Many of us have been told that we are too sensitive.  It can be very hurtful because it is a judgment and an invalidation.  So it can feel very shaming.  So let’s take a closer look at what “sensitive” really means.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1980) defines sensitive as “having sensibility (capacity to feel); very open or acutely affected by external stimuli or mental impressions…”

OK. “Sensitive” means the capacity to feel. It means that a person is open to his/her environment and internal thoughts. Quite frankly, I call that being alive. In fact, I would call it a necessary skill to be able to respond to life. In the animal world, using the senses (open to the environment) is a critical ability. It keeps the animal safe.  Finely tuned senses are essential. 

Then how is it that “being open to the environment and affected by external stimuli” i.e. sensitive, is bad or undesirable for us?

To find the answer to that, we can look at the circumstances when you were told you were “too sensitive”.  Had you just questioned a long-standing social injustice? Were you unhappy about a personal remark that was made to you?  Had you tried to express your thoughts or feelings and were shut down?. 

I have noticed “sensitive” is often used to silence someone; to shut down their voice when the speaker wants to minimize the other person’s viewpoint. Sadly, that is why this label stings. It is meant to dismiss, to disrespect, to demean.  That’s why it feels shaming.

However, the speaker is attempting to discredit an argument by drawing attention to characteristics of the other person instead. Simply put, they don’t like what you said, so they attack you as a person, instead of what you said.  It’s called an “ad hominem” logical fallacy. It is meant to throw you off balance and it usually does — at least it does for me.  It is natural then to defend yourself.  At that point the conversation usually degrades into arguing.

Are we meant to be insensitive then? “Insensitive” means we are not in touch with ourselves, our truth, our feelings, our values. It means we are numb; numb to the pain or joy that might be bubbling up within us; numb to the world around us; numb to the pain of others. When that happens we quickly reach a state of freeze and an inability to follow our own inner guidance or truth. We have lost our authentic voice and may be subject to the whims or dictates of others.

I am encouraged by the work of Ilse Sand “Highly Sensitive People in an Insensitive World: How to Create a Happy Life”.  I think she has begun to address this issue. 

“Sensitive” involves attending to our own feelings and reflecting on why we feel the way we do: no blame to others, no guilt for oneself.  It involves curiosity and taking responsibility for our feelings in this confusing and complex world in which we live.  So I say “hooray” for being sensitive!