Pronunciation /ˈsensədiv/ /ˈsɛnsədɪv/
1 Quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.
1.1 Easily damaged, injured, or distressed by slight changes.
1.2 (of photographic materials) prepared so as to respond rapidly to the action of light.
1.3 (of a market) unstable and liable to quick changes of price because of outside influences.
2 (of a person or a person’s behavior) having or displaying a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.
2.1 Easily offended or upset.
3 Kept secret or with restrictions on disclosure to avoid endangering security.
Late Middle English (in the sense ‘sensory’): from Old French sensitif, -ive or medieval Latin sensitivus, formed irregularly from Latin sentire ‘feel’. The current senses date from the early 19th century.
Much maligned is the quality of sensitivity. People hear “you’re too sensitive”, “toughen up”, “don’t be so sensitive”, and of course, “oh you’re just being oversensitive”, which all make the recipient feel even worse than they did before.
Feelings are invalidated and unkind behavior is validated, this happens often in childhood and then the “sensitive” child begins to feel shamed for their feelings; as if their feelings don’t matter or they are not entitled to feel them. As a consequence, a cycle of self-doubt begins to emerge and those feelings that are felt get expressed either internally towards the self or externally towards others. Difficult behaviors begin, attention-seeking, poor self-esteem, and self-sabotage because the child cannot trust their internal experience.
(Disclaimer: there are lots of different factors that affect how thoughts and behavior develop. This is by no means intended as a blanket statement.)
Unfortunately, our society has not rewarded sensitivity, the brashest, most offensive, most shocking is what gets airtime. So we end up with people utterly and completely disconnected from their own feelings and the feelings of others. Which of course only serves to feed the cycles of disconnection from ourselves, our families, friends, and communities.
As sensitivity becomes pathologized, it becomes a liability, a weakness. Expressing strong emotions, like crying, in the workplace often gets you chastised or labeled as not being able to handle the pressure, which is especially frustrating when the “pressure” is a result of unprofessional or inappropriate behavior of others. This happens across industries from the hospitality and culinary worlds to academia and the legal industry. Not to mention politics!
It’s no wonder we have a mental health crisis on our hands.
What can help?
I believe the first step is looking at the definition of sensitivity; specifically, the definition 2 “having or displaying a quick and delicate appreciation of other’s feelings”. So let’s frame this, where can this be an asset and a strength? Well, attunement to the feelings of others or one’s self can make a person a better teacher, leader, partner, creative, family member, employee and so on. People want to be seen and have their feelings validated, maybe not always consciously – but this is a big part of our humanity.
Now let’s bring in the idea of introvert and extrovert, in essence, an introvert gains energy from having downtime and quiet time, whereas an extrovert feels energized by being around people. Think dinner party person versus going out to a club person. Introverts can be wired for above average sensitivity, which is why parties, crowds, and high sensory stimulation, such as noise, lights, etc can make people feel disregulated and anxious.
This is a generalization and oversimplification, know that there are exceptions and grey areas in everything.
Part of what plagues the sensitive person is the shaming that comes with being labeled sensitive or feeling things a little more than others may. There are lots of people that feel this way and part of the work in therapy is to normalize sensitivity.
I help a person truly feel how this is a precious quality rather than one to hate one’s self over, and because of the world we live in, therapy helps people understand boundaries and what their needs are. If you can’t see your sensitivity as something special, like a superpower, you are not going to know how to create and set boundaries that protect you but don’t isolate you.
- Journal ways that your sensitivity is a superpower. Use a notebook, post-it’s, voice notes, whatever gets the job done. Do this regularly (at least 4x per week). Let’s reframe that thinking!
- Educate yourself. I love Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Secret Power of Introverts”
- Find a good therapist that can help you work through your feelings and help you develop skills to better utilize your sensitivity. Hello! 🙂
- In the next few blog posts I’ll be delving a little deeper into sensitivity, introversion, boundaries, and self care. Sign up for my newsletter at the bottom of this page, follow me on the socials, or check my website for new articles on this and other topics that can provide you with some information and maybe even a few insights!