As a young child I was affected when Mother lashed out in angry words at Grandma. The words are forgotten. They didn’t change me. What changed me was the sorrow on my grandmother’s face and the beseeching words to her daughter.
“Dear, I’m very sensitive.”
As a child, who had also been the brunt of Mother’s anger (as children routinely are), I latched onto this justification of wounds large and small. I was sensitive.
The idea became a small hidden personality brick. Without awareness I used it to keep people, ideas, and experiences away. Whoever or whatever I saw as hurtful, or potentially hurtful, I reasoned I was a sensitive soul too aware of the world’s angers and mistreatments. I was a finely tuned human instrument easily bruised if crudely treated. A human Stradivarius.
Another solid brick was the pervasive support of society that sensitivity is a female virtue. Female emotions were considered deeper, somehow more meaningful and nuanced than men’s.
But time and the forces of nature eventually wear at even the most hidden bricks and now I look at being a sensitive person very differently. My senior year of high school I joined the debate team. A social issue was posed and everyone on the team was expected to research the topic and be able to defend and criticize pro and con views. Rules of debate stressed being prepared and ability to understand all sides.
The world of ideas and tools of critical thinking slowly opened. I became more familiar with an attitude of listening to various sides and realizing ideas were only ideas and not weapons directed at me. Often they appeared to imprison the uncritical or unobservant believer.
A later realization was while listening to my husband’s anger. He was very upset over something I had done or said. Marriage gives reasons. I’d seen his anger before and nursed my tender sensitive wounds afterwards. This time I spontaneously observed, “Oh, that’s what he means.”
I think the new thought occurred because I was finally bored with his anger and my wounds and our emotional routines. So I listened. I heard. I still didn’t entirely agree, but I could see his point of argument and expression of honest emotion. Emotion not only aimed at me, but also emotion that was a façade of his fears and hurts. Man deep feelings. Human deep feelings.
“Oh,” I thought.
I’m careful using the word sensitive. I believe it is easily self limiting, destructive and a judgmental excuse to not consider intentions and real meaning. Instead, I aim for awareness then understanding. Ideas and emotions can make me confused and defensive. But once the initial swell of reaction clears, I consider and re-think. Sensitivity is no longer a pointed arrow to my heart. It is radar gathering information to act sincerely from my heart.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.