For Thanksgiving: A Shifting Sense of Gratitude at Being 'Highly Sensitive'

Gratitude has not always been my strongest suit, and I am particularly resistant when told by others that we not only need to be grateful, but that gratitude is a choice -- when in fact it often seems very far from any authentic choice available. My own battles with breast cancer finally included a particular kind of gratitude, but it was more about my being capable of doing this thing of being sick and scared, my way, which included anger and depression as much as anything akin to gratitude per se. There was, however, gratitude that I could reach that fervor about my right to experience in the fashion I needed, and I'm prone to believe that this in itself was strengthening.

When I saw the new documentary, "Sensitive: The Untold Story," focusing on the groundbreaking work of psychologist Elaine Aron, and others, I got in touch with feeling grateful for having a trait that seemed almost perfect for me. I felt grateful for being empathic and engaged, for processing deeply, for awareness of some of the more subtle aspects around me, even for the awareness that being troubled by overstimulation was part of something not all that unusual. Almost immediately, though, there was a deep sadness, because the film highlights how this trait, that affects 20 or so percent of the population and affects males as much as females, can make people susceptible (sensitive) to good and available and sensitive treatment and as such become more resilient than many others. At the same time, the sensitive person can be troubled and traumatized all the more so because of the sensitive nature he/she/I am /are born with.

I understand that living involves grieving, not only for the deaths we face, but also because of all the losses, and deep disappointments. And so it was that with my own sense of sadness for my younger self that had been devoid of respect for precisely that which comprised my deepest gifts, I felt -- yes, grateful, that in my practice of psychotherapy, my parenting, my writing, in my being a friend and wife, I have been increasingly able to insist on my right to be sensitive. Some years ago, when I took a rejection personally (as in an editor for a major paper who asked me to call her to collaborate, didn't answer my calls) and was told, "You shouldn't be so sensitive", I stopped her with a fierceness of purpose, saying, "It's taken me years to come to own and value this sensitivity of mine; Please! Don't talk to me about throwing it away." (As if that were possible anyway).

In the past I have balked at the need for a naming of a trait in terms of a child or adult who is "highly sensitive," which I always "read" as hypersensitive. I guess I, along with many people who are less than very sensitive, looked down on the trait, since it has so often been used to insult and to shame. Even while we may hear talk of the power of vulnerability, there is can be too little appreciation of the utter rawness and nakedness involved in acutely vulnerable states. But here too, the idea of sensitivity does not necessarily imply vulnerability per se. It is something that helps a person move towards strength and confidence, and planning for difficult situations, when given the opportunity to do so.

I tend to see the tricky parts of another diagnostic trait being put into use. Will people rush to be included in the sensitive category, or will anxious parents (it's hard not to be anxious as a parent in a culture that judges more than it supports) artificially choreograph their interactions with their kids, without real regard or working through their own mixed feelings about such interactions. On the other hand, the data in the film are presented with due appreciation for the less sensitive among us, those who might take things easier as a matter of temperament. Something we too rarely appreciate actually includes the advantages, even the need for a variety of approaches to life, and a variety of temperaments (content pointed to exquisitely by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt--see The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage Books, 2013)

Over the years, my work has tended to focus on the underlying feelings which stay hidden and can do damage from there. Several people in my practice have suffered from negativity approaching self-hatred because they could not glibly debate an issue with the apparent finesse of others in their family. A young man I worked with despised his inability to solve everything from a cerebral vantage point. He hesitated, he felt confused; he needed time to think, while his older brothers and parents did not. We managed to find a place for the dignity of emotions, to the point that he realized that at least in his family the debating was to win only, rather than to learn or to listen. I was able to help him and others do some of the work that still lies before me.

I would like to suggest that in our world of today in general, that the practice of hesitating, of thinking, of monitoring the contradictions and doubts, can be an aspect of decision making worthy of practice and respect. In fact what we are missing in our political scenarios, even in the context of the vicious disasters of ISIS, is the capacity and wish to slow down and process more deeply, allowing in complexities.

Meanwhile, it's about that time of year called Thanksgiving. Some people, some sensitive people -- and some sensitive people who have received shifting attitudes and treatment, are probably in for some feelings of gratitude about this subject, which are in and of themselves, prone to shift. Call it a moody gratitude if you will, nothing all that still or solid, but real nonetheless.