I’ve always been a person who feels things very deeply. Sensitive is one word for it — if a very general one.
Sensitive is one of those words that’s great since it’s top of mind and most people have heard it before. Have some kind of personal definition as to what it means.
That’s also its downside. Because sensitive has a lot of different meanings, it’s used a lot of different ways.
I find I mean a different thing each time I say “sensitive.” It depends on what I’m describing and the context. Sometimes a sensitive person is tender, kind, reactive to the needs of others. Sometimes they’re simply easily overwhelmed.
And still other times, in that overwhelm, they’ll be prone to lashing out at others — from the pain that comes from all of their nerves screaming about that wealth of sensation.
If I’m being honest, I’ve probably been every kind of sensitive — at different times in my life, in different situations. I’ve worked very hard to spend more time as the kind of sensitive person who is tender and compassionate and less time as the person who lashes out.
But who knows how successful I have been? My own mind shuffles and reshapes the data day to day. My beliefs about myself are wavy, ever-kinetic. They make it hard to take an accurate emotional selfie. One that isn’t overly sunny or overly disparaging.
But I do know something firm about myself: I’m obsessive.
You Can’t Go Home Again Without Learning Something New About Yourself
It wasn’t until a recent trip back to the place I grew up in rural Maine to spend the winter holidays with a critically ill relative that I realized where this came from.
Some might assume I got my obsessive tendencies from my mother — a dramatic, sometimes melodramatic, person who’s emotional, flighty, and the lashing-out kind of sensitive.
Make no mistake, I got a lot from her. But not the obsessiveness. The hyperfixation. The hyperfocus.
That comes from my father. A self-trained engineer who when you get him talking can work over a single subject for hours. He dives in deep, into the details. My husband and I spent hours sitting with him as he recounted former working trips to Texas, competitions he’d judged there before he retired.
How the lone star attitude contends with the need for certification and safety checks down there (spoiler: it’s precarious).
Dad sits with an idea or a memory for ages. He’s like a dog that’s got something in his mouth and wants to lord over it for a while rather than rip it to shreds right away like a savage animal, drop the thing, walk away.
Dad and I have that in common. Neither of us are in a rush when we’re thinking. Huh.
I think for months and years about things that no longer matter. Take obsessive notes about trivialities as they occur so that I can write about them later, when hindsight helps me understand how they’ll become important.
There’s a Difference Between Having Emotions and Performing Them
Dad’s obsessive, that’s for sure. But I have no idea whether he’s sensitive. Any of the kinds. Outwardly he’s stoic. Dad isn’t much for performing emotions — no matter the quality of them, positive, negative, neutral. He’s got a wry sense of humor but prefers a dry delivery where the joke ends up on your doorstep, and it’s up to you to figure out how it got there, which sometimes takes a couple of seconds for people he doesn’t know because Dad’s mind moves a little quickly for most people.
Mom has no emotional filter. You know exactly what she’s feeling when she’s feeling it. She’ll make a big announcement and conduct a performance.
I largely perform positive emotions well and try to downplay negative ones. Mom didn’t allow us to express negative emotions when we were little and rewarded positive ones. Unless you know me terribly well, most people can’t tell when I’m really upset or stressed out.
And even then, you have to be observant to sort it all out. I have an emotionally reactive face, but I’m decent at throwing out a large positive expression to overshadow a more subtle (I hope) negative clue. Enough so that even if you catch the negative expression, you still might doubt yourself a little.
I balance this out — or at least I hope I do — by asking for help when I want it. What’s confusing for people sometimes is that I don’t necessarily want help with every negative emotion I feel. And sometimes I find that talking about bad feelings makes them worse. There’s a holding period where I try to let the feeling dissipate and see if it goes away over time.
If it doesn’t, or if I figure out I need something from you to address the problem, then I come to you.
As I mentioned in another recent post, this tendency to want to tackle my own negative emotions privately first can be tough sometimes since my husband is hypervigilant and always on the alert because of past relationships he had with folks who were passive-aggressive and prone to laying traps.
Learning to Control that Hyperfocus Turned It From a Weakness Into a Strength
Anyway, the important part here is that what a person feels and what that emotion looks like to other people can be incredibly different things. There’s a difference between having emotions and performing them. There are apparently even people who are excellent at performing emotions when they don’t feel much of anything at all inside. Who spend their whole lives acting out on the surface what they think life should feel like — and meanwhile, they’re completely empty inside.
I’ve always been a person who feels things very deeply. And I’m always a person that gets hyperfocused, some might say obsessed, when I’m working on something. I’m predisposed to dive deep with anything I care about. Whether that’s a writing project, a new field of study, or a person.
This used to be a big problem before I learned some self-control. The ability to turn it off or shift my strong focus to something else if I need it.
Why Being Obsessive Can Make It Hard to Feel Loved Equally
Nowadays, I find the tendency to hyperfocus more helpful than not, since I can control it better. I would go so far as to consider one of my strengths.
But I’ll admit it: Sometimes it’s quite isolating, the fact that obsession comes so easily to me. It’s hard to feel like you’re caring too much all the time — especially when you’re trying to have meaningful relationships with other people. When you tend to find your volume dial set on 11 with anyone or anything that is special to you, it’s easy to feel like love isn’t reciprocated when the people you have on full love blast have dials that never seem to go above 7.
Even if you rarely put your own music on 11 because you don’t want to blow your own speakers or disturb your neighbors and have the cops show up at your door.
Even if it’s only in your own mind and in private unguarded moments that you feel that love creep up to 11. That it can even move you to tears thinking about it if you let yourself really go there, how much you love this other person.
The fact that you know that love for you can’t do the same to them… because you’ve told them that you loved them so much it makes you cry if you think about it too hard and gotten a laugh and a confession that they don’t know what you’re talking about. That they don’t work that way.
Even if everything is fine afterwards, and things return largely to normal, it can be hard.
Even if you know it’ll never really matter in a real world sense.
It Helps to Remind Yourself of the Sea of Unknowns
It’s at times like these that I remind myself that what a person demonstrates emotionally and what they feel inside are entirely different things. That I don’t know what their “emotional speakers” are really capable of. That we don’t exactly hear the real volume of their emotional music, only some approximation. What they demonstrate is more like what you hear when you standing outside their house at the bottom of their driveway.
Except you have no idea how long that driveway is, how well insulated their house is, what kind of speakers they even have.
You don’t really know anything. It’s all secondhand information.
It’s been a month since I went back to Maine to visit. My father didn’t tell me that he was happy I came to see him.
I got that impression from hanging out with him, but more from his behaviors than anything he said. His facial expressions. The way we talked for so long and about so many things, despite his low energy levels.
But he’s apparently still talking about it to every healthcare worker he sees even now, weeks later. Telling them all about my visit. About his youngest daughter, the author who lives in Texas, coming up over Christmas. I’d imagine it’s with that same level of obsessive detail that he uses to tell all of his stories.
My whole life I thought this man couldn’t care less about me. That I was invisible to him. That he never thought about me when he was away at work sites for months.
I loved him to death, had him up on a pedestal. Still do (even though as an adult, I understand better that he does have flaws and what they are).
I’ve spent my whole life thinking I loved him way more than he loved me. Because the way that he shows love and the way that I receive it don’t really connect. Because we have a habit of constantly saying nice things about one another behind the other’s back and the news only traveling back to each other through third parties.
Not because we don’t care. But because we’re both iffy about receiving compliments, even though we both hope we’re doing a decent job in life and are never quite satisfied that we are. We don’t need to know that we’re exceptional people but that we’re pulling our own weight.
Anyway, this is why I always think I love people more than they love me… and also why I’m probably wrong.