Can we be sensitive without being fragile? Yes, if we consciously choose how to define strength—and look at our own beliefs about fragility.

The concept of fragility is in the spotlight now, with Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility entering its fifteenth week near the top of the #New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. (If you are White, I highly recommend the book, which helped me begin to be conscious of some of my false beliefs and biases about race). For many highly sensitive people, though, fragility is old news. We’ve probably been told we are “too sensitive.” We may even have called ourselves that.

But is this accurate? Sure, we’re sensitive. The question is, can we be sensitive without being fragile?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “fragile” as “easily broken or destroyed; constitutionally delicate; lacking in vigor.” But what does fragile mean to you and to me? If we’ve been consciously or unconsciously thinking of ourselves as easily breakable because we are highly sensitive, it’s time to take a closer look.

Are HSPs “lacking in vigor?”

We all know someone who is sensitive and also physically frail. But lack of vigor is in no way an aspect of the HSP trait. My partner, for example, played hockey through college, and has done many strenuous treks in India and Nepal, spending weeks out at high altitude. My HSP friend, who gave me this week’s photo a sensitive fern (onocleas sensibilis) has climbed all 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.

It’s true that HSPs feel pain more acutely than non-HSPs. But does this make us weak? I don’t think so. I’m sure my partner and my friend felt plenty of pain during their adventures, but they didn’t let it stop them. Living in a society that defines strength as unemotional stoicism, we can mistakenly conclude that it is weak to feel pain keenly, or to feel emotions strongly. That’s crazy. To me, the question is not whether we feel pain: it’s how we respond to the pain we feel. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote,

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution) but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.

Frankl is describing the spiritual strength we possess as HSPs. In the extreme conditions of a concentration camp, this spiritual strength kept him alive. In more every day circumstances, whatever your natural level of “robustness” or vigor, cultivating more physical strength and stamina can make you even stronger spiritually.

Are HSPs “delicate?”

No doubt HSPs get overaroused easily in some situations. And we are certainly sensitive to criticism. Whether we let our reactions break or destroy us, though, is largely in our own power. Being criticized, for example, is unpleasant. But it isn’t lethal. What’s more, the strength of my reaction to your critical comments has less to do with your words than with what I tell myself about your words. Take this exchange with a long-ago boyfriend for whom I had just cooked dinner:

Me: “How’s the chicken?”
Boyfriend (matter of factly): “It’s good.”
Me (hurt): “Good? What do you mean good?”
Boyfriend: “I mean, it’s fine. It’s good.”
Me (near tears): “But is it the best chicken you ever ate?

I can laugh at this now, but it was no fun at the time. My reaction reflected the acute vulnerability I felt inside, a vulnerability created by my own beliefs. I was telling myself I had to be the best. At everything. All the time. My boyfriend didn’t even criticize my chicken: he merely failed to react with enough enthusiasm. But I took that as a sign that I had somehow failed, and I shattered like a china cup hitting a porcelain sink.

Needless to say, this level of fragility made my relationships feel like minefields. It took me a long time to figure out that my fragile responses were not inherent to my sensitivity. It took me even longer to build my resilience to a point where I could actually welcome other people’s honesty. 

Finally, though, I’ve come to understand that even if it hurts in the moment, hearing what is really going on in another person is a gift. If I can find a way to take in that gift, I empower myself to address problems between us before they get too big to fix. When we take this more empowered stance as HSPs, we not only get the benefit of truth in our relationships. Then we can use our strengths of empathy and attunement to nurture those relationships.

Are HSPs “easily broken or destroyed?”

Certainly, HSPs suffer more long-term negative consequences from childhood trauma than non-HSPs. Such trauma can be so shattering that some of us never fully recover a sense of wholeness, feeling like a delicate cup that has been re-glued too many times and can’t be handled without risk of shattering again.

If we define our strength only by our level of functioning in the world, we may see our shattered selves, or see other HSPs who seem permanently damaged, and call this “HSP fragility.” I see it differently. Having worked with people with deep trauma, I see that they are awe-inspiringly tenacious. For them, the choice to stay alive for another day is an act of great courage and strength. Frankl understood this kind of courage perfectly:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.

We all —HSPS and non-HSPs—have our shattered places, where life has bumped or dropped us. We all chip and break. Some of us have found ways to repair these fault lines. We each live somewhere along a continuum of resilience, doing our best to get a bit stronger each day. For one person, that might mean running five miles instead of three. For another, it might mean getting out of bed in the morning.

If we want to be sensitive without being fragile, we must start by defining what strength truly means to us. Then we can acknowledge the ways we already are strong. And we can identify what steps we can take to become even stronger. Now more than ever, as we confront not only our personal challenges but massive issues like racism, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the escalating global climate crisis, we need all the strength we can get. The world needs our voices.

Image: ©2020 Lisa Albrecht. Thank you Lisa!