Are There Strangers in Your Gondola?

Have you ever had a tranquil moment trampled on by strangers?

We’ve been exploring the phrase “I’m a hole, I’m not alone” as a creative play prompt in The Haven. As a group largely comprised of introverted and highly sensitive people, our conversation moved to thinking about holes as hiding places, nests, and sanctuaries. In other words, spaces with conditions for rest, connection, and growth away from strangers.

It’s not that strangers are bad. Some are, after all, friends we haven’t yet met. But we need conditions (moments/environments/rituals) that help us engage non-judgmentally with our creative spirit. And that’s a lot harder when our nervous system is busy working out who and what is safe to trust. We need places to explore and express our silly selves without worrying about what others will think.

Stranger Danger

For a highly sensitive temperament, the presence of others can adversely impact our engagement with an experience, situation, or activity. One of the original characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Person Test is, “When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” It makes sense that the presence of an unusual observer is construed as a threat for the nervous system to respond to, mobilising flight/fight/freeze energy and maybe even withdrawal/shut down.

This is something I work on with many people. We need to find gentle ways to create conditions that work WITH and not against our nervous systems in “performance” situations. Whether we are being assessed, observed, or simply perceiving ourselves as being under scrutiny in everyday life, the added “threat” of an observer can make performing under pressure an even greater challenge than it already is.

Strangers in the System

I felt an amusing surge of “strangers present” alertness kick in when I was in Lapland, and three strangers entered our gondola during a serene sunset journey up Ylläs. This activation isn’t easy to bring down when it arrives unexpectedly, even when, rationally, there is no need for it.

There was no genuine threat from these people. They are probably quite nice. But it changed the experience because my nervous system went from sensing safety (just the four of us in the cable car) to signalling danger (unexpected items in the bagging area). That shift meant I could no longer engage and express myself without running words and actions through my self-consciousness filter. It was fascinating to notice. I managed to channel it into comedy rage (which I was able to share later).

I describe the story here…

Many of the sensitive people I work with struggle with being observed. They can do something perfectly when practising in a low-stimulation environment. Yet, as soon as it feels like they’re being watched, their nervous system becomes protective and engages in the activated flight/fight/freeze energy. Or they shut down and withdraw from the situation altogether.

Maybe we can flip the characteristic around… “When I am in a spirit of acceptance and collaboration, I become more playful, creative, and able to do much better than I would otherwise.” This might help us consider what more favourable conditions would be for us. We need to get gondolas in place. Holes of stillness, solitude, and calm allow us to experiment, grow, and play without judgement. Away from noisy demands and pressures that can throw us off our course and onto someone else’s.

When we have nurturing, creative, non-judgemental sanctuaries, we are better able to respond when a stranger climbs in uninvited. Because they will, and when they do, we can roll our eyes, shake our heads, and laugh it off (eventually).

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