I only recently learned that being a highly sensitive person is actually a thing. Even before that, though, I knew from a young age that I was very sensitive.
Things seemed to affect me much more deeply than they did the people around me. Feelings were a lot stronger, and I wanted to shield myself from things that I knew would hurt.
As a child, I couldn’t shield myself very often though. I grew up in a family that knew the harsh realities of the world and wanted me to be prepared for them.
At the age of six, my mother placed me in a karate class so I could start learning self-defense techniques, and I did that for six years until I moved on to other sports.
In general, I loved it. It was a lot of fun and, as a six year old, it was quite different from anything else other kids my age were doing.
But there were times when it did not mesh well with my sensitivity. For one, people were constantly complaining about my lack of aggression. I could never bring myself to attack anyone, even for a simulation, and my defense skills were weak as well. I didn’t have whatever it took to tap into that violent, survivalist side of myself. So teachers and other adults were always telling me things like:
“You’ll never make it if you really get attacked.”
“You need to toughen up.”
“You’re not aggressive enough.”
I wasn’t aggressive enough. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that criticism. Keep in mind that I started karate at age six and left it at age twelve, so I was still a child who was expected to respond to a simulated attack with just as much aggression as anyone else. And when I couldn’t do it, I was seen as a failure.
In addition, part of our “homework” after self-defense class was to go home and watch TV shows like America’s Most Wanted. Our instructor wanted us to know how violent people could be and what we might be up against one day. That might seem a little extreme, but my karate instructor was a woman who had previously been attacked and badly injured by someone. Learning self-defense and teaching it to others became her passion, and she wanted to prepare her students for the worst.
I’m not sure if the other students in the class took the “watch true crime shows” assignment seriously or not, but my family did. They agreed with the “you need to know” sentiment.
It was rough for me. I couldn’t stand the descriptions of violent crimes or the horrible things people had done to others. I knew by now that these things happened sometimes, but I didn’t think I needed all the details.
I Felt Every Little Thing So Deeply
There were many other facets of my life that burned my sensitivity. Thanks to my introversion, I was a quiet child in school, which often led to me being scolded by teachers for not participating. This made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, which were both things I felt very deeply.
I cried a lot as a child over one thing or another, but I learned to wait and do so in private. Most of the adults around me were not sympathetic and made things worse. I heard more things like:
“You need to suck it up.”
“You’re just crying for attention.”
“Other children have it worse than you, you know.”
But I wasn’t crying for attention. I hated attention. And I wasn’t crying because I didn’t get my way or just because I could.
I was crying because I felt every little thing so deeply, and I had no way to process that or understand it. Most people around me made me feel ashamed and weak for being sensitive, so I didn’t know what else to do.
I Don’t Want to ‘Toughen Up’
Nowadays, my high sensitivity is still very much a part of me. It hasn’t ever gone away, and I don’t expect it will. I still have to shield myself, and certain things still cause a very strong reaction in me.
The difference in me today, though, is that I am fine with that. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to “toughen up.”
Everyone knows that the world can be a hard, cruel place. Bad things happen, and not everyone is as nice as they should be. Sadly, there is a lot of hate and violence and cruelty.
These are the reasons that people usually give me for why I should be tougher. It’s as if they’re saying, “You’re going to have to face that, and you’ll never survive it the way you are. You need to develop a thick skin.”
Ironically, though, those are also the reasons I give for wanting to stay like I am. With all the nastiness around, I want to remain something good.
I want to keep being unable to stand the cruelty of the world, because as soon as I develop a thicker skin and can withstand more, that means I will start to accept it. And accepting it means it won’t change.
My biggest complaint with all of this is the person who just shrugs and says, “That’s the way it is. Get used to it.”
I don’t believe that. That’s only “the way it is” if you just accept it without question and move on. Then it becomes the way it is, because you’ve done nothing to make it stop.
I know that one person can’t wipe out all the bad things in the world. But I also know that good deeds are contagious.
Whenever someone witnesses another person doing something kind and completely selfless, just because they want to, it inspires people to pass it on. That’s all you have to do.
My high sensitivity is like a pair of goggles. It allows me to see things that need to change. I can’t just turn a blind eye and let it pass as if I’ve noticed nothing. I’m not wired that way.
So, developing a thicker skin and a tougher persona has never worked for me, and it probably never will. I don’t think it will do the world any good if I start blending in as another uncaring bystander. I want to keep being the person who speaks out, shares my emotions, and lets others know when something is not okay.
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Learn more: The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine N. Aron
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