When I was in college, my ex and I used to have lots of long conversations about our feelings. Too long. I’m talking three or four hours. Looking back, I can see that we probably didn’t understand each other very well. No emotion takes four hours to explain.
During one of these conversations, he said something that stung and it’s stuck with me to this day. He told me I’m “so sensitive.” As a young punk feminist, I was stunned and indignant. By the misogyny. By the hypocrisy. And by what I saw as a fundamental lack of understanding of who I was. I was fierce. That, I knew. I also knew you can’t be a badass and sensitive.
The twist, as I learned in adulthood, is that I am sensitive. I’ve got feelings for days. My ex’s mistake was framing that like it’s a problem. I still can’t quite stomach the word “sensitive,” but I like to think that deep-feeling part of me as my superpower. It’s why I love interviewing people and hearing their stories. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I’ve been able to make a living as a writer. It’s definitely why I was drawn to yoga and mindfulness.
I think most people drawn to creative endeavors feel things deeply. The ability to empathize, evoke emotion, and connect with others all stem from a capacity for deep vulnerability and compassion. Unfortunately, American culture often characterizes vulnerability as weakness, making it all-but-impossible to drop the tough-gal veneer. Look no farther than all the brilliant minds we’ve classified as sensitive, troubled artists.
Brenè Brown, Ph. D. LMSW, research professor at the University of Houston, has spent more than 20 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. In her 2012 book, Daring Greatly, Brown says “To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.”
This is certainly the case in relationships and in our daily life. But I’d argue that getting vulnerable is how we do our best creative work, too. In Daring Greatly, Brown pinpoints vulnerability as a disruptive force that leads to innovation.
I’m not saying you have to share personal details. Your creative work is yours and it’s up to you how much you share with a bunch of strangers. I’m just saying you need to dig deep to create something great.
How much are you willing to engage with a creative project that pushes you? Does your work expose you in some fundamental way? Does it make you re-examine your beliefs and the way you see the world? Are you brave enough to wrestle with ideas that are new and uncomfortable?
This is where your so-sensitive, too-deep feelings swoop in to save the day. Unabashedly bearing your heart is the most underrated form of superhuman strength. It’s a form of what Brown calls daring greatly. And much like an epic superhero battle, you won’t come out unscathed. “Often the result of daring greatly isn’t a victory march as much as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue,” says Brown.
So let’s go there, shall we?
Close your eyes and think of a time you felt an emotion to your core. It can be a memory that makes your heart swell or one that makes you want to scream. The key is to pick something that stirs emotion in you today the same way it did when it happened.
Take in everything about the memory.
- How did it feel? Not just emotionally, although that’s vital. But how did it feel in your body? Did your fists clench or your throat constrict or your heart rate increase?
- Connect with a sense of place. Where were you? What could you see? Smell? Hear?
- Is there a color you associate with the memory? How about music?
- In what ways does it linger today? Has it changed you? What was this moment’s impact on the course of your life?
Jot down any details you can remember. Then, take inspiration from that moment. Create something, autobiographical or pure fiction, that reflects your memory. Try creating a scene with vibrant emotional detail, putting a character in the exact same situation, or reimagining your own story.
This is courageous creativity. When we dare to be “so sensitive,” we connect to the universal. The human experience is one of emotion. Getting honest, bearing your heart, and creating space for others to do the same is the definition of great art.
And if you ask me, it’s the most badass way to live.