On Being Too Sensitive: A Water Aerobics Follow-up Post

{Alternate title: Aquabitches}

I was dreading going to water aerobics this morning, likely because of my blogpost from last Saturday. You know how when you told your mom how great your friends were and how much they all liked you, and how the day after that you were a little afraid to see them all, afraid they secretly thought you smelled bad?

It felt like that this morning. I'd joyfully blogged, and now it would never live up to that again.

I got there late, and the water was crowded, and I felt awkward. At one point we had to jog to one end of the pool, then jog back, so I took this opportunity to position myself a little deeper in, since it's hard to do the moves in shallower water. I thought I fit fine, but soon two women near me looked at each other over my head, and I could somehow tell they found me irritating.

I racked my brain for why: was I too eager, too happy to be there, too fat? Should I just settle down and splash less? Was I too splashy? And the other part of me was thinking, too splashy? Come on. If you didn't want to get your hair wet, you should have brought a pink polka-dotted shower cap like that lady in the back row.

I tried to be confident and chill and assume I'd misunderstood their glance, but then one of the ladies, who was sporting sinister-looking black nails, said, "Umm, could you please move over?"She said this rudely, like I'd been standing in her personal space for days, instead of for thirty seconds. She said like I'd made her morning, giving her something to be very upset about.

And I said, sure, sorry, and also, "You have plenty of room on the other side of you, too. You could move over." I said this as nicely as I could, but it seemed important to stand up for myself, to say something assertive.

She said, "Yes, but this is where I was. This is my spot."

I was tempted to argue further, but I knew that I only wanted to argue because I felt very small and stupid and sad, because what she'd said had arrived like an explosion in my chest, and I knew arguing further wouldn't take that feeling away.

There are those close to me, those who love me, who say I'm too sensitive, and they're right, of course. What this woman said was not at all a big deal.

But in a way I don't know what that means--too sensitive. What does the word "too" mean here, exactly? Because if her words made me feel small and stupid and sad, if they arrived in my chest like an explosion, if I was tempted to weep and never return to the gym, what exactly could I do about that? My emotion was real and unruly, and my gym-courage is still young and tenuous, and I handled it the best I could, in the way I've learned over the last 30+ years of being "too sensitive": I stayed. I prayed silently that my feelings would get more manageable. And by the time I left, I felt fine. I even looked for her, wanting to apologize again, make peace, and tell her it was only my second time, and I was still learning the ropes. I wanted to ask her name, so I could nod and say hello the next time I came to class.

I'm particularly interested in all of this because of Henrietta, of course, because it's clear, even now, that she's my kid in this regard. While her cousin who's the same age seems to glide through life as easy-tempered as anything, things break Henrietta's heart all day long. She doesn't even speak English yet, and already we're breaking her heart all over the place.

And what will I tell her? Will I tell her she's too sensitive?

I don't think I will. I don't think I can, knowing what I know about feeling that way. How can I tell her that the way the offense explodes in her and threatens to ruin her day is not the way she should feel? That doesn't seem a useful way to approach.

She's going to run into aquabitches all her life, I assume. Women with long black nails, women who like confrontation, who live to make you feel a little smaller so they can feel a little bigger. And I want to teach a different way.

There's an elementary school around here with a big sparkling reminder painted on the wall near the entrance: "Be Kind" it says, and I want to tell her that. That there's too little kindness, too much that feels threatening, that all of our hearts are breaking and we all worry we're too splashy and even the ones who break us are worried they smell bad. And all we can really do is pray, extend our hand and say, "I'm Henrietta; sorry I crowded you."

And if none of that works, we find another class. We try yoga. We try spin. We get on the treadmill and we run very fast.


Emily said…
"Aquabitches." Oh, how that made me laugh. And then your post almost made me cry. I've been labeled as "too sensitive" as well. Thank you for voicing what I never thought through but instantly knew to be truth when I read it. You are a kindred spirit. I just wish I also had great swimsuit cleavage.
belann said…
I suppose you have a genetic inclination for being "too sensitive." Hope you can teach Henrietta your beautiful way to respond to mean people.
Rachel Hunt said…
I am sensitive, too, and I see it in one of my nieces (as I see it in some, but not all of my sisters). When children are not nice to this 7 year old girl, she says, "That hurts my feelings." I am proud of her for saying this. I hope she will always be brave enough too, and honest enough too, and that she, like us, will use our words. I also once heard another child be unkind back, when she said that. The other child said, "Everything hurts your feelings," and my heart felt many things, because sometimes that is true of me too.
faith said…
You know, I don't like the idea of telling anyone “You ARE (fill in the blank).” Rather, “You are ACTING...” Or the like. None of us likes to be defined in so narrow a way. And I will throw the flip side out there: what if you have a child who is frequently too pushy, too bossy, too blunt, etcetera. Would it not be appropriate to try to curb those attitudes? I have been trying to teach some of our kids lately how important that it is for us to try to change — in good ways. And that we can and should change — otherwise God could not have commanded us to be perfect.

All that being said, what lame-os. Some people need to be sent to their room until they can play nicely with others.

I hope your day got better and in sorry this is so long.
K8 said…
Thank you so much for this beautiful post. As someone who also carries "that feeling" through many of her days, I've always liked bravery as a complement to fragility-- living with a sensitive soul seems to require courage in many small things.
ginger said…
The other comments already saw what I would have said.

So, I'll just say - aquabitches!

ginger said…
The other comments already saw what I would have said.

So, I'll just say - aquabitches!

Deja said…
Faith, thanks for your comment. As someone who's had both "you are (blank)" and "you're acting (blank)" said to me, those phrases have never struck my ear as appreciably different. Though I'll still probably use "being sensitive" when it's needed.

And maybe I should clarify: it's not that I think it's impossible to change, that one can never be LESS sensitive. On good days, I'm certainly less sensitive than I was when I was younger. But I'm less sensitive because I've been working on it, beginning with the emotion itself: so this hurts, now what? What do I do with it? Do I run away because I'm hurt? Do I lash out because I'm hurt? What are more useful approaches? Over 31 years, I've learned a few--prayer, honesty, some careful internal reasoning, realizing everyone has a broken heart in some way or another--it's those skills or coping methods I plan to teach Henrietta. And what I'm saying is, in a way, when something catches me off guard like that woman did this morning, I am JUST as sensitive as I was when I was a kid. I just know how to take it to a better place. I hope that's what I'll help my kids realize when any of those other difficult traits crop up: when our first impulse is to be pushy/bossy/blunt, what can we do to curb that, or, if we've already been bossy/blunt/pushy, how to we navigate the emotional/psychological distance to a better, kinder behavior. Sometimes that equals out to having those feelings and behaviors cut short before we have them; often, it doesn't. And I think we have to be okay with that, too.

Does that make more sense?
The research is actually all with your instinct - don't trivialize an emotion by saying that someone is too sensitive - the emotion is real.

Plus, imagine how kind the world would be if everyone were sensitive.
faith said…
Yes! And I realized that after I commented I may have been less than sensitive. Funny how that goes, isn't it? I think we all have thing that we will carefully teach our children because of our own experiences. And I think God did it on purpose that way. It is remarkable how it all goes. I just wish, so often, that I could shield our children from hurts that have come or are coming because I know in my years I have learned how to deal. I don't want them to have to learn it so young. But then I guess I'd never find a good time for it.

I have no doubt I am rambling and for that I apologize. I enjoy reading your blog and thinking. And I just realized that having insecurities and being too sensitive are probably the same thing. At least that's how it is for me. Another interesting thing to think about.

I am so sorry. Even more rambling. I think I do understand you, though. And I think you are too great (there are those words again...). All my best to you, Deja.
Amara said…
Oh it was territory! We had a girl in our gym who would come 15 minutes late every class, and leave early, and still think this place on the front row to the left was "hers". One time my friends and I came in before class and she had TAPED A SIGN with hername on it to the floor.We ripped it off -not cool to people actually showing up! I think maybe in a weird way it made her feel more like a regular - a more worky outty person. These ladies weren't here last time, and I bet it's the same thing -that part of the pool had their name on it. Extra ironic seeing they don't come every time. Anyway -you could have been a hybrid of Marilyn Monroe with the brains of Eleanor Roosevelt and it wouldn't have mattered.
Unknown said…
Deja, you are such an inspiring woman! Being a person who is also "too sensitive" I know how hard it is to curb your instinct to lash out or run and hide so you can have a good cry. The way you handled the situation shows an incredible amount of control :) because the feeling doesn't just go away right after something happens. I tend to dwell on it or let it run over and over though my mind lol thank you for sharing your insight with me :)
Unknown said…
Deja, you are such an inspiring woman! Being a person who is also "too sensitive" I know how hard it is to curb your instinct to lash out or run and hide so you can have a good cry. The way you handled the situation shows an incredible amount of control :) because the feeling doesn't just go away right after something happens. I tend to dwell on it or let it run over and over though my mind lol thank you for sharing your insight with me :)
My older siblings always told me: "stop getting offended." I was the easily-offended sibling, but then again, I was the youngest girl of a family of 7, so I often felt teased or picked on. My brothers sort of have the "get over it" attitude, so I guess in some ways I did learn to do that. That said, I think it's important to have these experiences that make us want to cry, hide, lash out, whatever. Because truth is, whether or not you think you're sensitive or not, everyone has a soft spot, a vulnerability as well as days that just plain suck. So realizing that, is helpful for being a more kind & considerate person.

Gym classes are a crap shoot--some days you feel like a million bucks during & after class, other days are completely demoralizing for one reason or another.

(I'd also try yoga. It's usually a very non-confrontational atmosphere.)
Amara said…
I realized in the light of day that I totally did a "fixit" answer comment. Sorry. Just trying to say it's not you it's them.
AM said…
I just want to say that with the hard parts of sensitivity also come many attributes that I think are godlike--compassion, empathy, and a carefulness with others that is exemplary. Feeling things deeply is difficult sometimes but also an exquisite source of joy and fulfillment.
Elise said…
I feel like this all the time. I feel like a nice person. Why aren't other people just NICE?

Honestly, most of the time I feel like saying, "Karma?! Hello?! Where's the 'what goes around comes around' around here?" If I'm merciful and compassionate toward you... can't I have some of that too?

All I can say is I love you. And, as always, wish I could write like you.
Deja said…
Ahhh, I love all of your comments and I want to reply to all of them and thank you and say how smart you are, but blogger makes that really hard to do. I'm working on switching to Wordpress, in part because it makes it easier.

K8, I like that phrase--"courage in many small things." Thank you for saying that, and for reading. It makes me happy that you're reading my wee blog.

Ann Marie, I totally agree. When I was younger and worried about being sensitive, I told myself that a lot--that many of the things I loved about myself were also a product of my sensitive heart. I think that's important, too.

Faith, I think we're on the same page, or similar ones. ;) Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

MaryAnne, I love it when I'm on the side of research!

Elise, I sure love you, too. And your writing is marvelous. I wish I had more of it to read.

Emily (these shout-outs aren't in order!), I'm sure you swimsuit cleavage is magnificent. A good swimsuit is just nice to the girls. Thank you for reading.

Unknown, thank you for reading and for your kind comments, too. Whoever you are, I like you. ;)

I probably did catch all of you, but thank you for being here and responding to my post. It means a whole lot to me that I share the world with other sensitive souls.
Genevieve Beck said…
Just read the last four posts. So to all of them...--I am praying that something good will come soon and I know it will. The trip to New York sounds awesome, especially getting Henrietta to sleep! Water aerobics is an awesome exercise. But my goodness. Let's face it, we all have things that annoy us as we go about life. I've never understood the people that somehow feel it's their duty to speak up about them like your friend with the black fingernails. But I guess they do think they're doing some kind of good in the world. They just don't realize that the other half of us, as tough as some of us like to appear, may be thinking about that for weeks later, wishing it had never happened. It's a beautiful thing to be sensitive, especially to your own feelings and the people around you. :)
Kelli said…
hi, I'm backyard neighbors with Amara. She just sent me a link to this post, because, I guess, I too am sensitive. And because aquabitches live in my neighborhood. I totally get everything that you are saying, and the comments, too. thanks. I hope it's OK, but I am going to print up a copy of this post and hang it on my wall to refer back to later. And so that I can throw darts at it when the aquabitches strike again. That's probably going to work out better than sticking pins in the aquabitch voodoo dolls anyway.

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