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Why the World Needs Sensitive People

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“Don’t be so sensitive — that is the most common nugget of advice I get. I don’t get it. I don’t understand. Since when is insensitivity something to strive for?”

— Hannah Gadsby, from “Nanette”

I’ve watched Nanette seven times now. It never fails to touch me. Funny. Honest. Tear-jerking. A powerful commentary on the slow decay of humanity and decency in public debate, and the visceral pain of being labelled different.

Hannah Gadsby feels different — incorrectly female, she shares — enduring great personal suffering as a result. One way or another, we all feel different, but some differences are too much while others are celebrated. What is curious is that sensitivity is rarely considered a positive trait in 21st century living. Being sensitive is being different. It’s inconvenient for others. Yet if more of the populace was highly attuned to the feelings of others, we’d live in a kinder world.

Like many things in life, sensitivity sits on a spectrum, with the HSP (highly sensitive person) crowning the top of the list. For those of us sitting high on the spectrum, life can be overwhelming. In addition to being acutely sensitive to sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, HSPs are often empaths and introverts. Empaths because we feel and absorb the emotions bleeding from those around us, no matter how they try to hide it. Introverts because refuge and recuperation from overwhelming sensory input can require time alone to regenerate the energy and will to face another day.

I personally score top marks in all three areas.

While all three traits exist independently, they are frequently intertwined. Unfortunately I wasn’t blessed with the tools to manage emotional overload during long days or through difficult circumstances. When healthy coping strategies don’t come naturally, it’s natural to find other ways to soothe the soul — even if those ways turn out to be maladaptive. Overturning maladaptive coping mechanisms is no easy task. When thrust back into the limelight, emotions and experiences automatically numbed for decades become a burden too great to bear. For me, nature and nurture came together and birthed lifelong struggles with mental health – namely depression, anxiety and disordered eating, my personal manifestation of emotional ignorance and avoidance.

Hypersensitivity is too much for most people — we’re told to toughen up, be more resilient, don’t take things so personally. Good advice if you want the personality of a slab of concrete — emotions buried six feet under. Not particularly useful if you want to be a fully functioning adult in a complex world. Twelve step meetings are full of hypersensitive souls, lacking the tools to cope with the bombardment of sensory input around them. The irony of hypersensitivity is a tendency to diminish, bury or invalidate personal feelings and experiences to the detriment of self — as Hannah Gadsby inadvertently learned and honed with her highly successful brand of self-deprecating humor.

But the world needs us.

An ever-shrinking global landscape needs people who can see through the deception of carefully constructed facial expressions and the increasing prevalence of artfully manipulative political leaders. We need more folk to care for the humanity of spirit over the blind greed of material wealth, to work quietly in the shadows making this world a better place, simply because it’s a beautiful thing to do — not for glory, accolades or financial reward.

Today I went to church. Not because I was asked, or to work, but to find people who believe in God and Jesus and miracles. Who profess faith in a humble man who preached love, kindness, compassion and goodness. Because I yearn to find more people like that in the world and in my spiritual quest, I hope church will reveal a compassionate and loving community. I think if Jesus walked the earth today, he would be a highly sensitive, empathic introvert, acutely aware of the feelings of those around him. An expert reader of body language. And a man who took time alone to recharge his batteries as he communed with his Father. I am very new to the Christian faith and to be brutally honest, I struggle with huge chunks of it. Not the God and Jesus bits — love and kindness and compassion are right up my alley. But the global hypocrisy we see in every faith as people preach one thing and do another. When moral superiority is deemed more important than kindness, decency and humanity.

Sometimes it seems the world is drowning in ego.

The answer for an empathic, introverted, drowning HSP is not more tips and tools and tricks. The answer is compassion, kindness and love — not just for the pain we see in other’s eyes, but for the pain buried in the depths of our bosoms and glossed over as inconsequential. Insensitivity is not something to strive for when you’re caught in a cycle of emotional overload. Self-care is something to strive for. The ability to recognize the boundaries of where compassion stops and subsuming oneself begins. It took nearly five decades for me to even begin to understand myself — why I am who I am, do what I do, feel what I feel,and think how I think. With a lot of support from truly outstanding humans, I’ve learned to accept I’m not a tree — I have the capacity to get up and move from my moments of misery and to make better choices. Does that stop me being overly sensitized to the world around me? Of course not. Have I started developing strategies to protect myself from self-destruction? Yes. I’m a work in progress — but then again, that is no doubt a most delightful way to describe a life journey.

Those of us consumed by the emotional leakage of humanity are not victims, idiots or martyrs. We live in a kaleidoscope of sensory input, overwhelmed with emotions in and around us. The highly sensitive person needs compassion reflected back to them, and understanding when finally we grow wrinkly and wise enough to care for our own fragile shells.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Originally published: July 25, 2019
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