This article briefly describes an incident of sexual harassment.
In sixth grade, I climbed the tree in my front yard, holding three smooth, white eggs. Phillip, my next door neighbor, was constantly picking on me in school—this was revenge, and Phillip deserved it. But mostly, if I was being honest, I just wanted to know what it felt like to egg someone’s house. I aimed at his front door, took a deep breath, then fired the eggs with all the power of my wimpy arms could muster.
They splat splat splattered. It felt glorious.
That night, however, I couldn’t sleep. And the next day at school, I couldn’t concentrate. I pictured the eggy mess decaying on Phillip’s front door. His parents worked hard—imagine how disheartened they felt, coming home to that mess. If I wanted to clear my mind, I knew I’d need to clear my conscience. So when Phillip sat down at my lunch table that day, I confessed. He assured me payback would be coming. The next morning, a yellow, congealed mess dripped down my own front door. My parents swiftly grounded me and I spent the weekend cleaning up egg, wondering why I couldn’t be a normal kid who played pranks without worrying about the emotional consequences. “You’re too sensitive,” I said to myself and repeated it for years to come.
Hypersensitivity is a real thing, and psychologist Elaine Aron, who has been researching it for decades, calls it sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). It’s pretty much what it sounds like: “greater sensitivity and responsivity to environmental and social stimuli.” SPS includes a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli like pain or loud noises, but it also includes heightened awareness and experience of emotion-arousing information, like a slight smile, furrowed brow. It’s a fairly common trait found in somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of the population. Aron’s research has also discovered that the trait is innate—biologists have found it in more than 100 species, from fruit flies to primates—and it may be a survival mechanism.
For better or worse, I’ve always been a sensitive person. I feel bad killing spiders. I cry at Mazda commercials. When someone around me is in a bad mood, I am also in a bad mood. Being highly sensitive is both a strength and a weakness, but I’ve found that our culture mostly thinks of it as the latter.
How we learn to hide our sensitivity
Dr. Aron has said that some cultures value sensitivity more than others. “In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs [highly sensitive people] tend to have low self-esteem,” she writes. “They are told ‘don’t be so sensitive’ so that they feel abnormal.” Sound familiar?
I would not be surprised to find a link between sensory-processing sensitivity and multipotentiality. It takes a fair amount of awareness to realize the widely accepted approach to life isn’t working for you. It takes a fair amount of emotional sensitivity to work toward a more varied identity.
But in the western world, sensitivity is considered a weakness. Most of us grow up with an innate sense of the same set of rules: Keep your head down. Pull yourself up. Have thick skin and keep a stiff upper lip. We’re told these are virtues, but these virtues simply keep everyone living in a low-grade state of obedience and numbness.
At an old job, for example, when a boss told me not to “make it a habit” of taking time off when my grandfather died, I said nothing. At another job, when a male coworker commented on how my butt looked that day, I said nothing. And there are a number of more disturbing scenarios in which I said nothing because, in those circumstances, I have always been told the same thing: Don’t be so sensitive. All too often, “you’re too sensitive” is just code for, “you won’t let me get away with being awful.”
Learning to embrace sensitivity instead
Sensitive people feel abnormal in these cultures, so we internalize the message that we’re too sensitive and repeat it to ourselves.
I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I wish there was some earth-shattering experience that made me realize how dangerous this phrase really is. That would make for a much more interesting story. But the truth is, the older I get, the more exhausting it is to keep up with this. Repeating this phrase is like telling yourself that you’re less valuable than everyone else around you. Your feelings don’t matter as much as theirs. Your perspective is less important than theirs. Let people say degrading things to you. Let people touch you. Do what everyone else wants. It’s tiring.
Out of sheer emotional exhaustion, I’ve stopped telling myself things like, “maybe I’m just being too sensitive.” I can’t say it’s erupted into some major life-changing experience, but it’s been a boon to my mental health and made my life richer in a lot of ways. When a friend said something hurtful, instead of simply ignoring her and letting resentment build until our friendship fizzled out, I told her how I was feeling and asked what she thought about it. As a result, our friendship deepened. When a client asked for a favor that made me uncomfortable, instead of making excuses, I told them I didn’t agree with it. As a result, I felt less frustrated with them and more connected to my values.
When sensitivity gets in the way
Slowly but surely, I’m learning that sensitivity is actually quite powerful and there’s no use in hiding it. Ignoring your feelings almost always backfires and leads to burnout, resentment, anger—all those extra-difficult secondary emotions that can be prevented if you just deal with your primary ones. Of course, like any other trait, your sensitivity can also get in the way.
My working style tends to be emotionally-charged, so it’s hard to get any writing done if I don’t feel angry, sad, excited, or passionate. On the other hand, emotions can also get in the way of my work output. When it’s a particularly bad news day (which, in 2020, has been common), I sometimes can’t manage to do anything at all. It’s also hard to stop comparing myself to others. I see a project a friend is working on, and it looks exciting, so I get distracted and wonder if I should do that, too. Or maybe someone I know accomplishes something huge and I start to feel bad about my own accomplishments. These issues are probably relatable to just about anyone, but when you’re a sensitive person, it can be extra hard to let go of those emotions. By definition, those emotions just hit you harder.
I’m learning to manage the effects of sensitivity without trying to deny it altogether. That means sitting down to write, even when I’m not emotionally charged. The words don’t flow as easily, but I’m able to get the work done. It means making clear plans and milestones for the projects I’m working on and reminding myself to stick to that plan when I’m distracted with someone else’s success. As a kid, it meant being honest about something that was eating me up. All of these things are hard.
As it turns out, people are usually stronger for their sensitivity. Emotional fortitude is not pretending your emotions don’t exist. It’s accepting and working through even your worst feelings, even when it seems much easier to ignore all of it. Even if I couldn’t see it as a kid, the world needs sensitive people who are willing to do that work. Otherwise, we’d all be drowning in anger and splattered eggs.
Multipods, how do you manage your own sensitivity? How does it get in the way and how does it work in your favor?
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