“Whatever,” I say often. “I’m easy.” The daughter of a sensitive, smart, strung-too-tight mother, I have surrounded myself with sensitive, smart, irascible friends; a sensitive, smart, irascible husband; and a sensitive, smart dog who is sweet but high-strung. I am thrilled by the acuity of their perceptions, eased by the knowledge that they will understand just about anything I throw at them. But they care more about everything, and I would rather let them choose than wind up annoying them.
People with a finely tuned nervous system feel the subtleties of every stimulus, search their souls at the slightest provocation, ache with the whole suffering world. Their criticisms tend to be accurate, pinpointing problems I would rather not see. Too often, I have secretly dismissed some sensitive soul’s upset as paranoid or histrionic, only to realize later that they simply noticed what was happening earlier than I did. They perceive more, experience more. And by the time I have a framework in which their warnings make sense, they have flown on to the next coal mine.
• • •
“Why is the U.S. becoming so sensitive?” pops up as a regular Google question. Clearly, the country is defining sensitivity differently than I do. The blame is then variously assigned to media, political correctness, identity politics, too much information about news we cannot control, snowflake college students triggered by any provocative opinion not their own. “The fascists have become sensitive,” one commenter writes, “not the common sense decent Americans.”
Since Columbus, this country has defined sensitivity only as a vulnerability to adversity. “Don’t be so sensitive,” we urge one another.
One of the few points of agreement left to us is that our whole culture is “oversensitive” now—that favorite castigation—though in different directions, canceling and banning and vilifying. We are miserable about it, here in this land that lauds bold and fearless action. The settlers (as opposed to the residents who felt no need to “settle”) girded themselves to subdue their “savage” predecessors, kill buffalo and wolves, enslave Africans.
The sensitive stayed home.
Soon it was a mark of rugged Americanism to mock sensitivity in all its forms. In men, it read as the first sign of homosexuality—witness the ineradicable scenes in The Power of the Dog—or at best as an effete, mannered European trait useless for taming a wilderness.
Since Columbus, this country has defined sensitivity only as a vulnerability to adversity. “Don’t be so sensitive,” we urge one another. We like our movies fast and action-packed, scary and violent; our sex raw and anatomical, devoid of subtlety; our political discourse coarse and childish, hurling insults instead of subtle wit. Iconic American foods are greasy, salty, or oversweet. Our music is rock ’n’ roll, amped loud and performed with flashing lights. Articles with titles like “Here’s Everything Researchers Know About High Sensitivity” are—short.
We (and, sadly, I include myself) reject the hunches and complaints of the extremely sensitive with a vehemence, a flat-out annoyance, that is as disproportionate as their sensitivity. For some reason, rather than feel grateful to the canaries, we need to belittle their apprehension of what we have failed to perceive.
• • •
A “blooming and buzzing confusion”—that is life, both around you and inside you. William James used the phrase to remind us that an infant’s world is a chaos of pure sensation. Gradually, we learn to organize those sensations. Nerves zap the world’s data into our bodies, which send back their own signals, the heart warmed by some tender sight, the muscles tensed by ice underfoot, the breath eased by soft music or gasping at a sudden yell, gut knotted with fear and then collapsing, embarrassed, because a five-year-old neighbor is only playing Tarzan.
What we perceive, how we feel, what we think, how we respond—it all gets muddled together as we react to our own reactions. It is not a stretch to say that highly sensitive people are more conscious, more sentient. They experience those perceptions with more intense awareness.
I crave sensation—Arctic-blast blizzards, blazing color, spicy food—but my mother needed none of that; she liked light classical music, a clean house, an ordered routine. Her feelings were easily hurt. She loved hugs and kisses, but the thought of receiving a massage appalled her; stress gave her migraines. There were days I longed to zip her into a Kevlar suit.
History repeats itself: the sensitive people I love are the kindest, gentlest, most thoughtful people I know. And I need more suits.
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot reminded us. Either we feel all of it, all the time, or we learn to put up temporary walls.
Except—if I am the one upset by their upset, wouldn’t that mean I am the one who is problematically oversensitive? I run down the checklist in Elaine Aron’s now classic text, The Highly Sensitive Person. Awake all night after a few sips of coffee, instantly aware of people’s moods, easily frazzled but otherwise phlegmatic, I come in just under her HSP bracket. Who knows who I would have been if I had not tried so hard to toughen up? Ten years at an alt newsweekly will turn a baby’s soft bottom into rhinoceros hide….
I cite that job because it sounds cooler than the truth, which is that I learned as a child to push past sensitivity whenever possible. I had only my mom as family, and if we were both hypersensitive, we would not do much living.
In my junior year of college, she took me to Jamaica. It was our third vacation ever; all I remembered of the first was spinning in a teacup, and the second was Fort Lauderdale, the tamest spring break a kid ever had. So I was over the moon, soaking in everything I saw, from the gleam of the resort to the shanties along the road. Stricken by that poverty, my mom could not enjoy our “self-contained resort” (an obnoxious and revealing designation). I refused to let conscience touch our precious trip. Though I spewed a lot of juvenile nonsense about how our tourism was helping the Jamaicans, really I was just desperate for her to let compassion slide; ignore the pain at the margins; be as self-contained as our resort.
It is an act of pure selfishness to shut down sensitivity that disturbs you—yet to this day I cannot make myself regret it. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot reminded us. Either we feel all of it, all the time, or we learn to put up temporary walls. And now I realize the irony at work: it was my mother’s sensitivity that allowed me to build those walls. She had been so attuned to my childhood distresses, so quick to notice and do whatever she could to soften sadness or help me understand the world’s weird cruelties, that I was able to relax. The world might spew pollen or hatred, but mainly, I was safe.
• • •
An artist who feels and paints the subtlest emotional nuances. A monk who hears truth in silence. An animal handler who can read intent and mood from a tightening of neck muscles, a darkening of the eyes. A premenstrual woman sobbing because her husband bought 2 percent milk instead of whole and she thinks that means he wants her to diet. An author who gets a few bad reviews and never writes another book.
Subtleties in the environment can be observed; nuance can be grasped. These are the people who can counsel, teach, coach, observe, advance science, make art.
Could all this boil down to the same phenomenon? Could sensitivities to gluten and pollen and snowflakes and heartbreak and caffeine and clanging pipes and political tension and being rushed or rejected all have the same source? Some researchers reach for an umbrella term: “environmental sensitivity” or “sensory processing sensitivity.” What they mean is that the brain of the highly sensitive works a little differently, reacts more strongly to its environment and is easily overwhelmed or irritated as a result. Along with those inconveniences comes an ability to discriminate among delicate scents, tastes, sounds, and works of art; a rich and complex inner life, keen imagination, vivid dreams; a capacity for empathy.
The more sensitive someone is, the better they grasp other people’s thoughts, feelings, worries, needs. Sensitivity feeds creativity and nurtures a deep appreciation for beauty. Subtleties in the environment can be observed; nuance can be grasped. These are the people who can counsel, teach, coach, observe, advance science, make art.
We all possess some measure of sensitivity, and it penetrates in different places, to different degrees. That makes for wild inconsistencies and paradoxes, ticklish spots and calluses.
Years ago, we had a highly strung dog who hated loud noises, traffic, and crowds—but for a Ted Drewes concrete, she would stand in a sweaty line for an hour, obedient as a police K-9. My husband loathes loud noises, traffic, and crowds—yet his favorite place to go is a loud, crowded, geeky Comicon convention. Pleasure overrides sensitivity.
This is why, when a fussy foodie quibbles about some inconsistency, the wisest restaurateurs send out a taste of something wonderful, and the complaints melt. Why, though? Does sensitivity imply that you are being attacked or betrayed by your surroundings, and is pleasure a way to restore equilibrium?
• • •
Our brains are squishy gray media players equipped with two systems, one that pauses and another that activates. Sensitivity presses the pause button again and again, as the brain processes all the incoming stimuli. In our speed-crazed culture, this looks like hesitation, which looks like timidity, which we label shyness. The euphemism is “reserved”; I know because my grade-school teachers wrote it so often, in the blank where you were supposed to praise a child’s sociability.
It took decades for me to decode myself, realizing that in small groups or with friends, I was not shy at all, and while I might be timid in gym class, I craved adventures of other sorts. Aron explains that it is possible for both systems to be strong, in which case you wind up both curious and cautious, easily bored and easily over-aroused. (If only the pause system is strong, you are far more content with a quiet, simple life.)
Lest we feel fancy, even fruit flies have the same modes: when looking for food, some are “sitters” and some are “rovers.” The rovers use high motor activity, flitting around hunting. The sitters “have more elaborate neural networks,” suggesting that they use their pause to process the environment. It helps to have about one-fifth of your species doing that sort of reflection while the others fly into action, responding quickly to opportunities.
The euphemism is “reserved”; I know because my grade-school teachers wrote it so often, in the blank where you were supposed to praise a child’s sociability.
In humans, whether we talk about sensory processing sensitivity or a biological sensitivity to context or environmental sensitivity or emotional sensitivity, it all comes down to the fruit fly’s pause. Highly sensitive study participants whose action is punished will pause longer afterward—and learn more from the experience. I see this in my husband and friends: they take negative experiences on board and do not repeat them.
Sometimes I like to try again, just to see if I get away with it this time.
That is a quirk of personality, and personality takes much of its shape from our profile of sensitivity. We tend to describe individuals in other species as being shy or bold, aggressive or nonaggressive, and again, it is sensitivity that sets those measures. How responsive that animal is, how reactive, how flexible, how likely to pause and process rather than act on instinct—all those traits connect back to sensitivity.
On a dog show, I watched Claire, the Scottish deerhound, glance at her handler as they began their lope around the ring, and I saw it: attunement, flashing intelligence, awareness, and receptivity across the species barrier. I whooped when she won Best in Show—with physical grace, yes, and conformity to breed standards, but I like to think that sensitivity to her human partner was what nudged her to the top.
Animals do not fight sensitivity; they use it. Predators can be sensed faster, the pack alerted. But “high sensitivity is not adapted by all organisms within a given species because it has cognitive and physiological costs,” notes one of Aron’s studies. That viral YouTube video of a black-and-white rabbit lying on his back, languorous and blissed, in a sink, letting warm water run onto his tummy while his person soaps him? That bunny does not suffer from an excess of sensitivity. He enjoys sensory pleasures with the assurance of a wealthy man sinking into the hot tub at his club.
I prefer highly sensitive dogs because they are so easy to communicate with, so quick to respond. But it has taken me years to lighten my touch, slow my hand, soften my voice even in reprimand. Often I learned by accident, stumbling into whispered babytalk compliments as a way to soothe a rescued pup or stilling my anxious-to-soothe hand until it only rested, warm but light, on a restless dog’s back. Stroking only from the neck down, not thumping the top of his head. Snuggling close, side by side, instead of squeezing him in a human-style hug. The more sensitive my voice and touch, the faster the dog settled into ease.
Practicing required as much patience as tantric sex—and was nearly as much fun.
• • •
Almost half—47 percent—of the differences in highly sensitive people are there when they emerge from the womb, extra shocked by the bright lights and loud chatter. Even in the womb, some fetuses have a stronger response to sounds and to their mother’s stresses. Highly sensitive infants cry more often, get more upset, and take longer to recover; they are more easily overstimulated, more frightened of strangers or unfamiliar situations, more cautious about new tastes or textures, new people or environments. These are not “easy” babies—and they grow up knowing that. As kids they may be branded “difficult,” maybe even “obstinate” or “oppositional,” because they refuse to wear certain clothes (the rough fabric feels like sandpaper), or have their hair brushed (a form of torture), or eat slippery asparagus.
Just being plunked into the wrong setting, a job or school that is a lousy fit can heighten sensitivity, while the right setting can ease it back to manageability.
These differences are innate. Weary parents have to remind themselves that their baby is not deciding to be petulant; their little girl is not scheming to keep her hair tangled; sensitivity is not weakness, cowardice, or prissy self-indulgence. At least we now have physiological proof: sensitive infants have higher levels of norepinephrine, which is both a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter, speeding brain signals to increase alertness, arousal, and reaction time. The brains of cheerfully outgoing babies show more activity in the left region of the frontal cortex. Boldly curious babies have a long form of the D4DR dopamine receptor.
That said, more than half—53 percent—of the differences in highly sensitive people come from their interactions with the world. Slight sensitivities can be amplified if they are not met with gentle understanding. Rear a sensitive child in a tough, mocking, or even just mildly indifferent environment, and they will crumple into neurosis. But recent research also shows that sensitivity can magnify how a child reacts to a good environment, their talents and abilities popping like fireworks. When you are sensitive, any experience has more impact, so both good and bad experiences are extra potent. Just being plunked into the wrong setting, a job or school that is a lousy fit can heighten sensitivity, while the right setting can ease it back to manageability. Trauma can jack up sensitivity at any age. Contentment can turn it into a superpower.
Psychologists call this “goodness of fit” and say it does more to shape our temperament than our genes do. Highly sensitive kids are well-adjusted when their environment makes room for the trait. But if parents, siblings, and schoolmates ridicule a child’s need for quiet or gentleness, that child is more likely to grow up anxious, insecure, depressed, and what we have always called “shy”—which really means slow to participate, because they need to think through a new situation.
On one side of the scale: a dark tangle of metal strips, their edges sharp and raw—all the suffering that could have been avoided if our culture understood more about sensitivity. On the other side: the single, glowing realization that a good fit can come at any point of life, allowing someone to blossom late, find a new ease, fall in love with a world that once seemed hostile.
• • •
When I hike with a sensitive friend, she often suggests a better day, time, or route, taking care to check the weather and the trail map so we can avoid getting mired in slick mud, lost after sundown, or snake bitten. Sometimes I venture out alone, exhilarated by spontaneity—and get lost or bitten and come home caked in mud, ankles throbbing. Freedom!
I once dragged another sensitive friend through a cold London rain, hunting for Claridge’s to have afternoon tea. “I’ll get a cold on my stomach,” she warned.
It is easy to stay calm when you have no empathy.
“That’s just folklore,” I retorted. We finally found the hotel, and I tucked into tiers of cucumber sandwiches and petits fours, and my friend scurried to the loo.
The insensitive can be cruel.
They can also be relaxing. My dalliance with a sociopath was delightful (until I learned of his criminal record) because he was so easygoing, took everything in stride. “If something isn’t a catastrophe,” he used to say, “it’s just an inconvenience.”
It is easy to stay calm when you have no empathy.
For the rest of us, oblivion is a risk. I can make my peace with much that is wrong, flawed, less than ideal in my surroundings, burrowing into some tolerable, deluded niche with leaves piled on my head for camo. Only when I am jarred awake do I feel the world’s assaults sharply again. Returning from pure, sparkling clean Newfoundland, I realized with naïve shock just how filthy our air and water were. Returning from eight days on an island, I heard commercials that would have amused me a week earlier and snapped off the radio, unable to tolerate the greedy blare of Buy! Buy! Buy!
You cannot think critically about the world if you tune it out too often. But it is hard to be content if you see it all too clearly.
• • •
A former coworker, a poet by vocation, talked about rust in the office tap water a week before it gushed out brown; she often raged about some instance of social injustice or suspected corporate corruption long before an exposé proved it. Sometimes her antennae were so finely tuned, she picked up more than was there; often, she suffered more than she needed to. But I was humbled to realize how often she was right about something I was inclined to brush aside. I had a weird urge to sweep all the stress from her life, protect that sensitivity and find out what it could tell us.
She was a prophet in a land that rarely cared to listen, instead dismissing her as “oversensitive.” In English, the word is defined as “too easily bothered, upset, offended, etc.” Its most benign meaning is “reacting to stimuli too readily.” But an online thesaurus lists as synonyms: touchy, emotional, prickly, hypersensitive, vulnerable, thin-skinned, irritable, irascible, temperamental, petulant, easily offended, testy, querulous, snappy, peevish, tetchy, tense, fractious, uptight, grumpy, melodramatic, mercurial, edgy, high-strung, defensive, neurotic, excitable….
Poets are often oversensitive; so are activists. Those on the right dismissed climate activist Greta Thunberg as “deeply disturbed.” She is not, but she does have Asperger’s syndrome, meaning that she is brilliant in many ways, but her nervous system is easily overstimulated. How do you separate a condition on the autism spectrum from extreme sensitivity? The heightened sensory reactivity overlaps, as does the need to withdraw from large, overstimulating, or chaotic situations. But people with more severe autism often avoid social situations because they cannot decode them, while those who are highly sensitive are unusually skilled at reading people’s moods and meanings, connecting, and empathizing.
Years ago, after reading lurid biographies of saints who suffered in ways we would now locate on an axis of psychiatric diagnosis, I decided that the prerequisite of sainthood must be an openness to reality so raw, it could temporarily destroy one’s equilibrium.
All that awareness opens the sensitive to the very real possibility of being overwhelmed or swallowed up by all that is wrong with the world around them. Sensitivity does not allow people to avoid pain, ignore suffering, or bulldoze their way through slights and irritations. After living long enough in a world that does not fit them, they often either rage or withdraw, tired of fighting for balance when what they perceive most intensely looms so large. There is an honesty to their stance, a refusal (or inability) to pretend all is well. Darkness opens up so readily that they cannot even imagine ignoring it.
Perhaps because they are used to being flooded with sensations, the highly sensitive surprise me with their tenacity, and because they give everything they experience so much thought, they are strikingly sure of their opinions, saved from dogmatism only by their acute awareness of others’ thoughts and feelings.
Years ago, after reading lurid biographies of saints who suffered in ways we would now locate on an axis of psychiatric diagnosis, I decided that the prerequisite of sainthood must be an openness to reality so raw, it could temporarily destroy one’s equilibrium. The saints, too, we would label “oversensitive.”
In Western literature, these are the characters who either go mad or die. Often they are cast as physically frail, and if White, they are pale. Emotion overcomes them; life overwhelms. Even at ten, I knew Little Women’s Beth was doomed. And just this year, I worried early about the little boy in Richard Powers’ haunting environmental fable, Bewilderment (if you have not read it yet, skip ahead two paragraphs) because he was a sensitive, intense nine-year-old grappling with the immense frustration of human stupidity and environmental destruction. How could that possibly end well?
Too often, those with high sensitivity seem to feel less ease and less joy, because they are so acutely aware of all that is wrong and feel so responsible for fixing it. “Lighten up,” I want to tell them. “Chill.”
But what good is a chilled saint?
• • •
Outcomes of madness and death are not always exaggerations. A young Sylvia Plath wrote to a friend, “If only I wasn’t so easily hurt and so darn sensitive!” Virginia Woolf’s family pronounced her delicate, oversensitive, and intensely nervous. Is it possible for a nervous system to be that alive and not be nervous? Can you be highly sensitive and not be anxious? That would be a trick worth learning.
“Virginia was of course aware, well before she met Leonard, of the extent to which she had difficulty in dealing with the physical world,” writes biographer Peter Alexander. She transmuted that sensitivity into literature, describing life’s important moments as determined by “a shock-receiving capacity” and describing how “the mind, exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.”
Woolf’s heightened sensibility also shows us what a patchwork the trait can be. Hers was an extreme sensitivity to all that surrounded her—the art, the ideas, the air itself. Though she captured people brilliantly, it was from a distance; her descriptions are clear-eyed and sharp-tongued, sometimes bigoted by today’s standards, closer to caricature than to empathy. Perhaps the coolness was a defense, or a reprisal because she was so seldom understood herself? Often, the world was too much for her, and she withdrew in exhaustion. “I do not love my kind” at such times, she admitted in her journal. “I detest them. I pass them by. I let them break on me like dirty rain drops.” When jangled or over-stimulated, she would “dandle” her brain, staying in bed for weeks on end.
Virginia Woolf’s family pronounced her delicate, oversensitive, and intensely nervous. Is it possible for a nervous system to be that alive and not be nervous?
How do we tease apart her mental illness and her sensitivity? Were her nerves too finely tuned, stretched so taut that it was easy for them to snap and need re-stringing? The consensus is that only Leonard’s steadying presence, coupled with the cleansing fire that writing lit inside her, kept her alive until age fifty-eight.
Would Woolf’s fear of madness have pushed her to suicide if she were less acutely sensitive, less worried about hurting her husband or disillusioning those who loved her work? Would her work have been less fine?
• • •
My mother was taken with Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher who, like her, was slender, fine-featured, and soft-voiced, prone to fierce headaches, tenacious and fragile at once. He drank no alcohol and dined on veggies, and when she urged me to read his books, I sighed. Krishnamurti spoke of keeping the mind sensitive, cleansing it of memory and thought and starting fresh every morning, free of conditioning. I could see how this approach would help her; she had gathered so many hurts along the way. But I liked memories, even the bad ones, and the idea of starting over every morning gave me vertigo. Nothing to build on? No way to stitch the present to the past?
He argued that the past was our problem; it biased all our reasoning and kept us from being free. That is fine for a mystic to say, but I needed all the ragtag insights I gathered along the way.
Anyway, she lent me her Krishnamurti books, a few more each year, and I scooped up the rest after she died. Now, thinking about sensitivity, I dig them out. She has noted important page numbers on bookmarks, and I look them up eagerly, finding tiny, neat dots in the margins, nothing like my hasty, lopsided stars and squiggles and underscores. This was a woman who kept her tennis shoes so sparkling white, I pronounced them uncool. Dirt and disorder unnerved her.
I come to a bookmark of folded paper, the page numbers typed and two of them underscored. “P. 232 excellent,” I read—and then it hits. She listed these page numbers for me. She had said, lightly, when she gave me the books, “I want to know what you think”—but I had stacked them up unread.
Sensitive people are destined to be hurt, I decide (groping for a way to forgive myself). The rest of us cannot be counted on to pick up on their needs or avoid causing them pain, because they are sensitive, and we are not.
Or is that just an excuse?
• • •
Carl Jung thought seriously about sensitivity long before it was a topic in his profession. Rejecting Freud’s notion that neurosis sprang from a child’s experiences of sexuality, Jung blamed an interaction between childhood trauma and a highly sensitive temperament. Sensitivity predisposed some children to be more deeply scarred by negative experiences, he suggested; others might have the same experience and emerge unscathed.
My mom was “the sensitive one” of seven kids, their mother sturdy and brusque, their father withdrawn. My aunts and uncles came to terms with those dynamics, enjoying the big-family roughhousing and rolling their eyes abut parental quirks. But my mom used to beg her dad to kiss her mom, and eighty years after her siblings shoved her into a deep bureau drawer, the memory still made her shudder.
I envisioned hours trapped in that drawer, a gothic cruelty. Now I wonder if it might have been just a few terrifying seconds. Sensitivity magnifies. A friend was so bitterly, chronically angry at her brother for decades that I began to wonder if he had sexually abused her, especially after I saw a checklist and she had nearly every symptom. When I tentatively brought this up, she admitted that she, too, had wondered; maybe something did happen and she had blocked it out? But as I watched her react to the rest of life, I saw that the slightest annoyance hit her with tornadic force. Exquisitely sensitive, growing up in a typically casual, well-off suburban family with a stoic, preoccupied mother, a workaholic father, and lots of teasing, she had few instances of someone noticing, appreciating, honoring her feelings. Suppressed, they loomed large, and she lost all sense of proportion.
There is another cross-cultural layer, though: the more sensitive an individual is, the less likely they are to conform automatically to cultural norms.
Jung saw sensitivity as fertile ground for neurosis, but he also linked the trait to intelligence, charm, and an enrichment of the personality. Only unusual stresses could turn sensitivity into a disadvantage, he wrote, and even then, it would be a mistake “to regard this excessive sensitiveness as in itself a pathological character component. If that were really so, we should have to rate about one-quarter of humanity as pathological.”
A solid century ago, without benefit of research data, he had nailed the percentage. Today, Aron estimates 20 percent of the U.S. population to be highly sensitive. Writing of the U.K. population, psychologist Michael Pluess raises that to 30 percent. Cultural prevalence might vary—or cultural attitudes might make sensitivity easier or harder to admit.
In China, Arons notes, sensitive children are sought after as playmates. In Mandarin, the word for “shy” means good or well-behaved, and “sensitive” translates as “having understanding.”
Japan, too, has a culture in which sensitivity is highly valued. And one need only compare India’s Kama Sutra to American porn to see the difference.
There is another cross-cultural layer, though: the more sensitive an individual is, the less likely they are to conform automatically to cultural norms. Research suggests that those who are inclined to pause and process stimuli more deeply are less influenced by their own cultural context.
Maybe harking back to what we believe to be essentially “American” means less to some of us. Maybe that explains a bit about contemporary politics.
• • •
In the 1866 Complete Herbalist, oversensitivity is said to put the nervous system into “a state of feebleness or irritation.” The 1879 edition of Materia Medica describes an oversensitive patient as someone who “cannot bear light or noise; buzzing in the ears; will not be touched or uncovered. Mood peevish, irritable, malicious; or sad, desponding.” In George Miller Beard’s 1881 article on “American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences,” urban noise catches a lot of blame. The rhythmic, gently varying sounds of nature soothe us, Beard wrote, but the startling or staccato noises of industry, along with its fast pace, unsettle us. Cities now had “an unintermittent vibration in the air that is more or less disagreeable to all.”
Imagine if Beard heard our soundscape or had to keep our schedule. A friend used to do a wicked imitation of me declining an invitation by rattling off everything I had to do. A simple no would have sufficed—but it was cathartic, though, venting my near perpetual state of overwhelm. Today, that state is so common that the word has been elevated from adjective to noun. Too much stimulus, we wail—yet how fully are we living, plopped in a chair staring at a screen while things buzz and flash at us?
Siloed, shielded, remote, we no longer have to deal with each other as directly or as frequently. One of sensitivity’s least acknowledged contributions to culture is ethics, born of empathy.
Paradoxically, I suspect we are starved for sensation, which may be why we are more interested than ever in food and why we willingly work up a chain gang sweat at the gym. We have buffered our lives, keeping our indoor temperature at seventy degrees year-round, moving from home to an air-conditioned car with heated seats, walking down city streets with earphones shutting out the chatter and engine noise, interacting on screens that eliminate human contact.
Has blunting the world around us let sensitivity erode? Siloed, shielded, remote, we no longer have to deal with each other as directly or as frequently. One of sensitivity’s least acknowledged contributions to culture is ethics, born of empathy. It is hard to know how to treat others when you are not attuned to their feelings; hard to know how to act when you fail to observe the subtle consequences of your own actions.
• • •
There is, it must be said, a persnickety aspect to sensitivity. When I married, I had to learn not to sprinkle red pepper into every recipe, dump whiskey in the eggnog, blast James Brown while I cleaned, and fill the house with the fumes of my beloved oil-based paint. Sometimes I rolled my eyes. But being the irritant is still easier than being the sensitive one.
Plagued by a chronic stiff neck and on assignment in a remote rural area, I begged a gawky desk clerk for a softer pillow. The photographer I was traveling with had grown up in New York, and she summoned a heavy Lower East Side accent to announce, “She’s very sen-si-tive.”
Invariably, we are hardest—how I wish I had never learned this—on those who freely express what we have tried to banish in ourselves.
We broke up laughing once out of earshot, but I hated that it was true. I did not want to be that person. I was the one who brushed off trivial discomforts, not the bitchy complainer. Still, pain can turn you into a princess. With my body tensed against anything that could trigger misery, I began to understand how it feels to know the world lies in wait to attack you.
A woman of wealth and reputation once granted me an interview on the condition that I shower first, wash my hair with unscented shampoo, launder my clothes in unscented detergent, and show up wearing no makeup or perfume. The hotel employee who fetched me from the lobby leaned close and sniffed, ordered to make sure. Chemical sensitivity is real, I told myself, while an imp on one shoulder snapped that this was a bit much. You avoid hanging out in the houses of people who have cats, the angel on the other shoulder pointed out. How is this any different?
Sensitivity annoys me when it seems like an effort to censor the world, to control what it offers us. Stay home to avoid a crowd or a wait in line, brushing against others of one’s own species who have gathered to experience the same joy? Avoid dining al fresco just because the air might turn chilly or a gnat might fly over the soup? The wind and the bugs belong to the universe just as surely as we do.
When I am most annoyed by sensitivity, though, it is because I have stifled this trait in myself. Invariably, we are hardest—how I wish I had never learned this—on those who freely express what we have tried to banish in ourselves.
That might explain the larger culture, too. Not only did the toughest personalities brave the ocean to face the unknown, but once here, sensitivity would have seemed an Old World luxury. Even now, in the ongoing fight to survive a competitive capitalist economy, its uses are often too subtle to register. And its insights remind us of all we would rather not face.