Being tender and open is beautiful. As a woman, I feel continually shhh’ed. Too sensitive. Too mushy. Too wishy washy. Blah blah. Don’t let someone steal your tenderness. Don’t allow the coldness and fear of others to tarnish your perfectly vulnerable beating heart. Nothing is more powerful than allowing yourself to truly be affected by things.
A while back, my mom lent me one of her books. Until yesterday, it had been sitting on my shelf with my other “to-read-before-I-die” books.
It’s called The Highly Sensitive Person. A book to help people thrive when the world overwhelms them. (I scoffed to myself when she gave it to me: Ha! I’m not sensitive. Nothing gets to me. Ha!)
Now I scoff because I know better. Ha! Literally everything gets to me.
I grew up thinking that being sensitive was a bad thing. To be sensitive is to be weak and needy. It’s better to become desensitized and feel nothing at all, right?
The other night, I asked Nick what he thought one of my weaknesses was.
Silence. A smirk. “Is this a trap?”
I shook my head. “Just tell me.”
“Okay.” Pause. “Sometimes you are a little sensitive and needy,” he said.
I smiled and nodded. Yep.
But couple years ago, that would have eaten me away inside. Needy?! Sensitive?! I’m a self-sufficient, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps, kinda gal. Don’t need nothing from nobody.
If needing is my weakness, than I’m in good company… with the rest of the human race.
We’re all a bit needy, but some of us never say a damn word about it. Needy, along with sensitive, gets a bad rap, and I think we all should feel more freedom to need. (Worth saying: there is a line somewhere, of course, as with most things, because neediness can become desperate, selfish or unhealthy, too, and that is not what I’m advocating here.)
Maybe, just maybe being a highly sensitive person can also mean being a strong, capable person. Maybe being affected by things can be empowering. Perhaps letting yourself be affected by things is a superpower in disguise.
Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness; it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate. It is not the empath who is broken; it is society that has become dysfunctional and emotionally disabled. . .
Anthon St. Maarten
We often try to be tough and unaffected on the outside while wrestling with swirling emotions and feelings on the inside, hiding the fact that things affect us. Why?! Is being affected so terrible?
I recently read the last entry in Anne Frank’s diary. She speaks to this dual life, this “bundle of contradictions:”
I’m afraid that people who know me as I usually am will discover I have another side . . . I’m afraid they’ll mock me, think I’m ridiculous and sentimental and not take me seriously. I’m used to not being taken seriously, but only the “light-hearted” Anne is used to it and can put up with it; the “deeper” Anne is too weak . . .
[. . .]
I’d like to listen [to the voice within me], but it doesn’t work, because if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks I’m putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke . . . I just can’t keep it up anymore, because . . . I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . .
Thirteen-year-old Anne speaks to me; here I am, a young adult fighting for balance between being affected by what goes around me and pretending she is unflappable and tough as nails.
There are moments of my childhood that I remember vividly as moments of immense freedom to be unapologetically me–to unapologetically be sensitive and needy.
I don’t recall feeling ashamed by my countless panic attacks when it was too windy or stormy in Pueblo West (where it’s ALWAYS windy, just so we’re clear). Although I’m sure my hysterics were annoying, my parents never made me feel foolish for my irrational fears. I recall my recurrent and irrational nightmares after seeing Dad fall off the roof and break his ribs; he recovered fine, but the event quite literally haunted me for a long time. I was terrified of Jafar from Aladdin, the whale from Pinnochio, and the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. I still remember the mean look a classmate gave me in third grade and how terrible I felt for days. I quit dance in third grade because I couldn’t suffer how mean the rest of my dance team was to me and to others. When the world didn’t make sense to me, I took a pen to the page and bled through scribbles and stories.
Things haven’t really changed, though my sensitivities manifest in more tangible ways: my closet is full of dozens of pairs of leggings and loose, flowing blouses (because some days, denim jeans feel like scratchy little cloth prisons, so yes, I am wearing these leggings as pants, thank you very much). I wake up angry and restless every couple of hours because something just isn’t quite right with my pillow. Nick finally spent $80 on a feather mattress pad so I would stop waking up at 3 am carrying on about how “I might as well just sleep on the stupid floor because this stupid mattress is about as comfy as a stupid rock” (apparently, it’s hard for him to sleep when I’m yelling; gosh, he’s so sensitive). When we went out to lunch yesterday, I have no idea what Nick said for about five minutes straight because I swear, I thought I was hearing every conversation that every person was having in that restaurant lobby. A lot goes on in the world, and sometimes it is overwhelming.
Sometimes it is all too much. Life and death, joy and grief, anxiety and peace, homelessness, hunger, stray dogs, pain, doctor’s visits, births, music, stories, poetry, laughter, and weeping. Clamoring voices in my head–my own voice mixed with the voices of others, the fears and doubts grabbing at my heart, the truths He breathes into my soul, a busy schedule, anxiety bubbling from deep in the pit of my stomach. Scratchy jeans and the consciousness of every unexpressed yet palpable tension in the people around me. The impending headache. The stiffness in my joints, the fatigue of my muscles, and the anger I have at chronic pain. The worry for loved ones. The growing pile of expectations and obligations and self-constructed pressure to be more, do more.
I could choose to feel it all; I could choose to ignore it all.
I choose to feel it all more often than not, but I can’t live there in the too-muchness all day, everyday. I have to put my feet back on the ground. But.
I owe both sides of me–the feeling and the moving on–equal amounts of time in this sacred space of life.
There is as much room for being highly sensitive, for feeling deeply, and for being overwhelmed by the world as there is for being high-achieving, hard-working, and yes, even cool under pressure. Maybe being a hot mess–allowing myself to be truly affected by things from time to time–is a step forward to a more empathetic, wise, understanding way of living and loving.
There is quote from Lemony Snicket that I am reminded of:
“There is a kind of crying I hope you have not experienced, and it is not just crying about something terrible that has happened, but a crying for all of the terrible things that have happened, not just to you but to everyone you know and to everyone you don’t know and even the people you don’t want to know, a crying that cannot be diluted by a brave deed or a kind word, but only by someone holding you as your shoulders shake and your tears run down your face.”
Maybe you know this exact kind of crying Lemony Snicket is talking about. He says he hopes you have not experienced it, but I kind of hope that you have. This kind of profound sadness is a burden, but it is also a gift.
A person who feels this deeply is a modern-day Atlas, and if you can feel the deep sadness of the world around you–the weight of the terrible things that have happened to you, to me, to everyone you’ve ever and never known–you are freed to truly feel the deep joy and beauty of it all. That is the rare power and gift of a truly loving and empathetic person; beauty comes out of experiencing and living and feeling things that deeply.
So yes, yes, I cry when I see a stray dog, and, yes, some days just thinking about how many people right at this moment are grieving loss or death right in this moment knocks me on my ass. I just hope that, in the feeling of it all, I learn to navigate the ecstatic along with the tragic moments. I might be needy sometimes. I might be overly sensitive at times. But to me, feeling strongly is better than feeling nothing at all.
(Even though Atlas had to carry the whole of the celestial spheres, he must have grown to know them more intricately and intimately than anyone living in the midst of them, and what a beautiful power he must have gained through all of that–the seeing and feeling of them–as he did the hard work of holding them all together.)