Sensitive skin, sensitive soul ~ Toughen up or die?

Sensitive skin, sensitive soul ~ Toughen up or die?

Did you know that the skin is actually the largest organ of the body? More than merely a cosmetic layer to hide our insides and hold them together, skin is extremely important to health. It helps regulate our body temperature, excrete unwanted waste products via sweat and it also is our point of contact with the world outside ourselves. Billions of pounds and dollars are spent on keeping it looking good (=looking young!) and keeping it looking healthy.

If you have sensitive skin, you probably react to all sorts of products, in a variety of ways from rashes to spots to full-blown allergic reactions. I loathe the way my skin can react. I’m a blusher too, going red with emotion quite easily and as I have very fair skin, it’s like having a big sign round me neck announcing how I feel. I’d be a disaster at poker. Not only is my skin sensitive to external aggressions like soaps and bath products but also to sensation. I am acutely aware of almost every inch of my skin, most of the time. I can feel my clothes everywhere, not just bits that chafe or dig in, but a constant awareness of the texture and the weight of the cloth. Normal touch often transmits a message of something closer to pain than to anything else. On the occasions where I have been on the receiving end of a blow, whether accidentally or otherwise, the sensation is almost enough to make me pass out.

What a wuss, some of you might think. I remember when I had my thumb broken playing hockey when I was 17, the school nurse barely touched the injured digit before I yelled with pain and she told me off, declaring she’d hardly touched me. She didn’t think it was broken either, but my doctor sent me for an X-ray the next day and the thumb was indeed broken, split right down the middle of the bone through the main joint. I have a low pain threshold, but actually a fairly high level of endurance.

Other senses are equally as sensitive. I can distinguish a vast number of different scent components, and artificial perfumes such as room fragrance can make me ill. I have low tolerance for noise, and dislike both loud and raucous music. In fact, I seldom listen to music because it seems to unsettle my nervous system. Being trapped on a bus where there is music playing can be torture when the music is loud and disagreeable. While my eyesight is not as good as it was, I do observe the world around me acutely and often see details others miss. If I observe a scene, I have at times almost total recall of details.

About two years ago the term Low Latent Inhibition came to my attention and it rang a lot of bells for me. Normally, people tune out the vast majority of incoming information from their senses, not ever becoming consciously aware of it. Those with low latent inhibition tend to find that they take in pretty much all of the information consciously. For those of low intelligence this can result in psychosis and madness; for those of higher intelligence it can result in an outflow of intensely creative work.

Whenever I mention about this hypersensitivity, I usually get people recommending books, therapies and methods of desensitizing the self. I have to take a big step back when this happens because I am never sure how to react. For certain, a lot of the time being this sensitive is quite tough. It’s certainly exhausting at times, debilitating even. And yet, I question whether desensitising is a good thing. The term is for me synonymous with hardening, becoming tough and non-reactive, like the transformation of skin into leather or of the callousing of skin. I’ve survived forty plus years being this way. I’ve been told repeatedly to stop being so thin-skinned emotionally, and while I’ve never managed that one, I am still here. I’m here in an arena where anyone can take a pop at me if they want to. Cyber bullying is endemic to the internet, and I get hurt by the things people say. I was told on Twitter than I had no right to call myself an author because I was self published; according to my interlocuteur, only those who have been vetted and approved by a publisher can refer to themselves as an author. I was made to feel like jumped-up trailer trash, and by golly, it hurt me. But I’m still here.

The thing is, THIS is how I am made. THIS is who I am. Being this sensitive is a gift. It’s a gift I can share too because I can write about what I see and feel and experience. Imagine if you had such brilliant eye sight, you could see even the finest details of a butterfly’s wings, and the shining wing-feathers of the soaring sea-gulls; you would also see the rotting carcass of a rat by the side of the road, and the cancerous lesions on an old man’s face. Would you put on blurring glasses permanently so that you didn’t see the ugly things? Would you damage those far-sighted eyes so that you couldn’t see the pain?

Instead of toughening up, I’d like to explore going deeper into this sensitivity. Become more sensitive, to more things. To learn how to not flinch from the pain but to melt with it. One thing I have discovered from the long term pain I suffer with, resisting it can make it worse. If I soften to hurts, the hurting diminishes. Pain is as much a teacher as joy is, and while I would not glorify it, nor will I run so frantically from it as to try and shut down my sensitive nature.

13 thoughts on “Sensitive skin, sensitive soul ~ Toughen up or die?

  1. The principle of softening to hurt is a good one and resonates on a bodily level also. If you fall and you brace yourself becoming rigid, then you are inclined to suffer more damage than if you are able to relax into the fall. Bruises are preferable to broken bones.

    It is so hard to learn this, I have found it comes with yoga practice. Some form of practice is almost certainly part of the learning process as it is not something you learn in your mind, it has got to be embedded in the nerves and tissues.

    Inuring oneself to pain does not mean the pain isn’t there, that’s the head in the sand approach. The other extreme is glorifying (hyper) sensitivity, not what you’re doing here. Who’s to say what’s hyper anyway?

    There is a book called The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron that a friend has recommended. xx


  2. oh heavens like reading about myself. In some ways notsurprising as you have already written of the sense of small and synaesthesia.

    I was so glad to hear you talk about feeling your clothes on you, over the last year whilst doing an M.A I have tried to talk to people about that. I can’t wear nail varnish on my my fingernails as I feel it too much. It deadens.

    Due to tendonitis and sort of fybromyalgia parts of my body are unexpectidly painful – the pressure of the acupuncturist feeling for the meridian and the little guide that he puts on are more painful than the needle – but maybe I have always been like this. I have psoriasis too, when the skin breaks down you realise just how much of an organ it is, and its importance.

    Like you I seem to have a low pain threshold but can endure much – a training in ballet probably adds to that….not necessarily a good thing always.

    Public transport is a gamble in terms of noise and scent! I listen to music when I choose to, never as background.

    I might send you via email an essay of mine – no obligation to read!


    • I really relate to the nail varnish thing. I can wear makeup, but usually only eye makeup, and sometimes lip tints. Can’t bear foundation but can sometimes get away with tinted moisturiser or mineral based translucent powder.
      I enjoyed the essay very much. Is it possible that you could put a link to it here so others may also enjoy it?


  3. I too have been thinking along these lines: it’s actually ok to notice things and feel things and spend time thinking about what they could be teaching/telling me about myself or circumstances. But too often I feel constrained by time: spending too long looking at one picture in a gallery when everyone else is finished and ready for the cafe!


    • Hahaha. yes. N and I have a phrase for when we have had enough when we’ve been doing sight seeing or visiting galleries and museums: museumed-out. Just taken on too much and need to step back and process it all… the cafe or somwhere quiet.
      Introspection and reflective contemplation is important and more folks need to learn it.


  4. I am so glad to know there are some people in this world like me…makes me feel less alone. I agree, it is a gift, so dont try to change it or do away with it. It gets easier as long as you are aware and accepting of who/how you are.

    Like you, I listen to music when I feel like it. I can listen to background music if its instrumental, I hate it when there are vocals. I try as much as I can to never wear tight skin fitting clothes or abrasive clothing, foundation, sunscreens or concealers or anything that has to make a close layer over a wide area of my skin. If for any reason I do, then I need to do it for the shortest amount of time I can.

    I think most people are emotionally sensitive, only their reaction to the event is different. That difference in reaction puts them either under thin-skinned or thick-skinned. Like with all things, reactions can be learned. I found acknowledging how I feel, makes me handle my emotions better than trying to numb myself into not feeling.

    Yes, it does make me feel like I missed all the trains and caught the last train of life, I am always late etc…but I wonder, why should it matter when I get to where I have to get, anyway.


  5. “Those with low latent inhibition tend to find that they take in pretty much all of the information consciously.” I can honestly say that this is the first time I’ve heard of this but, then, it’s not something I’ve researched. But it explained a hell of a lot for this sensitive soul/soldier.

    I am particularly sensitive to noise and yet, when watching films on tv, I like to have them at high pitch as I like to feel as though I’m at the cinema and also to drown out anything else that may be going on, even the dog padding around.

    Yet this sensitivity can be extremely frustrating at times. The auditory sensitivity and physical wussery is the worst for me. I am that ridiculous woman in the street who, when a dog barks, a car backfires or a door suddenly slams, literally jump and start at it. If someone honks me when I’m driving, I practically hit my head on the roof of the car. There is anxiety involved with this sensitivity I am sure but it is not anxiety alone.

    My dichotomous hearing is acute but therefore extremely irritating. If the radio is playing (talk or song), I can’t work because I am also sounding out every word of the fiction in my head as I type – yet I also kind of spell out words as they are sung on the radio, or spoken to me or by me. Therefore, I either have silence or, if I fancy some atmosphere or background for the piece I’m writing, it’s best to stick to classical, chill-out or new age music.

    If someone talks to me and there is background noise from a tv, radio, market, shops, even traffic, I seem to hear everything at the same level and yet be unable to process that information in my head, so that I can miss the gist of whole conversations at times! Thus making it just as frustrating for the other person when I have to ask them to repeat themselves. I used to think I was drifting off but then began to see that I couldn’t mentally lower the volume of peripheral noise.

    But there is nothing wrong with this sensitivity per se, as you point out. Optically heightened observation and awareness is wonderful for writers. My problem often is finding the right words for all those things I see that others apparently don’t! And would that more people were as sensitive. Perhaps then there would be a little more consideration in the world.

    I agree with Mysoul, too, about the whole clothes/body thing. That’s a further issue we probably deal with automatically but people without this (what?) trait, or condition, never have to think about.

    Great post! Sorry, I have virtually written another post in response but it was unusual to see this topic mentioned. Thank you.


  6. Well put Viv. Just because most others do not feel the way you (and I) do, does not mean thy have the right to poo poo or judge. You are right, your sensitivity is key to the honesty and strength of your writing. So pay no attention to the ignorant so and sos. I have been mocked in the past for how close to the surface my emotions are…but I tell you, I am proud that I adjust as likely to blub at something joyful as something sad!
    You go girl!


    • Thanks. I’m not a cryer, generally, but it does go deep, even if my eyes don’t always show it.
      We offer the world a different perspective, I feel.
      *high Fives*


  7. I have often been accused of being over sensitive. Perhaps I can best describe my situation as being unable to take a large amount of input in whatever form this takes but particularly those of sight and sound. Supermarkets are a trial as well as being in any large group of people. I even pick up on thoughts sometimes.

    Not watching television has helped and I rarely listen to the radio now. I live quietly on my own and am able to cope more easily like this.

    I have heard that people with autism have this problem to such an extreme that their skin feels that it is on fire and they hurt themselves or hit themselves to stop the sensory overload. I am so grateful that I am not so sensitive and treat my condition as a gift and a spur to creativity.


  8. Yes, that makes a lot of sense, and I think you are right – you accept yourself as you are and make the best of life, without trying to ‘toughen up’, which is often a euphemism for being an insensitive oaf! Just be yourself. xxx 😀


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.