By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | August 18, 2023
I spent last weekend in New York City with my mother, two of my three sisters, my sister-in-law, my niece, and an aunt. We had a blast.
I also had a chance to re-visit some…um…let’s just say… potentially growth enhancing family dynamics.
I love my family and I’m grateful that my mother and aunt are still with us. I also feel lucky that hilarious, cackling parties seem to erupt wherever and whenever we’re together. My family is funny and warm – and also…shall we say… generous with their feedback – I mean who else would casually opine that my pants don’t fit properly, or that I don’t eat enough protein?
As a child, I was emotional and sensitive – which, in retrospect, may have been a low blood sugar issue hidden in the three-square-meal 70s. Nevertheless, I turned into a puddle when I felt like I failed at something or let someone down. My mom used to try to comfort me with, “You’re just so sensitive. It’s nothing to get upset about.” In sixth grade, my humanities teacher went to Japan during summer break. She sent me a postcard of a slender, meditating Buddha and wrote, “Its great sensitivity reminds me of you.”
I think sensitivity goes two ways – when you’re sensitive, you easily pick up on others’ emotions, feelings and pain, and you have some capacity for empathy. But you can also be sensitive to external stimuli – and you can get easily overwhelmed by your own feelings and pain.
A long time ago I decided to center my life around yoga and spirituality. I thought it would make life easier – leave all the sensitivity behind and welcome in the butterflies and rainbows.
But that’s not how it goes. When you sign up for a spirituality-centered life, you also sign up for hard work – because any kind of transformation takes energy and perseverance. Butterflies only emerge after they’ve battered themselves out of their cocoons, rainbows only appear as the fruits of a storm. There is no way around the ring of fire, if you want to change, you have to step into it – even if you see yourself as “sensitive.”
After many years of practice, I’m probably not any less sensitive – but now I frame it as an asset rather than a fault – it helps me connect with people and tune into their lived experience. And what’s wrong with empathy? I think a lot of yoga teachers are sensitive and empathic and it’s one of the reasons we get into teaching in the first place.
But what I’ve learned over the years is that just because I can read a room and tune into people doesn’t mean I have to. It doesn’t mean I have to merge with others’ pain. And it also doesn’t mean that I have no control over who or what pokes holes in the membrane that separates me from others. I have some choice around what I let in and what I don’t.
Putting myself out there on social media over the last 5 years has taught me a lot about boundaries. When I post something I’m passionate about, which, as my friend Lucy likes to say, can be “a little spicy” and may incur negative feedback, I’ve learned that I have a choice – to either take in that feedback and see if it makes sense and use it to correct something about my perspective, or to let it sail on by.
Last weekend I had a great opportunity to apply that same principle in the real world. I don’t have to internalize everything that’s said to me about me or others. I don’t have to let it saturate my heart. I have a choice. I can let it go. And I don’t have to be grumpy with anyone for voicing their opinions – their intentions are usually good – even if their words are not always measured – and my interpretation is often a little…well… overly sensitive.
There’s this story I heard once about the Buddha (and forgive me for taking ancestral Irish storytelling license here). He was traveling around giving dharma talks and this guy found him annoying so he started following him from place to place with the sole purpose of heckling him. He would yell insults during Buddha’s talks, but the Buddha would just ignore him.
Finally, the guy got a chance to confront him. He said something like, Look Buddha, I’ve been following you around and heckling you mercilessly for quite a while now and, I mean, I’m really good at insulting you, I just can’t seem to get a rise out of you. You just sit there and smile and ignore me and it’s incredible frustrating. What’s up with that?
And the Buddha said something like, if someone gives you a gift and you don’t accept it, is it yours? And the guy said, no, of course not. And the Buddha said something like, well, the same thing is true about criticism, if you don’t embrace it, it’s not yours.
I don’t think Buddha was talking about rejecting criticism when it’s actually valid. We all have to be open to feedback – but we also don’t have to collapse under it. When you feel centered and grounded in who you are, you are in a much better position to make a good choice about what feedback to embrace and what to let slide.
No one has an obligation to be an emotional dumping ground for anyone else – family or otherwise, even if you are a sensitive person – but learning to gracefully navigate feedback in relationships is a true test of the validity of your practice.
Please check out my free class, Subtle® Yoga for Greater Nervous System Resilience and Brain Function – you’ll receive a video + a stick figure script.