Have you ever been told that you’re “overreacting?” Does the message that your feelings are too much, or disproportionate to the situation, sound familiar? How about “too sensitive?” If so, I like you already.
We live in a society where such displays of emotionality are disparaged. Individuals who cry frequently or react strongly to interpersonal slights are often thought to be overdramatic, chaotic, and unmanageable. Conversely, we commend those who are able to keep a tight lid on their feelings—even when such stoicism comes at the expense of being able to validate others or be able to ask for help when it’s needed.
Here’s the oft-ignored flipside of the emotional containment we glorify: those who hide their emotions often are suffering too, but it goes unnoticed. Worse, they are praised for having it all together and held up as a paragon of calm, all while they might be quietly drowning and terrified to ask for help for fear of shattering the image of fortitude for which they’ve earned such acclaim. The other negative aspect of these personalities is that suppressing emotions so successfully comes at the cost of being unable to recognize, validate, or relate to others’ emotions. You may have noticed as a “sensitive” person that people with a tight lid on their feelings don’t seem to know what to do with yours. They probably stammer, get awkward, and give some kind of gruff placating response at best; at worst, they might act out their discomfort in a way that’s deeply shaming and blaming. Emotions, to the reason-minded person, feel confusing, uncontained, and difficult to control.
On the other hand, those of us who are well acquainted with our feelings in all their messy, miserable, and joyous forms make fabulous friends, confidantes, listeners, and shoulders to cry on. It’s not hard for us, when listening to the woes of a loved one, to imagine (without even trying) how we would feel in a similar situation and respond accordingly. When telling a reason-minded friend about a recent breakup, I might receive a stiff “That sucks…I never liked him anyway” in response. A more sensitive companion, on the other hand, would pick up on my grief, my subtle relief at leaving behind something that I knew wasn’t working, guilt over that relief, and fear of moving on without a person who took up so much space in my life. What a blessing to receive such thorough recognition of my complicated feelings without having to explain myself!
Another benefit of sensitivity, as in the case of the above breakup, is that being in touch with my own feelings allows me to process them openly and seek support around them. The reason-minded person isn’t devoid of feelings, they just have a harder time recognizing and giving voice to them. Think of a young child who is bursting with emotion but doesn’t have the words to express them—how agonizing it is to need something, yet be unable to ask for help! In a young child, you see this conflict played out in the form of a tantrum or other acting-out behavior. In an adult, you are more likely to see subtler forms of distress, such as depression, reliance on maladaptive coping mechanisms, immersion in work, and other forms of avoidance. What’s worse, while the sensitive person’s distress is recognized because it is externalized and spoken, the reason-minded person’s suffering goes ignored and unattended to by everyone, including him- or herself.
And here’s the best for last: as it turns out, it’s impossible to selectively numb emotion. While you might be envious of someone’s capacity for numbness and stoicism in the face of hardship when you’re in the throes of misery from a rejection or a loss, you’re probably not so covetous of their neurological wiring on your wedding day or on the way to the amusement park, when you’re bursting with joy and anticipation while your reason-minded companion musters only a pleasant smile. To experience emotional highs, for better or worse, we also have to endure the lows sometimes. Thankfully, the emotional intelligence that stems from sensitivity means that our pain will be recognized and shared with loved ones.