When I look at Daredevil at the literal level, I agree with my friend and colleague Clint Nowicke about what he calls the “Daredevil syndrome”: that is, the character is nominally disabled but he might as well not be because the blindness doesn’t seem to affect him in any of the ways that matter in the story (fighting, running through the city, etc.).
However, there is also a different way of approaching Daredevil, a symbolic one in which his disability actually isn’t his blindness. It’s his hypersensitivity. His senses of hearing, smell and touch are preternaturally amplified to the point where the world becomes “on fire”—an overpowering sensory assault that once threatened to obliterate his ability to think, function, and to even stay sane had he not learned to control it. He was so sensitive you could have knocked him out just by scraping the chalkboard or giving him a whiff of your post-lunch onion breath. In point of fact, Daredevil’s adversaries have often tried to use his own hypersensitivity against him to gain leverage in battle.
Yet even as Matt Murdock’s hypersensitivity might be considered a disability in one sense, it is also the very source of his power. In Season 1, Episode 7 of the new Netflix series Daredevil, we see a young Matt writhing in agony in bed as his senses become increasingly sensitive. But when his mentor, Stick, visits him for the first time he says, calmly, “They think you’re getting worse. But you’re not, are you kid? You’re getting stronger.”
And it is true. The worse his hypersensitivity became, the more it became like a superpower. Of course, his degree of sensitivity goes far beyond the realm of the normal into the paranormal, but it is a useful and powerful metaphor.
I believe that a fairly significant problem affecting our culture today is an invisible one, invisible in the sense that it’s not typically recognized as a “problem” the same way that bullying or road rage are. Yet is a phenomenon that exists as a common denominator beneath many of our more obvious social problems. It is our chronic hypersensitivity, our habitual tendency to let ourselves become overly affected emotionally by things that we encounter every day.
For clarity, I will distinguish between emotional hypersensitivity and sensory hypersensitivity. They share commonalities but there are some subtle differences as well. Sensory hypersensitivity is when one or more of your senses, such as smell or hearing, are extra sensitive beyond a range that could be considered healthy for everyday functioning (hyperacusis, for example, is an actual medical condition with a physiological basis). Emotional hypersensitivity, however, is when a specific sense itself isn’t extra sensitive, necessarily, but the person becomes easily aroused emotionally by things that happen. I’ll mostly focus on emotional hypersensitivity here, but as I’ve said, these two things crossover into each other and it isn’t uncommon to find people who have degrees of both sensory hypersensitivity and emotional hypersensitivity.
Hypersensitivity is a completely understandable phenomenon and in itself it isn’t wrong or bad. The only thing that’s problematic about it is that people often react in negative ways to emotional triggers which ultimately, if you think about it, are just sensory data (words, sounds, sights, feelings) upon which we’ve imposed a subjective value judgment. So the resulting irritability, rudeness, shouting, cursing, throwing or breaking things, or some combination thereof—these are the problems, not the sensitivity itself. And these negative behaviors can affect our ability to be happy or content, to be more effective at work and at home, and to be kinder to each other in the midst of tension and conflict. For some people, their hypersensitivity can spiral out of control until they’re trapped in a behavioral loop in which they keep lashing out negatively, which triggers more unpleasant stimuli from the outside world, which in turn then causes the person to keep reacting negatively and so on.
So should we rid ourselves of hypersensitivity? No, even if that were possible, it wouldn’t be desirable because hypersensitivity can be a very good thing sometimes. It helps us notice things and to be more perceptive. It can help us to be more empathetic to the pain of others, not just our own. It’s no accident that many artists, creative people and those in fields that require empathy skills, like psychology, tend to be very sensitive. Again, as with Daredevil, it can be both a shortcoming and a strength depending on how it is used.
So the goal wouldn’t be to be less hypersensitive; it would be to be less hyperreactive. It would be to learn how to harness and control our feelings so that we can use them for positive actions while minimizing the chances of hurting others emotionally or physically. And just as with Daredevil, this is something that we can absolutely learn to control should we choose to do so. And it is entirely your choice: stay the same if you’re happy that way, or perhaps learn to control it if you’re not.
If you choose to control it, then how? This topic alone would require a much longer article, but I will try to very briefly summarize what I call The Daredevil Method:
Step 1: Let the devil in
The first step involves what I call “letting the devil in,” the devil here representing dark and negative feelings. When we react negatively to something, we’re actually not facing our negative feelings; what we’re really doing is running away from them. For example, the intensely pressurized feeling of anger feels unbearable so we snap, shout or, worse, hit someone to try to release that feeling. But it doesn’t release the feeling because it usually makes the situation worse, which makes the feeling worse, which then gives us further cause to shout louder, hit harder, etc., until sooner or later something genuinely bad happens.
But when you let the devil in, you’re not running away from uncomfortable feelings. You’re letting yourself feel them completely, paying close attention to the physical sensations in the body (because emotions actually occur in the body, just like physical pain, even though we tend to think they occur in the “mind”). Daredevil is called the Man Without Fear because he doesn’t just face his enemies bravely. He faces the uncomfortable barrage of sensory stimuli from the outside world bravely.
Therefore the first step is to stop and notice, but to practice this properly when you’re starting out you need to stop doing whatever else you’re doing. You can’t let the devil in while multi-tasking; he demands your utmost attention. So if you’re on Twitter, for example, and someone calls you an idiot and strong feelings wash over you, put the phone down for a sec. Resist the temptation to “do” anything. Just observe the uncomfortable feelings of anger, embarrassment and hurt as the devil spreads throughout your face, chest, stomach, legs. The sensations are subtle and hard to trace at first but you’ll get better with practice.
Step 2: See that all emotions are bearable
As you make a conscious habit of focusing on negative emotions while they occur, you eventually see that any emotion triggered by most normal, everyday life events, no matter how intense, cannot truly harm you in any meaningful way despite the fact that our brains our hardwired to interpret negative emotions as indicating actual physical threats. This is why we feel like we have to do something, because long ago that would’ve been the appropriate reaction for our ancestors.
But in modern times the threat is an illusion. You will be okay, and the closer and more often you pay attention, the more you realize this. The interesting paradox is that the more you let yourself feel negative feelings completely without immediately reacting, the more you start to see how there’s nothing intrinsically bad about the feelings themselves. You just think they’re bad (speaking of which, the flow of your thoughts is another useful stimuli to observe but I’ll save that one for another article). Hence the key to controlling our hypersensitivity is the same way that Daredevil controls his: focus. Highly controlled, directed focus.
Step 3: See that all emotions are temporary
As you practice the process above, the next thing you’ll start to realize is that any intense negative emotion is also completely temporary. It always, always passes. Sometimes it seems like it won’t but, again, that’s an illusion. And once it passes, it’s almost as if it never was. You look back and feel puzzled over the level of emotional pain you were in over that particular event.
Step 4: Repeat
Now it starts to sink into your subconscious that all negative emotions (1) are not inherently bad and can’t really hurt you, and (2) they’re always temporary. The next step is to repeat the process endlessly because the subconscious is extremely slow to learn, and until it does emotions in the heat of the moment are incredibly deceptive. Even after practicing this for months, something will happen and your mind will think that surely this time it’s the incident that will ruin you. With the rarest of exceptions that’s almost never the case. But you’re going against a lifetime of instinctual habit so this won’t change overnight.
This is also why self-talk or logic alone are rarely enough to master emotions. Strong negative emotions are rooted in the primal brain which in turn is rooted in the body. So the primal brain learns when the body learns in its Pavlovian way.
Step 5: Let the devil out
Well done. You’ve been brave by letting the devil in. Now comes the fun part: letting the devil out. The great thing about learning to control your dark emotions is that you can then tap into that tremendous negative energy and channel it into productive and non-harmful activities. Only now you can do it in a controlled rather than impulsive fashion. For Daredevil the activities are practicing law, patrolling the city and stopping crime. For you it can be working out, learning a new skill, anything as long as it’s constructive and not destructive.
Once you practice the Daredevil Method consistently and long enough, your concentration muscle will become strong such that you can do it in the midst of a highly engaged or chaotic activity, like interacting with people, which is when it really becomes most useful. It’s like how Daredevil is able to talk to people while simultaneously concentrating on their heartbeat and other biosignals. And staying aware of the flow of feelings within your body as you interact with the world helps prevent you from being caught off guard by unexpected stimuli and emotions.
Of course, you’ll never be perfect at the Daredevil Method. Even Daredevil, long after he has long mastered the ability to handle life’s constant sensory barrage, still becomes debilitated if there is an extreme sensory stimulus—for example, if one of his enemies attacks him with a sonic emitter gun. So it’s not about perfection; it’s about gradually raising your threshold for emotional and sensory discomfort. When you weight train, you don’t start out trying to bench press the entire rack. You work your way up, and even after you become strong if you try to lift something too heavy, you’ll still drop it (i.e. react badly to negative stimuli). So patience and self-compassion are helpful in this process. Matt Murdock didn’t become Daredevil overnight. It took him years, and this process will take you years too. But I guarantee that the Daredevil Method works and it makes a huge difference in life. I know this because I am living proof of it (too long a story to get into here).
There’s so much more to the Daredevil Method. For one, there are far more practical benefits to this practice than I have room to explain here. There are also numerous alternative techniques that together amount to a kind of emotional and psychological arsenal. But this is the Internet and this article is already too long, so another day, perhaps.
Finally, it is worth noting that Daredevil himself is one of the more fiery, emotional characters in the Marvel universe. He is therefore not just hypersensitive in the sensory sense but also emotionally sensitive in a way that we can relate to. And both the comic and the TV show play off this emotional trait using the devil symbolism to great effect. Yet even as he struggles with his emotions, even as he sometimes wishes to murder men like the Kingpin, Daredevil is ultimately the great hero that he is because he triumphs over his own inner devil and does not let it get the better of him. By donning the mask of the devil, Matt Murdock is symbolically claiming and owning his negative feelings. He lets the devil in completely, and by doing so paradoxically becomes the one who is in control. He is then able to harness the powerful energy of negative emotions and turn around and let the devil out in a decidedly un-devilish way: by serving and helping his community and ceaselessly fighting for the rights of those without the ability to fight for it themselves.