“I want these cuts on my feet, man/ gotta become sensitive as I can” Lungfish, “Descender.”
When I was a kid, my dad would tell me I was “too sensitive” and that I needed to “grow a thicker skin.” I don’t remember what events prompted this response. It could have been a fight I had gotten into with a friend or after I had received a poor grade on an assignment, or maybe it was after I had been teased by my brothers.
I didn’t necessarily set out to grow that thicker skin, but I did begin to believe that being sensitive was a bad thing. In short, being called sensitive shut me down and shut me up.
I stayed in a dating relationship for far too long in college. He was a nice guy and we had some things in common. He was an English major and we were both introverts. He and his friends would help me with writing my papers and I was able to crash at his place whenever I wanted to. It was an escape from a conflict I had with a roomate and a place I felt like I could be myself without being by myself.
He didn’t love me, though, not in the way I loved him, and looking back I see he made that clear over and over again. Like when he wanted to date other people. Like when he looked at me blankly when I told him he was beautiful to me. Like when he didn’t seek me out at work or school. I went to his office, visited him at work, and when he finally did visit me and my parents, my mom noticed he didn’t seem to care about me the way a partner would.
I stuffed all that though. I chose to cut off my feelings. I chose not to be sensitve to the rejection and rather, let it roll off my back. That way I could stay in the relationship. That way I wouldn’t have to reach out to make more friends, and I wouldn’t be alone.
When we broke up, I started getting help. I went to therapy and a 12-step program and ultimately started taking medication for my depression. Still it took me many years to break through that thick skin and realize the sensitivity is not the problem. Disregard for traits that are considered feminine is the problem. I rejected those traits to be what society seemed to want me to be, which you might guess was tough like my dad suggested, but I think it was to be silent? Content with what I received?
Therapy, 12-step programs and talking with people about my depression helped me become more open. I knew I had to share my truth in order to get better, and I had to get better because of the pain I was in.
Being kind and vulnerable and sensitive didn’t benefit me, though, until I started to appreciate them. I learned to appreciate them through reading and practice and friendships. I learned about nonviolent communication where expression of feelings is a necessary element in fulfilling needs. I learned about personality types, which called me “sensitive” and seemed to make it positive. I was drawn to healtier friends and I became healthier as a result.
I still get hurt–quite a lot actually, but I can deal with it. I can express my emotions and consider them normal.
Today I cry when I feel like it–even in meetings with bosses. A year and a half ago, I shared with the new president at my college that I had experienced a lot of pain at my school. I was unhappy with the way administration made decisions for faculty without our input or worse yet, by disregarding our input. I started tearing up and told him, “I hope you are not uncomfortable with me crying because I’m not, and it’s just going to happen while I share my thoughts.” I can’t say he looked comfortable, but he sat and listened, and I survived. And I grew.
I continue to grow when I share my truth with others.
Sometimes people are surprised. I think they don’t realize I am so sensitive to things. They don’t seem to realize that their words hurt. Like the time my boss called my reasoning for wanting to drop students bull shit. I had told her I was trying to create community in my classes and students who had missed 2 weeks were going to have major challenges developing community with people who had worked intensely together. Further, the community we had built would be hindered if suddenly new people showed up. She thought I didn’t want to grade the work or make the extra effort to help those students, not knowing that I bend over backwards for my students.
When I talked with her about it, she realized I was telling the truth. I wasn’t trying to get out of work. After that every time she met me in my office, she’d say, “I know. You are so sensisitve.” I can’t say I loved her comment, but at least I was seen.
Being sensitive helps me in so many ways. It helps me detect what is going on in a conversation. It allows me to notice when a student or friend is not feeling like themselves. It helps me approach difficult situations and conversations with compassion. And my relationships are stronger.
My sensitivity might allow me to hurt more than I would without it but it benefits me far more. I have a closer relationshp with my parents today than either of my siblings. My dad constantly thanks me for caring and for thinking about he and my mom. I can talk with my partner about the most difficult, intimate things. Today I am in a relationship where I can show my sensitivity and my heart is open so I can know that I am loved as I am, thin skin and all.
Peace Out (and In)