Sensitivity. I’m in the middle of an unrelenting war with this aspect of my personality. Normally, I’m so busy fighting it that it seems counterproductive to publicly analyze its existence. But, I’ve decided to do just that in an attempt to help myself. We’ll see how it goes.
A Sensitive Human Being
To begin with, I am an utterly and painfully sensitive human being. At times, it’s hard to fathom how I live like this. Any little thing a person says or thinks (or I assume they’re saying or thinking) about me has the potential to make me want to crawl into a hole and hide. I’m not kidding. I often dream about having a place like that: somewhere I can go and hide when I do something wrong or embarrassing, when I don’t do something because I’m not sure it’s right, or simply when someone says something even semi-derogatory to me. It’s an excruciating feeling.
What I want to know, then, is what happened to me? What experience(s) in my life left an imprint, resulting in my hyper-sensitive feelings in social settings?
The Root of Sensitivity
To answer this question, it’s important to dig into the root of the problem. Many psychologists, including Evolutionary Psychologist Douglas T. Kenrick in his perspective-altering book Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life, believe that our brains are made up of systems, somewhat like a coloring-book.
We are born with these outlines of ways we’re going to be able to learn, perceive, process and react to specific types of information in our environment; then, our environment colors in the lines with experiences and circumstances. Our brain and body’s reactions to these experiences and circumstances, then, are its evolutionary attempt to protect us from anything that could hurt our chances of survival and reproduction (Kenrick, 92-93).
Sensitivity and Fear
Fear is one of my most common reactions to new, potentially “harmful” experiences. It seems like my brain creates an excessive amount of fear in me more often than necessary to ensure my survival and reproductive success. Because of this, I’m really good at second-guessing myself to the point where I won’t say or do anything in social settings. I am so internally afraid to piss people off or annoy people that I will continuously filter every single thought of conversation or action that pops into my head. Then, as I said, I often end up saying or doing nothing.
This type of behavior generally gets me labeled as the “quiet girl.” What’s funny is, I’m ready to explode with thoughts on the inside about eighty-percent of the time. The other 20 percent is when I’m completely in my element, in which case I could talk for hours about the most random things: such as assessments of my personality (lol, hope this isn’t boring). I often become paralyzed in social settings, though, because I have an undying need to assess each situation thoroughly and filter my actions before I put myself out there.
“What’s the right thing to say? Are they going to think I’m stupid for saying or doing this?” These thoughts pop out of my unconscious and cross my mind a total of what seems like millions of times a day.
The Battle Between Conscious and Unconscious
Then there’s this fight that occurs. It’s between my conscious and my unconscious. My unconscious is the version of myself that noiselessly talks to me, asking all these annoying questions under the surface, without me even wanting to know. My conscious self is me, the self that is present and trying to love herself and be herself whenever possible. When my unconscious asks these questions, my conscious fights back with things like, “Just be yourself. You are smart enough and good enough. Your thoughts and feelings matter.” Do I sound crazy yet?
It’s as if my unconscious mechanisms for sex and survival have taken their job way too far. Associations induced by experience have altered them to be the most beneficial for my evolutionary agenda: so much so that they often pay more attention to others’ wants, needs, and expectations of me than my own wants, needs, and expectations for myself in social settings. My self-doubt is fear resulting from an unconscious effort to say or do the right thing in social situations. Taking a risk and doing what I impetuously want or saying something I impetuously thought could result in embarrassment or in rubbing someone else the wrong way. That’s what I think I’m so internally afraid of.
A Sensitive Memory
When I first started waitressing at the family restaurant I’ve worked in for a good portion of my life, I was 17-years-old. I was a bus-girl at the time, which meant my job was to clean off the tables, reset them and take people’s plates when they were done: not much talking involved. One Monday morning we were in the middle of cleanup, the two-hour-long cleaning session we have after every weekend. I was sweeping the back steps of the restaurant when my cousin (the manager) came up to me with that week’s schedule in her hand.
“You’re waitressing on Wednesday during the day, ok?” she said. As soon as those words left her mouth, ladies and gentlemen, I felt the tears welling up in my eyes; I kid you not. At the first thought of having to actually interact with strangers that were likely going to have words to say about the job I was doing, I was downright terrified: so much so that I started crying. How is this even possible? I had so much fear of having the wrong or awkward interactions with people, so much fear that I would suck, that my unconscious forced me to react in a fit of hysterics within a matter of seconds. Where does this fear come from? How in the hell did I end up with such an excessive amount of it?
Oh, and The Empathy
It’s not just the fear either. It’s empathy. Sometimes, I swear, I physically feel for people. If I see that someone has been made to feel stupid, it kills me inside. If I am with a group of people and I can tell that one person is just not fitting in, it kills me inside. If I see someone get hurt or embarrassed in general, it kills me inside; although, the level of degree usually depends on my opinion of the person.
To illustrate this empathy, I’m going to assume that many of us have one friend or family-member who is a little louder than most. Maybe this person knows their noise-level is unusual but is confident and doesn’t mind upsetting societal norms. They are themselves, regardless of what people think.
This type of confidence can occasionally result in negative public attention. For some reason, loud strangers often seem to rub people the wrong way. Now, even though I consciously have a great deal of respect for the idea of “not caring about what other people think,” whenever I encounter a situation like this, it kills me inside. I get bad feelings in my chest if I have to watch or listen to others judge someone I like or love, even if they could care less. On an unconscious level, it kills me that this person won’t just be quiet! I hate feeling that way: like everyone needs to conform to society’s opinions.
I wonder if everyone has such taxing feelings of empathy toward others. I wonder if it has to do with an annoying, underlying need for social-approval that I have. Maybe I filter myself for that reason. Maybe social approval is so important to my unconscious that I can’t even bear to watch others say or do things that those around them might not like. It sounds pretty pathetic, and it’s something I am trying to change. The hard part is, unconscious sensitivities are built into me because of various past experience(s): I’m just not sure which one(s).
I often try really hard to pull memories out from my unconscious: memories I think might have had some sort of influence on me. For instance, I have a memory from when I was about five or six. I had gone to the grocery store with my Mom and we were waiting in line to pay. I decided to help with the groceries by putting various items from the cart onto the conveyer belt. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I did something wrong. I think I accidentally put the groceries from the lady behind us onto the conveyer belt, thinking her cart was our cart. Anyway, all I vividly remember is that the cashier laughed at me and my Mom chuckled as she apologized to the cashier and the lady behind us.
At that moment, I was completely mortified. I felt stupid. I remember thinking I would never try to help do anything ever again, just because of one trivial mistake and those meaningless little chuckles. Feelings like that still surface in me sometimes. I’m so stubborn that way, so sensitive! If I make even the tiniest mistakes, I often get really embarrassed and irritated with myself. To make things worse, my innate fears of embarrassment and irritation occasionally give me reluctance to try new things. How do I stop instances like these from bothering me so much?!
Why Memories Stay With Us
I’ve learned that, when memories get stuck in our minds that way, they’re usually stuck because our unconscious chose them for some reason. According to Daniel J. Levitin in his book, The Organized Mind, we’re more likely to remember things that are unique and/or that inject us with some higher level of emotional stimulation (Levitin, 50). So, if you’re wondering why you have some weird, old memory, you probably have it because something within it was unique, or it made you react emotionally somehow. It’s quite possible, too, that this memory has affected you in some way ever since; It’s now part of who you are.
Figuring out how I’ve acquired the traits that make me who I am is important to me. Someday, I’d like to figure out the root of all of my sensitivities in an attempt to cultivate them. If we can identify the memories and experiences that are linked to certain associations, I think we can either mature those associations or change them completely, if necessary. This could be important in the fight against issues such as racism, bullying and violence. Once we identify where our negative associations come from, we can fix issues that arise from innate, evolutionary classifications. I’ll have more on that in my next article.
For now, I’m not sure if my minor grocery-store embarrassment qualifies as a memory that molded my sensitivity. It’s hard to tell if it truly stuck with me for that reason, but I know it is with me for some reason. I also know how sensitive I am, and that even minor experiences within memories like that have the potential to leave lasting imprints.
It is possible, of course, that what molded me the most happened before I was capable of remembering experiences. As I said earlier, our environmental factors have a tremendous effect on us throughout our lives; this is true especially when we are in the midst of developing our core evolutionary systems. No matter how it all really went down, I’m confident I will find out the answers for certain some day. For the moment, though, I’ll continue fighting my sensitivity by talking about and publishing my questions and opinions, despite the nagging internal fears.