As I gaze at the multicolored carpet in my office, I think about my last client and a pattern clearly forms. My emotions are strewn about the floor like the torn down Jenga pieces, and my heart is full of appreciation for these moments.
Maybe this is a revelation that all budding therapists come to? I am coming to realize that the majority of my clients are sensitive and creative. And that they are ashamed of it and feel they are being punished for it in some way.
I thought about the little girl that just left my office—replete with emotion, attuned to detail, and desperately trying to make sense of her parents’ toxic divorce. When I ask what she feels her strengths are, she mentions swimming and catching lizards. I offer that I notice that she is also sensitive. Her face twists and she says, “No I’m not!” Her father agrees, “No, she has anger issues, she is not sensitive at all.” We spent that whole session talking about sensitivity and how anger is most often a secondary emotion that follows a deeper hurt. Her eyes flickered with acknowledgment but she remained seated with her arms crossed.
I referenced an old favorite 90’s television show, Charmed. In it, there is a witch that gains the gift of being an “empath.” At first, she feels cursed by her heightened emotions—it is overpowering and even painful. But over time, as she learns to hone her gift and control her reactions to it, that gift ends up being beautiful and helpful—a real superpower. My client liked this story, but was slow to apply it to herself. In following sessions, she would test me, to see if I would tolerate her sensitivity—in the form of anger and spite—and I embraced it with open arms and waited for her to be ready to dig deeper.
Then there was a greater obstacle—the family environment (not overlooking societal influence). I asked, “Dad, do you consider yourself a sensitive person?” And he responded, “Fuck no…oh, excuse my language.” So I followed, “Do you see any similarities between you and your daughter?” Negative, but he says other people see it. Sometimes, those who have built the sturdiest walls are the softest underneath. And what is wrong with being soft? Well, as adults we know, the soft get trampled, ridiculed, and made to seem unstable.
I knew his fear of this from firsthand experience—for years, I had championed myself on being “strong” and “thick skinned.” In doing so, I had identified strongly with my (societally prescribed) “masculine” side. Had it not been for some deep introspection, I would not have become consciously aware of how sensitive I was. It was after this realization that true growth and happiness was possible. I finally allowed myself to feel the emotions I was blocking and then learned to regulate them without stifling them. It felt good to be unapologetic about who I was. Yes, I am an intense person. This includes a spectrum of positive and negative affective states. My whole being glows when I am happy, my heart sometimes feels like it may burst from gratitude for all the love and beauty that nature and people have offered me. But I also hurt deeply for myself, those I love and the world in general. I get that uncomfortable feeling in my chest even when someone else is embarrassed. The key is to grow into our superpowers, to learn to use them to enrich ourselves and others.
As a society, we congratulate the callous, we turn our noses down at the sensitive and label them as the weak. The stigma that mental health services and therapy still carry is proof of this. We pat a soldier on the back if he comes back home from combat and is unfazed. Why does our society value these traits? Is it perhaps a remnant of some Darwinian reasoning on who is fittest? But isn’t “stress” the number one killer? We now know that those who express their emotions experience better psychological and physical health (Austenfeld & Stanton, 2004).
In a sea of theories and treatments, I see one solid theme emerge. I seek to encourage a new way of thinking about being sensitive. I want clients to feel valued for this characteristic and recognize its beauty and potential for growth and empathy. It’s time to recognize sensitivity as a superpower. The sensitive are important and valuable members of society. They are the artists, the helpers, and the passionate.
Austenfeld, J. L., & Stanton, A. L., (2004). Coping through emotional approach: A new look at emotion, coping, and health-related outcomes. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1335-1363. Doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00299.x
— Nesreen Alsoraimi
Today’s guest contributor, Nesreen Alsoraimi, is a third-year clinical psychology PhD student at Alliant University focusing on the areas on trauma, social, and women’s psychology.