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The Observant Immigrant

Is Sensitivity a Strength or a Weakness?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Rodin’s The Thinker. Courtesy: Creative Commons
“I may be a dreamer, 
 But I’m not the only one.” 
 -- John Lennon (Imagine). 

As a child I remember understanding on a very basic level the concept of cruelty. I recall vaguely thinking in the simple way children think; “Why is that person so mean?” It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting what I wanted and stomping my foot, it was more observing a cruelty and trying to make sense of it. Bottom line, children understand these things pretty early on and it forms what becomes their moral compass.

We can and do change over time but those early lessons tend to stick around. My early lesson was that I recognised that I cared. I observed that some other people did care too and some other people did not. I think ever since then I have wondered why some people are cruel.

More recently there has been a debate of sorts over the ‘value’ of being sensitive. Can you be too sensitive? Is there value in being sensitive? The issue is split. Some believe sensitivity is a weakness. Others recognise it makes life harder. Some think sensitivity is related to mental illness, whilst some believe we need more sensitivity in this world.

As a therapist I am often asked this question. I have also asked it of myself. I tend to berate myself when I am ‘too’ sensitive, but this is a learned behavior, based on being shamed for being sensitive in the past. The truth is I think you can literally speaking be too sensitive (for your own good, because it’s you who is hurt most by it) but most people who are told ‘you are too sensitive’ are being gaslighted or manipulated.

Through my life I have been told so a few times. Predictably, I felt ashamed because society perceives sensitivity as weakness. I consider myself a strong person, a resilient person, but I know the way I’m perceived by those who know I’m (also) sensitive, is weaker. This has never been truer than since moving to America, where the ‘bad ass’ mentality rules and women over-compensate by being emotionless and ‘strong’ as a rebuke against sensitivity.

Sensitivity is out of fashion; it has been for a long time. Maybe, by rejecting sensitivity, people believe they are automatically stronger (and perceived by others to be) we hold up role-models of impossibly strong people who are not depicted as sensitive. None of us seem to revere sensitive, kind people. On the contrary, we usually suspect them. We admire the person who is sarcastic, quick-witted, a little ruthless, and undefeatable. Therefore, I will seem like a sensitive person trying to justify sensitivity by writing this. And you wouldn’t be wrong. I think sensitivity has a bad rap and I’m personally tired of how insensitive people are. I don’t think this is commendable, cooler or something to aspire to, but sometimes I feel I’m in the minority.

Most recently I had two conversations within a day of each other, where I was told ‘maybe you’re being too sensitive’ and shortly after that I talked to a good friend of mine about this. Her answer got me thinking about the way sensitivity is perceived and how wrong-headed we are. She said ‘well maybe more people should be sensitive’ and those simple words were a bombshell. Exactly! We wouldn’t have to go around covered in armor if people were more sensitive! We wouldn’t have to be ‘bad ass’ if others were kind and thoughtful!

When did we become a people who worshipped coldness over warmth and compassion?

I might sound like a spiritual evangelist writing this, and ironically, I don’t believe in God, but many of my concepts are in keeping with those you might see in the Bible. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Be compassionate and kind to those who need it. Those are not concepts we enact, instead we admire the person who is rude, emotionless, ruthless even. What happened to make this happen?

When I left university the first time, armed with my degrees I thought (naively) I could go out into the world and get a good job. Why shouldn’t I have thought that? I had worked hard I deserved it, didn’t I? When I recall how I thought back then, I was really a naïve person (though I thought I knew everything) with no comprehension of how hard the world could be. Not only was the job-market seemingly impenetrable, but nobody was impressed with anything I had to offer, and I felt utterly deflated within a short period of time.

Some would say bringing down a peg or two is a rite most young people go through when they get into the real world. But I still recall that time as being one of deep despair and sadness, to imagine a world that wasn’t fair or kind. I had genuinely thought it could be! The struggle to establish myself financially was uphill and took a long time. During which I experienced repeated knocks to my confidence and was told over and over that I was nothing/nobody. It seemed like colleagues, bosses, etc. thrived on putting down the young people who got on the first rung of the ladder.

I have never forgotten that. I ask people even now if they had the same experience(s); Some say yes, some say no. Initially I took it personally because it felt personal, but I came to realise it was a rite of passage, where young people were put down and put in their place by those who had come before them. It remains a horrible practice with no real value, after all, we need to believe in ourselves, not be trashed and put down. For some, it may be easier to get over than others. I was in the latter camp. I had grown up being put down, so the last thing I needed was for it to happen again.

This is when the idea of grin and bear it, muscle through, take it or leave it, man up, comes into play. This is but one of many times in life where the emphasis is on being ‘strong enough to endure it’ and to put aside one’s true feelings about a situation (outrage, hurt, confusion) in favor of ‘sucking it up.’ Given that I had not joined the military, I found the urge to react this way very strange. I wanted instead to ask why it had to be this way, why people let it be this way?

This relates back to my earliest understanding that some people are cruel. But our response to some people being cruel is weird. Instead of calling them out and doing something collectively about it so that they do not continue to have the power to be cruel, we seem to want to join them? The shaming of those who are sensitive seems a way to a line with those who would be cruel, even as logically all those who a line with the cruel, might once have been sensitive.

Why do we think being sensitive is such a weakness when it is far weaker to be a hard-nosed uncaring person who doesn’t give to anyone, than to be a caring person who wants to treat others as they would wish to be treated? I can’t say I understand it now any better than I did years ago. When my clients ask me, I remain as perplexed at people’s cruelty as I ever have. There simply seems no good justification for it. And moreover, why people glorify cruelty and think kindness is ‘suspect’ ‘insincere’ or ‘weak’ baffles me.

Sensitivity means you notice when someone is upset and you care. Insensitivity means you don’t care to notice what happens to anyone and you don’t give a damn. When you put that bluntly, I find it hard to understand why someone would wish to be the latter, other than it’s easier, and might be less work. But what about conscience and morality? For many of us, we have that prickling of conscience if we have mistreated someone, we want to be a good person. We try to help others, so how could we ever want to align ourselves with someone who didn’t give a damn?

Yet how often, from the schooldays onward, do we see the popular kid is the mean kid, or the most liked child is the one who does nothing for others, but is considered ‘cool’ or the boss who is mean but somehow respected, or the adult who has lots of friends though they never do a thing to help others? It’s not always the kind, sensitive person who is popular, in fact their motivations are often suspected, and they might be considered weak and cloying.

Moving to America I struggled with this considerably. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, if I like someone, I do go out of my way to be a good friend to them. I think that’s how it should be. But my good intentions were often suspected, people would even say to me (as an insult) “you’re so NICE” (meaning: Boring) or they wouldn’t believe my kindness was genuine. As to being sensitive, I was told I was ‘too’ sensitive if I stepped over the formality people had with each other, where people didn’t really ask how someone was doing, or follow up and care enough to get closer.

In fact, I didn’t understand how people got close, because everything was so superficial and formal. I began to see that many friendships were just that, convenience based. Those who had children hung out with others who had children, and car pooled. Those who went to the gym talked to others who worked out a lot and maybe met on weekends to work out, etc. But the moment you no longer had that in common, you rarely kept in touch. The deep friendships I had sustained back home, seemed rarer.

I was told this was because you made those kinds of friendships in childhood and once you were an adult you didn’t make friends like that. I wondered why not? All the rules of friendship baffled me and the difficulty of getting meaningfully close to people seemed incredibly hard all of a sudden. With colleagues a work — those I had known for years and whom I worked with closely — I wrongly assumed we were also friends. But they saw me only as a tool for the job I did. They invested no more in me as a person as they would in someone they had just met, even if we worked side-by-side for years.

To this day that strikes me as strange. I’m not standing on a moral high horse saying that I can’t fathom these things, I think I’m just stating a fact. I find it difficult to understand why someone would be cruel. Why someone would make someone else feel bad (deliberately) or why someone would put someone else down for being ‘weak’ just because they’re sensitive and care. Since when were those ever-bad attributes? Could it be in our rejection of older morals, we have adopted ones that cut our nose off to spite our face?

Having been told people do not trust ‘nice’ people I began to understand what that meant. Sometimes socially when you meet someone who is initially really friendly, they turn out to be less than you imagined, whereas someone else, who was perhaps initially aloof, can turn out to be a great person. I have learned friendliness doesn’t always equate to good people. Sometimes it is a front or an act. However, if you are a genuine person and sensitive to others, this is more than just initial friendliness and yet, you might be suspected because of people’s previous experience with ‘kind or friendly’ people.

When did it become rare to be kind and when did we begin to be suspicious of kindness? Intellectually I understand it but emotionally it’s so strange. I have had conversations about related subjects such as why women don’t like other women (they think they are backstabbers) or why women aren’t feminists (their experience has been women are often worse to them than men, so why would they be a feminist?) and I think they’re all related themes.

When we can’t trust the motivations of others, we might suspect the worst if that is our prior experience. Nowadays we’re more liable to mistrust a kind person than someone who is aloof or sarcastic. We’ve got things around the wrong way. And all because some of us are cruel and delight in hurting others, which includes warping the truth. Because the truth hasn’t changed. Being sensitive means caring about others, and this should never be something to ridicule or deride. Nor is it weak.

If after reading this you conclude I’m writing this to justify my own sensitivity, then you wouldn’t be wrong. I hope you see it’s leading to a much bigger picture too. I also hope you know I am not justifying sensitivity emotionally but defending it based on reason and fact. After all, sensitivity isn’t all emotional. We have often mistaken sensitivity for some kind of mental illness but it’s nothing of the kind. True, some mentally ill people may be sensitive, but that’s all. Sensitivity, unless it’s pathological in its extremity, is a natural human response. But still those who wear their heart on their sleeve are humiliated by those who are still in the school yard.

I would love a world that embraced the idea you can be sensitive and strong, because I truly believe you can. I also like the idea of a world where people’s past experiences wouldn’t close them to trusting someone’s kindness, or suspecting kindness of motivation. Do we really want a world where we’re all so removed from each other we no longer care? Is that the world you want to live in? It’s not the world I want to live in. I want my boss to care if I’m struggling, I think on a logical, emotional and realistic level this will improve our relationship. I don’t think humans are robots or unconnected. I think caring is how we connect and I want to. Living in a disconnected world where nobody cares what happens to anyone else, seems a dystopian nightmare. As we grow in numbers this is logistically more likely to occur. Let’s at least let those who are sensitive, flourish rather than shut them down and shame them.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

2 replies on “Is Sensitivity a Strength or a Weakness?”

Thank you for a comprehensive view on being sensitive. I have often experienced brash, cruel acts but find that if I take the time to react with sensitively, I find that the person has a lot going on in their lives that makes them want to ‘take it out’ on someone they perceive as weaker. Reacting insensitively to their remarks only fuels their self anger. But it doesn’t always work!

Liked by 1 person

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