go to a birding festival where the most popular birding spot is a narrow boardwalk that gets so crowded you sometimes have to push your way between people. (The photo to the left is only a medium-sized crowd — it gets much worse in spots where a really good bird is spotted!)

Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!
Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!

It’s funny though, that because of the beauty and general awesomeness of the birds, I don’t really get as tense as I would somewhere else with the same crowds. Like, for example, if the crowds were that thick at a street art festival, I’d only be able to spend short amounts of time there. But the birds make all the difference. Even though I’m surrounded by throngs of people, my mind is mostly focused on the little flying creatures in the trees.  If you saw me on the Magee boardwalk, you wouldn’t necessarily think that I was any different from anyone else. You’d probably even see me helping other people to see and identify birds; I really do love interacting with people when I can teach or show them something interesting.

This year at the Biggest Week I had a moment where I was struck by something ironic: I’ve always thought birding was a healthy and fun way to avoid people, but I found that my love of birds has begun to bring me closer to people.

My festival name badge
My festival name badge

Like the moment when a complete stranger noticed my name badge and told me she’d read my blog and liked it. Wow, talk about having your mind blown….that was great. One of the most rewarding things someone can say to me is that they read my blog and enjoy it.

There was another moment where my blog started a conversation too. I was on the boardwalk in a very crowded section, trying to catch a glimpse of some warbler (I think it was a Golden-winged…). I exchanged pleasantries with a very well-known birder who began asking me about my HSP trait, telling me she’d read my blog and was curious about it. We had a quiet conversation right in the middle of a huge crowd of people, with people jostling for better vantage points to see the bird. I was so touched by this and made sure to thank her for talking to me about it.

It may sound egotistical, but I believe it’s a core human truth: We all like to know that we’re important, that we make a difference.  This is something I’ve struggled with in recent years because I don’t usually get this kind of feedback in my regular life. I question whether I’m doing anything useful with my life. These moments of connection meant SO much to me. I thought I was okay with my quiet, relatively isolated existence. It’s not that I’m not happy — I am. But my interactions with other bird lovers in the past month have added another dimension to my life, making it richer and more meaningful.

I’m still processing what this all means to me. For example, why have I never felt this type of connection to any other group of people before? What is it about bird people that makes me feel so good? I think it may be our shared concerns for the natural world, the tie that binds all human and animal life together.  Part of me doesn’t want to over-analyze the whole experience, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

After all these years, is it possible I really could be one of the “People Who Need People”?