by Tiffany S. Chan, Ph.D.
Tiffany is the Founder of Highly Sensitive Parent. She is an educator, researcher, and writer who currently lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, two sons, and gigantic cat.
Learn more about Tiffany on our About page!
This turned out to be the perfect emotional storm for a Highly Sensitive Person like me. I felt the weight of responsibility and potential for having an impact on those students' lives during their pivotal first year of college. I was also petrified by every opportunity for confrontation or failing to live up to their expectations. I was terrified that I would let them all down.
Orange became the primary color in my life when Walter*, a quiet but witty guy from the suite across the hall, designed our floor t-shirt. He altered the Tide Detergent logo to read "ARGO" with a tiny 3 in the lower right hand corner. He argued that the logo should be set against an orange shirt, just like a TIDE detergent box. I smiled indulgently and noncommittally - I got the design, but as someone who tries not to draw negative attention to herself, the thought of wearing bright orange made my stomach turn.
The reasonable thing would have been to set up an official vote to settle the question of t-shirt color, maybe let Walter organize it and encourage him to canvas the halls in support of his design. But instead I posted a note in the floor newsletter saying something like, "We're considering an orange floor t-shirt. Let me know if you would have a problem with that." I received one hand-written note in the envelope on my door from a resident who objected to orange. That was enough for me. When the time came to order the shirts I exercised my veto power and set the logo against an orange rectangle on shirts that were white instead of orange.
To say that Walter was disappointed would be like saying the weather's not bad in San Diego.
The shirts arrived the day before our first broom ball game of the season. Broom ball is a crazy game. It's like ice hockey, except players slip and slide over the ice in gym shoes while trying to hit a small hard ball with plastic sticks shaped like brooms. Players collide and slide, slick ice leveling the playing field between seasoned and experienced athletes and supporting a congenial, if bruise-filled, game. Walter and his friends showed up to the indoor rink wearing orange t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with "ORANGE" in duct-taped block letters across their backs. They dubbed us "Team Orange" and encouraged others from our floor to wear orange to future games.
As an HSP I have learned how to laugh things off to hide my inner turmoil, so I laughed even as I worried that an orange-tinged storm was brewing. I mean, really. It was just a shirt, right? I hadn't altered his design. Maybe orange would have been more striking, but to me the shirts looked fine. Yet I didn't apologize adequately, and he didn't let it go. He and the rest of the boys across the hall began their campaign against me.
I don't remember many details of what they did - mostly harmless, maybe even humorous, pranks like taping a note reading "ORANGE" to my door, or stacking empty beer cans in the hallway outside my room. I do remember one time they managed to make me cry and capture it on film. And I remember how I felt - as if I had wronged Walter, one of my residents, one of the students I was supposed to be responsible for, and nothing I could do would make it right. He wouldn't even look me in the eye by the end of the year.
When I recently asked a dear college friend what he remembered from that time in my life, he recalled, "You had a hard time not taking things personally, because you feel passionate about things and they were basically making it sound like you were the worst person ever."
I wasn't so traumatized by my experience that I didn't apply to be an RA again - I accepted a position with Res Life Staff the following year, unlike my freshman year roommate and fellow RA who experienced such targeted slander and bullying by one young man on her floor that she left the experience scarred and never looked back. I wasn't traumatized, but I was weathered.
That box of more than 40 already-paid-for t-shirts sat in the corner of my room for the entire year, embodying such negative energy that I couldn't muster the effort to encourage any of my residents to actually pick them up and wear them. At the end of the year I think I donated them to the Salvation Army, but I may have just abandoned the entire box somewhere, finally happy to be free of their shaming presence.
Over the next few years I couldn't stand to be involved with anything branded by orange. I backed out of a house-building weekend trip at the last minute partly because I was assigned to the bus whose leader had chosen orange as the color of the bandanas we would wear for the weekend. I felt a visceral reaction in the pit of my stomach whenever I saw the color.
When I ran into one of those boys at an off-campus party a year or two later, the tension was eased by the passage of time and a few beers. He told me that the guys in his suite never took the whole thing seriously... well, except for Walter, who still hadn't forgiven me. He said he did feel bad about that one time they made me cry. And if it made me feel better, they were all still living together off-campus. The practice of hating me that year had cemented the bond of their friendship. It was bittersweet to think that in this unintended way I had been successful as their RA.
I moved to Chicago for graduate school and created the life that I wanted for myself, yet orange still followed me. I met the man I would eventually marry, and found his wardrobe scattered with orange. Orange and blue Chicago Bears jerseys. Orange and blue sweatshirts from the high school where he works. Unbelievably, I found myself wearing an orange sweatshirt as part of Team Nimbus, another broom ball team, this time played with dear friends on an outdoor rink amidst snow flurries.
Orange received a makeover in my life when I became a mother and my son claimed it as his favorite color. Though I flinched when he selected the puffy bright orange parka as his winter coat, I realized that here was a real chance for reprogramming. In motherhood I found the freedom that comes with realizing you are no longer the center of your universe. I found myself smiling when I caught glimpses of his orange form zipping down a slide at the playground, when I saw flashes of orange framing those rosy cheeks I loved best in the world. I started to feel safe revisiting the memories of my "year of orange" with compassion for both myself and Walter.
I wish I could time travel my confident and fierce mama self back to that college residence hall. I would look Walter in the eye and say, "I'm so very sorry that I altered your design. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of wearing orange, and I chose to hide in that feeling rather than work through it with you. I know you had a vision for creating community on our floor and I didn't carry it out. You are disappointed and angry with me, and you have a right to your feelings. But I will not let you torment me or make jokes intended to shame me for my mistake. I have a box of shirts in my room with your design - what can we do to make this right?"
I would also tell him that I don’t believe in regret - we do the best we can with what we have to work with at the time - but if I had just one do-over card to play in my life, I would use it to make those shirts orange.
And yet. Maybe I'm glad I don't have a do-over card. Each micro decision leads to consequences that compose the rich, complex, and unique tapestry of our lives. Motherhood is helping me learn, finally, that I'm not responsible for the big feelings of other people. I can witness and honor others' humanity by letting them feel what they feel without judgment or distress. I don't need to be so afraid of disappointing people as long as I show up authentically and trust that relationships can be repaired when connection is kept at the center of everything.
I received this Mother's Day gift from my 4-year-old this year:
Which of your former selves could use some compassion and forgiveness from you today? Please share in the comments!
*Walter is a pseudonym