What do you think when you hear the words, “She’s very sensitive?” A well-composed woman, keenly observing her surroundings? Probably not. More likely you’re imagining a hysterical girl sobbing over some thoughtless comment from her boyfriend or your cousin’s nervous girlfriend who’s too fragile to take a joke at the family dinner. Whatever image you conjure, I’d wager it’s been a while since someone told you “so-and-so is very sensitive” and meant it in a positive way.
In my experience, sensitivity is generally regarded as something of an obstacle, one that cuts people off from reality and clouds their reason with useless emotion. At best it is tolerated; at worst it is abhorred. Rarely is it praised.
It is no wonder that people today, particularly women, are eschewing sensitive qualities left and right—effectively sacrificing their sensitivity as a means of reigning in their socially unacceptable emotions. In the words of psychiatrist Julie Holland, “We have been taught to apologize for our tears, to suppress our anger, and to fear being called hysterical.” According to Holland, “At least one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men. The most common antidepressants, which are also used to treat anxiety, are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that enhance serotonin transmission. SSRIs keep things ‘all good.’ But all good is no good. More serotonin might lengthen your short fuse and quell your fears, but it also helps to numb you, physically and emotionally.” Medication, Holland acknowledges, is at times called for and necessary. The problem is that some “people who don’t really need these drugs are trying to medicate a normal reaction to an unnatural set of stressors.”
To an extent, this all makes sense to me. If sensitivity is nothing but a fount of emotion and ultimately a distraction from what really matters, then it’s reasonable that the highly sensitive would do their best to dampen it. After all, “emotional blunting” has its benefits. By encouraging behavior that is “typically approved by men: appearing to be invulnerable, for instance,” Holland acknowledges that women might have an easier time moving up in male-dominated businesses. “Primate studies show that giving an SSRI can augment social dominance behaviors, elevating an animal’s status in the hierarchy.” If all we have to lose is our tears, we may be tempted to think, what’s the harm? But I can’t help but wonder whether our desire to overcome sensitivity is rooted in the fact that we don’t fully appreciate its potential.
Sensitivity Through a New Lens
First of all, sensitivity is not a bad thing, in and of itself. In fact, I would argue that it is a very good thing and certainly not an obstacle to reason or reality. And that becomes immediately apparent when you consider the concept of sensitivity in any other context.
Consider that we are talking about our biological equivalent of a scale, a Doppler radar, or a thermometer. The purpose of a thermometer is to sense fluctuations in the temperature around it. Let’s say one thermometer can sense one-degree fluctuations in the temperature. That’s a pretty good thermometer. In order to precisely and accurately register fluctuations down to a tenth of a degree, a more sensitive thermometer would be required. The second thermometer’s sensitivity does not render it useless; it makes it a better thermometer.
Just as a more sensitive thermometer picks up on more fluctuations in the temperature than a less sensitive one, so does a “more sensitive” person pick up on more of the subtleties of her environment than her less sensitive peers. Far from cutting you off from reality, if anything, being highly sensitive mercilessly throws you in to the face of it.
Contrary to popular belief, being sensitive is also not the opposite of being reasonable. If sensitivity thrusts you in the face of reality, it is not itself an obstacle to reason; it simply gives you a lot more to reason through. Ignorance is not a requirement for reason.
Admittedly, the benefits of sensitivity come with an emotional cost. Just as certain sensations accompany a nose’s interaction with a particular smell or a mouth with a particular taste, so do certain sensations accompany one’s interactions with particular experiences. Emotions are a natural result of our interactions with reality. The more in touch you are with reality, the more you have to process, and therefore the more emotions (sensations) you are likely to have. Sure, not all emotions are appropriate and healthy. As Holland remarks, “There are situations where psychiatric medications are called for.” But outside of those circumstances, “Women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease.”
My point here is that although it may come with an emotional burden (or gift, depending on how you see it), sensitivity is an incredible tool, the potential benefits of which I am not convinced we fully understand. A highly sensitive thermometer may not be necessary for deciding between a winter coat or tank top, but it may very well be indispensable in a more delicate circumstance.
An Untapped Resource
Sacrificing one’s sensitivity in order to obtain a kind of stability or imperviousness to the subtleties of life is, in my mind, a poor trade. You wouldn’t sell two acres of property, even for a million dollars, if you knew that $10 million worth of oil sat below the surface. Maybe the power of sensitivity is an untapped resource, one whose value has not been fully realized but is nevertheless there.
For instance, although we don’t think to associate emotional sensitivity with strong leadership, it may be more vital than we realize. Writing about the dearth of women in leadership positions for the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points out that the traits that lead to the appointment of a leader are not necessarily the same ones that make a leader good. “Leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident, and narcissistic individuals as leaders,” Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic says. Yet, “whether in sports, politics, or business, the best leaders are usually humble. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from but also the reverse of what it takes to do the job well,” he explains. Is it possible that sensitivity and the strengths that flower from it (humility, emotional intelligence, empathy) have a role in good leadership? They may not be the attention-getting qualities that get you to the top, but they might help you stay there.
Regardless of whether sensitivity makes for a better leader, the importance of traits that accompany sensitivity cannot be overstated. “For personal growth,” Holland states, “for a satisfying marriage, and for a more peaceful world, what we need is more empathy, compassion, receptivity, emotionality, and vulnerability, not less.” I’m inclined to agree, and I certainly don’t think “emotional blunting” is the way we get there.
What if we stopped treating sensitivity as an obstacle or a burden and instead regarded it as the resource it is? What if we stopped talking about it as something to dampen or ignore and started talking about it as something to cultivate, navigate, and utilize? Sensitivity has its challenges, yes, but it doesn’t make you a fragile butterfly incapable of handling adversity. There are two ways not to sweat the small stuff: to not notice the small stuff at all and to notice it but actively choose not to obsess over it. Let’s encourage the highly sensitive to take the second, albeit more difficult, route. If we did, I think we’d empower more of us to tap in to a resource far more powerful than we realize.
Photo Credit: Julie Cate Photography