The quality of sensitivity has had multiple meanings through the years
In psychology (where sensitivity is perhaps most frequently focused on), it has generally meant that a sensitive person is capable of empathetically feeling both their pain and another’s in a way that shows caring and understanding.
This first level of empathy is clearly a capacity that is a part of development that the world of psychology has highlighted as a feature. Sensitivity is considered a major asset to intimacy, parenting, and friendship, as well as an ally to all relationships. However, there’s also a bias that sensitivity has more to do with responding to vulnerability than strength, creativity, and the world in a broader sense.
This is what I refer to as the first view of sensitivity. As a therapist, I’ve focused on this view, especially regarding valuing vulnerability and strength. The core idea in therapy that focuses mostly on sensitivity is the importance of being vulnerable. However, it’s also essential to be balanced to develop our capacity to embody and embrace both the vulnerable parts of ourselves and other personal features. At the same time, it sometimes highlights strength and helps us learn how to set clear boundaries.
A global sensitivity — caring for those beyond your circle
However, a second, different kind of sensitivity includes an evolutionary perspective, where one can feel a need to care for those outside their immediate circle, the wider community, and the planet at large.
In my 30s and early 40s, I loved to get together with friends and talk openly about life challenges and ways to connect with our life partners. This included discussing how we felt connected and disconnected and how we could access needs that would best take care of ourselves and our partners. My friends were reliable and mature confidants to share this kind of vulnerability. This was when I started developing the second kind of sensitivity. It also was the dominant way of helping others grow in therapy — I also started to focus on being open about feelings and discovering what core needs were most vital, starting to include a wider circle of the world.
Later on, in my 40s, I started to feel some emptiness as the focus was dominantly on feelings and needs about the small orbit of my world. I became much more aware of the plight of the impoverished across the globe — the homeless, the extremely poor in the United States, and the people in war-torn countries as well as growing corruption, terrorism, and global warming in the world. I wasn’t alone — soon, there was a natural expansion of perception, intention, and action among the people I was close to. It also opened up new friendships with philanthropic leaders and contributors.
At the time, we didn’t label it as another kind of sensitivity or empathy, but over time, it became clear that we all shared a similar feeling of wanting to contribute to more than just our close circle of people. We were organically drawn to make our country and world a safer and healthier place to live.
The focal point of today’s article isn’t about me but the others who find a place inside themselves and want to contribute and support others. In addition, there was (and continues to be) a desire to meet and work alongside others with a similar mind and heart to improve the world.
Some of the ways the people around me have put their sensitivity into action:
- Creating innovative projects
- Funding and working to develop microfinance (small loans to women in villages across developing countries)
- Impact investing
- Medical care both in the United States and the world
- The political focus on voting rights and democracy
- Creating projects to eliminate homelessness
- Developing work opportunities for the homeless in regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration
- Focusing on changing the role of psychology to include a broader worldview when possible with clients that were developed with this potential.
The crises that we are facing in the world today have created unparalleled opportunities to be helpful. But, again, this is a reflection of that second level of sensitivity that is focused on the more vulnerable parts of oneself and those closest to us and the greater world and seeing how we can bring the greatest benefit possible to others.
Of course, this is mostly possible only for those not in life situations that are dominantly concerned with survival.
This is mostly possible for those who aren’t in life situations where one doesn’t have to be dominantly concerned with survival. However, for those who are understandably concerned with survival, the focus of greater sensitivity can be even more impressive. With this greater challenge, we can still find a way to contribute by expanding our attitude toward the people we come into contact with.
For example, those who are cashiers and workers in supermarkets, gas station attendants, or others in similarly strenuous and difficult jobs for survival — it is a lot harder to keep developing a caring attitude of sensitivity when you are forced to do work that you don’t particularly like and still come up with a sensitivity with extra effort frequently.
The second type of sensitivity, a sensitivity to the world, isn’t always a given. It’s not a ‘should’ and often comes through quite organically, following an internal instinct to care for the wider community and planet.
This isn’t to say that it’s not desirable to have a kind of integrity that is through effort. But there is another level of development when we feel through our own life experience that it is a joy to be empathic, sensitive, and caring to a broader group. It becomes clear that there is no sacrifice at all and, in fact, this way of being is a way to experience substantial joy and peace.
Sensitivity towards an animal or a child doesn’t necessarily indicate caring for others
Returning to the first, primary type of sensitivity — it can sometimes disguise some very subtle self-centeredness. Here is a real-life example to help put what I mean in perspective:
Gary, a close friend of mine, had a dog named Alfie whom he loved dearly. When it came to Alfie, Gary was extremely sensitive and empathetic — from his food to his health. I’m sure many of us are or know people who find it easier to love and be sensitive to animals than humans.
One of the ways Gary wasn’t sensitive to those around him when it came to Alfie was when he didn’t train or leash Alfie. Alfie was a big, energetic dog who would often scare people and was thought of as a bit risky to be around small kids. In fact, it was his heightened sensitivity to his dog that caused some huge issues between his neighbors and him.
Once, Alfie bounded to kids who were skateboarding and threw them off balance, causing a few injuries, and Gary was forced to reckon with the fact that his sensitivity to Alfie was blinding him from being sensitive to others. This resulted in the father of the two kids running up the driveway of Gary’s house, ready to punch him, and his wife was so exasperated that she said, “I don’t blame you for wanting to punch him, as I’ve been trying to have him be more caring toward all of our neighbors. I feel for you, and my husband is completely at fault.”
This empathy is likely what allowed the neighbor to stop punching Gary. How many of you know people or are one yourself that treats your animals better than other people and could even be putting them in jeopardy?
This is where the critical distinction lies between the two kinds of sensitivity. The second one always includes the impact on everyone involved. There are no extra special living beings, whether humans or animals, where care for them reduces the need to stay sensitive to others. Everyone is considered worthy of caring, consideration, and sensitivity.
For Gary, it was his wife asking him to put himself in his neighbor’s shoes that helped. “How would you feel if their dog ran one of our kids off the cliff (they lived in the Canyons) and got injured?”
This can be learned through life experience, with extra support with guidance from our family, schools, ministers, and counselors, but all too often is overlooked.
Hopefully, you can convert this to life situations that exist in your life or those of your friends. Again this isn’t meant to create guilt, but to highlight the potential we all have to consider others as if they were ourselves or close to it in as many interactions as possible. As is glaringly obvious, this is not the way we are generally taught by example how to live.
Adopting a global perspective to sensitivity and empathy
Almost all of us are taught to take care of ourselves and our families first, and the rest of the world is a very distant second. The world could even be referred to as the “other,” revealing a relative indifference. This insight and response to it can help us see why we are in such a mess in our country and the world.
The favoritism that most of us are taught as healthy, creates a world of gross alienation and separation. Tapping into the second type of sensitivity allows us to see how we might unwittingly be a part of the contributors of a world divided against itself.
Sometimes, when you or those close to you access this level of sensitivity, it can be difficult to grapple with others who don’t overlap with your thoughts and actions.
Joe was a good friend of mine during our 20s and 30s. We shared a lot of quality time talking about our feelings and needs. As fellow therapists, we both learned a lot from each other. However, as time passed, my interests changed to be more focused on responding to the country and world’s challenges. On the other hand, Joe was content to maintain his way of life, which meant he focused on taking deep care of his family and close friends without a larger interest in the world.
Before I go on, I want to stress that there is no judgment here. These are just two different perspectives and beliefs.
Our primary desires and passions went from a significant overlap to moving in starkly different directions. At that time, I was (and continue to be) heavily involved with The Global Bridge Foundation and its initiatives with homelessness, regenerative agriculture, immigration reform, etc.
As we discussed this and the state of the world with global warming, dangers to democracy, nuclear threats, and, most recently, the invasion of Ukraine, it became even more evident that we had less overlap. Our relationship, which continues to be very friendly, helps demonstrate the different sensitivity levels. He is as kind, interested, and empathic to me, and he is even a minor contributor to our foundation. I want to stress the importance of at least having or trying to have these important conversations with others — sometimes, people haven’t thought about the world at large because they don’t know how to start.
When it came to our usual level of meeting up and spending time with each other, I soon realized that we had different priorities and were more inclined to meet like-minded people and focus on what mattered to us. This firmed up our trend of seeing each other with caring and spending less time as our core differences were really expressed.
How can we utilize our internal sensitivity to benefit the world?
I’m aware that this example can be seen as setting a moral standard — however, there is absolutely no desire for that as it is the opposite intent to explore sensitivity. I believe that it is the greatest gift of anyone’s life to naturally want to share the benefit you’ve received with others when your needs are taken care of. But unfortunately, this has yet to be taught in any significant way (by theory or practice) by schools, therapists, religious leaders, and parents that I’m aware of.
It would be helpful if we could be taught to think deeply about our feelings for our loved ones and the world.
“What will really fulfill me to follow my own wisdom?”
“What can inspire me to find happiness in actions that help others beyond what I was taught?”
For some of us, this moment of questioning occurs as we age. We find this sensitivity to the world after a few decades of focusing on ourselves and our small circles.
For some of the younger people today, this moment occurs sooner. This is because they are entering a much more obvious destructive and threatened world. I’ve seen the second level of sensitivity develop stronger and quicker as my friends and colleagues work with high school and university students (as well as an extended group of young people starting their careers).
The best way forward for our and the world’s collective survival is to find a way to seek fulfillment in our actions. For some or most of us, this fulfillment can come through helping others outside our community and by doing our bit to care for the planet.
Guilt or even inadequacy being reinforced rarely help at all, unless it is a kickstart to more profound realizations that lead us to our hearts and wisdom. Instead, we need to all strive to do what we can to develop our sensitivity and gently explore our choices when they involve a greater focus on ourselves and our immediate environment.
Every bit of sensitivity is to be honored, as many people haven’t experienced even a tiny amount of this type of personal care. So the point is to be curious and keep asking:
“What is sensitivity to me? Is there more potential that I would love to be more open more too?”