In the recent hooplah about political correctness and trigger warnings, a phrase that gets bandied about far too often is the claim that people are just “overly sensitive” these days. This is often met with (generally quite reasonable) assertions that outrage over racism, sexism, and other everyday cruelties is not simply being extremely sensitive but rather actively asserting boundaries. The problem with this approach is that it accepts the premise that being sensitive is bad.
Sure, there are downsides to being sensitive. It can make everyday life more difficult, and you might have to spend more time calming yourself if something stressful or unexpected happens. And yes, sometimes being overly sensitive can mean that you become anxious or upset over something that isn’t truly doing you any harm. But these things are true of just about anyone: sometimes we all make the wrong call about whether something warrants a strong reaction or not. That’s a human tendency that we can actually cultivate skills to overcome.
But there’s a difference between “reacting inappropriately” and being sensitive. One is a behavior and the other is simply a fact about how your emotions work. There are lots of people who don’t have a choice about being extremely sensitive. As someone with borderline personality disorder traits, I’m one of those people. I react quickly and strongly to things.
For some people, this would be a reason to discount the times when I react, to discount my arguments and my issues with others. But simply because I have strong emotions doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of thinking through issues and figuring out whether there is a logical and rational basis to my reaction. Indeed, including some of the strong emotion in my response also doesn’t discount it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being sensitive.
Sometimes I cry over absolutely nothing. Usually I tell the person with me that I know it’s nothing and ask them to sit with me through it. That’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with having that strong reaction. And there are also positives to the extreme sensitivity. I’m pretty good at picking up on the emotions of others, which makes me far more likely to check in with someone and find out what they’re feeling. I also get really strong happy feelings when something good happens. And I’m also pretty in tune with the times that people violate my boundaries or do things that aren’t acceptable. That means I’m more likely to be able to let someone know when I need them to do something differently. That might look like me being a pansy, but in reality it’s extremely healthy and a skill that everyone probably needs to learn to one extent or another.
Sensitivity really just refers to how strong our emotions are. There’s never anything inherently wrong with feeling something. As I’ve mentioned before, the place that we have to be careful and responsible is in choosing how we should act because of our emotions. If the best you can come up with is that people these days feel too much, then you’re really grasping at straws for why they’re wrong. What should be up for argumentation are not people’s feelings, but rather their arguments and requests. If those don’t have logic or go too far and put too much burden on others, then it seems reasonable to argue against them. But when someone else gets upset over something you wouldn’t get upset over that doesn’t make them worse than you. It doesn’t even make them pitiable. In fact in some ways it makes them better at things, and in other ways it makes them worse at things.
There’s no need to promote the idea that you “allow” yourself to be hurt if you’re sensitive. There’s no need to idealize being cold and unflappable. Having emotions is totally acceptable and does not make one irrational. Even strong emotions can be good or neutral things. I refuse to be insulted when someone calls me sensitive. Yes, I am thank you very much. That is utterly irrelevant to my arguments.