I can’t watch Syrian refugee videos without crying. I can’t hear Donald Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric without my pulse quickening and my heart hurting for the beautiful people he projects his fears upon.
Truth is, I choke up while watching dog food commercials. I am moved to tears on the daily by fog in the mountains or the dance between two trees, I can only be around noisy groups of people for a few hours before I have to retreat and process all I’ve taken in, and I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything without my vision being blurred by emotion.
As a sensitive, open-hearted person, I’m deeply affected by the world.
And though I now know this to be one of my greatest strengths, I haven’t always seen it that way. For most of my life, in fact, I lived with walls around my heart to keep from feeling so intensely.
Vulnerability was the feeling I feared the most.
Little by little, during particularly challenging and heartbreaking stretches of my life, those walls were chipped away at. The past five years of truth telling, soul searching, and perspective from abroad have resulted in their complete annihilation.
I’ve never felt so vulnerable in all my life.
This means that I feel pain much more frequently than I used to (as opposed to disguising my pain as anger, resentment, or disappointment). It’s also allowing me access to depths of joy, connection, and compassion that were previously unavailable to me.
I feel like a once-caged animal, exploring my natural habitat again for the first time since my childhood.
Last month, while hearing the news of the San Bernardino shooting and feeling deep grief for all those suffering, my attention shifted to the killers. A mental image came to me of an expertly-crafted, impenetrable stone fortress around each of their hearts. A wall so thick that not a single one of their souls’ pleadings could be heard or felt through it. How long had it been since they’d been moved by love or joy or beauty? How certain must they have felt that peace and security would never reach them in order to commit such atrocious acts?
I don’t claim to know the kind of pain, disconnection, and rejection that leads people to such hateful, terror-inflicting choices and mindsets. I’ve never experienced the depth of fear that causes a complete emotional detachment from certain groups people in order to dominate, control, or destroy them.
But I do know what it is to live with my heart walled. I know how nice it can feel to claim certainty, to cling tightly to ideals, and to renounce that which I don’t understand in order to feel a little safer in an overwhelming world.
Dare we empathize with them — even the smallest amount — in order to better understand the state of the world, and ourselves within it? Dare we see ourselves in the whole of humanity, and not just the parts we’re comfortable identifying with?
Though walling my heart seemed safer at times, doing so cut me off from the life force trying to move through me. It left me constantly craving. Brené Brown explains why:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Here’s the thing though:
Being highly sensitive and living unwalled has the potential to completely undo me. If I cry watching dog food commercials, how am I supposed to navigate the complexities of teenager rearing, marriage mending, business building, and life coaching?
Is it possible to be a lightbearer (my favorite name for one who lets her soul be fully seen) AND a high functioning human being?
I’m learning that it is possible, but that we cannot be effective lightbearers without some measure of protection of our own.
Vulnerability doesn’t mean handing our hearts to just anyone or exposing ourselves to a constant stream of tragedy and abuse, it means trusting our hearts to guide us while caring for and watching out for them so they can do their job.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about living from my heart effectively:
My self-care doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but me. I am often the first to leave a party, the first to call it a night, and the only one eating salad at a burger joint. I don’t watch disturbing movies, I talk to my inner child (sometimes even aloud), and I’d choose bone broth over coffee any day if both were offered. Though it’s not always easier, and my family often (lovingly) gives me a hard time about it, making choices that respect and honor my sensitivities (both emotional and physical) is essential for my strength and ability to show up well with others.
Compassion can be limitless. Given healthy emotional boundaries, I can feel compassion for anyone and everyone, including those whose hearts are completely hidden from the world. I don’t have to hate them back, but I also don’t have to be so disturbed by their actions that in their minds, they win.
I believe we are meant to be affected by the world’s tragedies and suffering — but only for as long as it takes for them to pry our hearts open a little wider. Only for as long as it takes to show us where we still stand to expand, brighten our collective light, and remind us that our light is so very needed.
To those of you who are deeply sensitive, I feel you, I honor you, and I implore you:
Never mistake sensitivity for weakness. Sensitivity indicates a strong heart, eager to be engaged and capable of radical love.
We need you, lightbearer. The world needs you shining.
*Photo credit goes to the amazing Jote Khalsa
Oh my goodness. I have never identified more deeply with another person’s writing. I am nearly speechless. Lightbearer is the most beautiful word and your definition was equally as beautiful. Like you, I have spent the last five years truth telling and learning to see my “weakness” as my greatest strength, but the affirmation contained in this piece is incredible. Tonight as my family watched American Idol, I held my hands over my face as one of their youngest auditoners was rejected. He told his mom, “I messed up,” and started to cry. I could not handle it. It made me so sad. And I am with you on dog commercials or anytime someone spews hate toward others who are different in any way. I chuckled at the “salad in the burger joint”- that is me; and the one who needs to leave parties early; and can only take so much noise from the outside world. I absolutely must have time to process my thoughts and would choose taking a walk by myself than going with anyone else. I would often wonder if something was wrong with me — I am learning there is not, but what you said about discernment was like a lightbulb moment and deep exhale for me. I give so much to my family and my readers. I often feel tapped out. You assured me that it is okay and understandable. Well, apparently I was not speechless … I could go on and on about this beautiful affirmation you wrote. But I will stop here and just say, thank you. You wrote the words of my heart. What a tremendous gift I will carry with me always. I am sure looking forward to your book.
Thank you, sweet Rachel. It makes total sense to me that you, too, are deeply affected by the world. Everything you mentioned, from covering your eyes during a child’s hope-crushing moment of defeat to preferring walks alone, resonates with me. I am learning that the more I come to understand my natural tendencies and honor them, the less tapped out I feel. This requires going against the grain a LOT of the time, though, which makes it all the more valuable to have friends like you with whom to relate and empathize. So much love to you, Rachel. You’re a lightbearer if there ever was one.
I am feeling this today, what perfect affirmations to hold in my heart. I am not deficient because I need to go slow, or take what seems to others ridiculous amounts of time to process. I am taking it slow in life, and often feel that I will never be able to do anything besides take care of myself and my family, though I long to do more. I think I am stuck in the part about learning what truly is my responsibility in my closest relationships. I am working on it though, inch by inch, fanning the very real divine flame of love that burns in my center. Thank you thank you for burning brightly. with much love. amy
Thank YOU Amy, for reaching out and affirming ME. I so empathize with need to go it slow, or at least slower than most around me. The question of what we are actually responsible for (vs. what we act like we’re responsible for) is a powerful one, and has been a game changer for me along my parenting journey. Do keep fanning that flame, friend. The brighter the better, for you and for everyone else. <3
oh and I truly adore your lists!
I’m glad to hear that, because I rather enjoy writing them!
Thank you so much for this post. I am 66 and have always been very sensitive. I have worked to support myself since I was a kid. I started taking antidepressants 26 years ago. I now take 3 a day. If I didn’t take the meds, I would sit at home and cry all the time. Even with the meds, I need to decline a lot of invitations. Many people don’t understand that social interactions can be physically painful. Congratulations, Beth, on being able to survive and overcome.
Thank you for sharing that with me, Susan. It’s no small challenge to balance deep emotions with other people’s limited understanding. I give you a ton of credit for the bravery this has required of you for the bulk of your life. Much love your way. <3
Profound Beth, truly beautiful and poetic! Thank you always….
Thank you, Karen. You’re very kind. <3
Reading the comments brings tears to my eyes! The connections and support here are amazing. Beth, there has not been a single thing that you have written that I haven’t been able to completely relate to. Thank you! You have put words and guidance before me in times when it seemed like there was absolutely no one in this world that could even begin to understand. For that there are no words!
I know I found your blog long ago for a reason, feels like your journey mirrors mine, you just voice everything I am feeling and experiencing. Thank you so much for baring your soul. People like you help so many of us heal. Thank you, thank you!
Thank you <3
thank you for taking the time
thank you for finding the words
thank you for sharing your journey
thank you for helping us heal
love love love to you! 🙂
Thank you for your wonderful words. So glad you are writing here again as I really missed your words. I am a sensitive mother to two very sensitive pre-school girls, I’m talking sensitive skin, sensitive to foods, sensitive to medications, sensitive to change, sensitive to life. After two weeks battling eczema in both kids in our summer sun down here, juggling the food allergies and trying to connect emotionally with my very tired and wired kids I started to wonder why Gaia blessed our family with three such sensitive womenfolk (my poor man!). But your words point to the truth – open hearted children who throw themselves into everything with passion, and whose bodies reflect the truth of our need to think carefully about the way we live, the foods we eat, that our bodies and souls are porous and yes, vulnerable. Instead of resisting this reality I need to embrace the whole of who my children are, not less than fully healthy, just more sensitive than most. Thank you for sharing your wise words.
Wow. I’ve never read anything that addressed what I have always seen as a weakness in myself. I have felt self-protective, only letting those closest to me into my real self. I’ve never been able to pinpoint why but have always been in admiration of those who could share their deeper selves and vulnerabilities without apology. I love your perspective and the way you’ve turned it into a strength. I’m taking your words to heart and starting the journey today to becoming a more effective lightbearer! Thanks!
Thank you for your beautiful words and insight! Thank you for reminding me that my sensitive heart is a beautiful thing and not something to be ashamed of but a wonderful gift from God.
Oh yeah, this descibes me too a tee as well. Fortunetly, I have accepted and seen it as an actual strength for awhile, especially when I saw the Brene Brown TED talks.. My brother has told me otherwise.. that I need to “grow a thick skin” etc…I think one day he will see what I was talking about. Thanks for your usual beautiful thoughts.
What a beautiful piece, there’s so much truth here, So much of what I am only recently learning. Paragraph 8 is brilliant, I felt so much at one with those thoughts.
I’ve recently been having trouble with numbers 3 and 4. Does anyone have suggestions to not hold on to pain? And to not identify with pain? I’m sure many can relate.
What a beautiful, soulful, inspirational post…I am new to your site; I will return again and again. I needed to read these words this morning. Thank you a million times over for sharing with the world.
I love this and connect with your message. I think people with this trait are very much misunderstood. I actually breathed, fully, after reading it for what feels like the first time in a long time. Namaste.
Absolutely beautiful. I am 33 and have identified as an empath for close to 5 years now. However I have only shared this with my mother and husband out of fear of the vulnerability it may cause if I share this with others. This article helps curb those fears. I have also never commented on anything on the internet but your words were so moving I had to let you know.
That piece you wrote on sensitive souls- Theo forwarded it to me- helped me and i want to print it and post some of it as reminders to me. Thank you. It was great to meet and connect with you over post dance picnic at warren Wilson- much love,
Laura Seiler (sitting next to Katrina)
Thank you Laura! I really appreciate you reaching out, and with such kind, affirming words. I enjoyed our time together, too, and would love to see you again sometime soon! I just “friended” you on Facebook. Let me know if there’s a better way to keep in touch. 🙂