I can remember a moment on the phone with my mother when I was in college, overwhelmed and crying. Between my sobs, my mother said something that has stuck with me since: “Why are you so sensitive, Erin? You really need to lighten-up.”
My mother wasn’t the first or the last to say this to me. All my life, people have told me that I was “too sensitive,” “very intense,” “so emotional.” And I listened and told the same things to myself. The world has always affected me deeply. I felt everything and built an analysis of life rather than an experience of it when I was with others. For years, I tried to solve my “intensity” problem by controlling my situations. I was private about many aspects of my life, not wanting to burden others when they had things to deal with of their own and I started hiding bits of me away. I thought of my sensitivities as weaknesses, out of my control, which made me vulnerable and exposed.
Eventually, things fell apart. I was married, had a respectable job and a life that didn’t fit me at all. It was a life that I had constructed based on my analysis of what it should be instead of where my experiences led me. I left it all behind and I learned to embrace the sensitivities and emotions I have always run from. I learned that we are all participants in life, not just observers. I learned to trust myself.
Intensity still runs wild in me–that will undoubtedly ever change. On a trip to D.C. last month, Matt lost me in conversation when I couldn’t stop looking out the restaurant window at a young guy, wrapped in a tarp, clearly on drugs and standing in the snow and wind. I have sleepless nights when I can’t solve problems that cause others discomfort. I cry when I read sad stories or stories that remind me of the power we all have to affect one another’s lives. But now, for all of these things, I am grateful. There was some merit in part of what my mom said to me that day. I do need to lighten-up; not everything is as serious as I take it. I learned that life is easier than I think it is (and thinking about life is hard). It just is. It’s life. And we are all doing it.
In in my future quests to “lighten-up” a little more, I know that, at the core, I will still be emotional and intense. Instead of trying to change that, I’m challenging myself to embrace the times when I feel vulnerable and exposed–in hopes that it will inspire others to do the same.
“Our obligation is to give meaning to life, and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.” Ellie Wiesel