My middle daughter, Abby, is a soccer player. She has played since kindergarten. She is also the kid that we have to constantly ask to “stop kicking the ball in the house,” as she is always dribbling some spherical item off of any and every surface she can—including off of unsuspecting sisters and parental units.
We love her passion and dedication, but seriously, after an hour of thunk, thunk, thunk against the wall, it gets old.
Abby is also really sensitive.
From an early age, she was always deeply intuitive and empathetic, to the point that we have never had to scold her or raise our voices when she was in trouble. One time we busted her standing on the counter—at the direction of her older sister, we later found out—poised to dig into the sugar jar. We just gave her a disappointed look, saying her name with a touch of disapproval, and she melted into a puddle of tears.
Recently, this girl came walking off the soccer field after the opposing team soundly crushed her middle school soccer team.
Abby was in tears.
We have never been the “you need to suck it up” kind of parents, but I will admit that there have been times when I pushed too hard to find out what was wrong just because I wanted to fix it. In such cases, I only made things worse. Shocking, I know.
But on that day, there I went again, and I began to talk to her about her ability take things in stride, especially as she was starting to play against older, more experienced players.
Without waiting for me to get too far into my lecture, Abby said, “Dad, I am not crying because I am sad. I’m crying because I’m angry.”
And then she added, “Lest anyone think I’m a sissy.”
While I would love to think my need to have her stop being so “sensitive” was purely based in a desire to toughen my baby up, I found it was actually based in obliviousness to what she was feeling and why. What I had perceived as weakness and a disproportionate reaction to disappointment was instead her response to a deeply felt emotion manifesting itself through tears.
I really didn’t need to do anything but let her be. Sure, she might have to deal with others reacting to her tears, but there was absolutely no need for me to fix her, to dismiss her reactions, or to try and make things better.
All I needed to do was listen.
In the same way, when discussing race, I know that when I am told—and I have been told—“Don’t be so sensitive,” the speaker is generally not delivering these words with my well-being in mind. People usually issue this statement because they can’t handle your reaction or because your reaction has created uncomfortable tension in the room.
When we respond thus to a genuine reaction, whether that reaction be anger, fear, or sadness, we are essentially saying to that person, “Emotions bad. Emotions uncomfortable. Please stop.”
I can just about guarantee that responding to someone who is reacting negatively to a racial incident by saying, “Don’t be so sensitive,” will not lessen the tension in the room. It is far more likely that this response will increase tension—and in the end, it does not “fix” anything. In fact, what this response does is communicate the idea that someone’s reaction is not valid and their concerns about the heart of the matter are probably not going not be heard. Yes, there may be a time to discuss and even challenge people’s assumptions, but to respond with “Don’t be so sensitive” in the moment will result in feelings of resentment, distrust, and further distance.
Sometimes, in the face of that which we feel is uncomfortable, all we need to do is listen.
Bruce Reyes-Chow is a San Francisco-based blogger, speaker and pastor who musing on such things as politics, culture, faith, technology and parenting. He is also the author of The Definitive-ish Guide for Using Social Media in the Church and can be found online on Twitter, on Facebook and/or on his blog, www.reyes-chow.com.