Thursday, May 9, 2013

on sensitivity, and the lack thereof

The name porcupine apparently means ‘one who rises up in anger’.

My mother-in-law came over unexpectedly the other day -- well, unexpectedly to me, since the hubs was obviously in the know. I don't really like that sort of surprise thing, especially on the weekends, when I'm placidly thinking we're going to have quiet family time together.

Now don't get me wrong -- she's a very nice lady and we have a great relationship, which I know is a wonderful blessing, especially considering some of the things I hear about in-laws from hell. So this really isn't about her, or the fact that I appreciate being kept informed (which, however, I do, mister!).

The thing is, when I suddenly heard her voice right outside my room and asked the hubs about it, he answered, "Well, she was supposed to call first if she was coming so that I'd go pick her up; I guess she was free, so she just came over herself". To which of course I said, "What if we weren't in? Or what if I'd we'd planned to go out and do some family thing?". And he replied, "Well, then she'd just leave. She wouldn't mind at all -- she doesn't have all kinds of hangups and sensitivities".

Well of course that got me thinking; I was crafting, which is a perfect time to think philosophically about things. I couldn't help chuckling a little as I acknowledged the accuracy of the hubs' remark; it was true -- she is insensitive -- not in the hardened, callous sense, but rather, laid-back, sanguine and slow to take offence -- in other words, she is not hypersensitive.

Being moderately sensitive is generally considered a good thing, of course -- it is desirable that people are understanding, responsive, thoughtful, caring and empathic. And of course, we all know some clown at the other end of the spectrum -- my girlfriend's husband, for instance, who pretty much never takes her needs or feelings into consideration, and perish the thought that he'd buy her flowers, bring her out for a nice dinner, or fix things around the house without being begged on bended knee.

But more and more, I've come to realise that there is such a thing as being too sensitive -- when being responsive translates to being touchy, irritable and easily offended; when being empathic means reading a million non-existent things between the lines; when supposed caring actually makes one behave like a martyr -- and that it affects not only you yourself, but the people around you, and future generations as well.

I remember listening to a sermon by lay preacher Joel Osteen -- can't remember the title now -- where he described such people as "high maintenance", which is exactly right (I remember too, his point that continually subjecting oneself to such people -- catering to their needs, bowing to their demands, accepting their high-strung behaviour -- was "feeding their dysfunction", which is also exactly right).

Growing up, I had a guardian who was on the high -- read "extreme, uttermost, ultimate" -- end of sensitivity; you couldn't have the corner of your mouth off of a millimetre without having your evil motives exposed. The tone of one's voice, the expression in one's eyes -- it made life a daily walk on eggshells. If I did something wrong -- and strangely enough, kids seem highly prone to that -- the response would be as theatrical as possible: punishments designed to hurt and shame; withdrawals of affection; dramatic remarks like, "After EVERYTHING I've done for you" and "I am NEVER going to do nice things for you again".

Now as an older adult, I can look back on those times with some degree of indifference, compassion, and even humour. And they weren't altogether useless -- they taught me how to behave with my own children. I remember the dramatic remarks, and I avoid using them. I remember the silent treatments, and I am quick to forgive. I especially remember the touchy sensitivity, and I make a point not to over-react, to give my kids the benefit of the doubt; I make the effort to patiently listen them out, and if I do have to scold, choose my words as carefully as possible.

I think deliberately hurting one's child to "get back" at them for offending one is both cruel and childish, and doing so repeatedly can do nothing good for anyone involved. Positive reinforcement; maintaining a loving, stable relationship; and ensuring that "if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk" -- these are just some of the key things that I think go a long way toward being a wise parent and raising emotionally healthy, adequately sensitive, children.

Remember Mrs Fidget? As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it, "anything will 'wound' a Mrs Fidget -- [enable] her to feel ill-used, therefore, to have a continual grievance, to enjoy the pleasures of resentment". But what creates a Mrs Fidget to begin with? On consideration, it seems to me that the Mrs Fidgets of the world have in fact an extraordinarily high level of what's called "emotional intelligence", or "the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions" (Salovey and Mayer, 1990).

Some time ago I'd read an excellent article by counsellor Steve Hein; entitled The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, the article was an analysis of the depressed, suicidal teens he worked with. "I have long suspected that a person's innate emotional intelligence could be warped by an abusive environment," he wrote. "Among these teens, I am finding that those I would consider to be the most emotionally intelligent are also fast learners and have good memory and recall. Because they are so emotionally hurt and starved, they are learning, remembering, developing and using unhealthy, destructive, hurtful or dangerous survival mechanisms".

He discovered, among other things, that these teens:
- learn to use their tone of voice, their words, their silence to manipulate.
- learn how to threaten with what will hurt or frighten others the most.
- become nearly constantly defensive and therefore lose their childhood ability to empathize.
- become bitter, cynical and sarcastic.
- learn how to verbally attack; they learn hurtful phrases and quickly recall and apply them.
- learn how to lay guilt trips.

"What is most sad to me is that all these teens I work with feel alone, unloved and unwanted," writes Hein. "They are desperate to feel connected, cared about, understood, loved and wanted. They often hate themselves, so they look for love in relationships. But they don't have the necessary ingredients to make a relationship work. They don't have the needed self-love or even self-acceptance. They don't have the relationship skills or communication skills. These things are not taught in schools and all they see are dysfunctional models at home.

"It is a vicious cycle. Their high level of innate EI has given them an ability to both feel emotional pain and to hurt others emotionally.... Because emotionally intelligent people are sensitive, they are easily hurt. They are also insecure from years of feeling disapproved of, disappointing, threatened, afraid, unworthy, inadequate, guilty, etc. Because of this insecurity, they take everything personally and are easily put on the defensive. Or they may go on the attack.

"I believe emotionally intelligent people from emotionally abusive and neglectful homes can become some of the most hurtful, manipulative, greedy, controlling, arrogant people in society... This is what I would call the dark side of emotional intelligence. It is something that could be prevented if parents, first, and teachers, second, were more emotionally competent.

"I make a distinction here between emotionally intelligent and emotionally competent. A parent does not have to be especially emotionally intelligent to stop invalidating their children and teens. A parent does not have to be an emotional genius to develop some basic listening skills" (read the article in its entirety here).

I've observed that people who routinely jump through the hoops of these sensitive souls become themselves edgy, irascible and neurotic; it can easily become a vicious cycle -- if you let it. I think if you have been caught in such a cycle, you can, indeed must, consciously, actively end it with you -- not let it infect your kids, and poison another generation.

I'd written a somewhat related post almost a year ago, based on a wonderful sermon series by Pastor Andy Stanley. It was about the importance of mutual submission in a family, something I don't think is possible if one is continually subjugating others to one's high-strung sensitivities and emotional needs. "Do you know what makes for great family?" he said, "Really happy family? It's families who have said, 'I'm willing to leverage all of me, for an us'. The only reason you don't is because you're selfish. Which means, you're not willing to loan yourself fully to the equation. Which means you will never be happy with your family, ever.

"Because your whole approach to family will be, 'If I can just get everybody to do what I want them to do, I'll be happy'. No, you won't be happy. You'll be large and in-charge; you will never, ever be happy or satisfied.

"Men, some of your wives can't get you to lean in. They're afraid to ask you anything. And they have no choice but to live their lives orbiting around your big ol' self... because you're more 'important'. And so they lean in and lean in until they fall over... And your kids lean in and lean in... because everybody's got to make Dad happy, and guess what -- everybody does everything they can to make you happy, and I know you -- you're still not happy!

"Because you don't get happy by controlling the people around you... The more power you have, the better servant you should be" (extracted from parts 1 and 2 of Future Family, by Pastor Andy Stanley).

So, going back to my mother-in-law -- while one certainly wouldn't describe her as being high on the EI front, I think there certainly is real merit to being her brand of insensitive (not the idiot clown type, mind!) -- her sanguinity has meant that she leads a largely peaceful, cheerful life, being on amicable, almost carefree, terms with just about everyone. Of course, there are times when that sort of "insensitivity" makes for some pretty silly, foolish, even thoughtless, words or behaviour, but they are surely more bearable than the intolerant, demanding, acrimonious spirit of the other.

In my walk with God, all this has come to mean even more to me than before. Most of us know the "love chapter" in the Bible -- it is surely one of the apostle Paul's more inspired pieces of writing. How true it is that love "does not insist on its own rights or its own way, for it is not self-seeking; it is not touchy or fretful or resentful; it takes no account of the evil done to it [it pays no attention to a suffered wrong]... Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person, its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening] (1 Cor 5-7).

Where are you on the sensitivity spectrum?

16 comments:

Sulky Kitten said...

Very interesting, Jan. I used to be too sensitive and over-react badly when I was younger. It can be a very destructive cycle to get into,because you expect impossibly high standards of perfect behaviour from those close to you. Thankfully, I think I grew out of it as I just became happier myself and because I gained some emotional maturity. Now, I would say that I'm still sensitive but not to the point where it's not beneficial. I've become much more relaxed over the years and feel better for it.

Jacquelineand.... said...

Very powerful Jan.

I have always been sensitive but hope that, over time, I've learned to use it for others rather than in seeking out perfection or taking umbrage over imagined slights.

My daughter once (and not so very long ago, either) told me that she trusted me more than anyone else she knew because, as she said, "your lessons might have stung but they were always honest and to help me, and you trusted me to understand them." These are words I treasure in my heart.

Kim Alston said...

Wow! Does your mother in law have a key to your house? There's nothing wrong with that, but clearly if she felt you guys were home she could've called before entering your home. I love Joel Osteen! I've listened to him for years. His messages always penetrate my soul. There's so many individuals that need love in this word. It's really sad to see how they end up when they're not. I've dealt with so many selfish people that it's not even funny. They don't care about your feelings, only themselves. I just shake my head. It's sad.

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

I love how laid back your mother-in-law is. She seems like a well-balanced, happy woman. And you are fortunate to have such a good relationship with her.

I find high maintenance individuals very exhausting, in every which way, and avoid them as much as possible. Or limit my contact with them. When I was younger, it was easier to make me feel guilty, or manipulate me. Over the years, I have grown stronger, more confident, and I do not allow myself to be emotionally blackmailed or manipulated. Joel Osteen is absolutely right when he says that catering to the needs of these types of people is just feeding their dysfunction. And walking on eggshells around these overly-sensitive people is certainly not appealing.

I was much more sensitive when I was a teen, but I outgrew that. Being more laid back and not taking everything personally makes life much more enjoyable. Who needs all the drama, anyway?

AntiquityTravelers said...

Such a well-thought out post ... and could not agree more. I have seen my share of passive aggressive behavior, which I find to be so exhausting and frankly unnecessary roughness. But the part that really got me going was your discussion on parents who take it out on their children is beyond my tolerance. You, as their parent, are responsible for their well being and who they become. Taking things out on them is like a bully in a school yard. I always wonder why it is that you need a license to drive a car, get married, practice law ... but anyone can have a child. Perhaps classes should be required.

Christine Altmiller said...

i do not have a lot to add to this discussion, other than i know this post will be rolling around in my head all day. it was important for you to write and research and for us all to read and contemplate. i tend to be silently sensitive until i have been pushed too far. and in my personal experience, i am finding as people age, they push too far too often.

Miss Val's Creations said...

What a great read Janice! It is interesting to learn about personalities because it makes up for tolerant of others. Since we have all grown up differently and experienced things in various ways, it affects our sensitivity scale. Over the years I have learned to control my sensitivity to become more calm and understanding of those around me. Always a work in progress!

Rowena @ rolala loves said...

Very interesting about Emotional Intelligence and how it is shaped. I tend to be more on the senstive side and often wish that others would be as considerate of me as I am of them but given my health issues lately, I've been loosening up abit and I think it's been a good thing.

Thanks to you and Becky for all your kindess and support! I'm still hanging in there.

Rowena @ rolala loves

Debbie Nolan said...

Dear Jan - I so enjoyed this post...you mentioned two ministers that I watch every week before I go to my own church service...Joel Osteen and Andy Stanley. As for overly sensitive people - they are extremely difficult to deal with and like Martha above I try not to spend too much time with them. Your mother in law sounds like a real sweetie...glad you have a great relationship with her. Loved reading all your thoughts and I know you are a wonderful mom. Take care and have a great week-end (sorry for the long comments)!

The Dainty Dolls House said...

Great post...I really enjoyed this. My mother-in-law can really drive me crazy. She has a comment for everything, which use to really stress me out and I would be stressed for days from it, but I just had to say enough. And told her off, I just had to stop being sensitive - which I wasn't that much, but if I held what I was feeling in for too long, I would have surely become that way. I think we just need to get things out and talk about them and then you won't be so sensitive about it. Super great post. I hope you have a great weekend x

Fundy Blue said...

So B&R ~ you're Jan! I always like to use peoples' names! What a beautiful and thought-provoking post!
I used to be a walking raw nerve ~ so this post was fascinating. Life is so much easier when you ease through it like your mother-in-law. I never know what to expect from your posts: from Wiggles to beautiful crafts to articulate, intelligent essays! Kuddos to you! Take care.

Magic Love Crow said...

I use to be very sensitive, but now, not so much. I try to understand where the other person is coming from and react in a peaceful matter, if I can. I feel a lot of times, people get over hyper or sensitive, because they want attention. I'd rather walk away and smile ;o) Take Care ;o)

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I have gotten much less sensitive with age...in my late teens and early 20s I was oversentitive. I have since mellowed out a great deal :)

Libby said...

Whoo, you've just said a mouthful. This was a very interesting post. I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like your mother-in-law. I'm definitely not like her.

I think that I'm a sensitive person to a degree. No, certain things don't bother me that tend to bother those around me (i.e. work drama or other typical craziness), but I know that I still get my feelings hurt whether I say something or not. Sometimes I have to do a type of "self-talk" to determine if I got my feelings hurt because my hormones were crazy that day, or because the truth can sometimes be very painful, or if the person talking is just a very straight-forward/direct person and meant no harm, or if the person talking meant to hurt me. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I don't know what all of this makes me. LOL

Rosemary said...

What a well thought out, philosophical post! You've given me plenty to think about. That's what we all need to do more of think, reflect and learn :)

Chelsea St.Pierre said...

OMG Jan, I am hooked on Joel Osteen, cheers for mentioning him, it brought a smile to my face. wonderful and delightful post. My MIL is great but can very well be on the other spectrum of high maintenance, even though she is in Germany I am in London!the older I get the less sensitive I have become so my spectrum ranges between 2 and 4 for external issues. much love

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