Throughout my entire life, I’ve been told that I’m too sensitive. Friends and family have told me this in those exact words, and with language that meant the same thing.
In my twenties and thirties (before I met my husband), a friend even advised me to flirt a certain way. I was critiqued on the behavior that came naturally and organically to me, and scolded for “turning guys off” by being me. Being myself apparently turned men off. Whether this was actually true or not (because I’m sure that in some cases, it was undoubtedly accurate) isn’t as important as the fact that I chose to wholeheartedly believe it.
My innate sensitivity has affected my romantic relationships as well as my friendships. Over the years, like most people of a certain age, I’ve lost a few friendships. I’ve also been affected by the small interpersonal happenings that occasionally occur in relationships – the neglect, the lack of reciprocity, the forgetting of plans or to write or call back. And, I’ve been guilty of these things, too. I can’t, and won’t know how many people I’ve hurt or affected through my behavior.
I’ve learned that lost friendships and/or other people’s behavior is not about me. At least, it’s not entirely about me. The behavior that others have engaged in that has affected me isn’t about me. I can choose, and have chosen, an infinite number of stories about their behavior. Those stories are created by me, but they are not objectively about me.
Paradoxically, my sensitivity and the way I’m affected by other people is almost wholly about me. Have you ever had the experience of telling someone about the behavior of another person that you felt was rude, insensitive, mean or otherwise intolerable? And the response of the other person is “That’s just him! That’s just the way he is…” as if to say that you should excuse the behavior of this person because that is who they are and, oh well. The implication is: accept this other person and their shitty ways because that’s just who they are. You need to accept it. There’s a variation of this conversation that I’ve also experienced: after relaying your experience with the other person, a friend tells you “You are too something” (sensitive, bothered, affected, too fill-in-the-blank). You’re wrong.
On the one hand, I completely agree that we need to take responsibility for our own reactions and behavior. But, what I can also attest to, is that people like me make themselves wrong for getting treated poorly. I spent way too many years pushing down my sensitivity, pushing down my hurt, and pretending that I was not affected because other people explicitly told me or alluded to the idea that hiding, muting or excising my sensitivity was the only reasonable way to be in the world. I didn’t always listen to these people. But, I got some data that they were probably right. Sometimes, when I did speak up, my feelings were met with deaf, defensive or angry ears. It didn’t make me feel better, it often made matters worse.
And so, my sensitivity has everything to do with me. It is a trait that means I’m affected strongly by people and their behavior, for better or worse. So, let’s look at the better side for a minute, shall we? It means I’m empathic. It means I’m compassionate. It comes in very handy when I listen to friends, family and when I coach clients. It allows me to read between the lines. It allows me to feel great love for the people in my life, and sometimes even for strangers. It lets me have the meaningful, deep relationships that I crave and that enhance my life. It is responsible for transcendent conversations and experiences with my friends and family. I would never trade it and, these days, I’m much less likely to push it down than years ago.
What I have learned by fully embodying and owning my sensitivity is that I get to choose how it impacts my interpersonal relationships. I can’t entirely avoid getting hurt – and I don’t believe any of us can – but I can absolutely choose my reaction when someone says or does something that I find hurtful, thoughtless or insensitive. I can choose a response that feels good. This might be saying something directly to the person, it might be writing my thoughts, it might be talking to a friend, it might be simply having an internal dialogue with myself. The hurt needs to move, needs somewhere to go, but the way I choose to move it is entirely up to me. The meaning I give it – whether I choose to make it mean about something about myself, another person or the nature of my relationships – is also entirely up to me. I like to think of it as data… and that I get to make data-driven decisions that get more adept the more I accept who I have been, who I am becoming and the person that shows up as me in a given moment.