Sense and Sensitivity: Why there’s no such thing as “too sensitive”

I am not "too sensitive" and neither are you: why sensitivity is an asset, not a handicap

When I graduated from college, I had a bumper sticker on my car that read, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” At the time, I struggled with being “too sensitive” and taking things “too personally.” Part of the reason I had that bumper sticker was to remind myself that, when I was feeling “inferior,” it wasn’t about the other person’s words. It was that I was too sensitive. Looking back, I’m pretty horrified by this: holy let’s-blame-the-victim, amiright?

At the time, my ultimate goal was to develop such a thick skin that I would never feel inferior, no matter what someone else said to me. I viewed sensitivity as a negative trait, and the bumper sticker reminded me to suck it up and get over it.

That attitude caused me to excuse a lot of very inexcusable behavior from others.

Sensitivity is often used as a weapon in the Blame Game. In my experience, I’ve been told I’m “too sensitive” by people who want to excuse their own bad behavior – and that’s not fair. But it goes both ways: some sensitive people expect others to tiptoe around their feelings, and that’s not fair either. Untangling the role that sensitivity plays in your relationships can be really difficult.

I obviously felt a lot of shame around my perceived “over sensitivity,” which is why I let people treat me like garbage. It’s taken a long time, but I now embrace sensitivity as a strength rather than a handicap.

In fact, if you use it correctly, sensitivity can be your greatest asset. Look at it this way: Having emotional intelligence can help you a lot in life, and it’s much easier to understand your own emotions (and those of others) when you’re sensitive.

Sensitivity also is a feedback system. It can tell you a great deal about yourself and your experience of life, and about the people around you. In my mind, sensitivity is a great blessing.

And that’s what I didn’t understand at 22. Sensitivity isn’t something to change – it’s a skill to develop. It’s not easy, though: Learning to honor and “handle” sensitivity is, at least for me, a battle. Turning “too sensitive” into a source of strength and pride requires a lot of personal work. But if we work hard enough, we sensitive folk can thrive in our relationships, because we can communicate on a very deep level. And if we take the added step of sharing our feelings...well, that's real strength. Vulnerability is the ultimate Big Scary Thing.

Developing a thicker skin is a necessary life skill too, but I actually think it can be a byproduct of honoring sensitivity. I don’t feel shame over my sensitivity anymore, which has allowed me to respect my own feelings and opinion. I can now (usually) tell the difference between my own “stuff” and somebody else’s “stuff,” which means I don’t blame myself for other people’s issues as much.

It took me years to develop a thick skin, and when I look at my daughter, there’s no doubt she’s mine. She is exactly as I was as a child. It’s not a matter of being thin skinned - it’s a matter of having no skin at all. Other people’s emotions deeply affect her, whether their feelings are directed at her or not. As I child, I remember being wracked with guilt at the very thought of someone else’s hurt feelings. I constantly apologized for things that were not my fault.

One of my main worries as a parent is learning how to help C develop boundaries and a “thick skin,” but also simultaneously recognize that her sensitivity is a gift. Empathy is a beautiful, beautiful thing. It is what makes this world tolerable. People without empathy hurt others; people with empathy help the wounded.

Like me as a child, C is very perceptive, and is affected by what she knows other people want her to feel or do. Quite frankly, I think it’s pretty remarkable to see behavior like that in such a young child (there’s more of that innate temperament I was talking about, right?). As she grows up, it will be a challenge for her – as it was for me - to find her own honest and true voice, and to speak up despite other people’s opinions. I want her to feel safe and comfortable to be her own, genuine and beautiful self: no fake laughs or holding in her tears.

What about you? Have you been called “too sensitive”? Do you see it as a positive or negative thing?

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4 thoughts on “Sense and Sensitivity: Why there’s no such thing as “too sensitive”

  1. susan

    I totally agree with your sensitivity issue.  I especially like your identifying the “blame game”.  Those people who use it to excuse their own bad behavior.
    Susan

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  2. Danielle

    Love this! To me, it’s along the lines of the battle of everyone perceiving those who are more on the introverted or “shy” side as negative (my son is constantly criticized – to his face – about being shy, he’s just turned 3). I think his “shyness” and “sensitivity” work in hand with him being such a kind, gentle and empathetic friend. It’s a challenging balance for me working on not taking those things away but also guiding him to learn how to not be walked all over.

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  3. Danielle, this is something I deal with literally every day. Have you read “The Highly Sensitive Child”? The author has some great tips for how to respond to people when they make negative judgements, and how to explain to other people why your child doesn’t want to be touched (which, in my humble opinion, shouldn’t need an explanation). It’s a good guide.

    And I completely agree with you – it’s a fine balance to figure out how to teach!

    Reply
  4. Ruth Hye-Ryoung Ahn

    I, too, was told I am “too sensitive” pretty much all throughout my life…”cry baby” was a nickname given to me by people from church. I tried (and still do try) to grow “thicker skin” and not to care too much about all these different issues that really did bother me, but reading a variety of blogs such as yours help me to remember that I shouldn’t change myself and try to be someone I’m not.

    Reply

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