A Lifetime of Observation
Embracing my sensitivity
I just recently finished the incredible Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. The main character, Lauren Olamina, has a condition called “hyper-empathy,” where she shares the pain and feelings she sees in others. If someone is shot and bleeding, she’s forced to feel the same pain they are.
I loved the novel for myriad reasons—if you haven’t read it yet, you should—but I really connected with Lauren and her hyper-empathy because I’ve always felt that way, too. I feel so much, sometimes to where I don’t even have control anymore, where it all just swallows me in the wave.
Throughout my life, I’ve always heard that I’m too sensitive. I’ve learned this world isn’t a kind place for us feelers. “Toughen up,” they tell us, trying to protect us from the cold, cruel heartlessness we’ve created in this world.
For a long time, I saw my sensitivity as a weakness, something to hold down, to hold away, to fear and condemn and cast out.
But, just like Lauren didn’t have control over her hyper-empathy, I could only perform that I didn’t feel, but deep down, I felt, whether or not I wanted to.
The wounds, the pain compounded, untreated, unhealed, hidden under the mask and the stage lights.
Throughout my personal growth journey, I’ve turned off the lights, pulled off the mask, retired, and started triaging that accumulated trauma.
And, through that process, another phrase that I’ve heard throughout my life began echoing within me: “A lifetime of observation.” My grandfather, my Pop-Pop always used to say this when he remembered something obscure or specific, or as a lodestar for life: “remember to look around you, to see, to feel, to experience.”
I brought that lens to my personal growth journey, and it was especially helpful in discovering and integrating my autism into this new conception of myself and my life. I realized, since I was living in a foreign land of sorts, designed and organized and enforced by neurotypicals, with different ways of speaking and acting and engaging, that I’ve always subconsciously been observing everything around me, trying to learn how to navigate, how to perform.
I would hear someone say a specific phrase or respond to a question in a specific way, and I’d log it in the memory bank, add it to the script for when I’m in situations like that, trying to pass as neurotypical myself. I’d notice body language and gestures and the energy someone gave off, trying to understand, trying to pull back the curtain and see the design that was so different from mine, like a kid destroying a TV just to put it back together. I’d observe and analyze every little thing, trying to find the winning combination.
I realize now how much work I was doing under the surface in the effort to perform as someone I’m not. But now I’m intentionally flipping all of those skills and tools and mindsets, which previously served that external purpose, to serve me.
Now, I see my sensitivity, my hyper-empathy, my “lifetime of observation” as invaluable assets now in my writing career. Leveraging those skills allows me to create human and believable characters and compelling and powerful narratives.
It allows me to notice what others don’t and capture that image or emotion or tension in my work.
And, for my own sake, it allows me to be fully open to my sensitivity, to give myself license to stare at the clouds and imagine, to look within and notice my feelings, to observe others and feel with them.
That which once was scorned and scoffed at as a weakness, an Achilles heel, a vulnerability for the world to exploit, has beautifully transformed into my greatest strength, the beating heart of my work and of my daily life. It’s what keeps me alive among the arrows and judgments of this cruel, cold world.