This post is one part rant, one part exploration of terms, and two parts clarification on a subject that’s been boiling my blood for some time now: the difference between sensitivity or high sensitivity and being easily offended, fragile, easily hurt or dramatic.
Bare with me, because we’re going to have to break down some terms and definitions. Turns out, we English speakers have several definitions behind a single word, which can make its usage confusing. Sensitivity is one of these words.
There are two main categories of definitions for sensitivity. The first means “easily hurt.” The second, and the definition I’m referring to in the whole of this website, means “impressionable.”
Let me explain. Under the meaning “impressionable,” we get the following expanded definitions:
- The ability of an organism to be receptive and respond to its environment
- Being conscious, keen or perceptive of the surrounding environment
- The ability to ‘sense’ or state of ‘sensing’ using one’s sensory organs and perception
The benefits to this definition of sensitivity are many – a natural ability to empathize, the ability to notice and respond to other people’s needs, natural care-giving instincts, the knack to create beautiful things like art and music, the ability to tune in closely to the body and the ability to be moved by beauty. When I use the term “high sensitivity,” I’m referring to the above definitions in heightened form. So, a heightened ability to be receptive and respond to the environment, and heightened potential for the benefits I just mentioned.
Highly sensitive people are incredibly receptive and responsive to their environment, both their inner world (thoughts, emotions, impulses) and their outer world (lights, sounds, smells, etc).
Being highly sensitive means that you are highly responsive. Does this mean that you are also easily hurt or easily offended?
Maybe. But one does not necessarily follow the other.
A person can be easily hurt or offended without being receptive to their environment. This is the person who reacts strongly and aggressively to the slightest comment or circumstance that threatens their sense of self. They place blame, throw back insults, raise their voice, and do anything they can to keep themselves from feeling wronged. A wall comes up around them as they move to protect themselves at all cost – even if that means hurting those around them.
We all do this from time to time. We all have buttons that can be pushed.
It’s one thing to be hurt or offended. It’s another to channel that hurt into hurting others or asking others to change their behavior without examining yourself.
Being easily hurt or offended to the point of being reactionary, dramatic, or consistently placing blame on others is more a product of unexamined ego stories, unhealed psychological wounds, selfishness and entitlement. It’s adhering to the subconscious belief that your sense of self is more important than anyone or anything around you. This is a condition that can affect all of us, highly sensitive or not.
A highly sensitive person feels emotions more deeply than those around them. This means that you may feel emotionally hurt more than others sometimes. But feeling hurt and reacting abrasively are two very different things.
There’s a saying that goes something like, You can’t choose what happens to you in life. You can only choose how you respond. Yes. This. You can be highly sensitive, and highly affected by other people’s comments or the circumstances you find yourself in, AND you can choose to respond in ways that are compassionate and kind rather than reactive and harsh. Similarly, you can be non-highly sensitive and learn the art of compassionate response.
I’m concerned with a trend I’m seeing that links highly sensitivity with reactivity. While these traits can go together, they don’t always go together. It’s like peanut butter and jelly -sometimes they go together nicely on a sandwich, but other days there’s just peanut butter. Or just jelly. Or ham and turkey, for that matter.
The difference between being reactive and responsive, highly sensitive or not, is a thoughtful and examined life.
When we have the courage to examine ourselves honestly, including the stories we tell about who we are and what we think of ourselves (a task that usually comes with the guidance of a spiritual teacher, coach or therapist), we have the ability to become even more receptive to life.
We don’t have to throw up a shield of protection every time we feel uncomfortable because we know how to bend.
We can integrate new information and throw out what doesn’t fit, rather than shoot our guns at every sound that goes bump in the night.
Examining our stories and working with our ego are the keys to avoiding high reactivity or being easily offended, whether or not we’re highly sensitive.
The same thing goes for sensitivity and fragility. “Fragile” can mean delicate in structure, or it can mean lacking strength and vigor, or it can mean easily broken or damaged. I believe that highly sensitive people are “fragile” in that we’re more delicate in structure. But like the wing of a bird, a delicate structure can lead to great strength.
We can be highly sensitive and easily broken, but we can just as easily be broken if we’re not highly sensitive.
We can be highly sensitive and weak, but we can just as easily be weak if we’re not highly sensitive.
I just don’t believe that highly sensitive people make up the majority of the reactionary, fragile, or dramatic people of the world – those are states that tend to be very toxic for us. And, as natural people pleasers, we usually learn pretty early on that those tactics feel extremely uncomfortable to us because making other people uncomfortable can feel debilitating to us. We’re the ones who avoid making a scene.
Instead, we’re much more likely to learn to shut off our emotions. To harden. To build up a wall of cardboard and duct tape. It’s not really strong, but by god it feels better than nothing. We harden. We overcompensate. We pretend that we’re actually really tough.
Which works. Until it doesn’t.
Which is when I see highly sensitive people figuring out what is required to really get strong.
Feeling the world as deeply as us highly sensitive people do requires that we build strength. It requires that we examine our life because, if we don’t, our delicate structure could break. It requires that we learn how to bend.
Meaning, it requires that we learn how to process our emotions. It requires that we develop self-care tactics. It requires that we get more and more sensitive, which actually leads to strength. This is a difficult path and it takes incredible courage.
We’re not the ones shooting off our mouths and flinging insults while we do all of this – we’re the ones shut inside our rooms, crying into our shirts. We’re the ones carb loading at night, just to make it through the next day. We’re the ones retreating to nature, apologizing for leaving social media, and wondering why we can’t do life correctly.
You may be highly sensitive, and you may be easily offended, but you are not easily offended because you’re highly sensitive.
This is a statement of power. It means that you have the ability to grow, to change, to learn to be even more responsive to life. To be less hardened, and stronger. Soft and strong. Like the soft, delicate and powerful wing of a bird.