As a child I cried all the time. It got on everyone’s nerves. I was nervous. I was always nauseated. I was a mess of emotions and expressions and fears. I never slept. I believed in ghosts and monsters and things that go bump in the night. As a teenager I developed migraines and depression. My anger, self-loathing and sadness grew and grew. I could not be as I was in the world – without paying a terrible price. I cared too deeply about every single thing and it became increasingly more difficult for me to be successful at anything. I spent years in a very damaging relationship with someone who reflected back to me what I saw in myself – a disappointment, a failure, a person who could never possibly measure up. I became very good at pretending everything was ok. I could never stay in one place too long because eventually the people around me would discover the truth – that I was completely nuts, overly sensitive, really intense and easily overwhelmed. I couldn’t let that happen.
I hopped and hopped from thing to thing, place to place always avoiding putting down roots. Other than my family, there are only two or three people who have ever accepted me for who I really am – one of those people I married, another one shares top billing with my husband and I always know she has my back, and I hers. I am soft – by nature. Being soft made me really hard for a long time because the world doesn’t like soft people. You have to be very strong, brave, courageous to be soft in this world. I had to learn this over many years of pain and disappointment and being let down. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized my nature was exactly what the world needed – it was just going to require me to be so much stronger than I had ever been and was I ready? I had to be.
It’s very easy for me to love my kids and my family openly and gushingly most of the time. That is not a problem. What I had to learn – and continue to – is that loving everyone openly and gushingly is much harder. People are uncomfortable with this a lot of the time. It makes them feel vulnerable and exposed. Doing it makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. Often it causes people to laugh at me or stare blankly not knowing how to react. That’s ok. I’m going to keep doing it anyway. Being allowed to pretend that we are invulnerable or above real,deep human connection is what has separated people, cultures, societies. We need each other – even when we don’t understand each other. We are not separate.
I recently went to the doctor and she diagnosed me with “Sensitiveness.” No this isn’t a medical diagnosis it’s more of a medical observation. I am sensitive. No one would ever deny this about me but no doctor has ever had the foresight to understand fully what it means. I am emotionally sensitive but I am also physically sensitive to virtually everything – food, environments, medications, light, sound, etc. I am like a person without skin. As a child I was called a hypochondriac, overly dramatic, and other things by doctors and family alike. They didn’t know better at the time but this deeply impacted my view of myself and how I learned to understand my own needs and feelings. I learned that it wasn’t ok to be this way and that I was broken. As a result I did not develop effective coping skills around stress, fear or disappointment. I was just a complainer. I was weak. I was difficult. I don’t say this to lay blame or point fingers. It is a valuable thing to learn that the messages we are sent as children are not necessarily the truth about ourselves or the world they are just the best anyone can muster in the moment. My people loved me deeply they just didn’t understand me. They saw a child who was struggling and they knew that the world didn’t take kindly to weakness so they tried their best to toughen me up out of deep and overwhelming love.
I had to learn this lesson, and teach it to them so that the world can know it too. I am sensitive. You may also be sensitive. This does not make you are weak. In fact finding the courage to be all of your sensitive self in a hard world is the bravest thing you can do. It’s easy to open yourself up to those who you know will accept it. It’s so much more difficult to give yourself to those who are in pain, guarded or unfamiliar with receiving love.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table of a family I worked with as an in-home clinician several years ago. The child I was there to work with had a meltdown and threw her dinner plate on the floor. The rest of the children scattered and the mother started screaming. I stood up, got on the floor with the child, met her gaze and stated calmly “I know you’re upset and that’s ok but we don’t show our frustration like this. I’ll sit here with you while you calm down and then you can grab the broom over there and clean up. When you’re ready.” The house itself felt like it was holding its breath. No one talked to anyone like this in this home. Mom and child alike sat staring blankly at me and each other. Then without a word the little girl got the broom and began sweeping up the mess. Her mother looked at me stunned. I remember feeling so overwhelmed by merely being alive as a child that I couldn’t control my emotions. Her mother, who had been the victim of so much abuse that it was hard for me to imagine how she was still alive, said to me one day in a moment of deep honesty after several months of my working with the family “I don’t know how to give my children affection. I am afraid that I don’t know how to touch them without hurting them.” My heart broke for her. So many people failed to love this young woman that she had no idea of the difference between affection and abuse.
We cause so much suffering to each other. We have so much power to hurt. We have all been hurt by others, some so significantly by the people who are supposed to love and protect them. It’s easy to hate, judge, and look down upon those who we don’t know or understand. It’s so easy to do that – to make grandiose statements about who they are and why they do the things they do. It’s so much harder to love everyone, be open to everyone. It’s so hard.
That mom was a mess. It would have been so easy for me to judge her as a bad person and write her and her children off. She learned to be alive in the worst of circumstances. She knew how to manipulate people to get what she wanted. She had built a wall 100 feet tall around herself. It was hard to be around her. It was hard to see how she interacted with the people in her life – especially her children. When I learned about her experiences it was hard not to understand how she had become that way. All I could do was show her compassion, give her tools, lead by example and set expectations for how people are supposed to treat each other in a healthy way. The rest was up to her. I couldn’t take it personally. That was not easy. I take everything as a reflection of my success or failure at being alive – that’s a symptom of sensitivity. I’m working on it.
I wish I knew the answers to life’s toughest questions. All I can say is we all have the power to make things better for ourselves and others if we are given permission to be who and what we are. Sometimes that permission has to come from inside. Sometimes we are grown-ups and set in our ways before this truth is discovered and it requires a complete restructuring of all our understanding of people and the world. That is the hardest thing of all. I did that and it changed everything. It took a lot of admitting that I was wrong, it took a lot of breaking off the crust that had hardened around my very porous self. It hurt a lot before I felt better. Now there’s no going back.
I am just going to love you all – no matter what – and share my passion and open my heart, say the things to the people in my life whether they are able to respond in kind or not – because that is the root of every fucking thing. Be brave and love each other.