“Matt, you are too sensitive,” a family member said.
I chafed at the label. Sensitivity, within my immediate family, is disparaged as a sign of weakness. Stoicism, with the occasional angry outburst, reigns. Feelings? According to my family, Oprah and I should schedule couch time to discuss them.
In my world, feelings predominate. My mood and emotion vacillate based on a heart-warming compliment or stinging rebuke. When feeling well, I exude confidence and joy. When feeling down, I ruminate and question. Feelings — and a willingness to experience raw, unfiltered emotion — define me.
Discussing one’s feelings runs contrary to ingrained social and cultural norms. In American culture, men are expected to disavow intrusive feelings, gritting our teeth until the emotions fade. The strong, silent type is the prototype; John Wayne and Gary Cooper are two prominent examples. Silence evokes traditional notions of masculinity and toughness. If you are tough, you camouflage your feelings. You mask your internal hurt with a rugged, unshaven stoicism. And, God help us all, you confide your problems with your wife, significant other, or religious advisor. Not a haughty counselor.
Do you want to feel better? Maybe we should hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Here’s your real prescription: suck it up.
This attitude pervades Americans society. We pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency. Toughness and independence are interrelated; only weak people require “help.” Our misguided definition reflects outdated, even unhealthy, norms. The result: a belittlement of sensitive feelers and shaming of mental health.
It is overdue to revisit society’s definition of toughness. Toughness is more than a fierce, intimidating demeanor. It is an inner resiliency — a mental fortitude steadying you during life’s currents.
For mental health consumers, toughness is connecting emotion to action and understanding your self-destructive behavior. When feelings and emotions swirl, it is the self-recognition that your judgment is clouded. It is knowing that you react quickly, substituting sound judgment for instant gratification.
Toughness is recognizing this cognitive error and seeking professional guidance. It is surrendering your ego and committing to improve your health and well-being and acting contrary to the stubborn belief that counseling is for weak, helpless, and sensitive souls.
Spinning conventional wisdom on its head, sensitive souls exhibit more toughness than the traditional grim-faced Americans. How so? As sensitive souls, we feel intense pangs of joy and deep wells of despair more intensely than the average person. We feel with our hearts and, as a result, treasure deep, meaningful relationships. But sensitive souls, who comprise a small minority of the population, endure merciless quizzical looks and taunts. “Why do you things take things so personally?” people prod us over and over again.
I confess, I am a sensitive soul. Criticism rattles me. I am a sucker for sports romantic comedies. And I am fiercely prideful. One quick glance at my face and you can detect my elation, worry, or consternation. As sensitive souls, we have challenges, and, of course, skills, that demand toughness. Like most sensitive souls, criticism burns my very core. It feels as if someone is attacking me. I have worked with a counselor to manage these emotional grenades, devising strategies to regulate emotional reactions. Like most sensitive souls, this is an ongoing process as I navigate uneven work situations and family drama.
But it is not all tears and hankies for the sensitive souls among us. The sensitive soul is a relationship-builder, a compassionate nurturer committed to deep relationships. His thoughtfulness promotes cooperation among coworkers, friends, and acquaintances.
Naturally curious, we are expressive and accumulate experiences, not possessions. As feelers, our natural empathy and warmth invites others into our rich mosaic. People ranging from the middle-aged woman next to us on the flight to the distraught uncle gravitate toward us. We are leaders through persuasion, not coercion. Our toughness is measured through our commitment to self-improvement and emotional management.
“Toughen up,” a voice screams at you. “You need to get tougher.” Instead of reflecting on the comment, think of the hours you have invested in your own self-care. Any fool can yell, scream, and demean; it takes a tougher person to manage emotional conflict in a healthy, productive way. You, my friend, are a sense-itive soul.