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.