Why is sensitivity still seen as a weakness?

I want to help change the story of sensitivity. To change a story, you need to understand it and know where it comes from. 

So where does the idea that sensitivity is bad come from? What are its roots? I think it’s important to begin with what we understand by sensitivity. 

Robin Skeates, in his paper Making Sense of World Art: An Archaeological Perspective, starts by defining ‘sense’, the first part of the word sensitivity, as ‘bodily sensation, apprehended through the sense organs’; and, on the other hand, as mental insight, as in ‘making sense’. Seems simple enough, right? 

But we have made the word sensitive quite complicated. We have loaded it with negative associations. We use it as a veiled and not-so-veiled insult: ‘I think you are being too sensitive’ really means, ‘You are bothering me with your feelings.’

Once someone accuses you of being too sensitive, it is likely you will start thinking of it as a personal fault. A commonly used term is ‘snowflake’, often directed at millennials. There are more archaic insults in our language, such as wuss, milksop, and crybaby – I am sure that you can pepper that list with your own.

Societal mores have hooked a load of baggage onto sensitivity. It’s like an overloaded camel given no water and told to make it across the desert – the odds are not stacked in its favour. 

When we say someone is sensitive or being sensitive, we often mean we do not think they have what it takes to complete a task, that their emotions get in the way of achieving. But to reference back to Skeates’s definition, sensitivity is quite simple, unencumbered by value – bodily sensation and mental insight. Seems simple enough, and yet it really isn’t. 

We do not treat the trait as something simple, we treat it as something weak. Something is wrong in the maths of its story. The story of sensitivity within our current culture is one of shame: sensitivity dresses in shame, eats shame, sleeps in a bed of shame. And I am just not sure why it is that way. If that is right. And who that negative association is useful to. There has got to be a better way of framing it, right?

Of the hundreds of strangers who get in touch with me, most want to tell me that they had been told by their parents or carers that their sensitivity was a problem, that it equated to weakness and was something that needed to be educated out of them. Often we are formed by the stories we grow up around, as well as what is considered socially acceptable for our variables – gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ableism.

I am driven in my book by my own experience. I am a white straight woman living in the West. And there will be people with different variables and cultures who will have different, possibly more challenging, stories to tell.

From the moment we are born, we encounter information that informs our idea about who we are and the world that we live in. By the time a child is about eight years old, they have a template idea of their own traits and personality, and whether they feel like a valuable person – they have developed some idea of individual value. 

Parents and caregivers significantly influence a child’s self-worth; idea of self then informs the child’s academic and social behaviour. Children learn the world through information they are given, which they relate to themselves, forming ideas such as ‘I am brave/sensitive/funny’. 

We gather that information from birth, and as we grow, we collect autobiographical information and arrive as our jumbled adult selves with a story about our own skills and nature. 

We use those stories to make sense of ourselves, our daily lives and our place in the world.

Sensitive: The Hidden Strength of Sensitivity & Empathy by Hannah Walker, published by Aster, £9.99 www.octopusbooks.co.uk


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