Highly Sensitive People Can Change The World — If We Let Them
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Politics and Activism

Highly Sensitive People Can Change The World — If We Let Them

Why it's dangerous to devalue empathy and compassion

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Highly Sensitive People Can Change The World — If We Let Them

Starting in the 1970s, psychologists began assigning the trait of “codependent” to patients whom they believed possessed a self-destructive desire to please others. This construct is very reminiscent of experiencing abuse in relationships, as it pinpoints the susceptibility of one’s emotional state to external influence as the sole reason for distress in one’s life. An issue I find with the idea of codependency as a diagnosable personality disorder is that it casts a negative light on victims of emotional abuse. Rather than celebrating a person’s willingness to exude love and kindness, the notion that codependent individuals “care too much” demeans them while excusing perpetrators of emotional abuse. Emotionally abusive people already have the upper hand in terms of the relationship’s power play. Therefore, placing the burden of the relationship’s failure on the victim by declaring their “codependency” reinforces societal tolerance of emotional abuse. This leads us, as a culture, to devalue traits such as empathy and compassion, while rewarding those who possess cold, manipulative attitudes.

Typically, women embody the more benevolent characteristics of the ones listed above. This could be an indirect result of many western social structures: pigeonholing women into caretaker roles, the feminization of emotional literacy, equating fierce individualism with professional success (which is inexplicably linked to masculinity), etc. Visible links exist between how we regard empathy and the careers which involve its application. For example, teachers, though integral to curating the young minds of our nation, are often underpaid and under-appreciated. Why? Well, the field just happens to be dominated by women. The same phenomenon pervades in the sphere of social activism or humanitarianism. From caretakers in nursing homes to the vast network of volunteers propping up schools, churches, community centers, and nonprofit organizations, women are on the frontline. As my mother has told me, “The world runs on the unpaid work of women.”

Naturally, those who respond emotionally to human suffering make perfect activists. They understand the importance of putting their own needs aside for the greater good. Combined with a dose of pragmatism, organization, charisma, and vision, these people are able to lead movements and create progress. This hypothetical personality is pretty admirable, if you ask me. Yet, too often are these people referred to as naive, impractical, or overly emotional. I would know. I’ve always been an idealist; I’ve always been an activist. My worst nightmare, (or “personal hell” for the Meyer’s Brigg’s INFJ personality type) is a world in which all people are subjected to the rule of an unjust, oppressive force without anyone to advocate on their behalf. I identify as female, and fit 100% into this profile that I’ve introduced. I’m told that I’m wrong for letting my passion for change guide me. But why is it right to promote selfishness above improving life for everyone?

I discovered one of my favorite quotes from a Chipotle bag: “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naive to work toward a better one.” -Steven Pinker

Apathy helps one achieve a momentary feeling of superiority. Passion and relentless caring, on the other hand, can help you accomplish something so much bigger than yourself.

Our manmade gender hierarchy has pitted everyone, even women, against the idea of embracing feminine qualities. Since we’ve shoved genuine concern for others into that corner along with an affinity for pink, it’s been difficult to convince people that it’s okay to let your guard down and show your soft side. However, it’s crucial to strike the correct balance between selflessness and self-preservation. Women have been conditioned to feel responsible for the needs of others. Mothers forego sleep to tend to their children, wives sacrifice pleasure to inflate their husbands’ sexual egos, and so on. Along with our ability to feel vividly, we are blessed - and cursed - with the ability to detect and, subsequently, serve the emotional needs of those around us. Maybe that’s where the idea of codependency came from, the thought that some only know they are loved or valued when they feel they are needed. I reject the idea that codependency is the root cause of women’s interpersonal issues. Rather, I believe that the trouble lies in the inability of others to accommodate highly sensitive people.

The “highly sensitive” person is one so in tune with the emotions and needs of others that they neglect their own self-care. They are sweet, generous souls who want nothing more than to leave the world better off than when they entered it. We could all do well to assist in their efforts, first by acknowledging their emotional nature as something beautiful and unique. We must try to shift our cultural values away from materialism, personal wealth, and individual progress, to a holistic understanding of what progress really looks like. In order to do this, we cannot afford to belittle our instruments of change for having larger hearts.

Secondly, we need to remind them that they must take care of themselves in order to help anyone else. Activists, like myself, often fear that we’re not doing enough for our causes. This is especially relevant to highly sensitive college students, who sometimes care more about meeting external expectations (like getting good grades, volunteering, and attending social obligations) than self-nurturing. This leads to a dismal lack of sleep, mental health concerns, physical illness, and spiritual dearth. Everyone should make sure that the highly sensitive person in their life is eating well, resting when need be, and addressing all their personal needs --whether psychological or tangible.

Lastly, we need to build up women. We can make sure female spaces are positive and inclusive, that women are serving as role models for each other, and that the female figures in our lives all communicate feminist values. But we also need to have men expressing their support for highly sensitive women. The next time some guy says a woman is “crazy,” when she may just be emotional for a perfectly valid reason, call him out on it. And the next time anyone compares someone of a different gender to a woman as a means of insulting them, shut it down. This person could be highly sensitive, which is something worth celebrating. Highly sensitive people have the potential to positively change the world. Let’s make sure we do whatever we can to enable them.
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