The word “emotional” has a bad and unfair reputation.
When the word “emotional” is used to describe someone, it’s usually not a compliment. It’s shorthand for: out of control, overreacting, unreliable, biased, fragile, delicate, a cry-baby, someone you have to tiptoe around, weak, and crazy. Someone who is “emotional” is incapable of making the best decisions.
To be called “emotional” is almost an insult. It’s like when men use the phrase “like a girl” to describe how lame another man is. “Girl” and “emotional” mean inferior, less than, not up to par. If you’re being emotional or reacting emotionally, you’re wrong somehow. It’s as if emotionalism is disease. People say “I’m not going to make an emotional decision” as if they were saying “I’m not going to make a decision with Mad Cow Disease” or “I’m not going to make a decision while smoking crack”. Emotions definitely should not be considered while making decisions. Decision making is a rational and analytical process and those pesky emotions just get in the way.
The only times you’re allowed and encouraged to be emotional (there must be something wrong with you if you aren’t emotional enough) are the times when you’re falling in love; getting married; having a baby; getting divorced; or grieving a death and the amount of time you’re allowed to spend being emotional while experiencing any of these life events is minimal. Spending too much time feeling any negative emotions is wallowing, another word that has a bad and unfair reputation.
If being called “emotional” is bad, being “emotionally sensitive” is even worse. To be emotionally sensitive means you are regularly irrational and fragile and it makes you even harder to deal with. Emotional sensitivity implies not just inferiority but defectiveness. To be emotional means you’re weak. To be emotionally sensitive means you are ashamedly weak.
It’s no wonder that many highly sensitive people, those who experience their sensitivity primarily physically, make a point of stressing that high sensitivity is not to be confused with emotional sensitivity and focus on the physiological expressions of the trait. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t experience their sensitivity emotionally or it’s because of the way our culture views being “emotional” and being “sensitive” and what it means to be both. But, I think we need to embrace both being emotional and emotional sensitivity as part of being highly sensitive.
Taking Back “Emotional”
The first thing we need to do is reclaim and redefine what “emotional” is. Emotions are just information. To be emotional is just having access to and allowing yourself to be affected by more information. Doesn’t everyone want as much information as possible while making important decisions?
To be emotionally sensitive is to be more affected, more responsive and processing emotions at a deeper level.
What if we used the phrase “emotionally responsive” instead of “emotionally sensitive”? It’s different, right? “Responsive” doesn’t have the negative connotation that “sensitive” does. Responsive implies openness, awareness and curiosity. HSP pioneering researcher Elaine Aron wrote in her Comfort Zone newsletter “sometimes I wish I had started out with ‘highly responsive,’ although I’m not sure it would have made matters clearer, and many fewer people would have recognized themselves in the title The Highly Responsive Person!” I think more people (especially men) would be more likely to recognize themselves in the description “highly responsive person”. The word “sensitive” has an ugly, unfavorable history. Few people want to be linked with the word. But, as Aron wrote in an another article in her newsletter:
HSPs are in fact “more emotional” than others. Humans have to evaluate every situation for whether it is good, interesting, desirable, dangerous, sad, and so forth. If a situation has even a touch of these, it is processed further. This processing can lead to more emotion still. Hence emotion leads to processing and processing often leads to more emotion. Since HSPs process everything further, they have to be more emotional–emotion is initiating their processing and is often a consequence of their doing so much processing. By the way, being more emotional does not cause poor decision-making. Most of the time emotions improve decisions–we can better appreciate the importance of something and are more likely to act.
Or as someone online put it “(emotions) may not have a pretty face, but they have beautiful legs.”
There is another benefit to being an emotionally sensitive person — we allow other people to express their emotions and not just the negative ones. We become, as Aron describes us, emotional leaders:
(Highly sensitive people) also feel more love, joy, pride, awe, and all the other positive emotions. When others are not yet conscious of what they are feeling, we often are. So we can be the emotional sensors. If this is an appropriate time to cry, rage, run in panic, express gratitude, give a hug, not give a casual hug, and so forth, we often do it first–or refrain from doing it–so that others do the same. Of course we can have the wrong reaction, in the sense that ours turns out to be based on misinformation or our own complexes, which can make us feel quite ashamed. But that is the risk with any kind of leadership, and can happen whether we choose to lead or just find ourselves being followed.
This is why HSPs exist. Our power lies in demonstrating how strong you can be while being emotional and sensitive. When I hear someone being described as being “emotional”, I think they’re brave, authentic, and healthy. “Emotional” can mean passionate, committed, and present. It can mean being wise.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence:
If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.
You know what they call the complete opposite of an emotionally sensitive person?