Why Your Sensitivity Is Really a Strength
“Don’t be so sensitive” is a common refrain many of us have heard over and over in our lives.
In my case, I heard this message being delivered to my older sister, not me.
There’s no denying she was (and is) a crier, and I decided early on that that wasn’t going to be the case for me.
Instead, I was the stoic tomboy of the family, refusing to cry in front of the neighborhood boys.
I was even resolute when a kite string slit the skin of my throat, and a perfect line of red bubbled up across my neck. I held in my tears until I made it inside, safe from the ridicule of my male peers.
I definitely felt my emotions, but I didn’t express them. At least not with tears.
Like many boys, and “honorary” boys like me, I internalized them. If I couldn’t internalize them completely, I turned them into anger.
Anger was an acceptable emotion for “strong cookies” like me.
As I got older, I grew out of my tomboyishness, but my stoicism remained. I equated emotional reactions with a lack of self-discipline and saw emotional coolness as a sign of self-mastery.
At the time, I didn’t understand that emotional reactivity can still happen on the inside, even if there aren’t any signs on the surface.
Emotions still occur, and that energy still goes somewhere. Sometimes, it goes into feelings of guilt or even anxiety for having the emotion in the first place.
Over time, denying powerful emotions can cause a feeling of numbness. When you tell yourself over and over that you aren’t feeling anything, like an incantation, it becomes true.
My personal experience with depression is something like the inverse of feeling, as if all of my emotions merge into a single vacuum, a blackhole of emotion that eats up any sense of well-being or connectedness.
Once I started to learn to value my emotional self, my sensitivity, and my feelings, I started to find my way out of this emotional abyss.
I’ve since learned that my emotions are in many cases a strength, but I’m still working to unearth the psycho-emotional patterns that I laid in my youth.
Reframing emotions as strengths
Once I started digging into all of those emotions, I discovered a lot of things there. First, there was a lot of anger.
Some of that anger was toward myself around my failures and shortcomings. Some of it was for the world. There was anger toward society, ideologies, and the culture that had taught me that not-feeling was a strength.
Underneath that initial, seemingly endless layer of anger were some surprises.
I felt a deep sense of love and connection for the world and everyone in it. I felt a strong sense of justice and humanitarianism.
I had a deep attraction to and appreciation of the beautiful, even and especially in the simple things, like a falling leaf or a passing cloud lined with pink sunlight.
Underneath all that anger, I felt a deep sense of caring.
Although the admonishment to “not be so sensitive” is often framed as a way to be stronger, in some cases it may do just the opposite.
Sure, at times it’s necessary to have thick skin, to let things roll off of me, and to pick myself up and keep moving, not letting the critics penetrate my sense of self.
But when I took the directive to “not be so sensitive” to its logical extreme, I found I got exactly what I asked for.
When I shut down my sensitivity, I also shut down my sense of compassion toward those who were suffering. I shut down my sense of justice, simply because it became so difficult to feel the injustice of the world.
Shutting down our sensitivity sends a message that the parts of ourselves that make us human, make us care for one another, and make us the feeling beings that we are, are somehow wrong, weak, or incorrect.
Instead, we can see the feeling parts of ourselves as our greatest strengths. They are the source of our common humanity and interconnection with the rest of the world.
How to mine the emotions under the anger
Like his tomboy mom and billions of little boys before him, my son translates all of his emotions into anger. Whether it’s anxiety, fear, embarrassment, or sadness, he jumps straight onto the anger train.
Luckily, I found a great tool for helping him (and myself) to pinpoint what’s going on underneath all of that rage.
It’s called the “Anger Iceberg,” part of the Go Zen anxiety curriculum for kids.
It’s a deceptively simple exercise that consists of a piece of paper with a little black and white iceberg peeking out over an ocean. The tip of the iceberg represents anger. Everything below the water consists of the emotions that the anger covers up.
In any situation, I can whip out the anger iceberg and ask him to reflect.
“I can see that you’re angry. What do you think is going on underneath all that anger?” I ask.
When I notice I’m getting frustrated, impatient, or downright mad, I ask myself the same thing.
This simple little exercise is a profound way to connect with our anger as it arises and mine it for the deeper emotions hiding underneath.
When we do so, we’re teaching ourselves that our feelings aren’t just OK. They contain valuable messages from one of the most beautiful parts of ourselves: the part that relates to, empathizes with, and loves other beings.
Some questions to reflect on:
- Am I actually feeling sad, vulnerable, or fearful?
- Am I being too hard on myself or someone else?
- Am I focusing on judgments rather than understanding and empathy?
- Am I particularly stressed or run down right now?
- Did I get enough sleep? Did I eat?
- Am I outside of my routine or comfort zone?
- How can I compassionately parent myself right now?
Making it cool to care
Flipping the “don’t be so sensitive” motto on its head, a call for being more sensitive by connecting to our feelings and those of others could be just what we need.
The phrase “ethic of care” was first coined by psychologist Carol Gilligan in her book, “ In a Different Voice.” Gilligan argued that morals and ethics are a masculinized and abstracted version of the idea of care.
Later, physicist and feminist Evelyn Fox Keller wrote of the emotional labor that goes unseen, unvalued, and unrewarded in society.
If emotional labor tends to go unrewarded, it’s no surprise that sensitive souls throughout history have been marginalized or othered.
Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is an example of a sensitive artist who saw the world differently than those around him and suffered for it. He ironically only gained artistic notoriety, or much acknowledgement at all, after his death.
In an era when depression and suicide are on the rise, reframing care as a strength can be a lifesaving act — one that’s desperately needed.
These days, care and compassion are revolutionary.
“I want to reach so high that people say of my work, ‘He feels deeply. He feels tenderly.’ It is true I am often in the depths of misery, but perhaps in part because of this, there is within me a calmness, pure harmony, and sweet music.”
-Vincent van Gogh
Be more sensitive
In my own case, I sometimes speculate that depression is my body’s way of protecting me from caring too much.
When I’m feeling impotent and small in the face of a world in constant flux and crisis, caring can feel like a liability.
Instead of cursing my sensitivity and armoring myself against feeling, I try to use it as a catalyst for action rather than a signal to shut down and protect my heart.
If we want to act to change injustice, we have to allow ourselves to feel the pain of injustice first. If we want to help others overcome suffering, we have to be sensitive to the fact that they’re suffering in the first place.
Otherwise, we’re armoring against the very qualities that make us human beings.
There’s certainly an art to finding the balance between functional compassion and crippling despair.
For me, it’s the resolve to act out of love no matter how hard things get, and to do that, I have to become more sensitive, not less.