Sensitivity gets a bad rap.
When it comes to emotions, our ability to detect, feel and viscerally respond to our immediate surroundings is labelled as a weakness, a symptom of being a “special snowflake”.
There’s this macho bravado that it’s not cool to care, not wise to want anything. In such a world, it seems easier to try to give less of a fuck about everything.
Problem is, we do give a fuck, but so often the world suggests feelings are shameful.
Being “emotional” is used as a euphemism for annoying, inefficient and, by some misogynists, any discontented woman. It’s as if only a narrow range of emotions is suitable for public consumption and we should all stay home when big emotional weather threatens to storm, lest someone feels a little uncomfortable.
Different emotions are on the banned list for the different genders. It might be more socially acceptable for a woman to be visibly upset or anxious, but there’s a trade-off. In return, men get to own asking for what they want, being strong, assertive and even angry. Rage and appetite are unattractive in a woman, after all.
Then we only allow sensitivity in certain situations. Death in the family? You’re allowed to be upset. But there’s something a bit wrong with you if you shed a tear at the smaller stuff.
However, pain is pain – it might have lots of different flavours, but if it’s there, it’s there. Stubbing your toe might not be breaking your leg, but it still hurts like hell. Ranking emotional distress and making one feeling more valid than another is unhelpful – it’s a race to the bottom where the only person allowed to be sad, frustrated or pissed off is a dead person. And they can’t feel.
And, there we have it. Emotions are part of being alive, being human. Sure, they might feel inconvenient or uncomfortable, but pretending something doesn’t exist because you wish it didn’t is hardly good sense.
Emotions are simply physical sensations – energetic information, if you will. They aren’t always pleasurable, but, hey, if something is off, I’d rather know about it sooner rather than later, so that I can seek help and change that thing or the way I relate to it.
Ranking emotional distress and making one feeling more valid than another is unhelpful – it’s a race to the bottom where the only person allowed to be sad, frustrated or pissed off is a dead person. And they can’t feel
Demonising sensitivity means we are kept totally disconnected from ourselves, numbing, hiding and repressing, as our problems swell. We drift through life with no idea what we want, just feeling vaguely discontented. When I ask my coaching clients, “How do you feel today?”, quite often they’ll struggle to reply. Using our feeling-sense is so unfamiliar we can barely identify our own emotions.
We’re terrified when we do feel them, too. That’s the irony, really. The people doing the “snowflake” labelling are themselves triggered. Sometimes, witnessing other people’s emotions reminds us of something latent within ourselves that we struggle with, or don’t approve of feeling. We blame the person, then, rather than looking at what’s still unprocessed in us. But emotional people are not contagious.
Really, when anyone labels us “emotional”, what they are really saying is, “I have no idea how to handle my own emotions, let alone yours. Seeing your emotions reminds me of this and it is making me so uncomfortable that I am going to need to blame you for it.”
But feelings themselves do not cause harm – it’s how we respond to them that causes such chaos. And because we are so afraid of them, refuse to witness them, we rarely get the chance to practise holding that sensation, so they come up more violently and volcanically. It’s a bit like pushing a beach ball underwater. Despite a lot of exertion, it inevitably pops up anyway. And the harder you push down, the more likely it is to explode out of the water with force, whacking you or an unsuspecting sunbather in the face.
Yet, with practice, feelings and sensitivity can become a gift. As research professor Brené Brown points out, you cannot selectively numb. Deny pain and you also deny joy. Shut down fear and you also turn off excitement. The opposite is also true. Expand your sensitivity and all flavours of life become available to you – great highs and revealing lows. These sad spots are the place we cultivate compassion.
This is one reason that sensitivity is a passport to connection and communication. Another is it allows you to know something or someone is not right instantly, before anyone even opens their mouth. One of the reasons Victorians wore black while mourning was to let those they came in contact with know that they had lost a loved one and needed more respect. Sensitivity gives you access to such information without the need for a change of clothing.
However, talents aren’t developed overnight. Even Picasso picked up his paintbrush and daubed some duds at the beginning. Getting in touch with your feelings might be messy at first.
Sometimes sensitivity can feel overwhelming, because we are picking up everyone else’s stuff as well as our own. That’s part of refining our art. We can’t cover the world in leather instead of simply sticking on a pair of shoes. We need to protect our feelings, guard our skillset and take the right responsibility for our emotional response.
There are times when you will use your feeling-sense and detect something, but your interpretation might be off. You might be bringing your own bias or fears to the table, instead of really noticing what’s going on. Being curious, asking questions and listening are your best friend here.
It’s a process. Feelings are not facts, in the same way a painting is not reality. That doesn’t mean sensitivity isn’t valuable. In fact, it could be revolutionary. Allowing for emotions, realising that feelings are not anti-progress or nonsensical, but worthy of space and cultivation, may reward us with a new feminine model of leadership, one that surrenders to what is, and allows for vulnerability. That sees strength and power not only in brute force or aggressive posturing, but in caring and empathy. It’s time to stop seeing sensitive people as unreliable, childish or broken – but as compassionate, intuitive pioneers. Enough snowflakes and you’ve got a powerful avalanche. Sensitivity is a superpower.
Give a F**k: A Brief Inventory of Ways in Which You Can by Felicity Morse is published by Michael O’Mara Books (hardback, £12.99)