18. Hypersensitivity

Hypersensitivity is the tendency to overreact to life’s ordinary stresses. It’s a trait that procrastinators share with addicts, “blocked” artists and others who are having trouble coping.

Notice that I’m talking about “hypersensitivity,” not “sensitivity.” Sensitivity is a great personality trait. It means we’re deeply and meaningfully aware of ourselves, our environment and the living beings around us. The world needs as many sensitive people as possible because they are often the ones who notice, and strive to fix, problems.

Hypersensitivity, however, goes overboard. If a minor irritation, disappointment or rejection ruins your day (or week or month or year), then you’re hypersensitive. Conversely, if minor good news makes you gleeful or manic to the point where you can’t function, that’s also hypersensitivity.

Hypersensitivity is, in essence, a lack of emotional self-control. It’s a very common problem, judging from the hundreds of books out there that purport to address the problem, and a particularly serious one for activists because:

• The activist life is filled with emotional “triggers.” Most people, in their daily lives, experience a range of positive and negative emotions. Few people, other than artists, perhaps, actively court emotional highs and lows the way activists do. By working to change the status quo, activists pretty much guarantee that they will be exposed to frequent disapproval, rejection, frustration and even ridicule. “Go where you are least wanted, for there you are most needed,” advised Abigail Kelley Foster, the nineteenth century abolitionist and pacifist. Excellent advice, but the inevitable rejection and negativity the activist will face when she follows it will make life extremely unpleasant if she has hypersensitive tendencies.

• Hypersensitivity steals not just your time and energy, but your objectivity. As discussed earlier, the primary requisite for doing activist work is an objective worldview. Hypersensitivity clouds your objectivity, thus making you less effective. Often, moreover, the clouding is negative, so that you see a situation as being worse than it actually is. This breeds the kinds of cynicism and hopelessness that presage so many cases of burnout. Even excessive optimism can be a problem, however. Here’s Gitlin, again: “If you’re giddy with expectations, like the revolutionists of the late sixties, your giddiness will work on you like a drug—until, if you’re lucky, you crash, and if you’re unlucky, something worse happens. This was the way of the Communists and their fellow travelers, who were always looking to explain (away) any criticisms of the Soviet Union as fabrications of the bourgeois press. . . . The equivalent rapture was the fate of too many hard-core activists of my generation, who mistook their dizzy desires for real revolutionary prospects.”

• Hypersensitivity leads to a tendency toward isolation. Many hypersensitive people have trouble tolerating life’s ordinary stresses. They react strongly to irritants such as a late train, a slow line at the grocery store or even bad weather. At the workplace, they simply can’t abide cubicles, dress codes, fluorescent lights and nosy coworkers. One “solution” many hypersensitive people employ, either consciously or unconsciously, is to retreat from the world and its stresses. They spend more and more time alone in an environment that is as much under their control as possible. Professionally, they may try to work from home, or, if they can’t manage that, take other actions to isolate themselves from their colleagues—for example, keeping their office door shut or avoiding the popular lunch hangout. After hours, they may retreat into a solitary couch potato or “Internet addict” existence. The problem with isolation is that, while it may feel good in the short term, it is almost always inimical to success. Lone Ranger–type myths aside, success in almost any important endeavor invariably requires a team effort. And even the Lone Ranger had Tonto and Silver. . . .

If you are hypersensitive, one of your primary challenges will be to learn to experience negative emotions such as rejection, frustration and disappointment, as well as positive ones such as pride and happiness, without being derailed by them. This may not be easy, but it will be an important part of your growth as an activist.

Hypersensitivity is also often linked to addiction. If you are “hooked” on extreme emotional highs and lows that you are unable or unwilling to moderate—or that you may be attempting to moderate through drinking, drugs, overeating, oversleeping or through a “soft” addiction such as compulsive television-watching or video-game-playing—you’re going to have to deal with that issue. See a therapist, join a twelve-step program, or at least do some reading in the field of addiction and recovery. A good place to start is Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception by Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. (see Bibliography).

Compassion Fatigue

Hypersensitivity can also be symptomatic of a serious psychological condition called Compassion Fatigue, which I discussed in Part I, Endnote 1. If you think you may be suffering from Compassion Fatigue, you should seek professional help.

The Solution

As with perfectionism and negativity, the cure for hypersensitivity is to replace dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors with functional (objective) ones. Hypersensitivity is a somewhat simpler problem to work on than the other two, however, because the functional thought pattern is always a variation on, “I’m going to calm down and do what I’m supposed to be doing.” For example:

The process you’ll go through is the same as that for solving Perfectionism and Negativism: practice, practice, practice. At first, it may be hard to remember to replace a hypersensitive thought with a functional one, but after some practice it will seem more natural, and after still more practice it will happen automatically. Eventually, you’ll stop reacting so hypersensitively.

As always, never berate yourself when you slip up.