On being sensitive, not insufferable

Walking through life as a highly sensitive person can feel like this. (Photo by Nicolò Paternoster on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

As many lights as Elaine Aron’s groundbreaking The Highly Sensitive Person turned on when I discovered it years ago, a red flag popped up, too. I remember thinking: Wow, a highly sensitive person can be a force for good … or a pain in the ass. I did not, and still don’t, want to be That Person who complains often, takes offense easily, and makes the atmosphere sticky.

Knowledge about ourselves as highly sensitive persons is power, right? With that power comes the responsibility to make more authentic choices about everything from careers and relationships to the smallest interactions with our world. Those of us who are wired to experience life intensely, feel the pain of others, and draw energy from down time can use those traits to make the world a saner, kinder place. We can also gum up the world’s works by being reactive or making others responsible for our well-being.

Aron’s research indicates 15 to 20 percent of us have the traits of high sensitivity, also known as sensory-processing sensitivity. More recent research on brain activity points to physical, structural differences in the brains of highly sensitive people. It’s not in our heads — well, it is, but you get the picture.

So how do we HSPs thrive conscientiously in 21st-century America? The answers to that question are a work in progress, but here are my current thoughts.

Own it 

We may be outnumbered, but we’re not out-powered. Though we cannot control the crowds, the noise, the news, the behavior of others, or the thousand other potential sources of overwhelm and overstimulation, we can control our exposure and response to them. We do this through caring for ourselves, setting boundaries, and believing we are worth the effort and retraining it takes to do so.

Yes, retraining. We may have spent years grinning and bearing whatever and trying to make up for being “too sensitive.” So mustering the initiative to leave a party a wee bit early, ask your spouse for what you need, or say no to yet another request or demand may feel like scaling Mount Everest.

Won’t there be pushback? You bet, and it will be damn hard to resist. But when we can stand up for ourselves without making it about the other person(s) — that is, without judgement or blame — we get real. Wouldn’t you rather deal with a real person than one who is trying to shrink or stretch to please others? I sure would.

Handle empathy with care

Highly sensitive people and empaths can often sense what is really bothering the client who doesn’t like our design, or its fifth revision. We can observe how the family dynamic in the waiting room may sabotage the patient’s follow-up care. We know the horse we are grooming is sad, and we may even be able to tell it’s because his buddy in the next stall went to a new home last week. Well-managed empathy can not only tell us what’s wrong, but map the gentlest route toward making it right.

However, the good we can do with empathy is diminished when we take on others’ pain and burdens. Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. Taking on someone else’s “stuff,” instead of helping that person, expands the problem and leaves less room to find a solution … which may not be ours to find in the first place. And if others are rude, unkind, or downright horrid, that’s on them. Judith Orloff has some good books, last year’s The Empath’s Survival Guide in particular, about navigating these minefields.

The good we can do is also undermined when we don’t use discernment and discretion about the impressions and information we get through our sensitive spidey senses. Some of it, like the “Don’t get into the car with him” vibe, arrives ready to use. Some is best silently received and released. The rest has to go through the “Is it true/fair/kind/necessary?” mill before we share or act on it.

Empathy can actually be a check for sensitivity’s pain-in-the-ass potential. If we are quick to feel hurt, yet remain clueless about the impact of our own behavior on others, our sensitivity is a liability rather than an asset. This can happen to anyone, especially during times of stress. Good self-care and boundaries help us regain our empathetic balance.  However, if this one-sided sensitivity is business as usual, that’s misery all around. “The Happy Sensitive” coach and blogger Caroline van Kimmenade goes so far as to say sensitivity minus empathy equals narcissism.

We can walk a fine line between the building-up and tearing-down sides of sensitivity. Using empathy wisely helps keep us on the constructive side.

When in doubt, follow the Golden Rule

We may feel everything, but we don’t know everything. You’ve seen the quote attributed to Brad Meltzer: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” It reminds me of that bit about treating others the way we would want to be treated, which still works.

The world needs folks like us … just as it needs folks not like us, and compassion is needed more than ever. Let’s bring our best selves to the task.

‘Watchman’: True colors or subtle shades?

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What do we do when the distinct colors of childhood show up in shades we couldn’t discern before? (Photo by Alexas_Fotos)

When illusions about people and places we have long loved come crashing down, we are left to either reassemble something we can live with or walk away.

But were the things we thought we knew, in fact, illusions?

Such are the perplexities faced by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now twenty-six, in the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015). She returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City to visit her father, Atticus, who is in his seventies and struggling with rheumatoid arthritis but still practicing law. Working alongside Atticus is Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s lifelong friend, current boyfriend, and probable fiancé.

Only this is not the Maycomb we and Jean Louise knew in To Kill a Mockingbird  (originally published in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co.), where Atticus courageously defended a black man against a false rape charge. Now, in the 1950s, tensions over racial justice and who has the right to make the rules for whom are turning Southern communities, families, heads, and hearts into battlegrounds.

Sitting in her old spot in the courthouse’s “Colored” balcony, where she and brother Jem used to watch Atticus at work, Jean Louise observes a citizens’ council meeting. Both Atticus and Henry are present. She is sickened not only by the racist language and ideas she hears, but by the apparent agreement of both men.

Difficult (and rambling) conversations follow; with Henry, with former housekeeper Calpurnia, with offbeat intellectual Uncle Jack, and finally and most painfully, with Atticus. Readers who have spent half a century with this family no doubt share the young woman’s anguish.

What Jean Louise is now seeing — for example, her father’s view of blacks as childlike and incapable and Henry’s need to belong at any cost — has always been there. Her hometown has long been segregated. It would be easy to say Jean Louise, who has been living up North, is the one who changed and leave it at that. However, our way of seeing things changes as we grow up and create our own realities, no matter where we are.

When the distinct colors of childhood give way to a puzzling array of shades and gradations, it can feel like a betrayal … especially at a time when basic human rights and dignity are being questioned and fought over. Jean Louise, navigating the shifting terrain of young adulthood in this setting, has to decide whether and how to find a way forward.

As I understand it, Watchman was Lee’s original novel, and a publisher convinced her to turn the flashback sequences into a separate work, which became Mockingbird. There was some controversy, just before the release of Watchman, over whether the then elderly and ailing Lee actually wanted it to be published. She died in 2016. What I wonder is: If the younger Scout and Atticus had lived between the same covers as their older counterparts, would it still have become a beloved classic? These questions cannot be answered.

What I can say is this: If Watchman taints our appreciation of Mockingbird, we are in the same boat as Jean Louise, trying to reconcile what we knew with what is now before us. Perhaps, in these equally polarizing and vitriolic times, that is a useful exercise.