“You weren’t built to be calm, cool, and collected all the time. If you were, it wouldn’t feel so exhausting.”~Ryan O’Connell
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about “highly sensitive people” and “empaths.” It can be difficult for people who don’t relate to these labels to understand, or even believe what more sensitive folks experience. As a culture, we’re just beginning to grasp what sensitivity is and how to manage our energy.
What Sensitivity Actually Is
It’s easy to get caught up in cultural biases and stigmas concerning personality traits, and sensitivity has always been a part of that. This is why I believe it’s important to define sensitivity in the most objective way possible.
Sensitivity is simply about attunement, which is a fancy word for how much attention your nervous system is paying. Sensitive folks have more highly attuned nervous systems than others.
For this reason, our nervous systems are both in a position of advantage and vulnerability at the same time:
1. You will likely be the first to recognize a genuine threat in the environment. That’s a great evolutionary adaptation! In other words, sensitive people are pretty much designed to outsmart danger and stay safe in the world. (Contrary to the stigma that sensitivity is weakness, sensitive people would probably make the best Jedis ever.)
2. You will be more susceptible to stress-related symptoms, exhaustion, and mental health issues. In other words, threats that aren’t worth considering will still be considered threatening by the sensitive person because they may struggle with discernment.
If my nervous system is signaling a threat, how am I supposed to ignore that?!
Imagine tuning a guitar; as you turn the knob, you create a higher pitch. The string becomes tighter and the notes higher.
I think this is the perfect metaphor for sensitivity, and one I discovered in college after reading the work of a troubled 1800s poet, Charles Baudelaire. He said, “My nerves are strung to such a pitch that they no longer give anything but piercing and painful vibrations.”
He wrote this after describing a beautiful landscape he was looking at. He loves it, only, as he takes more and more of the scenery in, it begins to overwhelm him. His nervous system is easily overstimulated by the sights, even positive ones. Lacking the wisdom to glide with this energy, he is tormented by it.
In all of my angsty college depression, I thought, “This guy gets it!”
Back then, I was brand new to adulthood and had no idea how to use my sensitivity in any advantageous way. As a result, I developed chronic symptoms doctors couldn’t explain, did poorly in school, and attracted negative relationships with people who didn’t experience the world like I did.
I simply believed there must be something wrong with me—and so all my efforts went toward fixing myself. I tried developing new skills, making new friends, and applying for various types of jobs. My assumption was that as soon as I figured out how to be “valuable” and well-liked, I’d finally be happy.
But these pursuits never quite panned out. After college I found myself confused and depressed, and much like Baudelaire, tortured by my sensitivity to the world. I started looking elsewhere for answers and stumbled upon yoga and meditation for the first time.
In the years following, I worked from home more and more, increasingly turned down parties and unfulfilling trips to the bar, and settled into a healing phase in which I kept to myself.
The depth of this phase surprised me. There was so much baggage, so much pain to sort through, and so many confusing emotions to sit with. But the more I sat, the more the emotions spoke, revealing my guilt, grief, dissatisfaction, and many more realities I was unaware of. Life was hard because I wasn’t listening to their feedback.
The more I let them speak, the more positive they became, inspiring new emotions and new behaviors that moved me forward in life.
Wielding Your Power
Thankfully, we no longer live in an age that demonizes sensitivity. We are, in many ways, free to arrange our lives in ways that support us, rather than pull us deeper into the currents of overwhelm.
Imagine walking down the street and realizing that every little stimulus is an invitation—an invitation to feel an emotion, experience a memory, or share in the emotional stream of others’ conversations, etc.
It’s no wonder sensitive people shut themselves away from the world! It’s so much easier to just avoid all stimuli and hyper-control your environment.
Unfortunately, doing this 24/7 actually enables the sensitive person to avoid practicing their power. It helps us stay stuck.
Imagine if Luke Skywalker simply said, “Man, the force is too draining! I think I’ll just stay inside forever.”
As a newly awakened sensitive person, you may need to hibernate for a while. However, this is only part of the growth path.
The tough truth is that those with highly attuned nervous systems must master emotion… or suffer. Mastering emotional fluency is an extremely fulfilling journey because you get to experience the full spectrum of human emotion. Whereas many people are just going through the motions, you feel everything, which gives you a unique power and ability to handle anything.
But for those at the starting line, it can seem like a punishment.
How to Master Emotional Fluency
It is unlikely that any of the following points I make will shock you. In fact, they may frustrate you because you already know them. They’re just so hard to implement!
The thing is, the human nervous system has evolved through many, many centuries. This means that the patterns you are now trying to change or guide in your body are very well established.
It’s important to not look at this as you trying to work against or change your tendency to become stimulated in uncomfortable ways. When people get caught up in this mentality, they adopt the notion that they are unwell, victims of their own bodies, broken and powerless to direct their own lives.
As someone who has been through that pain, I want to tell you: That is so far from the reality of your situation.
You are not here to make yourself less sensitive. You are not here to be like everyone around you.
You are here to:
1. Heal your own recurring trauma patterns so that you can lighten the load for your nervous system.
In essence, this means reducing unnecessary triggers that disrupt your day and cause a full-body stress response. Start to notice things that continuously upset you and catch yourself in those moments. Simply stop and watch the reaction. What specific emotions create a downward spiral in your day?
It will help you to write down each time you feel triggered so the underlying issues can slowly reveal themselves. For example, you may find that each time you feel anxiety, you’re in a crowded space, or you recall the same painful memory. (This is not only lightening the load on your nervous system, but your adrenals and hormones as well.)
2. Start cleaning house—what has to go?
Whereas step 1 is about past trauma that keeps haunting us, this step is about recurring present-day stressors. These have the same, if not more of a detrimental effect on you because they influence daily stress levels.
This step often takes sensitive folks the longest because they must find ways to restructure their lives (leaving behind toxic relationships and jobs, letting go of old routines, etc.) This may require creativity and outside-the-box thinking because the world is currently designed for less sensitive people, which research shows is the majority.
Grabbing a stimulating coffee, running off to a stressful job, taking care of your kids with little support, eating stimulating foods—all of this stimulation is “normal,” but for you, it is not sustainable. These habits will lead you in a downward spiral of mental and physical exhaustion.
For me, this meant finding more flexible jobs that didn’t demand much from me emotionally. Inevitably, it also meant distancing myself from people who were not right for me – even when it was painful to do so.
3. Rebuild, rebuild, rebuild.
Begin welcoming in that which fuels you, and begin creating a life that is lighter, simpler, and freer. This life will lack drama that distracts you from who you are. By learning and exploring what matters to you, you will move closer and closer to a reality of true joy.
Your heightened emotions can come along with you in this new life. Only, you will experience a new side to them—the positive. You will finally begin to feel the ups along with the downs, and it will reveal how more and better was always possible for you.
This is a slow, challenging process, and by no means have I reached the finish line. For me, refueling has been about getting back to the root who I am and moving toward my genuine goals without rushing myself. The rebuilding phase is all about how you spend your time. Do what feels replenishing and step away from what feels draining.
No matter how many hurdles you see ahead, you have more power than them. You are not here to bear the weight of society’s chaos. You are here to bring it into order so your sensitivity can work for you, not against you.
Are you ready to begin?