When I was young I was told I was too sensitive. I was told this by many, many people. I cried easily and often. I didn’t take criticism well. When scolded I felt awful about myself, took all the words said, mulled them over and concluded I was a terrible child. I remember wondering how it was that I could be so awful? Why did I make so many dreadful mistakes and so often? I believed that I was unusual in this way. I thought there was something very wrong with me, confirmed by all the things I did that caused me to get into trouble so much of the time.
This thinking caused me a great deal of pain and suffering later in life. I was not able to step back from what people said to me in annoyance or anger. Even when they would later compliment me about something I’d done that they approved of, it was tempered by the last admonishment. I didn’t know how to hold two opposing ideas about me at once and make sense of them. It never occurred to me that it was my behavior that was being objected to. It didn’t dawn on me that teachers and adults were talking about things I’d done and that my actions were separate from who I fundamentally was.
This morning I awoke and my child bounded out of their room in an exuberant flourish of happy energy and good cheer. I urged them to lower their voice as I busied myself with preparing their breakfast and my coffee. Over the course of the next hour I admonished my happy child to not pound the floor by jumping in gleeful abandon for fear of waking the downstairs neighbors and again to lower their voice for fear of waking their sibling and reminded this joyous child to not slam the door to our apartment (which slams on its own without anyone’s help) and while waiting for the elevator to lower their voice yet again. And by the time the bus had come to take my wonderful child to school I had tried (I am hoping, unsuccessfully) to tamp down their enthusiasm a dozen times. As I made my way to the subway I realized I had not shared in their joy for all that was joyful and wondrous. I had not joined them in greeting this beautiful day with such untethered optimism. And that old crushing feeling came down upon me like an avalanche. I felt terrible. I reflected on all those days when I was a child and how it felt to be hushed and told to lower my voice and how I would try with all my might and yet never could lower my voice enough.
As awful as I felt, as sad as it made me to reflect on all of this, by the time the subway came to my stop I saw how being overly sensitive is highly under-rated. How can one be “overly” sensitive, anyway? And what’s the alternative? Even now in my mid-fifties I still am extremely sensitive, too sensitive, or so people tell me. I no longer believe I will be able to develop a thick skin as so many predicted I would at some point obtain. And honestly I no longer strive to. Besides, if I weren’t too sensitive would I have noticed how I was shushing my child more than was necessary. Without being overly sensitive I might not have made a mental note to be extra playful and bouncey when I see them this afternoon. Without being far too sensitive for my own good, I would not have connected my child’s awesomeness with my younger, often exuberant and very sensitive, self.