How many of you have heard those words directed at you, from someone who is supposedly close to you? A parent? A sibling? A Bestie? A life partner?
I’ve heard that a lot from my immediate and extended family, and from lovers and friends too. And all it means is that…”You need to grow a thicker skin,” as my mother would say, when I sat crying over some stabbing remark from a school bully, or a school chum, or a teacher.
A thicker skin, so that their barbs would not penetrate my naked soul.
My excellent psychiatrist reminds me often: “Some people have sensitive stomachs. Some people have sensitive lungs. And some people have sensitive brains.”
For what is mental illness but an extra-sensitivity of the brain?
We perceive so sharply, we feel so deeply, that at times it drives us over the edge, becomes intolerable. Sometimes we see things other people can’t see, hear things other people can’t hear. Does this mean those things don’t exist? Or are they scenes and voices of the Other Side of the Curtain that usually separates our present consciousness from what is, in some philosophies, said to be an alternative plane of existence that parallels ours.
Jewish oral tradition teaches that there are many such parallel universes, and that there is a thick curtain that divides our world from theirs. On the other side of the curtain are angels, demons, creatures that we have no way of understanding. If that curtain were to weaken so that human beings could perceive what was on the other side, we would instantly go mad, because our brains have no tools for integrating such phenomena, which are completely outside our human capacities.
What if a person’s brain was so sensitive that the curtain, for them, became thin, and they could perceive a tiny bit of what lies behind it? What if, seeing that this person was so sensitive, beings from the other side were able to see him also? A collision of worlds would ensue. The deafening pounding on the Doors of Perception (Huxley) would be intolerable, and might cause what we call illness, madness, insanity.
Even in the absence of such a foray into the mystical, a sensitive brain will perceive subtle nuances that others will not even notice: a tone of voice, a disdainful glance, a rolling of the eyes, a certain walk and posture–all of these have meaning, but not all of us are aware.
Some of our brains are sensitive to the weather. My mood changes if a cloud briefly covers the sun. Some are bothered by the cold, others by heat.
Our sensitivity to our own feelings extends into the social realm, especially. Some of us feel unstable and panicky when alone, and comforted in the bosom of friends and family. Some are exactly the opposite. For instance, the first thing I do when going to a club or restaurant when I’m with other people is to identify the rear exit, in case I need to make a quick escape. I can deal with people one-on-one if they interest me, but if I find nothing to grab onto I will start feeling desperate to get away within a short time. Likewise with parties, I have made a deal with myself that I will stay for one hour, no more, and sometimes less if the people are too loud for my brain, literally or figuratively.
Sensitive people are the pioneers, the innovators, because “out of the box” is our middle name. We don’t have to force new ideas out of our brains. Our brains teem with innovations, inventions, revelations of the intimate structure of existence. Our main challenge is to put those new concepts into action, because our brains are not always gifted with marketing skills. Some, like Steve Jobs, are brilliant promotors of their products: I believe one has to have a certain measure of grandiosity to take an idea out of its cradle and present it to the world in a package that is easily understood, a package that fills a void in some way.
For some of us, our extra-sensitivity is nothing but painful. It is too invasive. It disrupts every aspect of our lives. We cannot function with it. But neither can we get away from it, shed it like some extra (thin) skin, because we were born this way. At best, we can learn to manage it, often with the aid of medicines and therapy. At worst, it kills us.
If given a chance, would I give up my sensitivity? No. But I would modify it in the Jobs direction, except without the volatile and sometimes unpleasant temperament. That might be too much to ask, but if given the chance, why not go all out?
Then, would people still say, “You’re too sensitive?” I doubt it, because “success” makes other people smile and nod and want to get close to you. The smell of success is sweet.
But if, like me, your sensitivity has been too much, and success in the accepted sense of the world has slipped away, then once again one is liable to hear the old refrain:
“You’re too sensitive.”