Have we become hypersensitive? It seems. Where we now unconcernedly expose our inner turmoil on social media, the flip side is that we no longer able to bear questions or comments – let alone criticisms – because they directly threaten our existence, our being. Have we lost our way in the unrestrained public expression of disgust, anger, joy and sadness? Or is this increased psychological sensitivity, to descent, trauma, vulnerability, to disagreement and enthusiasm, a sign of progress, of empathy, because by expressing it we learn to take each other into account better and more effectively? And what is the role of meditation and mindfulness in this: that of driver of (hyper)sensitivity or , on the contrary, of guardian of resilience?
For a long time, the increase in sensitivity was seen as a sign of increasing civilization, but that constructive sensibility now threatens to turn into destructiveness, as the German philosopher Svenja Flasspöhler claims in her book Sensibel. Over de grenzen van de menselijke gevoeligheid. More and more people are standing diametrically opposite to each other, the hatred on the internet is endless, and in discussions the sensitivity is so great that no common ground can be found. Can this be solved, and can we prevent destructiveness from gaining the upper hand? Should we become even more empathetic, at the risk of becoming a – in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche  – diluted man through ego loss? Or should we strengthen our ‘fat me’ (in Dutch: dikke ik) so that not everything affects us?
The sensitive society
The greater sensitization is first and foremost a consequence of greater social space for feelings and emotions. Emotions even more than opinions – the distinction between the two is becoming increasingly difficult to make – have become an everyday topic of conversation. “How are you feeling now? What does this do to you?’, are common questions. From journalists, usually immediately after a lost or won match, or afterwards a high stakes debate in parliament. But it’s not just journalists who are looking for exciting feelings and juicy stories. We now also ask friends and acquaintances, and colleagues at work, these questions, as an attitude of empathy towards each other. If you don’t want to say anything about your feelings, sometimes you almost have to apologize. Showing emotions and feelings has pretty much become an obligation.
Where does this sensitization of society, which has been going on for about three decades now, come from? At the time, the American psychologist Elaine Aron coined the term ‘high sensitivity’. She indicated the group of people who are more sensitive than average to internal experiences such as emotions, pain and pleasure, but also to external ones such as sounds and smells. As a result, they are more aware of details and possible scenarios in the environment. For Aron, high sensitivity was no longer a behavioral problem that manifested itself in embarrassment and inhibition but a quality of greater commenting and empathy. It was a new step in what the sociologist Norbert Elias so beautifully described as the process of civilization, the refined transformation of human behavior with ever greater disciplining on the one hand and sensitivity to transgressive behavior on the other. A greater affect regulation, which allows us to better cope with the demands of society, but always with a dark side of discomfort and suffering from ‘having to’, of being constantly vulnerable.
Whereas 30 years ago high sensitivity was still a matter of a limited group of people, now the entire world has characteristics of high sensitivity, surrounded as we are by endless series of stimuli, often purposefully sent to us by social media platforms that want to hold our attention. Psychological phenomena have become commonplace in society. From more insight into autism and ADHD to discussions about gender and identity, #MeToo and LGBTIQ+. Social inequality and the concerns about war and migration, and climate change: they are all placed in a psychological framework. Not only do we live in a sea of stimuli, but we have also become increasingly sensitive to the waves above and currents under water. Perhaps even hypersensitive. Together we have created a system of social media and manners that runs on the intensity of expressed emotions. Two sides of an issue are regularly magnified into a major disagreement, or into a struggle that goes beyond a war of words. One’s own right is spent and shouted out. And the only way to deal with it seems to be to inflate the fat me – hard and headstrong standing up for yourself .
Searching for resonance
Sensitivity has not only been forced upon us, we have also started looking for it ourselves, for ways of refined perception and sensitivity to restore contact with others and nature in a technological world. We are looking for resonance, according to the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, and that is reflected in the practice of numerous techniques to live physically and mentally consciously: healthy food, sports, yoga, and mindfulness, and much more. But is this search as innocent as it looks, and does it automatically yield results? That remains to be seen. For example, it is a well-known fact that people who meditate regularly notice after a while that they have become more sensitive. Physical sensations in and to the body, feelings and moods seem to come in stronger. The landscape of the experience gets more nuances, light and shadows. That is generally seen as progress. Sometimes, however, empathic engagement with others is set as an example in an ill-considered way. There is then a risk – certainly in combination with a one-sided emphasis on the attitude stimulated by Buddhism of letting go of excessive egocentrism (‘non-self’) – that an attentive person loses himself in the process. In the exercise of observing as sensitively as possible, he or she crosses himself or herself out by absolutizing the empathic receptivity. The result is that a diluted person is created, who no longer takes his own position. Meditating is then only empathizing with one’s own and others’ experiences.
The courage of commitment
Is there a way out of this dilemma between fat me or diluted man? At first glance, one would say that we need to be less sensitive and more resilient. Yet that answer does not satisfy, because what exactly is that? Don’t we lose the good sensitivity? Is it a matter of quantity? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a matter of establishing good relationships with each other. That is also what Flasspöhler says: in addition to sensitivity, we must also give resilience a role, as sister and brother.
For me, establishing good relationships means being present, choosing a position, taking a stand, filling in the relational space based on reasoned ethics, courage and compassion. That is being firm, expressing yourself and facing the consequences of that expression and giving feedback. Experimenting with behavior, with emotions, with opinions. So that is not a matter of more or less and of a good mix, but a matter of taking action, acting, expressing yourself, daring to be vulnerable, shying away, trying again, better, and differently.
Meditation can also contribute to this being sensitive and yet resilient by providing insight into the character of sensitivity and resilience. As mentioned, one of the first effects of meditation is greater mindfulness. This offers great benefits but can easily also lead to the undesirable reactions that we see in the fat me or diluted man. You only prevent that if you also use the greater sensitivity to get a clear view of the hedonic tone, the affective value of the experience. Because it is precisely that mechanism that contains the possibility of escaping the dilemma of more or less sensitive or resilient, of fatter me or diluted man.
When seeing through the affective tone, resilience begins, and a moment of choice arises. Any perception of the affect of an experience provides an answer to the question of whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or ambivalent. And what you learn in meditation is to pause the automatism of the emotional impulse that affect causes, not to go directly along with it. Then comes an opening. It starts with a moment of being with, of enduring, of daring to face it: both the discomfort and sometimes real unpleasantness, but also the being sucked into pleasure and enthusiasm. In that break, space is created to consider other scenarios of taking action, in which desired values and norms can play a role. To escape the dilemma, we should not get stuck in that pause but use that space. For example, to have the courage to go against someone, to disagree. Or experimenting with taking a different path. Don’t prove ourselves right or put ourselves out of brackets.
Being more sensitive and staying away from the fat me or the diluted man requires ethically conscious resilience. Not putting that resilience outside ourselves and demand that the outside world permanently protects us. But together forming and creating norms in which sensitivity, resilience and experimentation are expressed. In which commentary, criticism go hand in hand with emotional expression that is heard, and both have their place. That can hurt, but also bring relief. Bring sadness but also joy. Not opposed to, or at a distance from each other, but living with each other, committing ourselves.
This essay is inspired by:
Svenja Flasspöhler (2022), Sensibel. Over de grenzen van de menselijke gevoeligheid (Amsterdam: Ten Have). Translation into Dutch from the German: Sensibel. Über moderne Empfindlichkeit und die Grenze des Zumutbaren (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, in Jenseits van Gut und Böse, described the objective, “selfless” man, who absolutizes empathy for the other: “his mirroring, eternally unbridling soul can no longer affirm, can no longer deny; He does not command, nor does he destroy. (…) The objective man (…) is not a goal, neither a start nor an outcome, (…), and even less a beginning (…) rather a soft, clean-blown, refined, elastic cast, (…), a “selfless” human being.” (paragraph 207, chapter 6).
 The Dutch philosopher Harry Kunneman coined the term “fat me” by which he denoted three things: being addicted to excessive consumption and at the same time remain unsatisfied; to make oneself fat (swollen) at the expense of the other, and to be insensitive, not to face the consequences of one’s own actions for others.