Sensitivity has gotten a bad reputation in our culture, and this creates suffering in all of us – highly sensitive or not.
Sensitivity: the ability of an organism to respond to its environment
Sensitivity, our ability to respond to our environment, is an evolutionary and biological trait in all organisms. As animals, the better we can respond to our environment, the more capable we are of survival. As humans, the more we embrace, honor and develop our sensitivity, the better our lives will be in all respects.
Why This Beef With Sensitivity?
Sensitivity is often seen as something for the weak, for inept, a force that causes us to break down at inopportune moments. When we look at the definition above, we can see that sensitivity is part of myriad of tools we have to survive well as humans. So why has sensitivity become so negative?
For the same reasons that we use insults like, “crying is for sissies,” or “don’t be so emotional,” or “I think s/he’s pms’ing.” We associate sensitivity as a trait of femininity, and we live in a sexist culture that values masculine males and feminine females, which hold males and masculine traits to be of higher value and importance than females and feminine traits. Which is a pretty ridiculous system, founded more on fear and hate than science or fact. Let’s look at it.
Feminine traits are traits associated with femininity, or feminine energy, which both men and women possess. Traditionally, traits associated with femininity were softness, emotions, vulnerability, sensitivity, empathy, compassion, passivity, innocence, nurturing, submissive and accepting. Similarly, masculine traits don’t only belong to males. Traits associated with masculinity or masculine energy traditionally were independence, analytical, aggression, competition, strength, action, self-confidence and hardness.
Notice anything about these traits? Oh right – they’re human traits.
A healthy human has the capacity to experience and utilize all of these traits. Valuing only masculine traits hurts all of us – both men and women – and it hurts us in different ways.
Because feminine traits are considered negative, neither men nor women are culturally allowed express these traits and still be respected. For women to feel like they can succeed in the workplace, they often must take on more masculine qualities, as the rules of business are often run on things like efficiency, independence and aggressiveness (masculine qualities). However, women aren’t allowed to “look” masculine, because traditional beauty standards run counter to acceptable traits – women have to act masculine to survive in a world that values masculine traits, but they are supposed to look feminine. Further, when women act “too” masculine, they are called “bossy” or other, less attractive “b” words where their male counterparts are called “leaders.” Then, rather counterintuitively, women who act sensitively are often referred to as “hysterical,” or “hormonal” which comes from a very outdated idea that rationality must be separate from emotion, an idea brought to us by several late philosophers, including Descartes, and largely disproven. Women aren’t fully allowed to act masculine OR feminine.
Men are taught that in order to be good men, they need to embrace only masculine traits. Don’t cry, don’t get emotional, be tough, man up, be independent, make rational decisions, compete, be hard and self-confident. Oh, but also be a good father and a good husband somehow, without softness. There is a tremendous amount of cultural pressure to be a purely masculine-man, devoid of sensitivity. Men are shamed for emotional outbursts, made fun of for caring for others, called “whipped” when they express compassion for their partners, and socially shamed for sensitivity or softness.
We all need traditional “masculine” and traditional “feminine” qualities in order to be healthy, well-rounded humans.
For both men and women, the inability to readily accept traditionally-feminine traits like sensitivity can lead to a sort of identity crisis. Rather than be exactly who we are, the hard and the soft, the independent and the interdependent, the active and the passive, we end up being who we think we should be, and often a reflection of our messed-up cultural values. I see this often expressed in two ways (I’m sure there are others, but here is what I often see): The first, a person with an inflated sense of self, a huge ego and an attitude of “I don’t give a fuck about you or anyone else. I’ll beat you up.” The second, a person who constantly gives to others around them as a means to justify their existence and a way to seek validation; a co-dependent. “What can I do for you? Sure, I can fit that in, it’s just one more thing.”
Both are hurting, and both result from a lack of self-esteem and self-worth.
When we can’t embrace our sensitivity, which is a normal, HUMAN trait, we suffer, because we can’t be fully human. Without sensitivity, our ability to respond to our environment is thwarted. Instead of responding adequately, it’s as if we’re either constantly curled into a ball in the corner or shooting our guns off in the dark.
Sensitivity makes us stronger. Sensitivity is a natural, human trait – we are all born with some level of sensitivity and, just like any other trait, it can be developed and strengthened.
1. We become more aware of our environmental surroundings.
While maybe not immediately apparent, this benefit allows us to better sense changes in our environment and to respond to those changes. On a very primal and physical level, this can keep us safer – when we’re walking down a dark street at night or when driving through rush hour, we need to be able to respond to what’s around us. On a deeper level, understanding our environment can provide us with information to make our houses feel like homes, to provide an atmosphere better suited to sell to a client and to make others feel comfortable in our presence, improving our relationships.
2. We become more self-aware
When we allow ourselves to embrace our sensitivity, we have now just opened to the door to become aware of and respond to the environment of our internal world, including our body and physical health, as well as thoughts and emotions. Self-awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to emotional literacy, spiritual awakening, and spontaneous physical healing, but it is one of the first steps. By learning to be aware of our inner environment and to respond to its needs, we can learn more about ourselves. This leads to number three.
When we embrace sensitivity, we have the capacity for deeper, more meaningful relationships. In order for a relationship to grow deep and have meaning, we must be able to understand and respond to our needs and the needs of our partners. If we don’t understand our needs, we can’t ask that they are met. When we don’t have sensitivity about our partner’s needs, we can’t respond in a healthy or appropriate way. Embracing and strengthening sensitivity is a game-changer for relationships, and you will lose something – the drama. Sensitive relationships are about deep understanding and receptivity. Sensitivity inherently creates a more vulnerable, open, honest and healthy basis for relationships – and not just romantic relationships, but also those with friends, children and co-workers.
4. We increase our self-esteem
When we embrace our sensitivity and the other human traits we’ve been shunning, we start the process of embracing who we truly are at our core. When we do this, we start to raise our self-esteem. This is not the same as developing a “big ego.” A “big ego,” or an inflated sense of self, almost always acts like a shield, masking low self-esteem at its core. This is NOT that. Developing healthy self-esteem through sensitivity is the process of understanding and accepting who we really are rather than who we’ve been told to be. When we can accept this, we can respond to it. True self-esteem comes from knowing and accepting the self and responding to our needs. This leads to number five:
5. We can learn to create healthy boundaries
When we accept all of who we are, a skill in which sensitivity is required, we will understand what our needs are and what we need to do to have those needs met. This can lead us to start to create better boundaries for ourselves. When we truly respond with sensitivity to our needs, we learn to say “Yes” to ourselves by saying “No” to responsibilities that we don’t need to take on. We can learn to say “Yes” to only the things that validate and support who we are, while sensitively turning down those that don’t. In doing this, we create an atmosphere of respect toward ourselves and others, effectively increasing our capacity for compassion and engaging with others out of this compassion rather than responsibility.