The Gift and Challenge of Sensitivity
by Linda Markley. First
published in Yoga and Health, October 2002
Linda specialises in
coaching sensitive people to make the most of their gifts
and thrive in the modern world.
There is a good chance that
your nervous system, your mind and emotions function
differently from other people’s. According to recent
research (see ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ by Elaine N.
Aron) a percentage of all populations on the
planet, human and animal, have especially sensitive nervous
systems. This sensitivity is not only apparent in
psychological terms but can be demonstrated in the
laboratory by physiological arousal levels in response to
Having a sensitive nervous system has important consequences
for the individual. It’s a source of strength and talent,
but also, if mismanaged, can lead to difficulties and
distress. A great challenge for the sensitive individual is
that society is set up for the less sensitive. Indeed, many
sensitives come to have low self-esteem because they don’t
always function as well in many situations as their less
sensitive brothers and sisters.
However, once the sensitive recognise
their special needs and gifts, they can begin to throw off
any negative labels they have acquired and adopt life
strategies that take full advantage of their strengths.
What are these strengths? Firstly come
creativity and imagination. Its no surprise to find that all
kinds of artists are sensitives. However, sensitives in all
walks of life have more imagination and creativity than
average. Another strength is perceptiveness. It has been
demonstrated in the laboratory that a sensitive nervous
system absorbs about ten times the amount of information
from a situation than a non-sensitive one. (This trait
produces vulnerability to overload, which the sensitive must
Sensitives also read their own and
other people’s feelings very easily and often have high
levels of empathy and awareness of others’ needs.
Sensitives also tend to have strong intuition. They also
have more ability than average to reflect on matters, to
think subtly and develop wisdom. Many have strong vocations
to one of the spiritual paths.
It may seem that the sensitive is a slightly exotic and not
altogether necessary variant of the human stock. Not so! The
sensitive form a pool of talent from where the best ideas
come. Not only that, but they provide a source of wise
influence and a steadying hand for the hunter/warriors, who
tend to mess things up when left to themselves.
A vital point is that sensitive doe not
equal weak. Many courageous and imaginative soldiers have
been sensitives. Orde Wingate, leader of the Chindits in
Burma during World War II comes readily to mind. And if it
weren’t for the determined, pioneering efforts of
sensitives many of our most cherished advances would never
have happened. One has only to look at Abraham Lincoln or
Mahatma Ghandi to see the effect that one tough sensitive
The sensitive perceive vastly more of
what surrounds them – other’s feelings, atmospheres,
energies etc. – and feel much more intensely about things.
This can bring tremendous joy. After all, feelings are the
very juice of life. The sensitive can truly enjoy loving
relationships, art, music, nature and spirituality, all with
great depth and richness.
The challenge is that the inevitable
knocks of daily life can impact the sensitive more than
others. Unkind words that others shrug off may leave us sore
for some time. And this despite our best efforts to ‘not
be bothered’. This can undermine our self-esteem.
Especially when others reinforce the belief that it’s
foolish or weak to feel upset. ‘Just lighten up’ or some
such, they say well-meaningly.
The truth is it’s never wrong to feel anything. Our
feelings are there to guide us. They let us know what we do
and don’t need, as well as when to take action. Anger or
resentment, for example, may be a pointer that we need to
speak up for ourselves. The sensitive more than others need
to respect their feelings and the fact that they feel so
much. Its far better to feel many things including some pain
(which is also there to serve us) than to be, as so many
are, numbed and disassociated with little capacity for
empathy or happiness.
Having said that, we still need to take
steps to protect our vulnerability. There’s no need for
guilt about this. We are simply taking care of our needs –
as others do theirs. To love, to grow, to develop meaningful
relationships, we need to share our feelings with others.
Sadly, many sensitive people have learned through bruising
exchanges, to limit or even deny themselves altogether in
this area. The way for the sensitive to blossom here is to
develop clear boundaries, to decide how much to share and
who the right people are to share with. These will often,
but not always, be sensitives themselves.
Many times, when we first meet a
person, we will get alarm signals – a sinking inside, a
catch in the breath etc. While it’s easy to say we should
be warned off by these signals, we often over-ride these
messages and develop a relationship with these people. The
temptations to do this can be powerful, sheer loneliness,
the longing to have a significant other, pressing business
reasons and so on. Any immediate gains are almost always
cancelled by longer term damage. So, ‘if in doubt, leave
it out’, or at least consult a trusted friend if you can.
Some questions to consider in our relationships are ‘How
comfortable do I really feel opening to this person?’,
‘What signs have they shown that they are sensitive to me
and my feelings?’ If the answers are not encouraging, it
may not always be appropriate to cut the person out of our
life, but you need to be wary and maintain clear boundaries. Bear in mind that, if things go wrong, you are likely
to be much more hurt than they will.
No matter how careful we are, we will
sometimes be hurt. Sadly, many people make themselves feel
good at others’ expense – usually without guilt or even
being aware that they’re doing it. We retire, lick our
wounds and re-emerge wiser and warier. Yet, over time, we
can develop more and more skills in this area and more
comfort and enjoyment in our relationships.
There are many other ways to intensify
our joy and minimise our discomfort. It’s a very good
thing for the sensitive to heal as many of their old hurts
as possible, as these can resonate with current ones making
every upset much more painful. ‘The Journey’ developed
by Brandon Bays, the grief meditation of Stephen Levine and
inner child work are all very useful for this. We can take
heart here, for the sensitive are usually gifted and very
responsive in the area of spiritual development. Indeed many
of us will be powerfully drawn to a spiritual path and need
prayer and meditation like others need air.
One of the great challenges to the
sensitive is over-stimulation and burnout. This is easy to
appreciate when you consider that in every situation, every
interchange, your nervous system is absorbing and processing
ten times more information than average. Time out is an
absolute essential for us. We need time alone, time
to reflect and digest our experiences, time to re-connect
with inner peace. Again, meditation and prayer are
invaluable. Very often, too, the sensitive will be frazzled
after a day of dealing with the world and an oasis of calm
before bed is essential as over-stimulation plays havoc with
The potential for over-stimulation has important
consequences for livelihood, too. As far as vocation is
concerned, the sensitive will flourish in work where they
can use their creativity, intuition and empathy. This will
be in whatever they do, whether in the arts or in more
mainstream pursuits like teaching, business or the healing
professions. As always, the important thing for us to guard
against, though, is over-stimulation. We have to be careful
how much contact we have with others, how many things and
how much change we have going on at one time.
This doesn’t necessarily
restrict the kind of work you choose but it is important to
know under what circumstances you and your strengths will
flourish. If possible, choose your role within the work you
do carefully. You’ll be happier for it, will protect
yourself from excessive stress and illness and, ultimately,
be more successful too.
To sum up, sensitivity is an undoubted blessing but
usually only when it’s special needs and potentials are
recognised and responded to.The sensitive needs to handle themselves differently
from others and society norms can sometimes be totally
inappropriate for them.