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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Are You Too Sensitive??

Have you ever felt you are too sensitive? Have spouses, parents, friends, or coworkers labeled you thin skinned and insisted you just needed to “toughen up”, “learn to take a joke” or “get over it”? If you hear these admonitions on a regular basis; or if you frequently experience an intense sense of rejection or pain in interactions, you may be among those identified as highly sensitive. Clearly, some are just more empathic and sensitive than others and this trait can create some difficulties. In a culture that values confident, bold extroverts, sensitivity is often seen as a flaw. However, Elaine Aron, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, asserts that high sensitivity is a normal trait for about 20 percent and is certainly not a sign of a mental flaw or disorder.

Innate temperament has a very real role in an individual’s level of sensitivity. Differences in a general level of emotional responsiveness can be observed in early infancy. Research has shown that there are genetic influences in the level of sensitivity. Jerome Kagan, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard has tracked children from infancy through adolescence and found that a moody teenager was likely to have been a more fretful toddler.

While these early inclinations exist, environment does much to determine what the ultimate level of sensitivity will be. A sensitive child who is positively responded to may become less fearful and self-conscious. However, a sensitive child with overprotective parents can become even more fearful; and a sensitive child more easily hurt if regularly criticized. Additionally, parents of a highly sensitive child may experience extreme frustrations and get upset by a child’s tears, angry outbursts, and moodiness rather than help the child learn to self sooth the distress. This child may develop feelings of being unimportant and grow even more sensitive. As a child’s level of sensitivity deepens, they experience feelings of hurt by the most innocent interactions. Alternatively, the baby who coos at everyone, being unafraid of strangers, gets more positive attention which helps in becoming even secure and independent.

While sensitivity creates challenges, the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. Sensitive people value others and encourage others to know that their opinions matter. They are good listeners, and they are naturally empathetic. Many highly sensitive people are unusually creative, attentive and thoughtful partners, and intellectually gifted individuals. Because they are so acutely aware of their own imperfections, they tend to be more understanding about the imperfections of others. Sensitivity contributes to kindness, and compassion. Maybe you are not too sensitive. Maybe no one is. However, learning to be less reactive to your sensitivity can be helpful.

A few tools to consider so sensitivity is less reactive:
• Stall. Give yourself enough time to reflect before responding.
• It’s not all about you. Sometimes sensitivity encourages over personalization. Everybody at times has bad days, gets busy, and doesn’t feel well - - other’s behaviors may be about them - - not you.
• Consider the source. Some people love to bait others to see a reaction, some are just uninformed, some unkind. Every opinion should not be given equal weight.
• Distract. Don’t ruminate on the feeling. Positive distractions are important. Take a walk. Watch a movie. Laugh.
• Vent. Don’t store up negative emotions. Talk with a friend or journal to process your feelings.
• Be honest with yourself about your positives and remember them. The more you are aware of your own strengths the less deeply damaging criticism will be.

Accepting yourself as a highly sensitive person is possible when you learn to minimize over-reactions and recognize the positives of being an empathetic, sensitive person.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How Envy Impacts Happiness and Joy

While some may use the words interchangeably, depression is different from unhappiness. Clinical depression is a serious mental health issue which involves feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness and impacts the ability to successfully accomplish routine tasks of daily living. While clinical depression is serious, it is treatable. Unhappiness is a feeling state which all of us have experienced at times in life. It may involve sadness, disappointment and anxiety. Without doubt, the most unhappy people in life are those filled with envy. Envy compromises dreams and steals joy. It makes us focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we have. It leads to a build up of resentment and strife.

Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation. It is felt when there is a perception that other people are much luckier, smarter, more attractive, and better. Historically considered one of the seven deadly sins (and in two the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament), envy is a “state in which the desired advantage enjoyed by another person or group of people causes a person to feel a painful blend of inferiority, hostility and resentment,” (Psychological Bulletin, 2007).

Some degree of envy toward those that have more is normal human nature. However, when there is a shift from “I wish I had what you have” to “I wish you did not have what you have”; there is ill will, and envy has become a destructive emotion. This level of envy where there is unhappiness at the good fortune of others can be harmful both mentally and physically. Medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.” Deeply or pathologically envious people tend to feel chronically hostile, resentful and angry. They are less likely to feel grateful, and are unpleasant to be around.

Underlying feelings of inferiority are often the roots of deep envy. When we feel inferior, we see other people as being somehow larger and better than us. We long to be like them, but we tell ourselves that we can’t. A feeling of despair, disgust, envy and longing develops along with anger and resentment. If we value ourselves, when life goes well we feel happy and secure, and when life goes badly we assure ourselves that we’ll be able to cope. If we don’t value ourselves, we never feel happy and secure, even when everything goes well.

Babies are born with boundless unselfconscious confidence; without a sense of inferiority or superiority. As a child grows, the messages from parents, other adults, siblings and peers determine the conclusions about personal worth and value and therefore determine self esteem.

Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, from the University of Kentucky recently published a comprehensive article describing the nature of envy as well as the negative effects it can have on mental and physical health. Drs. Smith and Kim suggest learning to recognize feelings of envy and challenge them with cognitive techniques, including: reminders of the negative impact of envious thoughts; distracting from the negative thoughts by refocusing on other more pleasant thoughts, memories, or plans; and finally a process of reminders of our own positive qualities and advantages.

Understanding and challenging underlying feelings of inferiority is important. No one is superior, no one is inferior, and everybody is ordinary. No one escapes the pain of living and we all suffer disappointment, loss, failure and death. We all have to try to cope with life as best we can. It is important to learn to celebrate other people’s success, knowing that no one – other than you - can be good at being you. One way or another, we’re all ridiculous and we’re all important. Envying others prevents truly valuing our own life.