I just received a question from a young woman asking me for advice on how to tell her parents about her synesthesia. Her request touched my heart! She is obviously a creative, intelligent, clever young woman with great potential. I don't want to screw this up. I do not know what sort of parents she has, whether they are sympathetic and understanding, or not.
I do not feel qualified to answer this. I would love suggestions. What has worked for you? What has not worked?
Here are some thoughts I have had on the topic, and feel free to suggest your own:
Do they really need to know?
Well, first of all, you don't have to tell people you have synesthesia! I usually don't. Consider your motivation first. What are good motives for sharing this? What are bad motives? Some people don't need to know. That's OK.
How close is the person to you?
If someone is not very close to you, ask yourself why would you share this personal aspect of how you involuntarily perceive the world?
If it is someone I don't know well, I usually keep it to myself. However, it might make sense to share your synesthesia with an acquaintance if you thought they had a particular interest in the topic. If it is someone I don't know well, but they are doing brain research, or otherwise open to and interested in related topics like perception, well, then I think maybe we can talk about it. Maybe. If I think it is for the greater good that someone understands the condition in dealing with potential synesthetes they might encounter in their profession, I consider it.
If someone is close to you, however, it can be understandable to want them to understand you better. Everyone longs to be understood, synesthesia or not. If they are naturally sympathetic to you, it can deepen and enrich your relationship if they understand you better. It may take time and patience and lots of examples before someone close to you really understands it, however. Prepare to be patient. They won't get it right away, I promise.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Synesthesia is not a disorder or a disease or something that needs treatment. It is understandable for people close to you to worry about you if they don't understand it. I was surprised to have to reassure a few relatives that it was not a problem or a disease. I just assumed they would know that, but they don't.
That synesthesia is not a disorder should be the first thing to reassure people about. It is kind of like having perfect pitch. It has advantages--(you can become a great musician), and disadvantages--(you are really bothered when something is in the wrong key or if an instrument is out of tune.)
I believe having synesthesia aids in metaphor, in creativity, and in memory. It also increases distractibility, at least for me. Share a list of famous synesthetes to reassure your loved ones that it is not disabling.
Let's try to avoid playing the synesthesia card.
Speaking of disabling...I do this and am trying to catch myself and challenge myself to find work-arounds when I do.
Yes, I know that sometimes we find ourselves against a wall that does not seem to exist for others. I have to wear earplugs when shopping because the store music makes me want to scream. Ceiling fans make me feel like I am in a giant blender. I avoid looking at them. I am now in a phase of catching myself saying "I can't do this" or "this is hard for me" because of my synesthesia, because I hate to limit myself. You can tell your friends or family that you are working on it, it is a struggle, and want to overcome it.
The challenge is to find a way around it, even using our synesthesia as an advantage. I have heard from a number of synesthetes that tell me they don't like math because of their synesthesia. Well, not all math is the same! I find synesthetes that struggle with algebra often excel in geometry. Saying you can't do math is like saying you hate reading because you read one book you did not like. There are other books.
I hear a lot from people who complain they are not good at this topic or that topic because of their synesthesia. "I failed this test because the answers were in the wrong color." I hate to see people limit themselves so. Even if it is true. Know yourself. Know your challenges. Find a way around them.
What's more inspiring, the man who can't ride a bike because he is missing a leg, or the one-legged man who uses a prosthesis to bike across the country? Let's be the second man. You can say, I don't add well because the colors of the numbers don't make sense (that is actually true for me) but I can practice adding and get better at it! And I use a calculator.
I have learned to my surprise and delight that visual types of math--or forcing otherwise abstract forms like algebra to be more visual in my mind--are much easier and open a whole new beautiful world to me. Thank goodness I stuck with it and discovered differential equations to be the most eye-opening world linking predictive equations with the mysterious laws of Nature herself. Don't shut yourself off prematurely to a subject that could enrich your world beyond your imagining. That would be tragic.
Using synesthesia as an excuse against doing things is a whole essay unto itself--I could poll synesthetes for how they have found creative work-arounds for topics that the previously found difficult but managed to excel in them.
I think the solution is to say, yes, my synesthesia makes this challenging for now, but I resolve to find a clever way around it. Hopefully the people around you will be sympathetic. Some people will never be sympathetic. Ignore them.
Reassure them your mind is not a mess, it is not like being on an LSD trip (I assume!) One of my pet peeves is that people describe synesthesia as having "mixed up" senses. If anything, I have written that having synesthesia increases mental categorization and organization. Acids are red, bases are blue, carbon atoms are yellow, pieces in the key of G are orange, and so on. See, it is very orderly and predictable in my head! Our minds are not all mixed up or messy.
Be prepared for strong emotions, if they don't understand or doubt you.
Isolation is the universal human condition, anyway, so the solution to any loneliness you encounter in this process is to realize that you are not alone in your suffering. We all just suffer in different ways. This will bring you out of yourself, wanting to embrace others in their suffering provided you are blessed with empathy. That is the my simplistic solution to feeling lonely without going into a whole essay here. Love is the answer. Cheesy things are often true things. That is why they feel cheesy.
Here is an experience with that sense of isolation I had recently, though that feeling was temporary, after I reflected on it:
I met a delightful psychiatrist who works in Green Bay, and thought she would be interested to hear about my synesthesia. She replied that as recently as ten years ago, she would sit around the table with other professionals and discuss whether or not synesthesia was even real. The concept was controversial.
With her admission I felt shocked with two deep, conflicting feelings: intellectual sympathy with the requirement for scientific rigor, of course! And at the same time, intense loneliness and sadness. The idea that smart people, people you respect, would question your entire perception of the world for as long as you can remember is profoundly disorienting!
I suddenly felt isolated, lonely, freakish. I could only imagine, is this how it feels to be gay, or to be the wrong sex in the wrong body, back when people used to debate the existence of these conditions, as well? (And I suppose they still do, unfortunately.) To have people question your perception of the world can be profoundly isolating. Be prepared for that feeling.
Thus we can have more sympathy for people who perceive the world differently than we do, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. It does no good to rail against people who question our perceptions. That is a waste of energy. I trust that science gets asymptotically closer and closer to revealing objective truth, which is why this psychiatrist was right to insist on scientific stingency, to insist on caution in believing what these funny synesthetes say. Trust that truth is revealed if we insist on scientific inquiry.
move on if they are uncomfortable
For me, I find some people don't understand, and appear uncomfortable with my bringing it up. I can tell they are uncomfortable if they change the topic quickly, so I let them do that. I hate to have anyone feel uncomfortable, so I drop the topic quickly.
I recently had that experience with my eye doctor, having a standard annual eye check up. When he asked me what I was writing these days, I admitted that one project was a book describing my synesthesia. Then I was forced to explain that my seeing text as colored was not an eye problem, but a cross-wiring in the brain.
He acted like he knew what I was talking about, but he obviously did not. He attempted to explain it as a phenomenon called retinal retention which can cause objects that you stare at to have a colored halo around them, which is not at all the same thing.Everyone gets retinal retention if they stare for a while at a colored object and then look slightly away. I tried to insist, no, this is something that happens in the brain, not the eyes, and it is genetic, I have other family members that have this...I could tell he was uncomfortable with his own lack of knowledge on the topic so I quickly dropped the subject. People don't like to feel ignorant.
Best not to push it if the person is uncomfortable. I do feel though, that greater public awareness of the phenomenon can only be helpful to those who do have it. What if some young kid came into his office talking about seeing colored text, and he tried to "fix" them? My own niece had to go through a number of eye appointments like that, seeing specialists, until her parents understood what was going on and that her unusual perceptions were not something to worry about. Eye doctors should educate themselves about synesthesia, and understand it is not a disorder or a problem.
Showing off is not a good motive for sharing. People will know if that is your motive, and you will come across as insecure. If anything, I feel embarrassed about my synesthesia. Every time I am public about it I cringe inwardly, mentally awaiting the imaginary flood of virtual critics that never appear. One of my goals late in life is to do things that I feel uncomfortable with if I think they can help others. The more I do things that I feel awkward about, the easier and less scary it gets. This is called aversion therapy. On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your anxiety like now? Oh, about a 2, I would say. There you go. Sometimes you have to do hard things.
Why haven't you told them earlier? They may ask you why you have kept this from them so long. I thought everyone saw the world the way I did. Don't we all do that to some extent? If you are like me, you never thought there was anything to reveal. It is has probably only occurred to you recently that you are different.
I never imagined I perceived the world in any sort of unusual way until I learned about this condition in my thirties. So, if you are like me, you never imagined you were keeping something secret for much of your life. There were only incidents where I'd talk about silver passages of music, or my great disappointment that Fantasia never even closely matched the music to the images in the movie as my parents promised me it would, or where I would complain about the ugliness the reddish purple words that start with the letter J, and get blank looks. It only dawns on us slowly that our perceptions might be quite different than others.
Best of luck to you, my dear, and I know you have tremendous potential!