Why My Sensitivity Is My Superpower
In the fall of 2020, I found myself sitting in my small office crying hysterically, and quite taken aback by it. In my imagination, I was convening with a younger version of myself, telling her that something she had spent years hating was actually a superpower. On my computer was a Zoom call of all things — one that had delivered on its promise.
By then, we were nearly nine months into the pandemic, a timeline I easily clocked because a week before lockdown, I’d found out I was pregnant. Now, I’d swelled to near capacity, my midsection keeping me a physical distance from my desk than I was used to. I’d started to wind down work in anticipation of my daughter’s birth and had signed up for a few online courses to see myself into the sunset of what had been a challenging spring, summer, and fall. One — the one that cracked me open — was called “Learning to Love Your Sensitivity.”
I went in with skepticism, not the least because I’d always hated my sensitivity. As a child, I was always told I was taking things too personally, reacting in too big a way, taking too long to get over something. The negative connotations hidden in that word “too” within each of those phrases had followed me to college and then into my 20s and 30s. I felt in constant conflict with this side of myself — a side that felt things deeply, that worried about others’ feelings, that felt cracked open anytime I was misunderstood. I was also skeptical about the instructor’s claim: She was an empath and, through Zoom, she was going to be able to reach into my soul and rearrange it.
She explained what it means to be a “highly sensitive person” — to feel things deeply, to be highly in tune with those around you, to be easily overwhelmed by stimuli like loud noises or others’ conversations. She was describing my exact experience in life. Then, she said, “People have probably pushed back on your sensitivity. They’ve told you you’re too sensitive, that you take things too personally, that you take too long to get over things.” There are those “too’s” again. Yes, I nodded at the computer screen, finding myself drawn in more and more. The construct of Zoom was falling away like sand; I was starting to feel like I was in a room with this woman, or maybe on a beach. A beautiful beach.
"As a child, I was always told I was taking things too personally, reacting in too big a way, taking too long to get over something. The negative connotations hidden in that word “too” within each of those phrases had followed me to college and then into my 20s and 30s."
She labeled sensitivity as a superpower. This sounded ridiculous to me. But, when she asked us to think about times it had served us well, buoys started to float to the top of the imaginary ocean I was gazing upon. When my parents divorced during my 20s, I was fractured and afraid of hurting more. Out of self-protection, I’d approached family members with compassion, trying to stick us back together with whatever glue was left among us. Ultimately, I think that forced me to handle a difficult period with grace. Later, I left New York City because the stimuli started to gnaw at me. Now, in the woods of Vermont, I’ve found peace. My sensitivity steered me in a direction that ultimately protected and ignited my soul. I’m thriving in a way I didn’t expect to.
The denouement of this Zoom experience was an exercise where we imagined a face-to-face interaction with a child version of ourselves. I saw myself at age 7, clear as day, sitting in front of me: her thick bangs hanging just over her eyes, the sleeves of her sweatshirt wrapped around her hands, her teeth just grown in and too big for her mouth. The sparkle in her eyes was flattened; she didn’t know what to make of the world around her. I wanted to reach out and hug her.
The instructor asked us to talk to this child and tell them what we know. This is when I began to cry, hysterically, and utter — out loud — that this little girl is not wrong to feel things deeply; she is beautiful, she is right. Her feelings will guide her and she will thrive. To say that this experience was unexpected and healing is a complete understatement.
Though sensitivity is the thing that I thought was a handicap but I now see helps me navigate my world in an authentic way, I don’t think this revelation is specific to sensitivity. I believe that in each of us we have a core emotion — the thing we don’t mean to turn to when we’re caught off-guard. For some, it may be protectiveness, defensiveness, even anger. I wonder, are there ways those qualities serve to guide people through their worlds in an authentic way? What if instead of fighting them, they followed them? How far could we all go?