“You’re such a good listener.”
It’s something I’ve heard often, that I’m a good listener. It’s probably the trait of which I’m most proud. Who doesn’t want someone to listen to them? Who doesn’t want to be heard? You can change the tone of a conversation or an argument just by letting the other person know that you are listening to them and reflecting listening behavior.
I value strong listening skills because too often I have felt like I have no one to talk to who will really listen. My closest friend tend to be those also described by as others as good listeners. By good listener, I mean, if sharing a story, they don’t interrupt to tell you their own story; clearly engaged in conversation such that their eyes meet yours, they nod in comprehension, their expressions change to reflect the intake of narrative. If you have a problem, they listen and offer support in the way that you need it, rather than tell you what they would do if they were you or what they think you should be doing. If you say something hurts your feelings, they don’t invalidate your expression of emotion by asking, “Why are you so upset by this?” or dismissively comment, “Maybe you’re being a little sensitive?”
Sensitive. That word. I’ve long hated that word. It rarely seemingly used in a complimentary way, especially when directed at women. Sensitive people or expressions of sensitivity are sometimes viewed as weak, emotional or neurotic. The US is a society that applauds typically masculine traits and too often derides more feminine traits, such as sensitivity, so it’s no wonder many, including myself, consider it insulting to be told they are sensitive or even worse, “too sensitive.”
This past spring, I participated in a past-life regression session with a friend of mine who does past-life regression therapy for a living. Her goal is to help people move past the trauma holding them back in their current lives, by uncovering the source of the pain, which is sometimes rooted in past lives.
We were bridesmaids together last year and I met her for the first time not too long before all the bridesmaids planned the bridal shower together. We bonded during the bachelorette party as we discussed everything from the significance of Jason Collins coming out to the potentially dicey topic of religion.
Something about her makes me feel like I can trust her with the kinds of secrets & vulnerabilities we hold nearest to ourselves for fear of being exposed for who we really are or who we fear people will think we and have our vulnerability used to hurt us, tortured by our own Kryptonite. When she offered to do a regression for me the next time I was in Los Angeles, but warned me it could get pretty emotional and raw, I had absolutely no qualms about taking her up on the offer.
Prior to beginning the hypnosis part of the session, she asked me a series of questions to assess my susceptibility to reaching a deep meditative state. She asked me if I am more of a visual or auditory processor and while I always thought of myself as more of an auditory processor, she helped me realize just how much I “see” life as a series of stories, images, themes and patterns.
The entire experience was incredibly intense and emotional, as promised. She said to me, “You have a sense about why people do the things they do and you see things in the world in a way that only a small number of people do. It can be isolating.” Even though I was in a “hypnotic” state, I could still comprehend her words and respond to her. She finished with, “It’s probably why you can get upset with people easily, because you see things they may not even be aware of and it frustrates you.” She’d practically reached into the depths of my past, unwrapped a box I had stashed way deep down, and seen a part of me I usually protect, hiding for so long I don’t even think about it.
“You exist on a different ‘plane’ than many people. Not that one plane is better than another, they are just different. You probably feel like an outsider sometimes. Even in your family; like no one understands you. It’s probably why you live so far away from them. You wanted to find where you belonged.” Girl, yes! Like it’s not enough that I’m a short, black, left-handed, female living in an America that prefers tall, white, right-handed males, I am even the weirdo in my own family.
So wait, I’m not weird? Why has no one ever told me this?
What she said really stuck with me. I began reading up on visual processing which led me to a series of links about a book named The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. Of the book, a Marie Claire article shares:
…what all HSPs share is an uncommon ability to pick up on subtleties that others might miss — a look, a feeling, a message embedded in a seemingly straightforward statement. “It’s like they’re wearing an extra pair of glasses,” she says.
This sensitivity I’ve been beating myself up over for so long is actually much of what makes me who I am and there’s a lot of meaning in that one word. Being sensitive means:
1. I Hate to See Others in Emotional Distress
Last December, on my way out of the office with my boss and co-worker to have drinks before our holiday party, I noticed another co-worker dressed up and ready to go, but solo. I asked her if she had plans to get to the party and when she said “No,” I invited her to join us. My boss looked at me with a bit of wonderment and commented, “Keisha, that was so nice of you. So many people would have just left and not said anything.” Exactly. So many people do do that and miss out on opportunities to reach out to others. I’ve done that. I’ve also been in situations where I’ve felt alone or passed by as though I were invisible, whether intentional or not. It sucks. I didn’t ask her to join us because I felt pity or because I wanted to feel like martyr, I did it because she’s always been polite to me and I hate to see anyone alone if they don’t need or desire it. We’re human beings. We are social animals, whether some of us care to admit to it or not, and we seek acceptance and welcoming by others.
2. I am a Loyal Friend
If I decide I care about you, you can expect I’ll throw down for you, without question. I’ve been in three fights in my life that got physical (once with beer) and two of those times were in defense of a friend being picked on by an asshole (whom I am often good at spotting). The third time was a stupid fight with my sister, M, when we were in middle school, over whether you had to have seen Halloween III to understand Halloween 4. I don’t remember who won, but my mom came home in horror and put a stop to the fisticuffs. We were dumb.
3. I Can Smell Bullshit
You’ve heard the phrase, “Never bullshit a bullshitter”? Well, I have a very vivid imagination and know how to spin a tale and I can hear when someone is trying to sell me a baggie of crap. I can spot a bullshitter with ease.
4. I Love Animals
I got my first dog at five. I had him for one whole weekend and then he disappeared. My dad claimed she got sick or something, but I think he didn’t like that the puppy pooped on the floor and sent him back where he came from. Some of my friends laugh when I say I want to have a ranch one day with some of my favorite animals. Giggle all you want, but I will have an alpaca buddy one day. For now, I have the two kitties and not-so-secretly hope to meet an eligible suitor with a lovable dog.
5. I am Sensitive to the Moods of Other People
I have to protect myself from situations and people who are energy vampires or carry too much negative energy because I absorb it without intention. Last week at work, I had to leave a very heated meeting – one of the top 3 most painful meetings I’ve ever sat through in my entire worklife – because people were tense, argumentative, confrontational discontent, and frustrated with each other. Like a fucked up family dinner with no food and no alcohol for maximum suffering. Each unhappy sentence rolling off tongues felt like being hit with repeated soft blows by invisible balled up fists of bad energy. The minute I left the room, two-thirds of the way through this hour and forty minute torture session, and took a walk around the building, I felt better, freed from the emotions contained and simmering in that hot conference room.
6. Sometimes People Think I’m Psychic
When a guy I dated broke things off with me a few summers ago, I told a friend of mine, “He is going to marry the woman he dates after me.” My friend looked at me doubtfully, attributing my words to post-break up grief, I imagine, “How can you know that?” Sure enough, less than a year later, he was engaged to the woman he dated after me and they are now married. I just knew. The signs were there. I’m not psychic. I just saw the cues.
I’m rarely surprised anymore when someone I work with announces they’re leaving. The signals are almost always there, some people just notice them more than or before others. I am one of those people.
I’ve many a time been called perceptive and insightful and less frequently had people jokingly ask me if I’m psychic. I’m often not consciously looking for signals, but the patterns are there in the world, you look and listen for them.
7. I’m Conscientious
I’ve been told I’m polite and at times in frustration, I’ve had people tell me I’m too polite. I treat people the way I wish to be treated. My conscientiousness is the result of a couple of things. I have a mother who went to charm school growing up and thus taught her daughters how to be “charming.” Secondly, I simply believe in being considerate of others. That seems to mean a hyper-awareness of social observances that other people may not have. Boy do I get pissed in the BART station when some people don’t notice that everyone else is standing on THE RIGHT SIDE of the escalator, and you are the only clueless boob standing on the left, blocking the flow of stairclimbers. It initially strikes me as a rude move by someone who isn’t thinking of others, and I can’t stand when people are inconsiderate. Get some home training! However, as I am often reminded in life’s mysterious ways, not everyone thinks the way I do about manners and consideration and I have to demonstrate patience and give others the benefit of the doubt. Else, I risk spending too much time being too through with people for not behaving as I think they should. Life is too short for that.
8. I’ll Pass On The Violence
The older I get the less I am able to withstand images of violence or people in pain. Once, while trying to decide what to watch on TV with an ex-boyfriend, he landed on a documentary about the Holocaust.
“I can’t watch this,” I said.
“What? Why? This is important.”
“I know that. Trust me, I’ve done plenty of reading and watching about the Holocaust. Horrifying images are seared in my head. Joseph Goebbels is a disgusting human being and obviously Hitler should burn in 80 million hells. But, it’s going to make me really emotional to watch this. I just can’t. I’ll start crying and it’ll be a mess.” I could barely keep it together during the opening scenes of Up. It’s for that reason that I still haven’t seen Schindler’s List, even though I know it’s a highly lauded and important film. I visited the Anne Frank house when I was in Amsterdam and I had to take a seat. It was too real. I recovered at a “café.”
9. I Love Beautiful Things
When I went to Paris almost five years ago, I fell in love with Picasso at the Pompidou Museum. I understood what the fuss was about. His art drew me in and that trip to Paris will always be linked in my mind with my discovery of Picasso and a new perspective on art. A lovely and romantic experience in a Paris museum, just me and Picasso.
I also see beauty in different ways, not only in classic or tangible aesthetics. My youngest sister graduated from college a couple of weeks ago. Her area of study is largely majored in by women. The graduates comprised of a plurality of ethnic groups including black, Latino, white and Asian students. Women, graduating by the hundreds. Women, who less than 100 years ago, couldn’t vote in this country. Women, who less than 50 years ago were barely accepted in the workplace. Black men and women whose enslaved ancestors only could dream about the freedom to study in a school, alongside people of different colors and graduate with a college degree. Individuals whose families may have struggled to reach the point where they could send someone to college. I imagined the ghosts of our ancestors sitting alongside their family in the audience, beaming with pride. In that moment I really felt the weight of the meaning of my bachelor’s degree for the first time since I earned it over a decade ago. That’s beauty.
10. My Sensitivity Isn’t Always Appreciated
I’ve had people tell me my thoughts are too intense or that I ask too many “serious” questions. At times it’s resulted in my retreating, reluctant to express my thoughts. A feeling of, “Don’t get too deep. Play dumb and light to get along well with others.” Again, that’s isolating, there’s a feeling of being unable to express your true self lest your observations or theoretical questions are met with a blank stare and a slow, “Uh…yeah, that’s interesting. What made you even think of that [weirdo]?”
More and more studies emerge suggesting that having high emotional intelligence, which is linked to sensitive traits like self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy, makes for stronger leaders. Sensitivity is being rebranded.
Being sensitive doesn’t have to mean being neurotic, weak, dramatic or soft. If you’re sensitive, embrace it; you’re normal and it’s okay. If you know someone who is sensitive, appreciate what they have to offer, perhaps they’ll help you see the world through a different lens.
I don’t know if I’m one of those “highly sensitive people”. I don’t feel the need to label myself with yet another adjective. What I am though is someone who can be sensitive and I choose to see that as a positive trait and not something to hide in shame. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, being who I am.