Why your sensitivity is really a strength
It’s a sign that you still care when the world needs you most.
“Don’t be so sensitive” is a common refrain that many of us have heard over and over again in our lives.
In my case, I heard that this message was delivered to my older sister, not me.
There’s no denying that she was (and is) a crybaby, and I decided early on that that wouldn’t 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 resolved when a kite string cut the skin of my throat and a perfect line of red bubbled up my neck. I held back my tears until I managed to get inside, safe from the taunts of my male companions.
I definitely felt my emotions, but I didn’t express them. At least not with tears.
Like many guys, and “honorary” guys like me, I internalized them. If he couldn’t fully internalize them, he turned them into anger.
Anger was an acceptable emotion for “strong crackers” like me.
As I got older, I outgrew my tomboy, but my stoicism remained. He equated emotional reactions with a lack of self-discipline and viewed emotional coldness as a sign of self-control.
At the time, I didn’t understand that emotional reactivity can still occur inside, even if there are no signs on the surface.
Emotions still occur, and that energy still leaves. somewhere. Sometimes it turns into feelings of guilt or even anxiety about having the emotion in the first place.
Over time, denying powerful emotions can cause a numb feeling. When you tell yourself over and over that you don’t feel anything, like an enchantment, it becomes true.
Go into depression.
My personal experience with depression is something of the opposite of feeling, as if all my emotions merge into a single void, a black hole of emotion that devours any sense of well-being or connection.
Once I began to learn to value my emotional self, my sensitivity and my feelings, I began to find my way out of this emotional abyss.
Since then I have learned that my emotions are in many cases a strength, but I continue to work to unearth the psycho-emotional patterns that I established in my youth.
Once I started digging into all those emotions, I discovered a lot of things there. First, there was a lot of anger.
Part of that anger was towards myself for my faults and shortcomings. Some of it was for the world. There was anger towards the society, the ideologies and the culture that had taught me that not feeling was a strength.
Beneath that layer of initial, seemingly endless anger, were a few 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.
He had a deep attraction and appreciation for beauty, even and especially in simple things, like a falling leaf or a passing cloud fringed with rosy light.
Beneath all that anger, I felt a deep sense of caring.
Although the admonition to “not be so sensitive” is often framed as a way to become stronger, in some cases it can do just the opposite.
Sure, sometimes it’s necessary to have a thick skin, to let things slip away, to get up and keep moving, without letting criticism penetrate my sense of identity.
But when I took the “don’t be so sensitive” directive to its logical extreme, I found that I got exactly what I asked for.
When I closed my sensitivity, I also closed my sense of compassion towards those who suffered. I closed my sense of justice, simply because it became very 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 each other, and make us the sentient beings that we are, are somehow wrong, weak, or incorrect.
Instead, we can see the emotional parts of ourselves as our greatest strengths. They are the source of our common humanity and interconnectedness with the rest of the world.
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, shame, or sadness, jump right on the anger bandwagon.
Fortunately, I found a great tool to help him (and myself) identify what’s going on underneath all that anger.
It is called the “Ira Iceberg”, part of the go zen Anxiety curriculum for children.
It’s a deceptively simple exercise consisting of a sheet of paper with a small black and white iceberg looming over an ocean. The tip of the iceberg represents anger. Everything under the water consists of the emotions that anger covers up.
In any situation, I can take out the iceberg of anger and ask you to reflect.
“I can see that you are angry. What do you think is going on under all that anger? I ask.
When I notice that I am getting frustrated, impatient, or downright angry, I ask myself the same thing.
This simple little exercise is a profound way to connect with our anger as it arises and draw it out of the deeper emotions that lie beneath.
When we do, we are teaching ourselves that our feelings are not just okay. They contain valuable messages from one of the most beautiful parts of ourselves: the part that relates to, empathizes with, and loves other beings.
Flipping the “don’t be so sensitive” motto on its head, a call to be plus sensitive in connecting with our feelings and those of others could be just what we need.
The phrase “ethics of care” was first coined by psychologist Carol Gilligan in her book, “in a different voice.” Gilligan argued that morality and ethics are a masculinized and abstract version of the idea of care.
Later, the physicist and feminist Evelyn Fox Keller wrote about the emotional labor that is not seen, valued or rewarded in society.
If emotional labor tends to go unrewarded, it’s no surprise that sensitive souls throughout history have been marginalized or ostracized.
Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is an example of a sensitive artist who saw the world differently from those around him and suffered for it. Ironically, it only gained artistic notoriety, or much recognition. After his death.
in an era where depression and suicide are on the rise, reframing care as a strength can be a life-saving act, one that is desperately needed.
Many areas of the United States face shortage of mental health professionals as rates of depression and suicide rise.
These days, care and compassion are revolutionary.
In my own case, I sometimes speculate that depression is my body’s way of protecting me from worrying too much.
When I feel powerless and small in the face of a world in constant change and crisis, caring can seem like a responsibility.
Instead of cursing my sensitivity and shielding myself against feelings, I try to use it as a catalyst for action instead of a signal to shut down and protect my heart.
If we want to act to change injustice, we first have to allow ourselves to feel the pain of injustice. If we want to help others overcome suffering, we have to be sensitive to the fact that they are suffering in the first place.
Otherwise, we will shield ourselves against the very qualities that make us human beings.
There is certainly an art to finding the balance between functional compassion and paralyzing 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.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. He has taught in private studios, gyms, and in individual settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find it in Instagram.