Sunday Reflections: Dear world, stop telling my teenage daughter she is too sensitive
We were driving to a friend’s house when we came to the Intersection of Doom; traffic almost always comes to a stop here as 3 billion cars try to navigate an interchange designed to meet the freeway needs of only about 1 billion cars. At the time, I’m sure it made sense in some civic engineers head, but that civic engineer had no idea the number of humans that would move to the DFW area or the number of a times a day the traffic would come to a stand still.
As I contemplated all of this, an intense sobbing soon came from the seat beside me and to be honest, I knew right away what it would be. You see, this Intersection of Doom is also a great place for the homeless to stand – the cars always stop here, you are more likely to be seen and heard. And as I look up my suspicions were confirmed: outside the passenger side window stood an older gentleman holding a sign asking for food and in the seat beside me sat my teenage daughter sobbing. I knew what it was because I know her.
She is a sensitive soul. And to be quite honest, I like that about her. Though I don’t like what it does to her. But I understand it because she comes by it rightfully – I too am a sensitive soul. I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that not a day hasn’t gone by in my life where I haven’t teared up. TV commercials, songs, stories that my friends tell, seeing the homeless people at the Intersection of Doom. I get who she is and why she is crying.
Yes, she is sensitive. She is also passionate, compassionate, caring, kind, giving, gracious, grateful and so much more. Her heart is raw and exposed, but she acts on it and I think the world is better for it.
During last summer a friend said a thing that hurt her feelings. She told me what it was, it was in fact a pretty crappy thing. Instead of saying “I’m sorry”, this friend busted out the “you’re just too sensitive card.” What she was really saying is, “I don’t want to take responsibility for the fact that I did a crappy thing and hurt your feelings so now I’m going to blame you.” And here’s why it sucks: now, my daughter is hesitant to speak up when friends hurt her feelings, giving control to others in the relationship. She’s afraid to stand up for herself, she’s afraid to speak up about her feelings, she’s afraid to ask for respect and kindness. She stays silent because she fears that standing up for herself will result in her losing friends or being blamed for being too sensitive.
When we tell someone that they are too sensitive, what we are doing is telling them that they don’t have a right to think and feel what they think and feel. We invalidate them. We dismiss them. We ask them to conform to our standards instead of recognizing that there are other equally valid ways of being in this world. We blame those we have hurt for having the audacity to be hurt rather than say we are sorry for hurting them.
The other day a friend did a really crappy thing to her. She came to me with the hurt in her eyes, but she wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t say anything because she feared that by saying that hurt my feelings she would lose a friend because she was being too sensitive. But the truth is, if you have a friend who doesn’t care that they hurt your feelings, if they aren’t at least willing to talk to you about it to listen to your feelings, then they probably aren’t really a friend at all.
Because I was upset to see her feeling like she couldn’t even talk about her feelings, I said something on Twitter. It turns out a lot of us get told we are “too sensitive” and have strong feelings about it:
@TLT16 "You're too sensitive" = "Only my needs and opinions matter."
— robinreads (@RobinReads) December 22, 2015
— April Layne (@alibrarianstake) December 22, 2015
— Lori M. Lee (@LoriMLee) December 22, 2015
My friends on Twitter helped give me the words I needed to talk to The Teen about why “too sensitive” was a problem; not necessarily a problem with who she is, but a problematic statement. It also helped me understand why it had always bothered me when I was told this. And I was told this a lot. Am. I am told this a lot.
In November, my dad visited. At one point he made what in his mind was a humorous statement that involved “your face” – which he said to a 13-year-old girl who is just now wrestling with how she feels about her face. It was definitely the wrong thing to say at the exact wrong time. When he saw that he had hurt her feelings, he went and talked to her. This is progress. This is a step in the right direction from the man who frequently told me that I was “too sensitive”. Maybe it’s the difference between being a father and a grandfather. But I would like to think it is 20 years of learning and progress and empathy.
That’s what “you’re just too sensitive” lacks: empathy. Empathy for the person in front of you saying that their heart or their soul is wounded by the words that you have said or from the actions you have just taken, or failed to take. Empathy looks at the person in front of you expressing their feelings and tries to understand their point of view; empathy asks you to step outside of yourself in this moment and put your feet into their shoes so that you can try and understand what it is they are thinking and feeling. “You’re too sensitive” shuts down any doorways for empathy. The door is slammed and the person on the other side is just expected to deal because it is their problem.
So dear world, please stop telling my teenage daughter that she is too sensitive. Instead, maybe take a moment to listen to her express her feelings and acknowledge that she has a right to feel them, to be who she is. Let her know that who she is and what she thinks and feels has value and that you will try to honor that value by respecting her enough to listen to her. And just maybe, once in a while, you could say that you’re sorry for hurting her.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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