A chipmunk died on our front porch this morning. It was too late to help. It is nestled in the front garden now, with some peonies. One of its friends came to check on it, then ran away. Most people would find this sad, but probably not shed any tears. I found it incredibly sad and cried for them both.
The highly sensitive person…who wants this label? Not me! Unfortunately, it fits. On the spectrum of sensitivity to stoicism I veer towards “sensitive.” What makes people stoic or sensitive? It turns out, there is actually a “sensitivity” gene. Read about it here.
Stoicism is being steady, balanced and impassive. “Indifference to pleasure or pain.” Wait, is that supposed to be good? That sounds a bit like emotionally dead to me. (On second thought, maybe I’ll stick with sensitivity.) Antidepressants can help blunt the highs and lows of life and make us chemically stoic. Do we want this? Maybe just long enough to feel clear and make some necessary changes. Antidepressants can be a life saver for many people, along with therapy and some goals for the future.
In the helping professions, it is good to be in the middle zone. You need sensitivity to be good at your job, but stoicism to cope with your job. The daily onslaught of other people’s suffering, having no control over one’s work placement or how to do one’s job, no privacy or personal space, the sensory overload of an institutional setting (the noise, the smells, bright primary colours, crowded halls, posters everywhere, really loud announcements on the PA all day) and the lack of compassion from burnt-out colleagues can make a workplace really challenging. The highest levels of workplace harassment occur in Education, Nursing and Social Work. Here is a comment made to me by a colleague at a former job: “Oh, now that I know you’re so sensitive, I’ll be really careful how I talk to you.” Super, thanks for the contempt.
Here are some other words used for someone who is sensitive: delicate, hot-house flower, intuitive, caring, weak, fragile, compassionate, intelligent. Hmm, there are a lot of positive words there, but the perception I get from most people is that if you’re sensitive, you’re weak.
You may have finely tuned senses and really appreciate the beauty of nature, sounds and music, scents, colours, touch, etc. You may feel like a layer of protection is missing, and it’s hard to keep other’s emotions/experiences from affecting you (a real problem when you are helping people for a living). Feeling heartbreak over a chipmunk dying. Wanting to not care or take things personally but being unable to stop it. You may notice physical sensations like pain and pleasure are heightened (a high number of chronic pain patients are also considered highly sensitive people). Artists tend to be very sensitive, too. How could they create such beautiful work otherwise?
A really good book on this topic is The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. There is a lot of information available today in books and online. Try to reduce the sensory assault whenever possible. Meditation, deep breathing, nature, petting a dog, writing down your thoughts and feelings can all help. Try to use your superpower to enhance your life and creativity. Spend time alone and take breaks from overwhelming situations. Cry over that chipmunk! We are humans, not robots.