The gravity of hypervigilance
I grew up an easy child. Adults were happy with me for being independent because I didn’t take up too much of their time or space. It’s as if I was always there, waiting for my name to be called because I’ll be quick on my feet, ready to give what I can offer. In retrospect, I’d done the things I did to keep the peace. After all, it was either that or a series of name-callings, guilt-tripping, or worse.
In junior high, one of my peers lauded my good hearing and even likened me to a dog, the type of animal that could catch sounds not loud enough for human ears. Once at the height of the pandemic, I told my best friend I wasn’t comfortable with wearing earphones at home even during online classes or merely listening to my favorite songs.
I told him that by doing so, I was preventing myself from knowing what was happening on the outside. But in hindsight, I was just afraid that when I turn down the volume, booming voices would fill the room. Or that if I weren’t careful enough and get sidetracked by the music, then I wouldn’t get to see things flying right in my face. So, I opted out of the earphones and instead burdened those around me with the blasting noise of whatever device I was holding.
Growing up, the word “sorry” came out of my lips often and faster than “thank you’s” and “no’s” to the point where in senior high, a blockmate spoke to me during a two-hour break to ask me if I had anxiety problems. I couldn’t recall what I answered, but it was the first time I realized that I was asking for forgiveness too much, even if I didn’t know exactly what I was sorry for.
The only thing I knew was I did this because of my fear of confrontations. I’d shiver and flinch during conflicts and in such events, my sense of hearing would be at its peak—the mere smacking of flip-flops on the tiled floor, the crashing of pots, and the thuds of plates being deposited down the cupboard. I’d duck my head when I’m being shouted at, waiting for the imminent tears to cascade down my cheeks. I’d secretly sob in silence because I’d learned that bawling my eyes out was only meant for the dead—and no one was dying in the process of being in the front row of invalidations; hence the lack of merit in my cries.
I thought it was typical of children to experience this, and so I slowly wrapped my mind around not speaking what I think or telling what I truly felt and agreeing with the din of the crowd because it was better than arguments that only ended in guilt being lodged in my throat, mauling my voice box to admit that everything was my fault. For years, my mindset revolved around normalizing this behavior—at least until my therapist told me I had people-pleasing tendencies that went as far back as childhood.
Pete Walker in his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” described fawning or people-pleasing as “[seeking] safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries.” These people-pleasing tendencies tend to manifest as hypervigilance, which I realized was what I’d been doing all along.
My therapist told me that in suppressing what I feel and bending over backward with the demands of my environment, I had kept the peace between my relationships for so long, while neglecting myself in the process.
My therapist said it’s time to set my boundaries because this can be a huge leap to assert and empower myself in breaking the cycle. But it doesn’t come easy. Growing up where my sense of personal boundaries was heavily skewed, if not entirely all over the place, learning to do so at the cusp of adulthood is like searching for a candle in the dark. Every time I try, my mind reels in for reasons why I shouldn’t or ruminates over the possible disadvantages of this in my current relationships. But really, I was just afraid I’ll be selfish in the process or the ramifications that can come after.
But humans can only take so much, and so my therapist reassured me that being selfish is okay if it meant putting my needs first before others. In one of our sessions, my therapist narrated the oxygen mask analogy where flight attendants would instruct passengers that in case of low cabin pressure, they should always put their oxygen mask first before helping others put theirs on. She added that if I want to help other people in my way, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of my mental health because if I kept on catering to others’ needs while neglecting my own, I’ll only end up further resenting myself.
These days, I routinely take minutes of breathing exercises and grounding techniques to lean toward things I can control, which mostly constitute my behavior toward other people’s words and actions. I used to believe that my fear of conflicts and the manifestations of this fear in my daily life came part and parcel of my being. But I’m finally learning from the gravity of hypervigilance that took a toll on me for years while slowly tending to the wounds from childhood by setting my boundaries.
Ada Pelonia, 22, is a journalism major from the University of Santo Tomas. She lives in Antipolo City.
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