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  • Stuti Johri

What if your sensitivity is not your biggest weakness?

My first ever report card said “Stuti is too sensitive and is drawn to tears easily.” I was four. I was solemnly informed that good girls don’t cry (later: big girls don’t cry. Yes, right around the time Fergie’s song released). There formed the inextricable link between emotions and morality. A belief system based on the unshakeable truth: feelings, especially negative feelings, were bad, and their display, unacceptable.

I don’t think I internalized the message quite strongly enough despite constant reminders. The adults needed to up their game. At age six, I was also told that I would never make it in the real world if I continued to entertain big feelings. Ah, a new link – emotions and failure. A new addition to the belief system: to show your emotions was to lose.

I worked hard to stamp out emotional responses as much as possible. Of course, suppressing my emotions was about as successful as holding a beach ball under water. As I grew older, and frantic google searches of “how to stop feelings” didn’t yield results, I decided that fine, having emotions might be inevitable, but allowing them to surface would be within my control. I took away my right to be upset, and chastised myself for overreacting when I slipped up.

I spent most of my energy in public trying to pretend I was unbothered and unaffected by everything happening to me. The operative word there is ‘trying’ – I possess the unfortunate combination of a very expressive face and a complete inability to act. In private, I’d cry for hours. I had frequent panic attacks and often woke up in a sweat.

When I began working, I was terrified that my façade would crack. I spent longer in the office than I had energy for pretence. The beach ball flew up from beneath my tiny hands – in the form of chronic pain. After a year of investigations and lifestyle-blaming, I discovered the true cause of my physical distress. This seemed impossible. Managing emotions was supposed to make me a winner, not a 23 year old with a bad neck and shoulder and back (and arm and leg, on a bad day).

So much of what had been weighing on me all those years was actually just stressing about stress, and criticizing myself for feeling. What helped even more than the diagnosis and medication was understanding that emotions are not the enemy, but an integral part of the human experience. The solution lay in a gradual movement towards self-acceptance. Also, exercise.

I don’t know that demonizing sensitivity is necessarily an Indian thing at all. I grew up bathed in privilege, in a highly westernized private school environment. But I’d love to normalise the idea, in India or elsewhere, that sensitivity is a strength. It can be exhausting, sure, but I wouldn’t trade my intuition, creativity, or capacity for empathy for anything. Even now, when I express myself, I’m sometimes met with the classically Indian “positive thinking rakho”. I respond with an even more classically Indian “hum toh aise hain bhaiya!”

Stuti studied law at the University of Oxford, and is an advocate registered with the Bar Council in India. Naturally, she works as an investment analyst at a portfolio management firm. She's passionate about writing, mental health, and memes.

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