“Too sensitive”

Ever been told you’re “too sensitive”?

Sensitive. It’s a funny word, with a muddle of meanings – some positive, others not so much. Here are a few from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

  • receptive to sense impressions
  • delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others
  • excessively or abnormally susceptible
  • easily hurt or damaged

If you’re someone who is often told that you’re “too sensitive”, you may have come to see sensitivity as a weakness, something to be overcome.

Over the years, I’ve talked with so many people who have learned to see themselves as flawed, simply because they feel too much. I’ve certainly felt that way for most of my own life.

It’s true that if you’re someone who is acutely tuned in to your senses – which is all the word means, at its root – life can feel like a bombardment at times. So many signals to read and interpret. So much complexity to make sense of. So many sensory stimuli.

It can be exhausting.

Dealing with people can be particularly challenging, not least because – as demonstrated by the word ‘sensitive’ itself – words can mean so many different things. Trying to balance non-verbal perceptions (of body language, expression, tone of voice) with a guess at what the words might be being used to convey, is an extraordinarily complex job.

That we understand one another at all is hard to believe.

Yet for people with heightened sensitivity, there can be an extra layer of confusion. Our sensitivity is sometimes the legacy of life experiences which have left us feeling less-than-safe; a hypervigilance, a watchfulness designed to protect us. Often we have learned to read situations well, yet may not have any real insight into how we do so – which can lead to those awkward moments of absolutely knowing something to be true, whilst having no rational-sounding way of explaining to others how it is that we do.

From a sanity point of view, here be dragons…

The world needs people who feel. Our presence, our listening, our caring, our creativity – these things are precious beyond measure.

And at the same time, we have a responsibility to learn how to take good care of ourselves in order to be able to contribute those things. We need resilience. To learn how to switch off and recharge. To thrive.

For a long time I flinched when the words “too sensitive” appeared in conversation, as sooner or later they inevitably did. I taught myself to respond to them by feeling less-than, by becoming silent. I knew I wasn’t easy to be around and felt ashamed to be the way I was. I didn’t realise that I could be that person and be ok.

I see a different possibility now.

To be sensitive and fully present in the world and, at the same time, grounded, healthy and well-resourced – how can we learn to do that?

It’s time to find out.

Image © Cardigan&Mac