Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Understanding Subjectivity

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 1, 2013


Understanding subjectivity is the essence of good listening. Zoe and Berkeley illustrate this point well.

Many of my readers commented that Zoe was being “too sensitive”. This “too sensitive” remark often strikes me with the wish to respond “on what scale?” Who owns the sensitivity meter between nicely sensitive where one is sympathetic to others, to ‘too sensitive” where one is considered a “drama queen”? I often think of a dog who hears sounds that humans cannot detect. Are dogs “too sensitive”? Or, do they have powers of perception which exceed humans, and therefore we are baffled by their abilities? Sure, one could say that Zoe should not “make such a big deal” about Berkeley interrupting a yoga session, and that Zoe, clearly, to some, is either unforgiving in general, or specifically, with her sister Berkeley. On the other hand, Zoe’s reaction to Berkeley could be a detection of underlying hostility that Berkeley feels for Zoe, and as such, Zoe is wise to pay attention to her feelings, such that she understands the dynamics of her relationship with her sister. Suppose Zoe were to brush off the yoga experience, only for it to happen again, leading to more ‘sensitivity” and pain. This minimization of her feelings could lead her to a larger problem of repeated exposures to situations where she ultimately feels deeply devalued. Similarly, Zoe’s attention to her feelings could lead her to protect herself from people who do not appreciate her, thereby protecting her self-esteem. As Zoe’s therapist, it is my job to understand her subjective experience, and in so doing, help Zoe deepen her understanding of how she is feeling in the moment. I encourage her “sensitivity” such that she has a language for her emotional interior in which she can describe her  experience of a deeply wounding experience. This language of feelings can be scary to some ears, leading some listeners to want to dismiss her and say “get over it”. It does not matter whether the listener, in Zoe’s yoga experience, would have had the same reaction. What matters is that Zoe experienced hurt feelings, and like a person who takes a tumble, the friend asks  ‘how can I  help?’ and not ‘why are you moaning?’

11 Responses to “Understanding Subjectivity”

  1. Ashana M said

    I think when some people talk about being “too sensitive,” they mean someone has not taken proper responsibility for their own emotional states: instead of managing their feelings, people who are “too sensitive” expect the world to keep them from feeling negative emotions. Responsibility–and when it’s appropriate to expect consideration and when it’s appropriate to simply manage our own feelings–is a tricky matter. (Of course, other times, those who talk about being “too sensitive” are just trying to minimize or deny someone else’s pain.)

    The problem with Zoe and Berkeley is that Berkeley just doesn’t care. However, Zoe keeps asking her to. Consideration is something we can rightfully expect from those who care about us, but not from people who don’t. Zoe has made a unilateral contract with Berkeley: we will be supportive and caring sisters. That isn’t the goal for Berkeley. Berkeley’s equally unilateral contract is “stick around so I can whale on you psychologically.” It’s not really a surprise that Zoe ends up disappointed repeatedly.

    It’s also true that Zoe repeatedly allows herself to be cast in the role of the victim, but we also have a responsibility to protect herself. In doing so, Zoe is willfully returning to a state of powerlessness that she does not need to occupy, but then she wants comfort for her distress. As witnesses to her pain, it’s hard not to feel used. And yet Zoe probably does not know how to prevent being victimized or even that protecting herself is an option.

    • Hi Ashana,
      Of course, we are only dealing with a vignette, so it is hard to say anything with certainty, as per our last exchange. Having said that, it is my impression that Berkeley does care, and that, in fact, most siblings have an attachment, but the nature of that attachment varies considerably. Zoe is not casting herself as a victim, since she is in my office, trying to help herself. She is not blaming others, including Berkeley, but only wondering why she feels so bad, given the relatively minor event that happened. Thanks, as always.

      • Ashana M said

        I agree that Berkeley is probably attached to Zoe. But attachment is not the same thing as care. We can be attached to people (and things) that we don’t care about beyond making sure they continue to meet our needs.

        It’s interesting that I never said Zoe is casting herself as a victim, but both you and Shelly read that I had. I wrote that she is allowing herself to be cast as a victim. Berkeley is victimizing Zoe–not Zoe. And Zoe continues to allow it to happen.

        • Yes, attachment does not mean care. I am not sure Zoe is “allowing” it to happen, as much as Zoe is aware that it happens. Yes, Zoe can do damage control, but without an absolute detachment, she has chosen to interact with her family on a limited basis.

          • Ashana M said

            I’m not really sure what you mean. So you believe Zoe is causing Berkeley to act the way she does?

            • No, Zoe is not causing it, but I am not sure she can stop it.

            • Ashana M said

              She’s a grown woman and she’s not being kept in chains in someone’s basement. So, yes, there are things she can do, although she isn’t going to be able to change Berkeley’s behavior. She doesn’t, for example, need to share anything special with Berkeley. Most people manage relationships with Berkeleys by sticking to the weather and the Dodgers. She may not know what she can do to protect herself, or feel she has a right to do so. She may also not understand she needs protecting or that she can’t just stop being hurt. Protecting herself from Berkeley’s emotional assaults is not a right she grew up feeling she had. It’s hard to know exactly what the dynamic is for Zoe, but I do believe she is not exerting a control in her life that she does have and has very rightfully.

  2. Jon said

    As to the subject of on what scale is one being “too sensitive,” the second half of the old adage, “try not to unintentionally offend, and try not to be easily offended,” is a good place to start. It seems as though in Zoe’s case, the yoga incident is indicative of past problems. If so, then her reaction is not just to this incident, but to a series of incidents. In this case, a friend of Zoe that understands this is more in a position to offer help than be in a bewildered state about why she is hurt. Such help may come from a way to allow Zoe to be in a better mental state when dealing with Berkeley as preparation for their next, inevitable, encounter.

    • Hi Jon,
      I would partially agree, although I would add that when a friend experiences pain, beyond what the circumstances seem to yield, then the friend should assume there is “more to the story”. Yes, I understand the issue of the friend feeling “bewildered” but that is, what I teach my students, the position of curiosity, rather than judgment. Thanks.

  3. Shelly said

    A friend of Zoe would automatically understand what it is about Berkeley’s behavior that hurt Zoe in the first place. It is not that Zoe cast herself in the “role” of victim, it is that she IS a victim of uncaring and callous behavior of someone who refuses to consider Zoe’s feelings in all things. Yes, it is the therapist’s role to help Zoe understand her feelings and to shore her up for the next assault when she meets Berkeley again, yet Zoe is not a weak person for needing a caring friend or therapist for understanding her angst. That is the nature of human beings: sharing the good and the bad, having people to understand the human condition. I never could understand the “chin up” attitude. It usually is made by someone who is embarrassed by emotions or doesn’t know how to empathize. I feel sorry for those kinds of people.

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