“There is nothing unusual about feeling the suffering (or glory) of another life. This is how we are designed, to live in intimate relationship with all life around us.”
The video ended and the speakers were buzzing again while the professor lectured. I tried to ignore the sound but I couldn’t focus. Finally, I stood to turn them off with the button on the wall of the classroom. One or two other students sighed with relief. The rest of the class and the professor gave me sidelong glances: they couldn’t hear the buzz that made my entire body tense and my teeth ache.
The first time I heard the term “highly sensitive person,” it sounded like a misogynistic term—much like “hysterical,” a way to put down those who feel and care and cry. I even took the test that Dr. Elaine Aron created and came away thinking, That’s not me. I’m not particularly sensitive to noise or caffeine or strong emotions. My partner looked at
me with lovingly skeptical eyes, and I began to question my certainty.
After a few months of self-examination, I could answer yes to every question on the test. I honestly didn’t know that everyone else doesn’t experience the world as overwhelming as I do. It turns out that it can be hard to recognize sensitivity in oneself. Since it's the way we experience the world through our bodies, it's very similar to seeing a "different" color red than everyone else: How would we know? We don't.
Figuring out that I have a very sensitive nervous system has helped me understand myself, including why I’ve struggled most of my life with seemingly ordinary tasks. It’s also true that I can sense minute changes in facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. I experience a huge range of colors and I can easily imagine what someone might have been feeling when they created a piece of art. These gifts and struggles exist in tandem.
For better and worse, we all have our foibles; pieces of ourselves that we both admire and occasionally revile. Maybe yours is a deep ability to see multiple sides of a situation, or perfect pitch, or the desire to straighten every crooked painting in your mom’s house, or a body or mind that doesn’t fit the narrow definition of “typical.” It's often true that our weaknesses are also our greatest strengths, two sides of the same coin.
Spirit of life and love, the weight of a world filled with so much pain and beauty rocks me. When I want to escape this imperfect body of mine, help me remember. Help me find the sound of rain, the relief of darkness, the kinship of rebellious community, the comfort of soft animals and kind people. Remind me that my sensitivity is also my strength, that my breaking heart is also a way to wholeness, and ultimately, to you.
Photo copyright Daniel X. O'Neil/CC BY 2.0