I’m coming out of the closet. I’m kind of queer, in the original sense of the word, meaning “peculiar, eccentric.” I’m neuroqueer — on the spectrum of highly sensitive people with acutely attuned nervous systems.
I thought that I had coined the term "neuroqueer". Then someone posted an excellent blog using this term! It's in the collective mind now.
I believe we used to play a respected role in society, but now, in the harsh glare of honky-tonk modernity, the extroverts’ world, we feel like aliens. Bright floruescent lights, noisy traffic, strong smells, and large crowds are our kryptonite. But in our element, by the honest light of the moon, we lunatics live and breathe magic.
It’s a spectrum of sensitivity, which has to do with how many nerve endings you have. Elaine Aron theorizes that 20% of people across all cultures — and even many animals — are highly sensitive. We’ll be the ones to notice the cheetah while the others are chit-chatting by the watering hole. It’s a superpower — supersonic sight and hearing — but in the modern world it’s become a curse. I believe that in ancient times we were respected seers, inventors, scientists, healers, artists, storytellers, philosophers, engineers, priestesses, and shamans — probably the human computers that calculated the Mayan and other calendars. We were whispering in the king's ear, not getting bullied.
Some may have lived slightly apart from the village and intervened for the people with the spirit world. Even 150 years ago before electric lights and motorized traffic and chemicals, we may have thrived. Now, we suffer from nervous disorders. The more sensitive, the more gifted, but also the lower the threshold for stress and overstimulation, and the more challenging we find social norms. It seems to be a zero-sum game between how gifted we are and how well we fit into a world of extroverts.
We are the canaries in the coal mine. The more chemicals, pollution, and noise, the more that even normals suffer from autoimmune disorders.
I see sensory stimulation like a cup. Too much stimulation, even good stuff, and the cup will spill over into neuropathic stress. Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells. Heat, cold, wind. Social interaction, especially small talk and eye contact. Stress. Hurry. If my cup starts to get full, I’ll need to empty it before I experience symptoms like joint pain. For some, it’s digestive disorders, asthma, or migraines. Wherever in your body your nerve endings are most abundant is your Achilles heel.
When the cup of sensory overload gets full, I can act a little strange. Out of it, spacey, forgetful, or irritable. My social graces may be less graceful. Like, if I realize that I’ve maxxed out on social exchanges, maybe I’ll have to ghost on the party. Or I can be a bit blunt. Sometimes I can be awkward with eye contact, especially if there are bright lights in my eyes. I have a hard time having a conversation when there are too many people talking at once or loud music. All these things are more true if I’m in an altered state of consciousness, as this amplifies my sensitivity, but makes music or nature even better.
But when I’m not overstimulated, being an empath is a blessing, not a curse. Joy, beauty, music, sex, nature, and mystical experiences are more intense too. If you can put up with our honesty and quirks, we can be very loyal and helpful friends: excellent listeners, funny, and interesting. My disability makes it impossible for me to be cruel or to lie. Although, if you’ve been cruel to me or to someone else, or gaslighted someone, you’ll cease to exist for me, unless you acknowledge you did it and promise never to do it again. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I'm might cry if I see someone stub their toe, or a tied-up dog. Which means I have to really summon my courage to speak unpopular truths. The conflict takes years off my life, but, I'm compelled to call out injustice.
When I need to empty this cup of overstimulation, I can do it with deep sleep, time alone, or laying down in a quiet dark room. I can also do it through accessing the trance state. All people do this instinctivity, although, like most instincts, it has been repressed by a society that demonizes intuition. We access the trance state through repetitive rhythmic movements and/or breathing, allowing us to silence the logical ego-mind and tap the deep subconscious and its infinite wisdom.
There’s a spectrum of these kinds of trance movements, from the most universal to the ones seen as highly pathological. The most universal are rocking (rocking a baby to calm it, or yourself in hammocks or rocking chairs); sex (with orgasm being the ultimate in releasing neuropathic stress); and running or dancing. Rhythm is the key: finding the rhythm that wants to come through you, and using it to drown out your thoughts. Walking can be all you need, as long as it’s on flat terrain, and you concentrate on the rhythm of your steps instead of on your thoughts. Kundalini yoga may be the most effective trance therapy ever invented, because the movements are in a 1-2 rhythm and synchronized with the breath.
Next on the normalcy spectrum of stress-reducing techniques is what is referred to as “stimming” by autistic people. People higher on the empath spectrum, those with high-empathy aspergers and full autism (autistics are extremes, and can be either extremely high in empathy, or extremely low), instinctively “stim” to reduce their neuropathic load when overwhelmed. This can be on the normal end — drumming fingertips (a rhythm), or tapping a foot. Some can be normal or weird depending on context and intensity: like fidgeting, knuckle cracking, or humming. The far end of the spectrum of socially unacceptable might be hand flapping, catatonic rocking, or head banging.
Empaths have contributed enormously to humankind. People like Mozart, Steve Jobs, Van Gogh, Lewis Carroll, Robin Williams, and Michaelangelo. But the stress can manifest as digestive issues, bipolar, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, arthritis, insomnia, and pain.
Empaths are bully magnets. Bullies are usually insecure sociopaths who either feed off fear in others, or who want to prove dominance or keep themselves safe from bigger bullies. Sometimes they are empaths who have been bullied themselves or are afraid they will be. Bullies may also be envious that the empath has inner resources and intelligence that they themselves lack. The bully feeds off the fear that happens when domination causes the dominated individual's stress hormones to spike. This happens in the animal world, too.
I believe that there have been empath-friendly eras where cooperation was valued over domination, but in dominator cultures, alpha males dominate beta males who dominate females and animals. The insensitive bully is valued over the sensitive empath. Sensitivity is valued in females, but females are seen as subordinate because of it.
I think one reason empaths and neuroqueers are bullied is that we often don’t understand the language of dominance. An empath may not realize that crossing his arms, sitting higher than the bully on the bleachers, or making long eye contact, can be seen as threatening. Tragically, getting bullied creates a vicious cycle of trauma, post-traumatic stress, shame, low self-esteem, and illness which attracts more bullying and ostracism. The empath can turn to the dark side, like Kylo Ren, the emo empath from the new Star Wars movies.
Empaths tend to believe passionately in fairness and justice, and hate to see cruelty win. Many of us are allergic to dominance hierarchies and unjust authority. Therefore the empath on a strong day can tend towards the avenger, standing up against bullying and injustice. It’s no accident many of us are into superhero stories. I’ve had fantasies about poacher hunting. I also hate roosters, mosquitos, and vicious bark-y dogs, because these are bullies.
Not all natural leaders (alphas) are bullies. The secure ones lead for the good of all. We neuroqueers tend to be not alphas or betas, but omegas: lone wolves and quirky artists. Unhealthy alphas are often threatened by us because we won’t bow to their authority, but healthy alphas may see our gifts and want to leverage them for the general good. That happened to me in high school, when the most popular girl, a healthy alpha, decided it was cool that I was smart and took me under her wing and into the party crowd. Before that, I wasn’t bullied, but seen as different, the smart kid. When I started hanging out with the cool kids I got bullied by one mean girl, who seemed to think it wasn’t right for a smart kid to be in their midst, but she dropped it when I responded with humor and refused to get upset.
Me, I’m more in the range of normal high sensitive rather than Aspergers, so I can relate to both the normal world and the aspie world. I’m not a seer; I’m a philosopher and writer whose gift is to see patterns and analyze them. I’m very frequently misunderstood, like many empaths. Some resent me for questioning their dogmas (like about marriage or religion). Some project on me. Some interpret my shyness or my need to conserve energy for snobbery. Some think that I'm trying to call attention to myself or start fights when I dare to speak my truth.
It used to be believed that only men are aspies, but now it’s known that women go undiagnosed because we're more social and focus our intelligence on imitating social norms, while Aspie males focus on their special interests, like, say, penguins. Aspie females may feel invisible and rarely see themselves in represented in literature or on the screen. At least there is Lisa Simpson from the Simpsons!
Many empaths aren’t born naturally relating to social norms, but those of us on the normal end of the spectrum can pretend and blend in most of the time. It can feel like wearing a mask. One of the social norms I perform is the gender norm. The reason there's enormous overlap between neuroqueer and genderqueer is that many of us naturally feel genderless. I may find myself performing the stereotypical feminine, a pleasant, submissive, “oh yes” face. But I don’t relate to gender norms at all, which is why I’m confused at being called “cis”. I can seem feminine when I dance in a long skirt, or masculine when building things. I don’t see why we need to choose. But then, I fail to see why normals do so many things they do, like act cruel for no reason, adopt popular opinions that have no rational basis, or obsess over money and status. Or enjoy having sex with someone who is only doing it for the money. Or, most mind-boggling of all, cut down ancient forests for the profits of a few. I can't even.
Another social norm I perform is that I tone down my reactions to things. Even positive emotions like enthusiasm are socially frowned upon. I’ve learned to be more cool, internalized it even, until it’s automatic.
Some of my impairments are: following verbal directions (this is a common aspie trait, and drove my ex crazy), talking when loud music is playing, casual touch with strangers. I have a truly awful memory (some empaths seem to forget everything, some can remember every single thing). I don’t think I’ve ever done anything really weird like had an outburst.
Sometimes I can climb higher on the spectrum, that is, when I’m either very overstimulated, like if I stay at a festival too long, or when I enhance the sensitivity by taking a journey. I have a regular practice where I take an herbal medicine and then induce trance by quieting the rational mind with trance techniques. I do this at least once a week, more if there’s been a lot of stress or stimulation, and it has kept me sane. Preferably I do it in nature, in a place with a temperature between 55 and 75, as far from other humans as possible unless they're doing it with me, with minimal light and noise and manmade objects, and in comfortable natural clothes. If these conditions aren’t available I do it inside using kundalini yoga, shaking, or toning. This is why I live in the forest, and when I travel I stick to places where I can do this ritual. If I have to talk or to handle money or to drive a car in the middle of it, it will derail the effects. I’ve actually done this trance therapy with clients, and find that it works on normals too, helping them to feel relaxed and meditative and in touch with their intuition.
On the other end of the spectrum are the sociopaths, people with antisocial personality disorder, who experience little to no anxiety. They lack the neurological ability (nerve endings) to respond to criticism or to empathize with others.
Most people believe that aspergers and autistic people lack empathy. Perhaps some do, as it is neurotypical people who are all similar, while aspies vary widely. Some are highly sexed while others asexual; some are dyslexic while others hyperlexic (super-readers), for example. It may be the same with empathy. Or some may feel others' emotions but not be able to show it. Often, we feel peoples' emotions so much that we are overwhelmed and forced to shut down.
I truly believe that if society becomes more accepting and we create spaces safe from overstimulation, empaths will suffer far less and contribute even more to society. It’s the lack of understanding and acceptance that leads to the suffering, not our biology. I don’t fully understand why so many normals hate empaths so much. If I indulge my empath tendency toward fantasy, I might imagine that in a world long ago when magic was more powerful, empaths were the ones that wielded it and normals felt inferior and insensitive. Another of my weirder ideas is that empaths haven’t incarnated many times during the recent years of war and hierarchy, so, we are especially clueless about, and angry at, the injustices that go along with that. I also hatched a theory that empath traits were strong in Neantherthals (like the gelflings in the film The Dark Crystal), and so those of us with more of their DNA have more empath traits. Then I stumbled across a whole bunch of people taking about this theorized Neanderthal-Aspergers link!
Right now, talking about autism and aspergers seems to be a trend. I keep coming across it. The recent film Temple Grandin, about an autistic woman who invented humane ways of managing cattle, was popular. Perhaps the public is sensing that empaths have something to offer. Normals and empaths have much to learn from each other. Empaths aren't really that weird, once you understand us; we just speak a slightly different language. I think we've been ostracized and shamed only because it’s a barbaric age in which people have been taught to fear and shun what’s different.
Therefore, we empaths learn to be ashamed and to hide our differences instead of talking about them, which perpetuates the cycle of misunderstanding. For example, I caught myself standing with some friends and noticed a bad smell in the area which others didn’t seem to notice, but which I couldn’t handle. I muttered an excuse to wander away instead of explaining. Yet I think that people really wouldn’t think it was a big deal.
So let’s raise awareness about the challenges we face as empaths. I’ve long accepted that as a minority, I don’t ask people to not smoke while I’m eating, to stop talking loudly and incessantly in a quiet place, or to not wear perfumes which make me nauseous. I just move. And I’m not suggesting that the rest of the world tone down their bright lights and noise for our sakes. But a little understanding of how it affects us would be great.
Can we call it “neurotypical privelege” then? Us empaths have to fit our round pegs into normals’ square holes. There is no talk of meeting us half way, even though the empaths’ native ways, our long attention spans and passion for our special interests, is more conducive to learning and getting things done in the world. Is the persecution of empaths because the culture fears that if empaths had power and influence, we would never stand for being ruled by a hierarchy of bullies?
The statistics on suicidal thoughts for Aspergers people is around two-thirds. This is on par with that for transgender people, seen as the world’s most marginalized minority. With more awareness and education about this, we could make the world a safer place for empaths. (In addition, since many transgender people are on the spectrum, we can treat them first for this before going to much more dangerous and permanent methods). Also, we can recognize the signs early and help empaths understand themselves and minimize the negatives. If I had understood this early in life I would have saved decades of suffering.
Some people talk about a cure for autism. But others think that eliminating autism is akin to eugenics. We need autistic minds. We should put them on the problem of saving the planet, instead of bullying them behind the bleachers.
If you suspect you may be the spectrum, contact me for ideas on how to hack your system to maximize the joys and minimize the downsides. I’ve finally figured it out for myself and my life is awesome. I wouldn’t trade my empathic nature for anything.