How I Relate to Pumbaa from The Lion King

The character Pumbaa, a cartoon warthog from the Disney movie The Lion King, smiling.

When watching The Lion King as a kid, I loved everything about it — the characters, the imagery, and of course, the music. One of my favorite songs is “Hakuna Matata.” As a kid, it was a catchy jingle that sounded too cool to not sing. As an adult, it’s become a reminder to not sweat the small stuff in an ever-hectic world.

Recently, I caught the animated version in theaters and passionately sang along with Pumbaa:

“I’m a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned.”

Disney, you’ve done it again. I can’t believe how much this quote defines me as a sensitive person! Inside one of the movie’s most famous songs is a message that I think gets overlooked: Many sensitive people do not appear to be sensitive, at least not on the outside.

How I Learned to Hide My Sensitivity

Even as I disclosed my sensitivity to family, friends, and others, it caught them off-guard. A lot of people did not initially believe it. “You seem so confident.” “I thought you had thick skin.” “Did that really bother you?” Ugh. [insert eye-roll] What a not-so-wonderful phrase.

Truth is, despite my looks and outgoing personality, much like Pumbaa, I am extremely sensitive.

It’s important to understand sensitivity does not look the same for everyone. It’s not weak. It’s not crying all the time or always being offended. Sensitivity doesn’t mean you’re shy and stay home, but… it can. Explaining to people how my sensitivity looked was always difficult because I seemed thick-skinned. To them, I shouldn’t be offended. I shouldn’t let something get to me. I simply should not care. Voicing my feelings grew tiring.

To make matters even harder, I was surrounded by, shall we say, Timons. My group of friends is mostly comprised of sassy, confident, and outgoing ladies who help bring out some of my most extroverted qualities. I love them for this, but sometimes, like Pumbaa, I crave the simple things — relaxation and not bothering people while eating some grub (or, ah, grubs). This usually leads me to turn down invitations where I’d have to go out and deal with people.

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Growing up, I was the shy kid who became the vivacious adult. While mingling with strangers, cracking jokes in a circle of friends, or swiping away on dating apps — you couldn’t tell that I was sensitive. I hid it well most of the time. But if I let you close enough, the inevitable was bound to happen: 

Someone would say or do something that hurt me. 

And once I mustered the courage to defend myself, I was met with reminders that I was sensitive or that it wasn’t that serious. 

I hated it. Trust me. As a sensitive person, one of the worst things to say to us is “you’re being sensitive.” Um, yes? It was as if I were in the wrong for feeling how I did. 

Not having my feelings validated would make me go back into my shell to regroup. “Maybe I was too sensitive?” I’d tell myself. “They’re right, it’s no big deal.” 

So, I side-swiped my feelings, like potential partners on Tinder, just to feel “normal.” I noticed that when I got in my sensitive mode, it was a mood-killer. Phone conversations got awkward and eventually calls stopped being made to me. I changed myself to avoid things like this. People thought I grew a thick skin, but like a superpower, I simply hid my sensitivity.

It was tiring, but unless you had a key to unlock the box that contained another locked box, you wouldn’t see my sensitive side. I didn’t like feeling like a burden and, as long as I kept it locked away, I knew I wouldn’t. 

But having to deny myself the luxury of feeling was something I couldn’t do for long. So, I changed — for the better.

My Pumbaa Moment

I stopped agreeing with people who downplayed my feelings. I didn’t let my sensitivity become a weakness or excuse. I owned it; if you couldn’t understand me, then I walked away. It was hard at first — discontinuing friendships or relationships because they weren’t willing to understand. But it was needed.

Today, I have long-lasting friendships and a fiancé who grew to understand, over time, that “Shanice is sensitive.” It’s promoted healthy conversations where my friends and family realize how to effectively communicate with me most of the time. It didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still a work in progress, but it’s work that can progress once you own it.

To all the Pumbaas in the world, who identify as being sensitive (but seem thick-skinned), it’s okay. Your sensitivity can come full-circle like it did in the movie. That’s what happened to me. My sensitivity has become my strength — it can become yours, too.

Don’t Let the Hyenas Define You

Pumbaa started off as a misunderstood warthog. He was continuously shamed when all the animals would run away because of his gas-passing. While the movie doesn’t focus entirely on Pumbaa’s growth, we see a stronger Pumbaa at the end of the film. I love the part when Pumbaa sticks up for himself against the hyenas. He took what once brought him shame and used it as a confidence boost.

Who knew I’d relate so much to the jovial “Mr. Pig”? We both share a happy-go-lucky nature. I’m also loving, open-hearted, and tough (don’t let the occasional tears fool you). I credit these qualities, along with my sensitivity, as the reason I’m able to connect with people. I’m the warthog who befriends a lion — not a common thing. My list of friends and acquaintances have included people who were nothing like me; some of them were people I should have feared — but I understood them.

As a kid, over 20 years ago, I didn’t realize how important The Lion King would remain to me. The kid in me will forever enjoy the nostalgic memory I get when I listen to the songs and recite all the words. The adult in me will forever appreciate the character development and messages that even adults can relate to. Although the Lion King is a story about a battle for Pride Rock, it meant even more to me to see characters like Pumbaa, a sensitive soul I can identify with.  

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