Last night I was talking to a friend, someone I love and trust, about the Amanda Palmer débacle. And he said something that, frankly, floored me. He said we (those offended) were oversensitive. He continued, later on, by saying that I myself, specifically, was “very sensitive” and that it was something I should “work on [changing]”. I did not expect to hear that from him, and I found it really jarring.
But I don’t want, right now, to talk about the larger social implications of that comment. Many people have talked about its use as a silencing technique before. [for one example of many, check this excellent post by Melissa on Shakesville. UPDATE: for another example, look at Derailing For Dummies] I’m not saying that discussion is not a HUGELY IMPORTANT one to have–it is. But it’s not one I feel I can meaningfully contribute to at the moment.
So instead, let’s take it to a more personal level. (Ha. All of my posts end up on a personal level, I know, I know). There are two things I see rolled up into that little statement he made. These two things are (a) that I tend to assume the worst when faced with something ambiguous, and (b) that I take offense easily.
And you know what? Both of these are true. Let’s take a look at the reasons for that, shall we? (We shall).
The first. The idea that when confronted with something ambiguous, my mind jumps to the worst-case scenario. This does happen. I wish it didn’t, but it does, and the reason is in two parts. The first part is that I–find a lot of things ambiguous that other people don’t necessarily. Sometimes I can’t read tone well, which leads to me not knowing whether someone meant something in an innocuous way or as an attack. Like, I literally can’t tell. That wouldn’t be an issue–I’d just have to ask for clarification–except that, due to my upbringing, I am rather quick to assume that people are mad at me.
My mom spent so much of my childhood engaging in guilt tactics with me. I have recovered a lot since I stopped living with her, and even more since I stopped talking to her. But that legacy remains, and, now, whenever I’m in an altercation or something that seems like it might become one, my first instinct, my first fear, is that I’ve done something wrong. That I’ve crossed a line. That I need to apologize, because people are mad at me. I’m a timid person. And in that respect, yes, I am indeed very sensitive. Here I agree, it’s something I’d like to change.
But what of the other part? The idea that I’m easily offended?
Well, you know what? That’s kind of true as well. There is a lot I see in this world that offends me. But here’s where he and I part ways, because I don’t see that as a bad thing. A difficult thing? Yes, sure. But a bad one? No. On the contrary, it took a long time to get to the point where I can pretty consistently spot problematic stuff [note that I don’t say always. I probably miss a lot, actually, because I’m human and still learning, as is everyone]. It took me even longer to get to the point where, upon spotting problematic stuff, I talk about it. To get to the point where I’m willing to make a fuss when I feel something isn’t right.
It was hard work. It, in fact, continues to be hard work, precisely because of the reactions I get. Because people tell me, yes, that I’m oversensitive. That caring about these things, enough to–sometimes–actually be hurt by them, is a bad thing.
But I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I think it’s important, the things that we ‘sensitive’ people do. I think it’s important to talk about problematic things, even if no-one else seems to see the issue. I think it’s valuable to feel strongly enough about something to have an emotional reaction, even if that reaction hurts, even if the something is a thing you could safely ignore at little personal cost.
I think it’s valuable to care.
So, yes. I’m sensitive. I’m even very sensitive, as he said. But oversensitive? Not that. Never that.
If anything, I’m not sensitive enough. There’s always farther to go, more to learn. And I plan to continue making that journey, regardless of what gets thrown my way.
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