When I was three or four-years-old I remember my parents pulling up to a stoplight and a man with a bad limp crossing in front of the car. I became very concerned and asked what was wrong with that person. My parents told me that he was crippled, and when, in answer to my questions they told me honestly that he would not get better I felt overcome with sadness and began to cry.
And I remember my parents’ discomfort at my tears, and that odd feeling that I could not understand as a child where they were both laughing and empathic. I thought that they were laughing at the lame man’s plight, and it made me feel lonely and misunderstood. Looking back, there were also hints of contempt from my dad whenever I showed sensitivity—not, I realize now, because my father was a lug, but because he too was sensitive and had already learned that sensitivity did not go over very well in a man’s world.
I now better realize that, whatever my parents’ limitations may have been (psychological, cultural, emotional), they loved me and wanted to do their best to honor who I was while preparing me for life in the “real” world. As I developed I found kindred spirits in the likes of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, particularly in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (a book I would recommend to parents raising sensitive kids).
As a psychologist I have come to appreciate my sensitivity, and through this I have come to better appreciate my parents. If you are sensitive, but feel wounded by your parents, I encourage you to trust that if they truly could have understood you better and done a better job of attuning with you they would have. And if you have a sensitive child (still young or now grown), I encourage you to deepen your empathy and understanding for how they just cannot (or could not) help feeling things so strongly—and perhaps how they might have come to misunderstand your love as mocking contempt or indifference.
So, if we’re highly sensitive, let’s dedicate today to toughening up enough to forgive those whose own wounds or insensitivities have caused us hurt; and if we’re a little less sensitive, or maybe just defended against our emotions, let’s strive to toughen up enough to slow down and let ourselves feel—happy, sad, alive.