How sensitive are you? 5 questions. How can sensitivity and independence coexist?

How sensitive are you? 5 questions. How can sensitivity and independence coexist?

  1. Are you more aware than others of subtleties in your environment?
  2. Is there some agony for you in simply existing in this world?
  3. Are beauty and precision food for your soul?
  4. Do you need to manage your environment carefully to care for your emotional body?
  5. Do you experience the world being too fast, too loud, too messy, too bright?

In mammals, 20% of any population is especially sensitive. In humans, there is a particular cluster of sensitivities that runs in concert: being sensitive to external stimuli (noises seem louder, colors and light seem brighter, touch seems harsher); ease of excitation (care is needed to stay in emotional balance, as it is so easy to move into a state of anxiety or overwhelm); and aesthetic sensitivity (there are exacting, fine standards for beauty, expression and balance).

Today is Independence Day. (Or maybe today is several days after Independence Day, depending on when you are reading this email.) The question I woke up asking myself was, how can we celebrate the fine calibration of our nervous systems, which make us so dependent on what is happening in the external environment, and claim our full independence? Is there a way to be both sensitive and independent, without relying on rigid exclusion of the world as our primary survival strategy? Can we be both sensitive to the world and independent with it, rather than from it?

I am wondering about this because if the strategy is controlling the environment to decrease overwhelm, we are not fully at choice. We are dependent upon managing what is happening externally in order to have peace. This can be hugely important. This strategy can carve out resting places and places of retreat in a noisy world. At least 50% of people need to retreat from the world in order to recharge their batteries. At the same time, is there some way, with empathy, to hold our sensitive beings with care within environments that are loud and fast, and still experience being present with ourselves and others?

The very first and most important question to help us move toward this (perhaps impossible) dream is the question of whether your entry into or existence in this world as a child was traumatic.  Was the chaos, the mess, the intrusion, the pain that you could perceive, more than you could bear? Have you time travelled to this younger self with resonant empathy to give this person your attention, protection, focus and care?  For highly sensitive beings, this needs to happen many times, for past overwhelmed selves and more recent past and present overwhelmed selves. The added burden of helpless frozenness can make the present day noisy world a reverberating, continual retraumatization for the little one who may have been dismissed, ignored, or even teased or ridiculed for their sensitivity. The focus of the trauma healing work, then, is two-fold: warmth and empathy for the original experience of overwhelm, and warmth and empathy for the child who received a negative, rather than a caring response.

As these retroactive experiences of self-accompaniment start to build up, a cushion of earned-secure attachment begins to grow, which supports and protects the battered nervous system of the highly sensitive person. The capacity to create retreats becomes immediate and emotional, rather than absolutely necessitated on physical withdrawal and sensory management of the environment. And then we are truly Independent with our Sensitivity and the world, rather than having to be Independent from the world.

Comment ( 1 )

  • Elspeth Campbell

    Thank you Sarah, for naming all of this Is! It’s such a relief to see all these experiences recognised as real and significant, rather than trivial or imaginary. For so long I believed I just wasn’t very good at managing being alive, and I used to beat myself up for that a lot. I’m much better now at accepting myself, and being kind to myself when things are painful or overwhelming for me, often even in the moment. Which makes life a lot easier and more comfortable!

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