fbpx The Sensitive Artist | HowlRound Theatre Commons

The Sensitive Artist

Insult Turned Asset

This series explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own flexible, dependable path. Join the revolution of artists and educators unsatisfied with day-to-day surviving and hell-bent on everyday thriving in that improvisational space called an artful life. Have a topic or question for a future post? Drop me a line @creativelyindie.

a silhouette against a cloudy sky
“Mesmerized” by Stefano Corso, cc.

At any stage in your artistic journey you will, at one time or another, be told to “Relax, you’re being too sensitive.” It is an occupational hazard. If you haven’t, then get cracking rock star, you’ve got a whole world of “what if…” to explore!

Why does being labeled “too sensitive” make many rethink their own identity? Because it’s a highly effective bucket of cold water in your face, in a social neuroscientific way.

Allowing yourself to be open to your sensitivities will absolutely open up new perspectives, opportunities, and feelings.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

It’s not about you. It’s about the water thrower.

They are saying your perception of reality is not connected with “actual” reality, a.k.a. their reality.

Why does their reality trump yours? Because social neuroscience is discovering how deeply wired we are to connect, even if it means dismissing our personal interpretation of the moment.

“Rather than being a hermetically sealed vault that separates us from others, our research suggests that the self is more of a Trojan horse, letting in the beliefs of others, under the cover of darkness and without us realizing it. This socially-influenced self helps to ensure that we’ll have the same kind of beliefs and values as those of the people around us and this is a great catalyst for social harmony.”Matthew Lieberman’s Scientific American interview about his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

This is a prime example of why, as artists, we must live inside and outside our community to be able to sense our community’s beliefs and values, and yet also be able to question and expand them. It is also a strong argument to make conscious choices for role models and feedback to help us balance on that high wire.

This lean towards social harmony has influenced how we define sensitive itself, much like the alteration of literally.

Merriam-Webster’s online simple definition of sensitive is “easily upset by the things people think or say about you; likely to cause people to become upset; aware of and understanding the feelings of other people.”

But here are the first two full definitions:

1. sensory
2. a: receptive to sense impressions;
    b: capable of being stimulated or excited by external agents (as light, gravity, or contact)

Not until deep into the variations of the third definition—“highly responsive or susceptible”—are other people referenced.

Taking all this into account, let’s turn this puppy around to our advantage by asking:

How do I stay receptive in a world that systematically negates being sensitive?

a group of people gazing upwards
“transfixed” by Moazzam Brohi, cc

Sensitive can be interpreted in a variety of ways, so let’s pick one that positively and sustainably serves. I dig the Oxford Dictionary’s: “quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.” Now…

1. Observe your sensitivities without judgment.

What are you quick to detect or respond to? Some may be easy to personally identify, some may be tipped off by your friends (nicknames can be clues). Take a truthful inventory. The time to own how you experience this world is now, love bug.

For example, I’m sensitive to:

  • Social energy/emotion. I can feel a room’s social temperature the moment I walk in it.
  • Sound. In my music days, I was nicknamed “bat ears.”
  • Microexpressions. Perfect for theatre and education, funky for relationships.
  • Language. Subtle shifts in phrasing catch my attention immediately in a conversation (it explains the first half of this article, no?).

2. Play with them.

Now that you know what they are, how do you react to varying intensities? Does it depend on other factors (people, place, time, your state of mind)?

Pushing the limits will not desensitizes you, it will help you understand your full range of expression and interpretation. Playing with your range is like conducting an orchestra of sensations. There’s power in dynamics.

3. Non-Negotiables.

I’ve brought this up before. Where are your boundaries specifically towards your sensitivity levels? If you’re having a hard time defining them, observe when you react defensively towards a sensitivity. That’s when the boundary was crossed. Now, back up, see it, and define it.

Time and again, I coach artists that hold back on playing ferociously out of an unconscious fear of that feeling of “too much.” If I never gave myself the opportunity to perform for a large house solely because I was afraid of all the conflicting emotions I would read in the room, I’d be denying myself so much joy and exploration.

Make a conscious choice. Draw the line. It’s often a line in the sand, moveable when needed, but for now, at least you’ve drawn a conscious line.

4. Reset. Replenish.

Allowing yourself to be open to your sensitivities will absolutely open up new perspectives, opportunities, and feelings. This takes energy to process and sustain. To keep this going, and avoid shut down, develop moments in your process to find neutral. Consciously put in rituals to replenish your energy, your allowance to be vulnerable, and your receptiveness.

How do you cool down after a highly sensitive aspect of your process?
What do you need to do in order to be available and vulnerable?
How do you take care of these heightened senses? Daily? Monthly?

For example, my company creates intense ensemble residencies to teach creative ownership. My sensitivities to microexpressions, language, and others’ emotions are major tools for me. So, before a lengthy residency, I take a brief hermitage to reset and replenish.

5. Practice Being Present to Other’s Sensitivities

The best way to keep honoring your own sensitivities, even in the face of those who don’t agree, is to be present to others. Just because you’re a sensitive person doesn’t mean you’re an empathetic one. But it’s a necessity in order to shift our society’s take on sensitivity. Observe when someone is owning or struggling with their sensitivity. Be present. Empathize. You don’t need to feel their reality in order to honor it.

And when we can truly do that…then we’re really on to something.

Thoughts from the curator

Jess Pilmore explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own, flexible, dependable path.

Sustainable Artistry by Jess Pillmore



Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Thank you! I really needed this after some of the hassling I got at the 4th of July get-together (with relatives and non-theater-related friends). And for some reason the final paragraph on empathy caused the chorus of one of my favorite (if somewhat obscure) songs from the 70's to start playing in my mind:

Love somebodySave their soulTie them to your heaven, erase their hellLove their life-styleIf you feel itDon't try to change them, you never will"

------------------------------"Long Distance Winner"Stevie NicksBuckingham/Nicks