In Defence of Sensitive Types

Musings

I want to talk about sensitivity—or, rather, more specifically, so-called “sensitive types”. Partly because I am one, and you know how I just love to talk about myself. (I’m clearly also a massive egotist.)

I’ve been a sensitive type—if not an egotist—for as long as I can remember. I can’t speak for us all, but I’d say that most of the time, it’s fine. We’re cool with it. We’ve accepted it, and got used to it. There are times, though, every now and then, when… well. I wish I didn’t, but I kind of wish I wasn’t. A sensitive type, I mean. After all, things would be a whole lot easier if I were, you know, “normal”. Just like everyone else.

Let me stop a sec and define what I mean by “sensitive”. This is by no means a complete definition, nor does it define what I’m like all the time. Simply put, sensitive means able to feel or perceive. In this sense, we’re all sensitive, to some degree or another. There are, however, certain traits that we tend to attribute to those deemed to be of a sensitive disposition, and they tend to carry rather negative connotations. For example, being a sensitive type, things “affect” you in ways they wouldn’t others. You take things “personally”. Social awkwardness is common among sensitive types. A callous remark—or even just a careless one—can be devastating. You overthink things, and go round and round in circles, which can lead to feelings of frustration or inadequacy, and, in turn, bouts of inactivity, or even mild depression.

We’re not always easy to recognise, us sensitive types, but we’re there. Hidden in plain sight. We’re the ones who stay quiet when someone’s telling a macho story, or a racist joke, and everyone else in the pub is guffawing loudly. We’re the ones who point out the beautiful autumnal colours while we’re out jogging—much to the bemusement of our buddies. And we’re the ones with tears in our eyes—tears we are desperately hoping won’t spill and fall for all to see—during the final scene of The Road, because the humanity of that scene is just too goddamn much to bear…

What makes things harder is that, broadly speaking, people don’t like sensitive types. Sensitive types are often mocked, dismissed as “soft”. They’re annoying. Weak. A hindrance in this hundred-miles-an-hour-world in which we all gotta win. Around sensitive types, you have to be… well, sensitive. I mean, who’s got time for that? We all have lives to live—we can’t be tip-toeing ‘round the whole time for fear of saying the wrong thing and upsetting someone.

A few years back, a parent came to see me after school, to talk about their son. He was a bright kid, but prone to calling out in an attempt to impress both his classmates and his teacher—something that’d led to him receiving a ticking off from yours truly. His mother told me that he’d been upset by this, as well as certain things the other children had said to him. I had no idea. She knew, she said, that he was “a bit sensitive” and didn’t know what to do about it; his father, on the other hand, had simply told him that he couldn’t get upset every time he got told off, and that basically he just needed to “grow a pair”.

When I heard this, I crumbled. It wasn’t my place to comment on someone else’s parenting, but it did make me want to take the kid to one side and say, “Hey. It’s okay, you know?” I wanted to tell him, “You are a sensitive type… and you know what? That’s cool.”

Because it is. Because there is an upside to being a sensitive type—in fact, there are dozens. For a start, there is a joy to it—a joy that you might only experience alone, but a joy nonetheless. It’s a joy that’s gained from being able to perceive the world’s beauty, in a myriad ways, both big and small. You see things—and hear things, smell things, and taste things, and feel things—that others may not. (Of course, that ability to perceive beauty is the same one that allows you to perceive pain and sadness, but hey. What’re you gonna do?)

Moreover, being sensitive is like having a super-power. It’s a gift. It gives you greater empathy, and, in turn, enables you to support those yet to recognise their gift. With the kids I teach, I usually try to encourage them into channelling their sensitivity into something creative and/or physical. I also encourage them to just appreciate their ability to feel and perceive things that others don’t, as a means of bringing themselves some joy, and, by extension, to those around them too.

Mostly, though, I try to be someone they can talk to. Another obvious one, but having someone to talk to is important for a number of reasons. As much as we sensitive types like to be on our own, there are times when we need to externalise the thoughts swirling around our heads, and share them with someone we trust. Sometimes, by just speaking them out loud, we realise that… shit, yeah. We were just being a bit sensitive, and that it’s really not that big a deal. Other times we just need to know we’re not crazy, and that other people see things the same way. And, occasionally, we need to be told to just “grow a pair”.

I’m just kidding.

Look. It’s a big, scary world out there, but it’s a beautiful one too. No, you can’t go pussyfooting around all the time, staring up at the sky, burying your head in a book, or worrying about whether you’re going to upset someone—nor can you wrap your kids in cotton wool and protect them from all the meanness and cruelty in the world. But you can keep an eye out for the sensitive types, listen to them, and nurture their super-powers. Because we need them—right now, more than ever.