Even in the simplest language, the word “sensitive” has positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, being “sensitive” implies a nice and caring person, someone who is considerate, understanding, and mindful of others. On the negative side, being “sensitive” can also mean a tendency to take things too personally, a touchiness, or tendency to overreact emotionally.
There is also a stereotype of a sensitive person that involves both positive and negative elements. Throughout history the “sensitive” personality has been associated with artistic talent or inclinations, creativity, compassion, and caretaking. The negative underside is that sensitive people are seen as taking life way too hard and being victims of their own emotions. They are perceived as unbalanced, moody, and lacking in courage and drive.
Sensitivity is not obvious to the outside observer. Sensitive people may seek to hide their basic temperament in their public image and even private lives. Sometimes the sensitivity results in unhealthy defense mechanisms such as a withdrawal into a safe but lonely isolation or substance abuse.
Sensitivity is also a matter of degree. Some people are so easily overwhelmed that they are unable to function in any aspect of living. Other sensitive people may function very well. In fact, they may be regarded as a success or pillar of strength—yet the underlying sense of identity is that of a delicate and vulnerable individual. Sensitivity is most of all an internal experience. Sensitive people know who they are. They live their sensitivity—and with their sensitivity—every day of their lives.
Why is sensitivity so challenging? “Sensitive” people are basically “feelers.” They tend to experience more emotional intensity, good and bad, and a lot of emotional fluctuation. Of course, there is great variation in degree even among sensitive people. But their dramatic and changeable emotional reality becomes the fabric of their everyday existence. Living with this super-reactive reality creates a number of potential obstacles. First of all, there is a lot of stimulation. The constant barrage of emotional energy and the fluctuation from one emotional state to another is a lot to deal with. Being a sensitive person is inherently stressful and can be exhausting.
On the other hand, stimulation can work positively as well as negatively. Stimulation energizes and motivates. Most sensitive people do not realize that within their sensitivity, there is this tremendous reservoir of passion and drive. Instead, they fall victim to the negative effects of stimulation and feel overwhelmed and drained by just being who they are.
Another challenge for the sensitive person is maintaining a clear and consistent sense of self. Depending on our emotional state, we may see ourselves as smart or stupid, attractive or plain, competent or inept, good or evil. The problem for the sensitive person is that because the emotional state changes so frequently and tends towards the intense side of things, self-concept also shows marked variation. This results in negative effects on behavior, relationships, and sense of well-being.
Another challenge that sensitive people have to deal with is a tendency toward heightened intuitive awareness. Sensitive people may not perceive themselves as particularly intuitive. However, they exhibit tendencies which are associated with an intuitive dimension, whether or not they acknowledge them. Sensitive people often have compelling irrational “gut” feelings beyond emotion. They sense “vibes” or energy about a place or a person. They have colorful fantasy lives and probably nighttime dreaming. They may be more easily hypnotized, and there is a relaxation of boundaries—between fantasy and reality, between the self and others.
As a result, sensitive people can see things in unusual and innovative ways. They are capable of tremendous empathy, compassion, and psychological insight. They really are able to sense what someone else is feeling. On the other hand, this talent can backfire. They may be impressionable to the point that they have difficulty distinguishing where their feelings end and someone else’s begins. They can imagine all sorts of things that have no basis in anyone’s reality. Sometimes this can reach the point of paranoid tendencies. It is easy to see how sensitive people feel out of sync. Many sensitive people end up seeing themselves as deficient or dysfunctional. The sensitivity is perceived as an obstacle to happiness and success. This is a sad and actually incorrect perception.
The first step to surviving as a sensitive person is to accept it. This is who you are—and likely will always be. More importantly, if sensitive is what you are, this can also be a wonderful thing. Sensitive people have tremendous gifts and possibilities, even if such gifts are not particularly cherished by society-at-large. Because of their emotional and intuitive nature, they are the artists, the creative children and geniuses, the true humanitarians and caregivers, the healers, the mystics and visionaries. They are the natural-born psychologists and can bring extraordinary understanding and depth to relationships. This has always been so across culture and time. If you are a sensitive person, you are a member of a tribe that has made tremendous contributions to humanity and lived life passionately.
Sensitive people have at their disposal enormous potential for contributing to and getting the most out of life. Like any way of being, sensitivity is a double-edged sword, which involves both positives and negatives. The task is to emphasize the former and minimize the latter. The more one learns to live on the positive side, the more the true rewards of a sensitive nature will predominate and flourish.
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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