"You're too sensitive", "Lighten up", "Why are you crying?" were all too common comments I heard while growing up. I was hyper attuned to the feelings of people around me and I could feel other people's distress. If someone started crying, then I cried too. Which was so confusing to my poor mother because I would run home crying and there was nothing wrong with me!
Since I was attuned to other people's emotions I could often tell if someone was hurting or upset. I tended to befriend other misfits because I could feel the chaos of their feelings. Sometimes this got me into a tight spot and I remember in 5th grade I stood up to bullies who were picking on someone and almost got beat up. Thankfully a 6th grade boy, Randy Black, stepped in and chased the bullies off.
I've gone through life thinking I was just too empathetic, but now I'm realizing I was 'sensitive'. I first heard of the term 'sensitive' when I was reading Dani Shapiro's book Still Writing (here's a great blog post she reads about needing the quiet as a buffer). When she described growing up as 'too sensitive' it just clicked. I feel too much. Apparently there is a small group of the population that moves "through life with a more pronounced state of awareness, and depth of experience".
I've always felt like I needed a buffer to keep other people's emotions at bay. I once had a therapist give me a great visual: Imagine your front door. Anyone you meet on the street, you keep the front door closed and use the peep hole. For people that you are acquainted with you may leave the front door open, but the screen door closed and locked. Finally, for people who are friends and family, you leave the door open and people are allowed to come and go. This has helped me protect my own feelings. The only drawback to this is that sometimes I shut the door and I shut down. I lose the ability to reach out and let people in.
I'm still learning how to navigate life while being sensitive. It is nice to have something that defines how I feel- as opposed to thinking I was crazy!
The stunning photograph is by Oscar Paradela.
Originally published 7/10/14