On Sensitivity

May 9, 2015

The following essay is the start of a sporadic column about surviving the world as an artist. If you are enjoying reading these, please leave a comment or share.

Sensitivity is required for art. Photographers and visual artists have a sensitivity to light that is fundamental to their work. Rimbaud, that visionary poet, remarked that a poet becomes a poet through a “systematic derangement of the senses”. Making music requires sensitivity to how slight tweaks in a track affect the overall perception of the piece. Sensitivity is also required as empathy; our profound empathy for others is what helps make our art universal and for everyone.

Unfortunately, this profound sensitivity to the world also makes it difficult for artists to live in the every day.  My own sensitivity to sound and feelings make it difficult to ride the bus when someone is loudly talking on the phone. I get drawn into conversations that I don’t want to get drawn into; soon I’m feeling their tragedies or stresses and as a result I arrive at work an emotional wreck.

The real danger for sensitive artists in an unfeeling world is that it is often easy to lose one’s sense of self when confronted with so many overwhelming experiences. Such experiences are draining and tire us out and keep us from making art. Thus, it is important to know how to protect oneself from these experiences. We can’t always be sensitive to the world; otherwise we would be a bundle of raw nerves.

When they are overwhelmed, artists and sensitive people have many strategies for escaping these experiences. Some become emotionally withdrawn, reverting back to childish and petulant behavior. Others seek alcohol and drugs to dull their senses, or destructive impulses such as lashing out at others or destroying property.

There are less antisocial and less self-destructive ways to protect yourself when you are overwhelmed. These include the following:

  • Mindfulness exercises and cognitive behaviorial therapy. Both of these kinds of therapies provide you with methods to distance yourself from the problem and ask you why you are overwhelmed. Using these techniques can lessen the power of the overwhelming situation.
  • Isolating yourself from the problem behavior. This can be as simple as headphones, humming a song to one’s self, or going somewhere else. You must carve out such private spaces even in a public space like a club or performance venue.
  • Realizing that your sensitive side needs to be protected much like a child. Don’t ignore your own needs when you are feeling overwhelmed. Go somewhere else, calm yourself down before you deal with anything else.
  • Cultivating a sense of humor can help. Not only can it help defuse these overwhelming situations, but it can lessen the impact. I doubt I would be alive today if it were not for my sense of humor.

Obviously, these are just a few solutions to dealing with being oversensitive to situations, but I find they work for me. If you have any other solutions that you find helpful, I’d like to hear it. The important thing is that you realize that you have nurture your sensitive side for you to be at your best.

Resources

The two books I highly recommend are Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Both of these books seek to recontextualize behaviors of sensitive people that are often portrayed in a negative light. These behaviors are presented in a way that showcase a sensitive person’s strengths, rather than as weaknesses. I’ve found them extremely helpful as I find my way through the world.

Creative Commons License
On Sensitivity by Ted Laderas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at 15people.net.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at 15people.net.