When I was a little girl my dad used to call me Sarah Heartburn - a funny twist on the French movie actress Sarah Bernhardt - because I had a tendency to be a bit dramatic when things didn't go my way. The truth was that I was a highly sensitive child. I cried easily, felt deeply hurt when kids called me names or made fun of me, and was prone to bouts of loneliness and a kind of sadness that I didn't understand. It wasn't until I read "The Highly Sensitive Person," by Elaine Aron, as an adult, that I understood what was going on. It was one of those rare experiences when a book seems to put your whole life into perspective and you suddenly understand yourself in a brand new way.
For years I used to beat myself up for being sensitive. Like the little girl who felt too much, as a woman, I still cried easily, felt bowled over by too much stimulation - the kind that came from big crowds, bright lights and loud noises, and was deeply hurt by criticism and mean-spirited remarks. I hated being sensitive - loathed it, in fact, until a conversation with Thomas, my coach at the time, changed everything.
I had given one of my first speeches on coaching and had received criticism on an evaluation for how I presented my ideas. The review was harsh and the pain of it stayed with me for days. During our call, I described the feedback to Thomas, saying, "I hate that I'm so affected by this stuff. You can't believe what's gone on in my head since I read that review - 'I suck as a speaker, forget about doing this for a living, stick to being a coach, kid.' I'm just too sensitive and I hate it!" Thomas listened thoughtfully as I continued on about how upset I was and when I finished, he delivered one of his classic one-liners that shifted my perspective. "You know, Cheryl," he said, "the way I see it, your sensitivity is your greatest gift. It's gotten you to where you are today and it's what makes you a great coach. If I were you I'd protect this gift rather than hate it."
Protect my sensitivity? Now there was a concept I never considered before. The idea that my sensitivity might be a blessing rather than a curse encouraged me to think about it in a new way. There certainly were benefits. As a child and as an adult, my sensitivity translated into a keenly perceptive ability to read people. With a tilt of the head, a blink of an eye, or a slight shift in tone of voice, I often knew what someone was thinking or feeling. This ability developed over time into a finely tuned intuitive knowing that allowed me to be quite effective as a coach and teacher. I could anticipate people's needs. I often knew what a student needed before they knew themselves. As I listened carefully to a client who was trying to find his or her way, I could see a path form in front of them showing us both which direction to go in. And I often found myself choosing - with my heart, not my head - the exact words someone needed to hear.
My sensitive side also caused me to feel deeply connected to nature, animals, birds, music, and art. These qualities and experiences of sensitivity are certainly not unique to me. We all possess a level of sensitivity that, when taken seriously and protected, can open us to a rich and satisfying experience of life. When we're sensitive, we're better able to see beauty everywhere and in everything - from flowers to weeds, in joyous experiences and in the poignantly sad ones as well. Sensitive people also tend to be empathetic - kind and compassionate people who can easily put themselves in the shoes of another. They naturally become sensitive to the feelings of others and, as a result, care about how their actions affect the world.
My decision to protect my sensitivity rather than disown it, was one of the most influential acts of Extreme Self Care I've ever taken in my life. It gave me permission to be myself - on a soul level - in spite of what the world around me said I should be. And here's an interesting thing: As I learned to protect my sensitivity, it did the opposite of what I expected. Rather than leave me feeling like a pincushion in a world full of pins, it actually made me stronger and better able to use my gifts. Becoming aware of what I needed to safeguard this gift allowed me to take it out of the box when I wanted so I could use it to my advantage. When you begin making choices that support your sensitive, feeling side, you create the sensory safety you need to open more fully to rich experiences and the beautiful nuances of life. You allow your creativity to flourish, your intuitive muscles to kick in, and you gain access to your heart, connecting you with humanity in a deeper, more intimate way.
An Excerpt from the Book "The Art of Extreme Self Care"
© Copyright 1999-2021 Cheryl Richardson, P.O. Box 13, Newburyport, MA 01950, www.cherylrichardson.com. All rights reserved. Used with permission.