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The Good and Bad of Sensitivity

Being too sensitive can lead to indifference.

Being sensitive is a good thing, as it cues you in to the world around you. It alerts you to danger; it's also the basis for empathy.

But being sensitive is double-edged, as it can lead either in a pro-social or in an egotistical direction. Psychologist C. Daniel Batson helps to explain this possibility by making the distinction between empathy and personal distress. Batson finds that there are two types of sensitivity. One is empathy and the other he terms personal distress. Sensitivity experienced as personal distress can make you anxious, uncomfortable, or cause alarm or worry, which is a good thing when danger is present. If this is the case, then the person will try to reduce those unpleasant feelings either by fleeing or attacking the source of distress.

In personal relations, the person motivated by personal distress will help others in need if the helping is easy and doesn't cause further distress. But if the helping isn't easy, then an effective remedy to these bad feelings is to shut your eyes or walk away. Still another possibility is to avoid seeing the problem in the first place. If I get sick at the sight of the homeless on the street, I can find a different route to the grocery store so I won't have to see the beggars.

Batson says that those who feel empathy rather than personal distress are more likely to be turned towards the needs of others. Perhaps some people are inclined towards feeling personal distress and others towards empathy as a matter of temperament. Or it may be that personal distress is empathy gone too far, like overdosing on a good thing or getting sick from too much Vitamin A.

Another possibility is that the highly sensitive person may feel overwhelmed by what needs to be done in order to alleviate the sorrows of the world. Not capable of being a saint, the person may be immobilized. Similarly, the combination of being a perfectionist and being sensitive may lead one to do nothing. The inaction is rationalized as, "If I can't do it right, I'd rather not do it at all."

Perfectionism in an imperfect world often leads to rationalizing moral indifference. In these instances, sensitivity may double back on itself. Rather than serving as the framework for virtue, sensitivity may produce the opposite of the virtue of compassion, namely the vice of indifference. This is but one example of Aristotle's notion that virtue is the golden mean between two extremes.