Since childhood, I've heard people say, "Stop being so sensitive!" And I've wanted to ask, How can I stop being me?
Or I've heard, "Relax!" and I've thought, but I'm working through something not relaxing! And then I've wanted to insert my not-relaxed heel in the person's... um, napkin.
Or the worst has been, "Don't think so hard about everything." And I've considered, I feel confused when I tell myself not to think about stuff that's important to me.
My favorite response after I've shared feelings about something subtle or controversial has been, "That's all in your head." And inside I've screamed, yes, my thoughts come from my head, should they come from yours instead?
I've been urged, often by people who care about me, to be less emotional, attached, fearful, argumentative, concerned, and passionate. Less me. I've been pressed to gloss over problems with smiles and positive statements, to let things roll off my shoulders, and to care less about what other people think.
Growing up, tears were embarrassing, but they came when I couldn't fix my hair right or when my mom was stressed out. Joy came simply from spending time alone exploring the books in my bedroom, from constructing a fort outdoors, or from running and skipping to school with friends. Moodiness arrived when the weather was bad, and anger hit me when I saw a boy bullied on the playground. I felt depressed when my dad got angry.
As a child, I could relate to strangers too. So I felt terrified when the girl who lived on the other side of town was kidnapped. I wondered how she felt being trapped in the trunk of a car. I worried about (and still do) how it felt to be a minority and suffer racism; how it felt to be in prison, to be poor, to be homeless, to die.
I questioned everything, so I considered how God looked, who the devil really was, and how the snow felt to melt. I felt. Everything. I felt it when the teacher glanced at me sideways and told me I could do better, though I was working my hardest. In sixth grade math class, I felt that boy giggling at the space between the buttons on my slightly too tight red shirt (that I never wore again.)
I thought there was something wrong with feeling so much. Though I was never diagnosed, these days I might be viewed through the lens of sensory processing disorder, anxiety, or depression.
"You've got to think positive!" a friend might say. "It's not healthy to think about all that stuff."
Years later, I've witnessed my children discover their own sensitive tendencies. "Mom, why do people have to be so unforgiving?" My husband and I recognize the wisdom of our special needs child's poignant question.
"Because forgiveness hurts. Forgiveness means understanding the other person," I answer.
"I am afraid of people, mom." He says later. I embrace him, worried, but thankful that he dares to share tough feelings with me.
"I can feel people's feelings mom, and sometimes I can even feel what they're going to say before they say it," says my middle child.
"Look mom, aren't the little teeny waves on this shell beauuuutiful?" says my daughter, pressing her nose down close to a tiny shell.
Yes, they're beautiful, I think. And so are you, my sensitive child.
I think my children are pretty amazing despite being highly sensitive, so gradually I've been able to recognize that I'm OK too. Recently, another writer questioned the validity of an experience I wrote about. "Beautiful writing, she said, "and I know this is your personal story, but it just isn't believable." Her comments hurt (back to the "it's all in your head" message,) but after grappling with her feedback, it became clearer to me that she's missing the ability to empathize with me-- and there's nothing I should do to try to change that.
Today, my sensitivity isn't a hindrance, it's my guide: I write daily poetry on twitter, I paint, and I share my candid perspective in essays like this one and in my upcoming novel. I work with the homeless when I can, connect with other moms of special needs children, and spend a lot of time trying to parent from my gut. Sensitivity is a heavy burden-- because it's made of gold.
So when you hear or think the words, "Don't be so sensitive!" consider this:
Sensitivity plunges into our hearts with stories of suffering. It urges us to care for all living things, near and far, connecting us to stories of poverty, refugees, slavery, abuse, and neglect.
Sensitivity pulls our bodies away from screens to engage in the multi-sensory outdoors-- exploring water, forests and mountains where natural resources flow into our lives, inspiring care for the earth.
Sensitivity provokes us to reach for all that is greater than ourselves. When we connect with our senses, we ask questions, doubt, and discover faith freely. We can admit to lack of faith, which can ironically lead us to stronger faith.
Sensitivity invites us to seek new answers through scientific study, and to search for stars, planets and galaxies -- for ways of life undiscovered.
Sensitivity allows the aging, like my dad who suffers with Alzheimer's, the capacity to write and speak honestly about the past and also about how it feels to have a mind deteriorating.
Sensitivity allows us to patiently listen, to forgive, to fight, to argue, and to speak up when issues touch our hearts.
Sensitivity gives children the space to be seen and heard with acceptance and love from life's beginning, validating young insights, expectations, fears, dreams and emotions.
Finally, sensitivity inspires us to unearth the painter, writer, environmentalist, engineer, entrepreneur, teacher, politician, pastor, leader, parent, and the friend living inside our children, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Sensitivity insists that we express life passionately, honestly and gratefully.