Several years ago, I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding just to appease a friend. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, since I considered most North American comedies annoying. To my surprise, it resonated with me. Nia Vardalos starred as Toula, a Greek woman questioning her cultural conventions — the tale of an ongoing conflict between her collective family values versus her individuality.

The Portokalos family constantly poked into the most personal details of Toula’s life. She was excessively shy and plain. Her family believed Greek women should only marry their own kind and other such-like sundry old-world ideas. Toula, however, dreamed much more than her family had planned for her.

The movie helped me to reflect upon the disparity between first generation immigrants and their children’s divergent ways. It allowed me to contemplate the contradictions of my own Italian heritage. As the movie illustrated, certain cultures are composed of people who are typically loud, extroverted, hard-hitting, intrusive, paternalistic and not very reflective. My family was no exception, yet in the midst of this domain, I was born: introverted, soft spoken, private and reflective.

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The Southern Italian culture I grew up in was composed largely of people who were loud, hard-hitting, intrusive and paternalistic. My relatives were no exception. In the midst of this dominant personality trait, I was born: someone internally intense, yet quiet, inconspicuous, and reflective. This worried my relatives to no end and I was stigmatized for being different.

When someone celebrated a birthday, baptism, first communion or graduation, everyone was expected to visit in large numbers to show their support and warmth. Food, music and dance were the center of all our family events. Such ideas as conversation and connection were considered by my relatives not only strange, but threatening. It was as if by some strange power you might brainwash someone without them knowing.

Reviewing my Italian roots proved challenging because I lacked the language to define or reframe my life experiences. My path to enlightment began when reading, “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.” by Elaine N. Aron. Thanks to this author I began to see the strengths of heightened sensitivity. It never occurred to me it wasn’t my personality trait that was the problem but rather the cultural bias against the more quiet temperament. Aron says,

“The signs of prejudice against sensitivity are easy enough to spot once you read between the lines, to catch those descriptions of sensitivity as a ‘syndrome’ or that such people are ‘out of balance’ or ‘frequently lose control’ or are over-reacting or ‘unable to perceive accurately’ due to bodies with ‘excessive’ this or ‘abnormal’ that. Remember these are usually medical judgments from a warrior-king’s perspective of what is out, lost, over accurate, excessive and abnormal. Do remember, however, that there may be times when you truly do feel you have lost your balance, are out of control, and are overreacting.

Highly sensitive persons in a highly stimulating world are bound to, especially those who’ve had a very stressful childhood or personal history… remember it is not your trait that is to blame, but the world into which you and it were born, and are constantly being challenged to adapt or change.”

Often friends will comment about their sensitivity as if it’s a fault when what they are doing is reflecting the cultural bias that looks upon sensitivity as something less mentally sound. Aron explains that even doctors shun introversion as if it were a disease:

“Furthermore, for some doctors especially, sensitivity is a dreaded weakness they had to repress in order to survive medical school. So they project that part of themselves (and the weakness they associate with it) onto patients with any sign of it at all.”

Those of us with this trait can be introverted or extroverted. We are the resident artists, musicians, composers, writers, counselors and pastors. Having a more sensitive constitution we can be more easily bruised and misunderstood in a society where bravery, cool-headedness, mental and physical toughness and determination are highly esteemed. Of course these are excellent characteristics and this blog is not about diminishing certain personality traits against another.

Those who are socially extroverted individuals sometimes find it hard to acknowledge their sensitivity traits. King David seems to be one of those rare individuals in the Bible who was a highly skilled warrior yet at the same time was artistically sensitive writing the most amazing psalms ever written through the ages.

In relationships, those with heightened sensitivity are usually attentive and thoughtful partners with acute listening skills and compassionate hearts. Most are not only intellectually gifted but highly intuitive. They enjoy a more simple self-aware lifestyle focusing on staying fit and eating right.

Take a look at the list below and see whether any of these descriptions apply to you. Notice, however, that this list also includes many strengths:

“Do you get overwhelmed by stimuli such as lights, noises, and smells?
Do other people’s moods and emotions deeply affect you?
Are you easily startled?
Do you become uneasy when someone is watching you complete a task?
Do you become tired easily after a “normal” day of activity?
Are you aware of other things in your environment that most other people are not aware of?
Do you become agitated or anxious when you have a lot of tasks to do and not enough time to complete all of them?
Do you avoid disturbing or violent movies, books, or T.V. shows?
Do you feel the need to escape and retreat when there is too much going on around you?Are you deeply interested in the arts or music?
Do you dislike changes in your life?
Do you enjoy delicate tastes, scents, sounds, soft fabrics, or beautiful works of art?
Have you always been labeled as shy or sensitive by other people?
Are you overly conscientious?
Do you seem to be more sensitive to pain than other people?
Are you sensitive to certain foods such as foods containing caffeine, sugar or alcohol?
Do you become unpleasant when you are hungry?
Do you easily sense the energies of places or situations?
Are you easily touched by others’ experience, stories of kindness, and courage?
Are you attracted to the deeper things such as spirituality, self-development and philosophy?
Do you need time alone?
Are your feelings easily bruised?
Do you have a vivid imagination?”
— by Elaine N. Aron

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The Italian elderly man wore the face of an ancient patriarch as he marched out orders in his broken English. He urgently needed to renew a license plate he no longer really needed. Carefully, he monitored every move as his middle-aged son drove him to his destination.

Keeping his eyes on the road, the father commanded in a firm tone, “Turn right. Not that way. Bend the wheel further or you’ll hit that car.

Stop in front of the yellow post.

No. Not there… closer to the entrance.”

Caught in this hail storm of directives, the son felt more like a teenager than a veteran driver in his fifties. When things didn’t go his way, the elderly man broke out into something part way between a tantrum and a panic attack. That day was no exception. When asked respectfully to calm down, the elder got hot and defensive and sulked silently in resentment the rest of the way home.

When father and son returned the ordeal apparently had only begun. The old man wanted to justify his behavior while his son wanted to hear no more. Both men exchanged harsh words that resulted in some out-of-control behavior. Finally, as if entering a temporary state of insanity, the elderly man broke out into a torrent of verbal abuse and curses as if one were pouring bleach into a fish tank.
The days that followed ticked away painfully slow as everyone retreated to their corner. Heaviness mingled with restless thoughts. Father muttering something to himself; son trying to block out his father’s despair. The rest of the family were ineptly caught between the two opposing forces.

When it comes to family conflict, the redemptive lessons seem to hide themselves like creatures of the night.  The guilty and the innocent intermix. While the concept of forgiveness can become lost in cloud of religious clichés, what remains clear is … no one can win while hard feelings prevail.  While it’s convenient to focus on the irrational and combative behavior of the offender, it’s just as important to pay attention to the silent brooding that can destroy and wear out the physical and emotional self.