In Defense of Sensitivity

I want to talk about sensitivity today. You might be thinking I’d rather talk about productivity. Or success. Or how to lose weight. Or how to make everyone like you.

But let’s talk about sensitivity anyway.

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When I talk about sensitivity, I literally mean a sensitivity to you inner and outer world. In the outer world, it means being more aware of other people and the world you live in. Internally, it means being able to be more finely attuned to your body sensations, thoughts, and feelings.

I’d like to make the argument that:

  1. Our society makes it hard to be sensitive.

  2. Cultivating your sensitivity is an extremely useful tool. Ever feel like “yeah, my life should be pretty good, but something doesn’t feel quite right?” Sensitivity can help with that.

1. Our society makes it hard to be sensitive.

I think the pace and demands of the modern world dampen our innate sensitivity — no matter who we are. There’s not time to be sensitive! We have work to do and friends to see and kids to take care of. Then we need to do the laundry, get a workout in, take a shower, do our hair, catch up on Instagram, and watch some YouTube videos.

We consciously — or more often, unconsciously — sense that if were more sensitive, it might slow us down. We might have too many thoughts and feelings at work to be as productive as we want to be, for example. It would push us off track, reduce our effectiveness!

This is not an unjustified fear. Being sensitive might, in fact, slow you down or push you off track sometimes. You might have more feelings and thoughts about your co-workers or the project you’re working on or the set-up of your cubicle than you had previously realized. And once you realize that you had these feelings or thoughts…you might begin to want to do something about them. This would slow you down even a bit more.

How annoying.

In our society, being called “sensitive” isn’t typically a compliment; it’s often the opposite. To be fair, I’m not saying that it’s not possible to be too sensitive. It is! But it’s also possible to be too hard working or too generous, for example. Most traits have positive and negative possibilities.

But sensitivity is often ranked far below being “hard working” or “friendly” or “smart,” in terms of ideal traits. And while being a hard-working, friendly, smart person is fantastic, I’ve also met many hard-working, friendly, smart people my coaching practice who were still struggling. For many of them, increasing their ability to be sensitive was actually a secret sauce in our process.

So let’s talk about sensitivity.

 

2. Why increasing your sensitivity, no matter who you are, can be an extremely useful tool. 

I often tell my coaching clients that we all need a compass and a steam engine. (Actually, I got this model from Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star, which I highly recommend).

Most of us, if we’re competent in the adult world, have well-developed steam engines. We know how to push through. We know how to get stuff done. And sometimes part of getting things done means turning down the volume on that voice inside of us that has thoughts and feelings and doubts and worries and observations.

Shhhhh….I’m on a deadline! Let’s just push through!
Shhhhh…I need to accomplish everything on my to-do list, so I can go home and do laundry and then catch a plane!  

Having your own personal steam engine is obviously very useful. But it isn’t enough. You could imagine a train huffing and puffing and powering off in random or useless directions, right? Or maybe it’s going in a direction that “other people” said was meaningful or useful or best, but that direction isn’t right for this train.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

It’s not good enough to have a strong, well-developed steam engine.
We all need compasses, too. It’s the compass that tells us the right direction to go in.

Have you ever held a real compass? I used to have one. If you held it in your hand, the arrow would wobble as it found its way to point north. If you moved your hand around or jostled it, it was even more wobbly.

Compasses are sensitive.

Real life compasses take in relatively simple inputs and tell you relatively simple information. E.g., all they tell you is what direction is North.

But your metaphorical, internal compass? That thing has got to be complex. It’s not just taking in information about “where is north?” and then telling it to you. It’s taking you all kinds of subtle things about the people you interact with, environments you live in, feelings, thoughts, and body sensations you have, and then it’s telling you everything you need to know about your career, your relationships, how you spend your days, what you like and don’t like, what is meaningful to you, and more.  

But to get that kind of information, you have to let a compass be what it is. And compasses are sensitive. Compasses speak in subtle voices, and many of us are out-of-practice at listening to them.

If you’ve lost connection with your compass, you may feel stuck or subtly frustrated with your life. You may feel like you aren’t quite going in the right direction, but you aren’t sure what direction you necessarily need to go in. Or maybe you have a sense of the direction, but you don’t know why you aren’t taking action.

Another sign of a weaker connection with a compass is that you may have unexplained feelings or do actions that don’t make sense to you. Why do I feel slightly anxious all the time? Why do I keep eating/going on the internet/buying things when I know it’s not good for me?

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, yeah, I could definitely use a stronger compass.  

But one way to start to cultivate that sensitive compass is just to notice how often you are in “steam engine mode.” How often are you huffing and puffing and pushing through? If you are in “steam engine mode” 100% of the time, can you build in some space for subtle voices to come up? Journaling can help with this. So can Doing Nothing.

Or, if you feel like your compass isn’t as strong as you’d like, but you aren’t sure how to fix it, may I suggest life coaching? I work with clients around the world over video conference, and locally in Los Angeles. Feel free to reach out.