On Being Emotionally Sensitive

I admit it, I’m a sensitive person.

There’s no shame in that, really.  Emotional sensitivity is largely determined by heredity.  Some babies are born fussy, others calm.  The fussy ones need attention fairly frequently.  It’s important that their parents soothe them, and teach them to soothe themselves.  They may tremble a bit in the playground when they’re 3 years old, uncertain about venturing very far from mom or dad.  And they may wail when you leave them for the first time in a classroom with only a teacher and maybe an aide there to comfort them.

The calm ones are different, of course.  They wander off easily in the playground; you probably have to be a bit more vigilant to make sure they don’t wander off too far.  They bump and bruise their way through life, barely ever crying or fussing, falling down, getting up, and moving on.  That first grade class is a breeze for them, and they plunge head first into most activities.  Calm babies most easily grow into confident adolescents and teens.  The ups and downs of daily living do not usually affect them as deeply as their emotionally sensitive peers.  I love my calm friends, much more unflappable to the vagaries of life than I, but it is to my emotionally sensitive friends that I direct these thoughts today.

Those fussy babies frequently grow up to be emotionally sensitive adolescents and adults.  They see, hear, and feel every emotional nuance in the room.  When happy they may become ecstatic.  When sad they may feel despair.  When praised they will beam with delight.  When criticized they may want to crawl into the deepest hole.  They are the first to notice when someone else is hurting, and frequently the first person others turn to when in need of support, nurturing, and guidance.  They usually have a good “gut feel” for people, and are guided frequently by empathic recognition of the needs of others.

This was me growing up.  I still get kidded by friends and family about how easily I fussed as a youngster.  I can remember the times I was hurt by childhood friends, schoolyard companions, and various members of the different high school herds; I can still feel the sting of those hurts as I envision them.  But I also remember golden times sharing thoughts and ideas, connecting deeply in play and in conversation with those same friends, companions, and high school herds.  When I think back to the never-ending hours spent playing sports, especially stick ball, baseball, and basketball, I remember most the camaraderie of those games.  I was a bit of a gym rat in college, spending hours playing basketball in sweaty, stinking gyms.  But what wonderful friendships were formed in those gyms.  What life lasting experiences we had.

Being emotionally sensitive is a two edged sword.  The gift of emotional sensitivity is your capacity to feel deeply in the moment, a capacity that allows you to find deep meaning in the simplest experiences.  And the emotional charge that those experiences kindle make those events deeply memorable; you carry those memories for life, gladly.  But there’s a price you pay, because when you feel hurt, angered, saddened, frightened, or ashamed, you feel it very deeply, sometimes too deeply.  And it’s hard to forget those emotionally charged experiences and sometimes even harder to know how to respond to another person who has hurt you.  It can feel really overwhelming.

When we sit in meditation we must sit with our entire mind/body fully present.  The point of our meditation is not to quell unpleasant feelings, but to know them, make room for them, learn from them, abide in them.  Those of us who are sensitive are tempted, at times, to use the relaxation that comes so easily with meditation as a balm to our emotionally unpleasant bodily feelings.  It’s so easy to see meditation as an escape, a way out of pain.  But we know that this only leads to more suffering; aversion to a feeling quickly becomes attachment, and we find the unpleasant feeling reappearing again and again and again.

Instead, it’s important to bring unpleasant emotional states to our meditation seeking only to make peace with them.  Radical acceptance, making space for the unpleasant, and most of all recognizing whether the unpleasant feelings can be paired with skillful responses, are all possible with mindfulness practice.  When faced with the sequelae of an emotion provoking event, we have choices we can make as to how we will respond.  I hope to take that up in my next essay.  For now, please don’t feel ashamed if you’re very sensitive; it’s a gift you’ve been given, one that you return abundantly to the people in your life.  It hurts at times, but it’s worth it when you weigh the benefit you bring to others in need, if only you can learn to manage the feelings of the hurtful side of this two edged gift.

Peace,

Jim

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