Sensitivity is one of those characteristics that can be a double-edged sword. When you think about it, the phrase “You’re so sensitive” can be a really sweet compliment, or quite a mean thing to say, depending on how it’s delivered. Someone who’s described as “sensitive” might be really empathetic and a good listener, or touchy and quick to anger (in fact, it’s quite possible that certain people are both).
Although there probably is a spectrum of sensitivity, I think it’s safe to say that everyone has sensitivities, raw nerves and soft spots, which can be triggered by the people or circumstances in their lives. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’s so bullet-proof that nothing could reach them and, in fact, doesn’t someone who’s completely insensitive sound like the kind of person you’d prefer not to spend much time with?
So maybe the first thing is to recognise that being sensitive is a good thing, a very human thing, it’s part of what helps us get on together, to form relationships and nurture them over time. But what about when we get angry or upset inappropriately – or our reactions seem to be totally out of proportion with what just happened?
One of the greatest benefits of meditation is the space it gives us to get perspective on our own feelings. I often encourage people to imagine meditation being like sitting by the road watching the cars go by. The cars represent the thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind: some of them are attractive, things you’d like to pursue, some are painful or difficult, and you might be tempted to resist those. But all you have to do is sit and watch the thoughts pass by. That’s what you practice when you’re getting your Headspace each day, just sitting, not chasing, not resisting, just watching the cars go by. At first this might seem difficult, but with a bit of practice it becomes as easy as, well, sitting.
The magic really starts to happen when we take this skill, learned in meditation, out into the world with us. It’s easy if someone says or does something that’s upsetting, to start to chase after the feelings it produces. It’s even there in the language we use about it. If we say “I am hurt” it’s like we’ve become that feeling altogether. We are hurt, we are angry, we are upset. In that moment we forget that our thoughts and emotions do not define who we are, that we’re something more than that. Sure, they may be very loud in the moment and be screaming for our attention, but they are, in the end, another car passing down that road.
This comes back to the fact that all feelings, even strong ones, are temporary. One can quite quickly be replaced by another. We’ve all had that experience of being overwhelmed by an angry feeling, and then running into a friend and, without knowing quite how, finding ourselves in a completely different place, mentally and emotionally. Sometimes just reminding ourselves of this can be enough to help us release our grip on that angry frame of mind.
So there’s no need to judge ourselves for our sensitivity. When we start the Foundation series in the Headspace Journey, one of the first things I teach is the practice of noting. That is, recognizing a thought or a feeling as it appears in the mind and just labelling it as a “thought” or a “feeling.” It’s a simple approach, but it’s one that teaches us to accept the mind as it is, observe it and move on.
Perhaps we don’t get to choose how sensitive we are, or what we are sensitive to, but we do have a degree of control over how skillfully we respond to those feelings. It’s in this particular area that the practice of mindfulness is so useful. And (maybe you saw this one coming) another reason to download the Headspace app, and start meditating today.