I’m 39 years old and I’m sensitive. It’s a quality that I’ve been aware of most of my life and one my parents often thought of as a flaw. To some, sensitive often means over-sensitive. It means we need to toughen up. To protect ourselves from waves of emotion. Feeling too much can complicate relationships and leave us stuck in a rut and incapable of happiness and success. Sometimes our emotions can lead us astray.
But emotions are often a guide that reveal our needs and help us navigate a way forward. They enable us to help and honour others. I welcome them for it. Sensitive people are careful with other people’s emotions because they understand what impact their words and actions may have. They are compassionate and emotionally-aware.
It’s true I feel easily. I’m intuitive, porous even, aware of body language, mood and inflections of tone. I analyse behaviour and words. I loved people-watching as a teen. All the little pieces of information you can pick up and piece together. These qualities I am proud of. They make me a good judge of character. They help me understand others. They were an asset when I worked in politics and they are now, too. Writing books often seems to me an act of empathy. I see emotions as something to lay bare and unravel.
We can see examples of insensitive people all around us. Social media trolls, for example, revel in upsetting their perceived enemies and gloat about ’liberal tears’. How often have you heard the term “I say it how it is” uttered with chest-thumping pride? A phrase that makes no allowance for the range of our lived experiences. How the truth is subjective and two things can be true. How listening is perhaps a superior skill to speaking. How, as learning beings driven by choice not merely instinct, we bear responsibility as we walk through the world.
We can also see insensitivity in the populist politicians of our time. Vulnerability is despised and strength is to be projected at all costs. Populists never admit failure because this is perceived as a sign of weakness. They are tin-eared to inequalities or worse, use inequalities to create a chasm rather than an opportunity for progress. There is no moral compass to this type of leadership because emotions are no longer a moral guide. They are a tool to be exploited.
For those of us who are sensitive, these are strange times. The usual spheres of influence–global, national, local and personal–have conflated so visibly that our imagined futures are threatened. The pandemic has been for the long haul and emotional reserves are running low. We are grieving global deaths, curtailed freedom, abrupt change and managing our lives in a much reduced ecosystem.
My own sensitivity is reeling right now, inextricably linked to my sense of balance. My faith in the government is low. I yoyo between joy that the vaccine is on its way to despair at potential long delays before it is effectively rolled out. There is less time for the things that usually ground me. Cut off from face-to-face contact, I am less confident of how my voice and attempts to help others are received. Everyone is running on empty. Everyone is prickly. Everyone is worried.
Many keyworkers don’t have the luxury of emotions right now. They suppress their emotions and just get through their day: running triage, seeing to their own families, falling into bed, and getting up and doing it all over again. At some point that withheld emotion, together with the physical strain, will burst its dam, and they will need professional support.
So do we turn off the faucet of our sensitivity or reduce it to a trickle to protect our mental health? Is that even possible? Maybe. Choose carefully what content you are consuming: from news, to movies, to the novels you are reading. Practice self-care. Count your blessings. Seek out moments of joy. Don’t wait for them to come to you.
If your sensitivity has been dialled up a notch then know this is a normal reaction to the impact of the world. That your humanness is beautiful and is, in part, what will change the world for the better. All our tiny drops of humanity feeding into the whole.