The Advantage of Being Sensitive

"You're so sensitive, geez!"

I can't begin to count how many times has a coworker said this to me. Or the equally affirming, "You need to have a thicker skin! Don't let them get to you."

I am too sensitive. I admit it.

I have at various times trembled, flushed profusely, and cried at comments from colleagues that were intended as constructive criticism. It's hard to describe how exposed and raw I feel sometimes, especially in work-related settings. Most of the time, it sucks.

I also empathize intensely with people I care about when they are experiencing strong emotions. Listening to someone describe grief or loss makes me grieve as well, and sometimes it's almost like my emotions mirror those of people close to me. This can make it rough to hear about traumatic experiences, but it also makes me the person who cries with a friend with true compassion.

There is scientific evidence that this reaction is part of how sensitive people are wired. In a recent experiment using functional MRI scans, participants who identified as sensitive demonstrated activation of the brain regions involved in awareness, integration of sensory information, and empathy. (Bianca Acevedo et. al., The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions.) This is why, despite my efforts to "get thicker skin," my sensitivity stays with me.

Sometimes this weakness becomes my superpower.

Over the years, I've discovered that being highly sensitive has distinct advantages as well, and this trait has helped me to be better at my job. Here are four of the advantages of being sensitive I've personally experienced.

  1. People share more with me. They tell me about the challenges they have faced, the trauma they have overcome, and the fears they have. I've been able to connect more profoundly with students, alumni, and clients because they sense I'm open to a deeper relationship.
  2. I can win over antagonists. I've been privileged to interview a reluctant Holocaust survivor, mend fences with alumni who were discriminated against as students, and bring detractors on board as enthusiastic supporters. My ability to listen and really understand someone's hurt or anger makes me better able to meet them where they are, and hopefully move them.
  3. I'm aware of my own emotions. Like most sensitive people, I have had to work hard on emotional self-regulation in order to cope with the highs and lows that come with being sensitive. When I face a challenging situation, part of me is observing, cataloging, and managing the emotions that I experience. (Learn more about self-regulation on Elaine Aron's web site, The Highly Sensitive Person.)
  4. My writing resonates strongly with other sensitive people. When I write about the challenges of being sensitive, I get comments from people who sincerely appreciate my words. Some folks in my network have let me know that my writing has helped them navigate challenges. It's a good feeling to connect with people who get what it's like to live with "thin skin."

By thinking about the ways my sensitivity is a strength in my relationships, it makes it easier to take the advice from my well-meaning, thick-skinned acquaintances. It helps me get through the days when I feel so raw and touchy. On another day, I know I'll be able to connect deeply with someone, find common ground with a rival, or write a post that strikes a chord with someone in a meaningful way.

If you're sensitive, I'd love to hear what characteristics you've discovered - both positive and negative - that are related to sensitivity. Please drop me a quick comment, and share your take on being sensitive in this thick-skinned world!