By the time I was seven or eight years old, I had classified myself as a sensitive person. This was neither a good nor a bad thing. In my burgeoning self-awareness in the world I was discovering, I just knew I was one of those people who seemed very soft and gentle around the edges. They had a misty, quiet kindness in their eyes and looked like they could cry real easily.
I had noticed that these sensitive people came in all ages, shapes, and sizes. Sensitive children, in my experience, were a bit harder to distinguish, but the sensitive adults stood out. Male or female, these sensitive adults seemed a little strange at times, as though faking being grown-up, even the really old ones. When they were alone among children with no other adults around, they appeared to enjoy relaxing back into the repartee of childhood and the land of imagination. When they were with other adults, their eyes danced playfully and communicated to you in this knowing but warm way. They seemed consummate but evanescent actors in the authoritarian adult world. I felt really close to these adult sensitive people. Sometimes I was a little afraid of them.
I hadn’t chosen to be sensitive, and I don’t think anyone ever labeled me as such for many years. Yet early in life I had the covert realization that I seemed to react harder and longer than most of the other kids I knew to almost anything. From noises… to anticipation of my grandparents’ visits… to an angry voice… to being tickled… to heart-pounding terror when I was about to be found in a game of Hide and Seek—raw emotion cascaded up, down, around, and through my skinny little body like the fingers of a master pianist on a keyboard. My heart was this huge, eternally vibrating ball—pounding, jolting, hurting, tickling, sometimes seeming to lift me so high you'd think I could fly.
Beyond pure emotion, my feelings played out in a tangible, sensual way. Being criticized—or worse, yelled at—would create a burning, stinging sensation throughout my body and leave a bitter-tasting gloomy shame that hovered for hours. Most of my peers seemed to shrug off such incidents. Five minutes, tops, and they were off and running, scornfully giggling as though to bait whomever had expressed displeasure and appearing to entirely undo psychologically whatever nasty interaction had occurred. For me, seeing another person disappointed, hurt, or ridiculed would produce a smothering anguish around the heart area. I hated to see hurt in another's face. If I had been a perpetrator, even in some small way, the pain was searing and took days to let up, even when apologies had been made. Driving through the poor section of the city or encountering a feeble, downtrodden, or severely handicapped individual could viscerally haunt me. Sometimes I felt a literal physical bond with other people, even those I did not know. Strangely, even when I hurt with their pain, this seemed to be a precious thing.
I rarely discussed these feelings in any depth with anyone. Every once in a while, some well-meaning adult who had noticed a strong reaction in me would try to explain the ways of the world and, in a soft voice, impress that I needn't take things so personally. Yet, for the most part, my emotional life was private and unspeakable—not out of embarrassment or concern on my part, but because it went so deep.
Imagination did a number on me. Although I clearly knew the difference between the dream and real worlds (and was generally considered a bright and sensible child), there did seem to be a nebulous in-between zone in which fantasy and reality merged indistinguishably. I saw only one horror movie during my entire childhood. This resulted in vivid night terrors for weeks, and I knew it was important that I never put myself through that again. None of my peers had such a reaction and laughed at the frightening images that appeared so real to me. I could not fathom how they could maintain it was “only a movie,” going back for more week after week. From my perspective, I seemed to be missing something essentially protective. From their perspective, my friends sometimes teased but never ridiculed me for my fear and emotionality. Perhaps, I was fortunate to be a girl in the 1950s, as my “sissy” behavior was considered gender appropriate, although it seemed that among children I was simply accepted for who I was.
For example, I also got the reputation for being able to read minds, and this was deemed a valuable thing. One of the most confusing discoveries of my childhood was that others did not seem to see the emotions of other people that were so clear to me. From the time I was very young, I was reading emotions off the faces and bodies of everyone I encountered. To me, reading feelings was simply a natural part of processing reality, something I had learned to do, like speaking English or reading words. By the time I was in grade school, I was astounded to learn that not everyone did this. I would ask a friend why this mother or that teacher was angry and be looked at with total non-comprehension until, more often than not, the mother or teacher would exhibit obviously angry behavior (and I was considered a genius). I learned that a lot of my compassionate behavior towards others stemmed from the fact that I could see sadness or hurt in their demeanor that few others could. Sometimes it seemed like my friends and I were cohabiting in two different worlds.
When I would check out my perceptions with trusted adults, I was treated as cutely sweet, but with a condescension that entirely disavowed my reality. I learned not to show the extent of my emotional extremes or intuitive perceptions. Occasionally, these became a burden that I wished I did not have. Still, the painful valleys just seemed part of the landscape of living, and overall I was a happy child.
I also had a subtle understanding that my life was made richer by the very tendencies that could be so burdensome. I was aware that much of the “play” of my friends seemed starkly limited, prescribed by the toy or hit television show of the moment. It wasn't that they didn't have access to imagination. They just seemed to stop short, almost as though they had been told not to go any further. Quickly bored with the program, I could spin out fantasy scenarios and imaginary friends and enemies in endless succession, which made me a popular playmate among the neighborhood group. Adults began to label me as “creative,” spoken with a positive but wary intonation. I was beginning to learn that my sensitivity was clearly safer with children.
As I entered adolescence, and came face-to-face with the more adult pecking order that the teenage years bring, my “sensitive” experiences became cloaked in negative judgments for the first time. Suddenly the world seemed to be a much colder place. The undercurrent of tenderness, which is subtle but pervasive during childhood (perhaps since children evoke tender emotions in others), was non-existent after puberty. Competition was no longer simply a fleeting urgency during an afternoon game or petty rivalry among friends, but became the ruling principle for almost every element of life. From schoolwork… to which peers one associated with… to future plans and aspirations, day-to-day existence took on a calculated edge and aggressive push towards prescribed goals that never had mattered before. Even relationships began to involve a balance of power and control, of which previously I had been blissfully unaware.
At least internally, I had difficulty coping with the new demands. On the outside, I was a good student and liked enough, although struggling with timidity and shyness. The harsh academic pressures and acrimonious social scene were distasteful and unsettling. Wanting to succeed and belong, but still feeling strong compassionate urges and craving gentleness, I resisted accepting that the world had to be so unfair and aggressive, that people so often seemed to feel good about themselves by demeaning others.
On a daily basis, my sensitive nature seemed bombarded by potential threat and attack at every corner. The environment was a virtual war zone from my perspective. A look here, a rejection there, or the reading of catty disapproval or scorn on another's face would catapult me into a negative emotional tailspin. I had difficulty asserting my needs and desires, particularly as I often perceived this to be at the expense of others. The rampant and pervasive cruelty was distasteful, but wanting peer approval, I felt guilty when I perceived myself as participating by silence and lack of support for the victim. I thought I was safest when assuming a caretaker role, but time-after-time found that the object of my nurturing had little interest in reciprocating by taking care of me. Normal disappointments were huge, as my sensitive emotional nature bounced all over the place. More often than not, I ended up spiraling down to a place of severe self-deprecation. Fantasy was no longer the creative, joyful endeavor of childhood but a defensive mechanism, used as a bitter retreat from the failures of the day.
I had problems with eating, occasionally with alcohol, and felt very low self-esteem, although again this was more on the inside than evident to the outside world. I did not see myself as particularly pathological or even troubled, but mainly unlucky to have been born with such a delicate temperament. I began to view my sensitivity as synonymous with weakness and maladaptive for coping with life—even though underneath there were certain aspects of my sensitive nature, like compassion and creativity, that (in theory) I still cherished in myself and when I saw these traits in others. Yet I made sure to appear callously successful enough on the surface, resolutely striking an attitude of independence and indifference that so belied what I struggled with inside. I behaved in ways I did not like in order to fit in and to deny how sensitive I really was. Even with some of my closest friends, I sought to hide the degree of my sensitivity, increasingly “going into the closet.”
By adulthood, I had settled into an identity that was weak, fragile, and incapable—although, other than receiving remarks that I was not living up to my potential, I continued to function well enough and was cheerful and enthusiastic in my daily interactions. Underneath, the emotional roller coaster ride raged on, too often carrying me to very low depths. In relationships with others, I had perfected the role of the strong and skilled caretaker that I had begun developing during adolescence—and I continued to be seriously exploited as well, causing ever-greater mistrust and anguishing self-devaluation. To counteract my obvious weakness, I secretly idolized psychopaths and wished that in my next life I would come back as one. For a time, in some kind of perverse complementarity, I seemed to be attracted to the most aggressive narcissists around. The trade-off for me was that for the duration of our relationship, I could share in the protective umbrella of their entitled arrogance in dealing with a cruel world in which I generally felt eaten alive. In exchange, I allowed myself to be horribly used and psychologically abused.
With interest in psychology, particularly after undergoing formal training, I lost touch with my “sensitive” identity altogether and began rigidly focusing on specific problem areas such as low self-esteem, depression, lack of assertiveness, and codependency. At first, this was a positive thing as I was determined to fix these difficulties once and for all through therapy and psychological knowledge. I identified traumas, issues and dysfunctional patterns of my childhood. I tried to subjugate my reactive, roller coaster inner workings into a straitjacket of balance and control. I let go of crisis, went out with men and associated with friends who were unexciting but “right” for me, and asserted appropriate needs. Yet something always seemed to be lacking, and I never seemed to function any better or happier for all the insight and therapeutic machinations. No matter how ostensibly healthy I became, my delicate, sponge-like psyche, being what it was, continued to struggle and intensely react to all nuances of daily existence—and could still, in an instant, be plummeted back down to a state of devastating despair.
Essentially unsuccessful, I felt even more damaged and deficient and then guilty for failing and then guilty for wanting more. I then blamed myself because, in my “heart of hearts,” I knew I had never really accepted the therapy program. Throughout all of this, there was always this sense of positive parts within my personality, which contradicted the usual diagnostic formulations of dysfunction and pathology. I never really believed that compassion was actually co-dependency, that emotional intensity and passion were abnormal, that intuition was simply the projection of my own emotional needs, or that a desire for fairness and a predominance of love in human relations was only an infantile fixation arising out of some unconscious trauma of early childhood.
I also began to notice that many of my patients, chronically struggling with the same types of issues, did not fit traditional formulas and showed the same double-edged nature—of sometimes crippling anguish and doubt on the one hand, but immense compassion, insight, and creative potential on the other. Often they were immensely successful people in both their professional and personal lives. As though looking in a mirror, I was amused at the constant laments of how difficult it is to be a sensitive person in such a ruthless and unfeeling world. It became clear that, like myself, they seemed to abhor those qualities that rendered them weak and vulnerable, although it was just these qualities that endeared them to me. Underneath the pain was a youthful hope and enthusiasm, an honest reactivity, and unbounded empathy that I realized were true gifts, not liabilities. I wondered if other people were primarily attracted to me by the qualities I so determinedly sought to hide. These realizations brought me back to what I had always known on a personal level—that for some, there is an essential “sensitive” core, which is the passageway to both the heights and depths of human experience.
I was very lucky. At some point, I began to explore my artistic side. Creativity, initially turned to as a refuge, became a wellspring of directed energy, a sense of accomplishment, and feelings of in-the-moment peace, which were better than self-esteem. My artistic pursuits re-awakened the positive aspects of my great imagination, which has served primarily as a partner in paranoia and self-doubt since leaving childhood. Exposed to artistic people, I saw that they seemed to function no better or no worse than most others, but there was an ambience of emotionality, nuance, and vibrant but productive irrationality, in which I felt very much at home. I began to appreciate the richness that an emotional perspective brings, for all its jolts and painful ups and downs.
Much later, the positive face of sensitivity was even more reinforced when I was awakened to spirituality. This seemed to open a door to another existential dimension, a world more in sync with my perceptions, principles and goals. I found positive explanations of my interpretation of reality, my compassion, and the totality of who I was. Through spiritual practice, I found new ways of dealing with emotionality. In fact, my sensitive tendencies actually seemed a springboard to greater spiritual understanding and actualization. Finding new solace and guidance in meeting challenges as I coped with the day-to-day world, I began to get beyond simply psychologically surviving and discovered that my emotion and compassion actually provided avenues of positive transformation of myself, the world around me, and relationships with others. I began to realize that sensitivity is a tremendous but complex gift, and that those very characteristics that make life so challenging and downright painful at times can also be a gateway to incredible richness, meaning, and personal fulfillment.
Seeing sensitivity as a positive thing is immensely liberating. This is not to say that I am free of the roller coaster ride, and there are still times when I continue to be plagued by episodes of self-doubt (which can still be excruciating) and even sometimes despair. However, these occur with much less frequency and intensity and are relatively fleeting. Through various strategies and lifestyle choices, I have learned how to manage the negative aspects of my sensitive temperament fairly well. I have also learned that I can spiral upward as well as down. The positive face of my sensitivity creates richness and beauty in daily experience, an innocent magic and creative vitality in living life, and the potential for extraordinary depth and meaning in relationships.
Being a sensitive person is like eternally being at a fork in the road, which opens to both positive and negative pathways. Sometimes you are beckoned by or thrust onto the darker, negative side. That is just the way it is and always will be. Yet, for the most part, the sensitive person does have a choice. Unfortunately, most sensitive people do not know this. To make the positive choice involves understanding what sensitivity is, the unique challenges that sensitive people face, and the need to take responsibility for management through strategies that maximize the positive and minimize the negative aspects of a sensitive nature. The more sensitive people can support each other and assert the positive aspects of their nature in the world at large, the better all of us will be.
For me, it has been one rocky but incredible journey. Yet, at this point in my life, I can honestly and proudly say that I am thankful to be a sensitive person.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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