I have observed that when they are unaware of themselves, my children define themselves by mirroring what others feel and think of them. It is as if they are empathic chameleons that reflect the dominant emotions and thoughts of a social environment. This leads me to believe that when highly sensitive children (or adults) are not aware of the boundaries of themselves, they absorb everything in a social situation as being their reality, causing a great deal of anxiety. This is partly why kids overreact in new social settings. These children are not being impolite or seeking attention, they are having a strong reaction to sensorial space violations. As they do not need close distance to feel others, entering a room or having to sit close to a stranger can trigger very intense reactions.
When we lost understanding of our self as defined outside the boundaries of the body, we stopped acknowledging that social life has sensory dimensions. We culturally simplified our relationship to space and time by eliminating external stimuli from how we perceive the world. In the process we forgot that children’s first representations of themselves and perception of the world are filtered through these sensorial experiences of space. Such an omission has led us to create an environment that no longer sustain highly sensitive children’ heightened sensorial needs.
Modern models of social life do understand space as being important. For instance, Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist, created the concept of proxemics to describe the subjective dimensions that surround each person and the physical distances they try to keep from other people, according to subtle cultural rules (See figure 1). Personal space is the region surrounding a person, which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached (Hall, 1966). According to Hall, the norm for personal space is close to the body, 1.5ft.
Figure 1: Hall’s Proxemics Model
In contrast, Aboriginal health models provide a different framework that addresses the notion of self quite differently. As Cindy Blackstock explains:
“ There are a few epistemological approaches in social work that acknowledge epistemological interconnections such as the ecological model and structural theory but even they bracket the time frames and dimensions from which they view reality. Figure 1 (figure 2 of my text) demonstrates how differences in time, value of ancestral knowledge, values and beliefs play out when the ecological model is viewed from western and Aboriginal viewpoints.
The child is seen in a fixed moment in time within a larger context of family and world and there are interconnections between these dimensions that shape the reality of the child. If an Aboriginal epistemology is applied, the child, family, community and world are wholly affected by four interconnected dimensions of knowledge -emotional, spiritual, cognitive and physical informed by ancestral knowledge which is to be passed to future generations (Assembly of First Nations, 1993[ii]; RCAP, 1996[iii]). Despite the differences evident in this example, too often social workers negate the importance of ontology and epistemology in shaping our understanding of theoretical approaches (Kovach, 2006)[iv].”[v]
Figure 2: Blackstock’s Constrasting epistemological approaches to Ecological Theory
As explained in regards to indigenous health:
“ For Indigenous Peoples living in Canada and around the world, the inter-relationships between the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional aspects of being are integral to individual and community health. This holistic view is increasingly being acknowledged and accepted by the mainstream health community, and is often described in relation to non-medical, or social, determinants of health, such as education, housing, economic status, social capital, etc. Relying solely on bio-medical concepts of disease and of health — as is often the case in western health — is not necessarily an effective system for disease prevention and public health in Aboriginal populations. Culture and ethnicity are among the key determinants of health now being recognized by Health Canada, Canada’s federal health ministry. Research has demonstrated that culture and ethnicity are important to individual and community health because they influence an individual’s interaction with the health care system, their acceptance of and participation in preventative health programs and services, their lifestyle choices, and their access to health information. “ (Naho, 2008)[vi] All of this to say, socio-economics are also at play.
From these ancient health models flow very different concepts of life, morality that shape the role, construction, and processes of knowledge informing all dimensions of experience, including child welfare. “(Blackstock, 2009, p. 2-3). Many indigenous cultures have an entirely different social and political organization, which are non-hierarchical, non-coercive and non-authoritarian. Instead, they value the interconnection of all things. As Cindy Blackstock explains in relationship to social work that in aboriginal approaches:
“ The child is seen in a fixed moment in time within a larger context of family and world and there are interconnections between these dimensions that shape the reality of the child. ”(Blackstock, 2009, p. 5)[vii].”
This implies that the senses are indeed another dimension of social life. Highly sensitive children have very different identity boundaries. Their notion of self relies on the interconnectiveness of multiple spatial and social dimensions. They sense others and space as part of themselves. Their identity boundaries are porous and exist outside of the body.
We assume that the senses are outward flowing but ancient cultures knew that they also flow inwardly. For Tibetans, for example, in addition to the Qi, which is referred to as the wind (Prana), the “nadis” is important. It represents a network of 84,000 psychic channels through which there should be continuous circulation of prana for homeostasis and health to be maintained (Dummer, 1988)[viii]. Just like the adrenal system, which regulates hormonal flow within the body, these channels overlap the circulatory system of the body.
Tibetan medicine includes Jinlap Maitri, “The Way of Loving Kindness and Healing”, which is a healing and self-development system. Interestingly it is also referred to as space therapy:
” … each Buddha family reflects a basic style of relating to space. Typically associated neuroses specific in patterns to the Ego’s efforts to relate to space (the world outside in this instance) produce equally typical patterns of neurosis suffering, which may if unresolved lead to actual psychosis.” .” (Gyal, 2006)[ix]
It is recognized in other cultures that neuroses can derive from an imbalanced relationship to space! This suggests that there is a natural form of intimacy that exists in a broad spectrum of space. Fields in space are the conduit for this intra-personal communication, the 84,000 channels are part of a communication system via which we develop and give and receive empathy and love. Given that highly sensitive children’s natural form of communication and feeling is through space, does this mean that they need to sense the “loving kindness and empathy” mentioned above in order to thrive?
Western colonization of space could be understood as the transformation of this loving kindness into stress. Being self-aware to highly sensitive children, within an environment, fueled by a culture of stress, that has been stripped of the sensorial nourishment they need, could potentially lead to serious mental distress. For children whose sensory system are designed to sense the energy of space, feeling stress emanating from their loved ones instead of love, or not being heard when sending loving kindness to others must be a form of terrible suffering that could possibly lead to trauma. Trauma can happen, as this energy is not only a means of communicating with the world; it is also essential to another aspect of being, our psyche.
[ii] Assembly of First Nations (1993). Reclaiming our nationhood; strengthening our heritage: report to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations.
[iv] Kovach, M. (2006). Emerging from the margins: Indigenous research methodologies. Presentation at the C & K Conference. Cairnes: Australia.
[vi] NAHO. “An Overview of Traditional Knowledge And Medicine And Public Health In Canada”. National Aboriginal Health Organization. January 2008. http://www.naho.ca/documents/naho/publications/tkOverviewPublicHealth.pdf
[vii] Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to think with: teaching research in education as a wild profusion. International journal of qualitative studies in education, 19(1), 535-57.
[viii] Dummer, Tom. Tibetan Medicine and Other Holistic Health Care Systems. Publisher: Viking Pr (November 1988).
[ix] Gyal, Y., & Namdul, T (2006). Tibetan Medical Dietary Book: Vol. – I, Potency & Preparation of Vegetables. Dharamsala, India: Men-Tsee-Khang.