I was recently talking with a survivor. She was putting herself down for being ‘oversensitive’. That is, something that would seem normal and non-threatening to most people was experienced by her as traumatic. Like a hug.

She was frustrated that certain things, which were not abuse, triggered strong reactions in her.

Knowing what she has gone through, I feel nothing but compassion for her sensitivity.

It is like a gaping wound that the lightest touch causes unbearable pain.

And then I realized that most people who overreact could have similar issues.

My mother loves to point out how sensitive I am about gender issues. She insinuates that it is my failing if I react. Well, I happen to have a big gaping wound about gender and the worth of things feminine.

My church and immediate culture scraped my soul raw with toxic messages about gender and gender roles. I feel like I was hauled naked over gravel. As I pick out the rocks of hatred, lies and indifference, I uncover hidden wounds.

Even feather brushes against it hurt. If someone mentions that boys are X and girls are Y, I immediately freeze. I get a sick feeling in my stomach. All over again I experience the message “women are worthless”. Even if X and Y are eating patterns, I still experience it as a trigger.

In reading blogs like Womanist Musings, I saw the issue of racial sensitivity come up time after time. These women of non-white status were being ridiculed for being sensitive about racial comments. They have gaping wounds that, like mine, go back generation after generation. A comment that would seem a friendly slap on the back of a white person (in our white-supremacist society), was actually stinging open flesh that had been sandpapered off by a lifetime of small, “insignificant” comments.

Not coincidentally, all of the ridicule I observed came from white persons. Is this because they are racist? I wouldn’t say that, just that they failed to see how an open laceration experiences things differently than unmarred flesh.

That brings me to other groups that react strongly to seemingly benign or honest statements: the privileged.

A classmate of mine was seething with anger that his Somalian roomie was racist against white people. I tried to explain that the definition of racism is prejudice + power, so the guy wasn’t racist – just prejudiced – at least while they are both in Canada.

My classmate got very angry at that and complained that he was always being discriminated against because he is a white, middle class male (although beyond his roomie’s hateful comments he could think of no concrete example, just his fear that he would be).

His immediate anger reminded me of other men who react to the fact that we live in a society that privileges (certain types) of men over women. The most common one I encounter is “I’m not sexist! Its just that women aren’t as ___ as men are!” Some people’s anger is truly frightening.

Now, why would a group that isn’t being put down because of their gender/body type/age/race and so on, react when this is pointed out? Why do they react as if it were threatening their very life?

I can understand when a Metis woman accused me of hating First Nations people on the basis that my skin was white. She didn’t even know my name. I assume she had been treated poorly so many times that my light skin was a trigger for her defenses. I can understand that.

I don’t understand why some men are so threatened by the realization that women are just as human as they are, that one cut off the nose of his teenage wife when she tried to get him to stop beating her. (National Geographic, Dec 2010)

Unless, he has convinced himself that her personhood really is a threat to him.

The same way that certain fundy evangelicals, JW’s and Hutterites convince themselves that the world is out to get them. That everything that doesn’t support their belief system is a direct and hostile personal attack.

How else could a person react to a kind and sincere “Happy Holidays” with outrage. What else could cause them to scream back to the person wishing them well that “Its Merry CHRISTmas and how dare you ignore the reason for the season! Christ hater!” (Yes, this is extreme, but yes, it happens.)

Some reactions I understand. Touching an open wound of abuse will get a painful reaction, even if the touch is meant as friendly or neutral.

Some reactions make me angry back.

I hope to be more patient with those people who react strongly to certain triggers and not to minimize the pain they feel, even if on the surface it appears oversensitive. Even if that person is myself.

2 thoughts on “Oversensitive?

  1. This is an excellent analysis, prairie nymph. It is so easy for people have don’t bear the scars of abuse to be critical of the “sensitive” reactions of those who do. You’ve described the disconnect beautifully. I hope I can be more empathetic too.

    On the other hand, the people you mentioned who feel threatened by the prospect that those they want to view as “lesser beings” are, in fact, people too, — they scare me.

  2. dsholland says:

    Thoughtful and insightful. I particularly like the encouragement to try to understand and FEEL the source of what in many cases really IS and overreaction (if overreaction means a reaction based on what was heard rather than on what was intended).

    Isn’t that a common trap of marriage. We have so much history that the slightest word can becomes so much more than what was intended. If it continues we end up better at hurting one another than healing one another. Stopping the battle to have compassion on the enemy is hard to do, but without that step we forfeit the possibility to build the history of love.

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