The conference room felt obnoxiously small as I sat across the table from my boss, arms crossed defensively listening. I had asked him for a meeting to discuss a colleague who had been incredibly rude to me. He was obviously irritated that I had pushed for a meeting to discuss this, even after he had made it clear to me that he wouldn’t be speaking to my colleague about the rude behavior. I was hurt by his inaction, but what came next hurt so much more.
“I am not going to say anything to him,” he said. “In fact, I think it is you who has the problem. You need to toughen up if you are going to make it in this business. You can’t be so sensitive.”
These words took my breath away, and I felt fury growing inside of me. Suddenly, I was no longer a 40-year-old, highly accomplished woman. No, I was instantly transported back in time to me at nine years old, sitting on the couch of my childhood home, my face was hot and red with tears streaming endlessly down my cheeks. My chest heaved with each little sob that I tried to silence.
My abusive stepfather said something cruel and cutting, and it hurt me. I sat sobbing until my mother or stepfather asked me what was wrong.
“That was really mean, and it hurt my feelings when you said that,” I choked out between sobs.
Their response was always the same: “Oh, come on, stop being so sensitive.”
In these hurtful moments that happened all too often, I learned valuable lessons:
1. Only cry when I am in my room by myself and no one is around.
2. Don’t hold people accountable for their words or actions.
3. I am weak.
“Stop being so sensitive.” “You are always so sensitive.” “Why are you so emotional?”
“You need to grow a thicker skin.” “You need to toughen up.”
These are all things I have been told my entire life by friends, family, boyfriends, and bosses. For many years I believed all of these things, and I desperately tried to be the person everyone wanted me to be - the person who didn’t feel and didn’t react. Becoming this person - always trying to be less sensitive, less emotional, and tougher - made me cold and miserable. I found that when I cut off the emotions and feelings to hurtful situations, I cut off my feelings and emotions to everything - good and bad. I lived my life numb to everything and had little regard for the people I hurt. Besides, this is who I am supposed to be - tough and unfeeling. These were the most miserable years of my life. I felt least like who I was authentically meant to be because this wasn’t me.
“I used to dislike being sensitive. I thought it made me weak. But take away that single trait and you take away the very essence of who I am. You take away my conscience, my ability to empathize, my intuition, my creativity, my deep appreciation of the little things, my vivid inner life, my keen awareness for other’s pain and my passion for it all.” - Caitlin Japa.
My sensitivity, emotions, and feelings are what make me who I am. I feel things so deeply and so profoundly. My sensitivity isn’t a weakness, it’s my superpower. In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle says this about her daughter.
“Tish is sensitive, and that is her superpower. The opposite of sensitive is not brave. It’s not brave to refuse to pay attention, to refuse to notice, to refuse to feel and know and imagine. The opposite of sensitive is insensitive, and that’s no badge of honor.”
Accepting myself, just as I am, allowed me to become the best and most compassionate version of myself. In the years of struggling to be something I wasn’t, I learned a very valuable lesson - when someone tells me to stop being so sensitive, it is because they are uncomfortable with my emotions and feelings. They are uncomfortable because they don’t want to take responsibility for being hurtful. If they acknowledge that they are hurtful, or have done something hurtful, they must then change and do better and make things right. Instead, the ego protects them by putting the responsibility on the other person.
In the television show Louie, comedian Louis C.K. says, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”
I refuse to change my feelings because I make people uncomfortable. If I tell someone that they hurt me, an unacceptable response would be to tell me that it is my fault for feeling hurt. Think of it like this: I am driving along and look down for a moment and when I look up, I see a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I cannot stop in time, and I hit them. I didn’t mean to do it; It was an accident. An inappropriate response would be to get out of my car, look at them lying on the ground and say, “Come on, I didn’t mean to hit you. Stop being so sensitive.” Sounds absurd, right? Because it is. It is absurd to hurt someone physically or emotionally and blame them for being hurt.
Following the conversation with my boss, I resigned. I learned to get comfortable with tough conversations and making my boundaries known. If I find that I set boundaries, and people are not respectful of those, I remove myself from the situation. I no longer remain in relationships, friendships, workplaces, and environments that require me to sacrifice my feelings so that other people will be comfortable with their hurtful behavior.