Highly sensitive people experience the world fully, feel deeply, and open themselves to be vulnerable. That’s not “fragile.” It’s brave.
Fragile: adjective; Easily broken or damaged. Flimsy or insubstantial. Easily Destroyed. Not strong or sturdy. Delicate and vulnerable.
If you’re a sensitive person, you’ve probably been called fragile at some point in your life. It packs a punch and carries a sting. It can shatter your self-perception and self-worth, just as the word implies. Maybe it’s a label that has followed you around, a scarlet letter “F” hung around your neck. Maybe you’ve tried to conceal it, making sure no one ever suspected it beneath your armor of defense mechanisms.
Maybe this was even the intent of those who hurled that F-bomb at you, hoping to toughen you up by whatever means necessary — “for your own good,” of course, as I’m sure they assured themselves.
Fragility has been at the forefront of cultural conversation in recent years, particularly in the United States. Commentaries abound on the “coddling” of college students who can’t bear to be challenged. The fragility of those with privilege whenever that privilege is critiqued. The derogatory term “snowflake,” which weaponizes one of the most stunning and intricate designs in nature and turns it into the ultimate diss.
Perhaps the only thing our culture seems to agree on is that fragility is bad.
So when sensitive souls are labeled fragile, we know it implies deficiency. It carries connotations of moral weakness and breaking under pressure. Fragile people — like us, we’re told — must be handled with kid gloves and never trusted to their own devices.
No wonder people are ashamed of being sensitive. Finding out you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) might as well mean being a highly fragile person. That’s about as close to an expletive as you can get in our toughness-obsessed culture.
And I’m over it.
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Are Sensitive People Fragile?
The trait of high sensitivity does include higher-than-average levels of emotional reactivity which some researchers equate with emotional fragility. We are also more sensitive to subtle physical details in our surroundings. So yes, we might cry more easily. We might also get overstimulated in chaotic or intense environments.
But we also think more deeply, innovate more, and see solutions that others miss. On average, we sensitive people likely make better decisions than others do.
We also enter deeper levels of empathy. We experience our own emotions more intensely, including positive emotions, and we are capable of tremendous passion. Above all, we are resilient — we keep going. After all, we function in a society that is very often not functional for us.
So it’s worth asking, when something shows wear and tear after being in an environment it’s not meant for, when it sometimes breaks doing a job it isn’t designed to do, does that make it fragile?
Or are we viewing sensitivity — and fragility — all wrong?
What Science Says About HSPs’ So-Called Fragility
In his book The Orchid and the Dandelion, W. Thomas Boyce outlines his extensive research differentiating people with higher levels of environmental sensitivity (which he identifies as ‘orchids’) from the majority of the population who are less affected by their environment (‘dandelions’).
The flower metaphor beautifully illustrates the role of the environment in our sensitivity, which is a fundamental factor of Dr. Jay Belsky’s research on what he calls “differential susceptibility.” It explores the ways people are more or less “susceptible” to our environments and unsurprisingly finds that HSPs are more affected by our surroundings.
The concept of differential susceptibility first focused on how people are affected by their childhoods. In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, psychologist Elaine Aron explains that HSPs with more difficult childhoods tend to suffer more as a result than less-sensitive folks. This is evident even in siblings who grew up in the same household.
At face value, this makes sensitive people seem more fragile. It’s the same way a delicate orchid would wither in a crack in the sidewalk while a dandelion shoots up healthy and strong. But as Boyce importantly points out, “Orchids are not broken dandelions… Within the struggles and frailties of orchids lies an unimagined strength and redemptive beauty.”.
And here’s the thing. Differential susceptibility doesn’t just refer to negative factors in our environment. It suggests that when HSPs have positive experiences, they benefit even more from those than less-sensitive people. This is a lifelong effect: even a sensitive person with a difficult childhood is more likely to rocket ahead when they have resources, mentoring, or social support later in life. It’s what Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman, the coauthors of the book Sensitive, refer to as the sensitive “Boost Effect.”
In other words, the same sensitivity that makes us “fragile” also makes us even more likely to flourish in the right environment. Sólo and Granneman go so far as to say that sensitivity is an evolutionary advantage.
Take that, fragility.
The Hard Part of Being ‘Fragile’
Many sensitive people have hearts that break wide open at the pain and suffering of the world. That is quite different from egotistically fragile people who are easily offended, their egos brittle and easily bruised. But it is difficult in its own way.
As sensitive people, our “fragility” becomes a problem when our own emotional reactions come at the expense of other people. It is our response to fragility that matters, especially in its impact on those around us. This means practicing compassion, rather than pulling away. It means developing your emotional intelligence and learning to self-soothe. And it means that hardest lesson of all: remembering that some critique is merited, even if it stings.
This also applies to how we treat ourselves as a result of our so-called fragility. If your emotional reactivity causes you to feel inadequate, ashamed, or defective, you are using it as a weapon against yourself.
The key, then, is in caring for our ‘fragility’ as a gardener nurtures their prized orchid. We must tend to our sensitivities so we can withstand the difficult realities of this life. That’s where resilience lives.
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How to Turn Your ‘Fragility’ Into a Strength
I still don’t care for the F-word. I don’t think it’s used accurately in the context of human experiences. I disagree with the popular assumption that fragility is the absence of resilience. We live in a fragile world with fragile ecosystems, a fragile climate, fragile societal structures, and fragile relationships. The evolution and endurance of all of these things prove fragility and resilience are not mutually exclusive.
Still, as long as people insist on throwing around the F-word, I say we recognize it as a badge of honor instead of a scarlet letter. We can do this in many ways, including:
- Recognizing your own resilience. Sensitive people may actually be more resilient than “tough” people, because of our deeper cognitive processing. (And the fact that we feel and process as deeply as we do and still keep going proves our resiliency.)
- Exercise “grit.” It’s a lie that fragility and grit can’t coexist. We just have to keep recovering from our emotional reactivity and keep pursuing an environment where we can thrive.
- Nurture your vulnerability while disarming your defense mechanisms. Acknowledge the defenses you’ve constructed to protect yourself at the expense of others. By accepting your susceptibility to your life circumstances and honoring your needs as a result, you can protect yourself without doing harm.
- Connect to the universal reality of fragility. In nature, fragility is the rule, not the exception. Being susceptible to this fragile world doesn’t make you defective, it simply makes you part of the whole.
- Celebrate your sensitivity. When someone uses “sensitive” as an insult, I always wonder, is their preference insensitivity? I would much rather live open to all life has to offer than be so tough that life becomes inaccessible to me.
HSPs, when someone hurls an F-bomb at you, remember that you notice what they miss. Life itself is full of fragility, as tender as your loving empathy, as ornate as a delicate orchid, as intricate as a vast ecosystem. Perhaps we can transform the word from a profanity into a balm, healing the wounds we bear from experiencing life as intensely as we do.
Together, perhaps we can redefine the word:
Fragile: adjective; Easily shattered by suffering and easily moved to empathy. Sensitive to one’s surroundings, both positive and negative. Delicate and resilient. Especially capable of flourishing with the proper support. Susceptible to life’s beauty and brokenness. Brave.
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