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Morbid Sensitivity

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Our Daily Correspondent

Saul Bass’s poster design for Bonjour Tristesse, 1958.


And why is it, thought Lara, that my fate is to see everything and take it all so much to heart?
Doctor Zhivago

I’ve always liked the term morbid sensitivity, which seems to suggest not just something unhealthy but actually dangerous. To be morbidly sensitive is to wallow, to dwell unwholesomely on slights real and perceived—to ping-pong between solipsism and a feeling for others’ pain that results in a Saint Bartholomew–like sensation of emotional exposure. 

The term is usually used as a descriptor, an observation, but I think that those of us who suffer from the condition, even occasionally, know full well when we’re being MS. The knowledge does not change the feeling, which is one of the most frustrating human conditions. 

The other evening, I felt very strongly that someone had been unkind to me: deliberately snubbed me and given me a cool and appraising look. Whether or not this was true—I was perfectly capable of acknowledging it might not be—it felt true, and the awfulness was so pervasive, so physically real, that I had to leave at once and cry and go over the moment again and again in my head. What had I done? Had we met before, and I didn’t remember? Had I somehow wronged her? Had I been cool or rude first? Had my look been unfriendly? Did she think that my dress was so ridiculous that I deserved a public put-down for my sartorial presumption? In the moment, I regret to inform you, this seemed not only plausible but likely. The only thing that I could not consider was getting over it.

“You have to learn to brush things off,” my dad would tell me again and again when I emerged from some trifling incident white-faced and shaking. “You’re like an open wound.” People say skin can thicken over the years; I’m not so sure. When I worked on the Internet—which is to say, at the mercy of commenters—I would cry every day. And while that didn’t feel healthy, I also don’t know that we should ever have to learn to deal with abuse from others—to feel that this is a desirable adaptation. 

None of which is to say that morbid sensitivity is healthy. It feels unhealthy. It feels horrible. It’s hard to know what biological or spiritual purpose it might serve, either. And it only occurs to me now that a part of the morbid sensitivity is a terrifying loss of control over situations: you cannot, after all, control how other people feel, how you are perceived, horrible things in the world. And this is, of course, an existential threat, and as such, very much worth getting upset over.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.