Sensitivity and Resilience

Sensitivity and resilience are two character traits which often seem to be at odds with one another. When we think of sensitivity, we think of someone who tends to feel strong emotions, who is more likely to be affected by things that happen to them, someone who has a lot of ups and downs. A resilient person, by contrast, is able to go through life relatively unbothered by their circumstances, and bounces back quickly. 

I’ve always assumed there’s a tradeoff between sensitivity and resilience: both have benefits, but each comes at the cost of the other. Maybe sensitive people can appreciate pleasure and beauty more, and have more empathy for others, but this comes at the cost of more ups and downs, of struggling more. Resilient people can do much more, may never go through truly difficult times, but might miss out on some deeper emotional experiences, or find it harder to connect with people. 

I think a lot of the people in my life do broadly fit into these two categories, to varying degrees. And for a long time I think I’ve implicitly accepted that I’m always going to be on the sensitive side of the tradeoff. 

But I've been thinking recently that maybe this is an unnecessary dichotomy. I don’t think it’s easy, but it may be possible to be both highly sensitive and highly resilient. 

Sensitivity describes how much we react to what’s happening to us our around us - how much and how strongly we respond to other people and our circumstances. But resilience is more about how we respond to our feelings, than about what we actually feel. Being resilient isn't about never encountering difficult circumstances, or never feeling strong emotions. A person who never or rarely experiences difficult emotions might appear resilient from the outside - but someone who is able to experience difficult emotions and not be consumed by them, who can bounce back and keep going, shows real resilience. 

Sometimes, when I feel anxious, I also feel totally consumed by that feeling: like it’s totally controlling me, like I can’t see beyond it, and I need to do whatever I possibly can to make it stop. I’m reacting to the feeling, caught up in it, resisting it with all my might. But other times - more often, recently - I can feel just as anxious and yet somehow I have a little more distance from it. I don’t feel overwhelmed by it, and I feel like I can accept it - of course, I’d rather not be anxious given the choice, but it’s okay. I can look at it a bit more objectively, see that it’s not going to last forever, notice how it’s affecting me physically. In these moments, I feel pretty damn resilient. But it’s not really because the emotions I'm feeling are less strong. 

I worry a bit that sometimes, in an attempt to be more “resilient”, people switch off and ignore or push away strong emotions, for fear of being overwhelmed by them. And that people who are naturally sensitive think they cannot also be resilient, think that’s just a price they have to pay. There’s this sense we have to choose - to the extent that it’s under our control - between sensitivity and resilience. I suspect this is partly based on misconceptions of both sensitivity and resilience: that being sensitive means "overreacting" to things, that being resilient means "grin and bear it." But I think there's a type of sensitivity - a kind of emotional responsiveness - that is totally compatible with a certain kind of resilience - the ability to feel things but not be overwhelmed or controlled by them.

I realised this is probably part of why I like meditation so much, because it's essentially teaching you to be both more sensitive (to be more mindful of your experiences) and more resilient (to not get caught up in or resist what you’re feeling.)