Thursday, February 6, 2014
You're Too Sensitive
You’re Too Sensitive!
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC
Since empathy and sensitivity are both right brain qualities, when left-brainers don’t feel things physically or emotionally they don’t believe that you do. “I’m not scared so you shouldn’t be either. You’re just too sensitive.” Left-brainers are also unable to be sensitive to the impact of their words on the right-brainer. The frustration is that there is no appropriate “come back” to a left-brainer. “You’re too insensitive” doesn’t have the same “sting” to it. (It is in my own humble “right-brained” opinion that the world needs more sensitive people. It would be hard to start a war if you were sensitive to the fact that each soldier has a family who loves him/her. It would be hard to hate another person if you could empathize with their pain. So now when someone says to me, “You’re too sensitive.” I say, “Thank you.”)
Most of the time even reading or hearing the word ‘sensitive’, can feel like a kick in the gut. It carries such judgment and negative connotations; it feels like a very negative trait to have, as if our reactions are inaccurate. Like Taylor said, “Mom’s screaming didn’t seem to bother anyone else, like getting used to living next to a noisy airport. I always wondered, why I couldn’t. What’s wrong with me?”
Sensitivity is not a negative trait. Sensitive people are more empathic, the natural talent to know what other people are feeling, and the ability to walk in that person’s shoes. We have tact when dealing with others and treat others with genuine warmth and caring; we would make great ambassadors, diplomats, ministers, and other professions that require these skills. It is what makes me a natural for my career choice as a psychotherapist. Combined with our creative visual nature, many of my clients are artists, musicians, actors, and writers. In earlier times or in primitive societies a creative person with sensitive intuitive radar may have been a respected shaman or venerated as a sage.
According to Elaine N. Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, roughly thirty percent of any population (flamingos, squirrels, zebras, humans) is more sensitive than the rest. Imagine a herd of zebras grazing in a field. The sensitive zebras will detect subtle signs of movement off in the distance and will alert the rest of the herd to run away from danger. Think about what would happen if 100% of the herd was sensitive? The movement of one zebra lifting its head would alert all the zebras and start a stampede! Conversely, if none of the zebras were sensitive, a lion would be able to walk right up to the herd and attack them without anyone noticing.
Sensitive people are special that we have the ability to protect the “herd”. Unlike zebras, which always want danger pointed out, humans often want to ignore danger. Family systems can be set up around denying problems – remember what I said before about “Don’t rock the boat!” It’s not just the sensitivity that causes the problem. It’s the combination of sensitivity and the invalidating environment that causes a conflict inside. If you are sensitive and the environment is validating, there is no conflict. Let’s imagine being brought up by Mr. Rogers – you know the kid’s show on PBS. When something upset you, he would respond in that wonderfully calming voice, “People can like you just the way you are. Bad things sometimes happen to good people…”
Conversely if you were insensitive to an invalidating environment you may not have noticed it, or if you did you would be able to let it roll off your back. Your siblings may not have “felt” the problems in your environment as sensitively as you did. (Although don’t assume they didn’t. Many of my clients have siblings who are deeply troubled, but did not turn to an eating disorder for help. Even the sisters or brothers who seem to have their act together can be hurting inside too.)
In addition to being sensitive, people with eating disorders often are outspoken. Maybe because of our sensitivity we notice more that is going on, more attuned to the environment, see the subtle nuances of others behavior and mood. Because we are also acutely attuned to our own internal sensations and feelings, often to cope with these feelings we need to say something, which is not always met with positive results. (Although some were able to notice but not say it aloud.)
I often will read the old story The Emperor’s New Clothes to my clients. You remember the story: The Emperor and all his subjects are tricked into pretending that he is wearing “clothing so fine that only a fool could not see them”. It took the wisdom of a child, an outspoken perceptive child, to speak out, “The Emperor has no clothes” for the sham to come tumbling down! I ask my clients to imagine the Emperor’s reaction to the child’s remark. Do you think he said, “Thank you my child for exposing the sham”? I highly doubt it! I’m sure that he would have rather the child kept her mouth shut to save him the public humiliation.
If a family doesn’t want to acknowledge that ‘the Emperor is naked’, the child’s perception and outspoken-ness causes conflicts with the family patterns of denial, “Don’t rock the boat! We don’t talk about certain things.” If a child is sensitive to the environment and notices that when Daddy comes home late he’s drunk and mean, she may get put down for this. She may be asking questions that the family would prefer not to be asked. And when she gets upset because of a problem in the family that others are trying to deny, she hears, “Don’t be so sensitive.”
We’ve been brought up to be good little girls (and boys); good little children never speak up, never get angry, are pretty and cute. Good little children are always nice and do what others want. Good little children never say, “No, I don’t want to kiss Aunt Maybelle, she’s an old crab!” Oh no! If we speak up, others won’t like it; we might make others mad and then they won’t like us. We had to silence our voice and sacrifice our Self for others. And if we don’t have the choice to say “No” then we never learned the skills, resources and tools necessary to negotiate what life dishes out. Like the passengers on that runaway bus from chapter 1, we are at the mercy of the whims of our family! Life feels like a very dangerous and out of control place.
By sacrificing our Selves, by silencing our voice, we took away our power. Power is having a voice and a choice! Many times our voice was silenced because we were not encouraged to use it. In many homes, we didn’t have a choice – it was not safe to say “No.” In other homes, the choice was made for us; we didn’t have control over our own lives. Without a voice and a choice, we were powerless – you swallow your voice, you sacrifice your Self and you give Aunt Maybelle a kiss because that’s what good little children do….