The Late Bloomer
Dr. Tracy Cooper
Are you someone who never seemed to quite find your stride in life until later? If so you may be one of many late bloomers and you might be surprised to learn that being a late bloomer may be more common among highly sensitive people (HSPs) than the rest of the population.
As with many stories the tale of the late bloomer usually begins in childhood. Many HSPs grow up in unsupportive households where one or more parent(s) fail to provide adequate nurturing, care, and acceptance of their child. For any child this may be strongly negative, but for the HSP child this lack of support may be devastating. Highly sensitive people process all stimulation more deeply in the brain including negativity and lack of support. For the HSP child non-support in childhood may become a literal handicap.
Beyond being unsupportive one’s childhood may also contain trauma and/or abuse. For the HSP trauma and abuse need not have been severe to have deep and lasting effects because the intensity of the experience likely made a profound impact on the child. Victims of abuse, neglect, trauma, and unsupportive households may experience lowered self-esteem, a lower sense of self-efficacy, and an external locus of control. Not to mention anxiety, depression, and a fear of venturing out into the world.
Complexity of Mind
Highly sensitive people, by nature, are individuals who notice more in general. This broader focus and more intense scrutiny has been demonstrated on visual tasks where it was found that HSPs spend more time looking at a scene than do non-HSPs. This time spent observing and gathering information may enable the HSP to subscribe less to a black/white scenario and more to one that is tolerant of ambiguity, gray areas, and less definitive outcomes. HSPs are often idea people who prefer to use their strong intuition to see linkages between ideas and to create new theories.
Most HSPs are also highly creative people. Creative not in the sense of producing an end product. Rather creative in the sense of finding new solutions to problems. There is a misnomer surrounding the definition of creativity. It’s a popular notion in our society that creativity is only for the creative. In fact creativity is inherent in the human species. Everyone can be creative, but when we narrow the definition to producing end products typically in the arts it means much less and is limited to a select segment of the population. HSPs naturally entertain ambiguity. We like to ask the question “what if,” “I wonder,” and “why is?”
Concurrent with creativity is a strong sense of curiosity. Many HSPs are very curious individuals who like to explore and learn about new places, things, and people. In spite of our reputation for introversion (and some 70% of us lean that way) we are also intensely curious about people and enjoy observing them. We HSPs are observant to a high degree and will often study a scene for a period of time before checking it out. As part of the approach/observe paradigm we are the observers.
Sense of Direction
Thus far I have described two groups of HSPs. One that experienced childhood trauma, neglect or abuse, and another group that is intensely curious, creative and interested in many things. One may be a part of both groups, of course, with the main difference being the sense of security one experiences as new avenues are explored and investigated. Those that experienced unsupportive, chaotic, or abusive backgrounds may feel less inclined or free to venture out and explore life. Those from supportive backgrounds just the opposite. Either group may contain a number of late bloomers.
Society asks of us that we choose a career direction very early in life before many of us have had a chance to explore. HSPs may not feel ready to commit to a direction at 18 years old and wish to explore life more. HSPs have a strong need to be involved in activities that have deep meaning and the potential to positively impact others’ lives. HSPs strongly dislike superficiality and shallow interactions. Even with these preferences HSPs like everyone else have to make a living and most choose one career or another with varying results.
Due to the vagaries of ordinary life (bills that we all have to satisfy for even a minimum quality of life) much time may be spent in a seemingly endless treadmill of daily work. During this time, which may be years, even decades, most HSPs continue their pursuits of personal interests and may even perhaps change careers or jobs at key points in their lives. It is not until mid-life, however, that many HSPs seem to reach a point where they feel less constrained by societal expectations and freer to pursue their true passions.
Finding One’s Authentic Self
We are all aware of the proverbial “midlife crisis” usually identified with males experiencing some sense of loss of youth and desperately trying to recapture that fleeting vision by pretending to be young again. With HSPs the midlife crisis is more of a coming to one’s true identity than trying to recapture a lost sense of youth. For HSPs it may take decades of lived experiences to simply know oneself! This may entail much in the way of difficult and turbulent relationships, jobs and careers that flounder or go nowhere, and feelings of having worked beneath one’s true potential.
At some point in the lives of many HSPs they find that they simply cannot continue to subscribe to a socially constructed notion of life that is inherently limiting, narrow in scope, and fundamentally not designed for broad-minded, open, curious, creative, sensitive, and expansive individuals. Not all HSPs fit this description, of course, many are more content to work within a known structure that breeds less anxiety and tension. Those individuals may be late in blooming also, or even fail to bloom, because they place more significance on avoiding anxiety and change than embracing it. We are all different as HSPs and each of us has to travel a uniquely individual path.
Regardless of our inclinations toward growth most highly sensitive people probably have a fairly high degree of what Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski termed “developmental potential,” or innate growth potential due to certain tendencies for “overexcitabilties,” or OEs. OEs come in five categories: emotional, intellectual, sensual, imaginational, and psychomotor. HSPs have a personality trait called sensory processing sensitivity or SPS. One of the primary drivers of SPS is emotionality. We experience stimulation an emotion flares and that promotes the deep processing in the brain. It’s likely that most HSPs are high in emotionality. Similarly most HSPs, as previously described, have a natural complexity of mind, including the intellect and are curious, broad and open-minded individuals. Check again on imaginational, or creative, and we have a picture encompassing the three OEs that Dabrowski believed were necessary for one to have high developmental potential.
If HSPs are indeed high in developmental potential there will be an innate drive to develop that will push them onward regardless of their situations. Dabrowski believed that for those with high developmental potential circumstances could support the development of higher levels of personality or hinder it, but for those high in developmental potential they would develop regardless of whether the situation and circumstances were supportive or not though those in supportive circumstances would obviously fair better.
I am proposing here that many HSPs are likely high in developmental potential and may also find themselves in unsupportive circumstances at work, home, and in their early lives. These conditions may inhibit the ability of many HSPs to reach a point in life where they are able to engage their true capacities and feel as if they have reached their potential. Later in life these circumstances may be vastly different due to divorce, loss of a career, children leaving the home, change of worldview, etc.
Midlife may be a time for most people to shake up their life patterns and do something different, but this is especially true for the HSP. HSPs may simply not find their voices until midlife! Once HSPs have developed an awareness of their personality trait and learned to find acceptance of it within themselves they are then open to the possibilities life may have. If HSPs can successfully adapt their lives to fit themselves rather than fit themselves to societal expectations their lives are open to a full range of possibilities limited only by their abilities and willingness to engage their capacities.
Being a late bloomer means that you do not necessarily subscribe to the traditional notion of retirement. That concept was born out of another age when most people’s bodies were physically worn down by decades of physically laborious work and life expectancies were much shorter. Today one can expect to live, in general, into the 70s barring some illness or accident. Many people today are saved by surgeries or medications not available to previous generations. Instead of thinking about aging and dying we should be thinking about reinvention and living!
The opportunity for a late bloomer is to do meaningful work of their choosing on their own timetable and of a duration limited only by interest. Midlife and beyond frees many people of the need to chase materialistic notions or feel as if they must satisfy the expectations of others. Midlife is a time when we can please ourselves and be what we feel are our most authentic selves!
If you are a late bloomer, like me, I invite you to explore your passions, venture forth into the world, feel free to embrace who and what you naturally are. In doing so you will be healthier, feel less stress, feel more whole in body and soul, and live your life in its fullest expression.
Along the way you may well encounter other people who will put you down for doing something different later in life. Learn to feel compassion for those people because they have truly become old and lost their passion for life. Embrace who you are and who you have always been even if life has stood in your way with its incessant demands. Be your most authentic self and let your light shine out to everyone unapologetically and unabashedly.
This article only touches the surface of a number of topics and much more could be written about paths to self-awareness and self-acceptance. In future blog posts I will address those points and more.
Dr. Tracy Cooper is an independent HSP researcher, a higher education professional, and a consultant on HSPs and careers and the high sensation seeking HSP. His web site can be found at the address below.