I thought about this a lot on the 11th, my mother’s birthday. My stepfather, her second husband, was an emotionally and psychologically abusive person. Whenever he would break her heart with his manipulations, he would dismiss her pain by telling her “you’re too sensitive”. In my mind, that phrase will always be the language of an abuser.
But is it? In my experience people don’t usually set out to hurt someone. They’re just being them, and maybe they’re just an asshole. But was it intentional that they hurt you? Probably not. They may be as bewildered by your pain as you are by their aggression.
In the end, we’re all walking our own roads. And while other people may walk alongside us on their own journeys, we don’t all wind up in the same places. In the end, you have only one existence and one life. Only you can determine what is and is not acceptable. In the end, relationships of any sort are really all about compliance. If one or the other person has traits which are hurtful or annoying, they try to minimize those traits for the benefit of the other person. That’s what love is. So when someone tells you that “you’re too sensitive” what they mean is that you are not complying with their script as to how all this should work. They’re not asking you to not feel your pain, but rather to not broadcast it, because it makes them uncomfortable. They may be asking you to change by not being so sensitive, but so too are you are asking them to change by not being so aggressive or hurtful.
It’s with these hundreds of little compromises that relationships are built. Some people have very few differences to reconcile. Some have many. Some things can be worked out. Some things cannot. There are limits to how far any of us are willing to go, to how far we are willing to modify ourselves to accommodate someone else. And some of us are more capable of these modifications than others.
In the end, it’s all about one thing. Love. How much do you love this person, and how much of the fabric of your own existence are you willing to modify to make them more comfortable and (hopefully) happier? And, of course, there’s the inverse. How far are they willing to go to accommodate you? Is there a middle ground that all parties can live with?
I suppose the thing that got me to thinking about Mama was how so many people said of her that she was too sensitive. In many ways she was. You could make an offhand comment that meant nothing to you and you didn’t even remember making, but weeks later she would ask you about something you said. My point is, you may not have even remembered it, but it had bothered her for weeks before she said anything about it. And whether or not you, or anyone else, thought this was valid, it was valid to her. You may not feel it yourself when someone’s toe gets chopped off, but they feel it in all its ragged agony; the pain is not hypothetical to them.
It’s amazing to me as I stumble into my late 50s that I only just now realize something about my mother. Yes, it could be fairly said of Mama that she could be too sensitive. But the one question I had never asked myself was this; why was she so sensitive? As soon as I asked myself that question, I had the answer. I’d known it all along. Mama had two abusive marriages. Although neither was physical, both men, my biological father and my stepfather, were manipulative people who downplayed their own shortcomings by tearing down their wife. They could not rise to her level, and so they dragged her down to theirs. That was the reason Mama was “too sensitive”. She had psychological scars. She had operant conditioning. If you have been regularly beaten over a long period of time, even when being beaten is no longer a part of your life and has not been for a very long time, for the rest of your life whenever someone raises a hand some part of you expects the blow. It doesn’t matter if the beatings were physical or psychological. The reaction is the same. You expect what you’ve experienced.
I understand my mother so well now. I may never fully understand her as a person, because we’re all these weird amalgamations of experiences and perceptions, and we are each a unique miracle. But I understand more than I did. I’m tumbling headlong toward 60 and my eventual oblivion, and I am a walking basket case that barely functions as anything approximating a human being. But I am beginning to accept and understand that I have my own operant conditioning to overcome. I try to be cognizant of the fact that just because phrases like “you’re too sensitive” trigger me in a way, it is not always meant to be demeaning, to suggest a course correction. Just because you expect the blow doesn’t mean there will be a blow.
Mother’s Day is tomorrow. It’s always complicated for me. Mama’s birthday is the 11th of May, so it’s always near Mother’s Day. It’s the double whammy of coincidental scheduling that makes each day harder because of the other’s proximity. Mama’s been gone for about 11 1/2 years now, and her absence is always felt. But more than that, I feel like she never had the life she deserved. Yet I have one thing that sees me through, which I’m not sure she had; that is an instinctual defiance. Most people misunderstand my general compliance, my distaste for conflict, as acceptance. They’re regularly quite surprised when they go too far and discover there IS a line beyond which I will not allow someone to cross. Sadly, I don’t know if Mama had such a line. But I do wish she had stood up for herself more. Sometimes when bullies push you, all you have to do to put a stop to it is push back; bullies are inherently weak and can’t handle being challenged. Or as I’ve put it before, some people have to be put on their ass to be shown they CAN be put on their ass.
I know this is meandering. Honestly, if you’ve made it this far, good for you. This was not meant for you. It wasn’t meant for anyone, really. It’s just one of those things that needed to be. And now it is. And I can move on.
You know, it’s a miracle any of us get anything done. Being human is hard. What does it say that one of my favorite phrases came from an inmate at the county jail, who told deputies during processing, “I’m having trouble maintaining my human form.” I joked at the time as I read the report, “Aren’t we all?” But now, many years later, those words hold more weight. I’m still having trouble maintaining my human form.
In the end, whoever you are, or whatever you are, you ARE; you are the summation of materials which have existed as long as the universe itself, that have somehow coalesced into a human being with thoughts and emotions and the ability to feel pleasure and pain. Each of us is a miracle, a moment in time in which some small aspect of the universe itself took form as a person. That’s messy. But it’s you. Don’t let anyone diminish your light. The odds that you would ever exist were astronomical, and yet here you are in all your glory. You are the only you in all of existence, and you should accept what a wonderful miracle you are.
So if someone tells you that you’re too sensitive, shrug it off. Your individual parts and components, your cells and bone and flesh, are made up of materials which have existed since the beginning of time, which will continue to exist in other forms long after you are gone. The bits which make you YOU have had a long journey to come here and coalesce into a human being, to be able to look around and go “What the fuck?” So be sensitive if you need to be. You are as old as the universe. You can feel the weight of that in your DNA. So be what you are, because you will never BE again.
I wish so much I could get people to understand the miracle of them. I wish Mama could have understood it. I wish we could all embrace it. But we’re never going to be exactly what someone else needs, in every way. We can come close. We can get along. We can make changes if we need to. But on the day you die, you will lay there alone on your death bed. No one can make that journey with you, just as no one walked the path of your life with you, even if they may have walked beside you. In those final moments I hope you will embrace the miracle that you are, and be grateful for the brief spark of wonder that your life truly was. I hope you will no longer be worried about whether you’re too sensitive or not.
In the end, being sensitive is being alive and being aware. So BE. And let them complain.