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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 stimulation.

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 guard against.)

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 can have.

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 sleep.

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.



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