If you’ve been labeling yourself “too sensitive,” now is the time to give yourself a break. Until you do, others won’t.
I’ve never met anyone who enjoys being called “too sensitive.” For a woman in our culture, the label suggests you are touchy, overemotional, fragile, or even neurotic. For a man, the “too sensitive” label is even more damning: it implies you are weak.
For those of us who are born with the genetic trait of high sensitivity, the “too sensitive” label creates an impossible bind. We can’t help the way we are built. The fact is, we do share certain attributes that set us apart from people who are not highly sensitive:
- We process information in a deeper, more detailed way
- We more easily get overaroused—a kind of overheating of the brain
- We experience emotions more intensely
- We are more sensitive to sensory stimulation
Behaviorally, this means we are more keenly aware of and affected by our own feelings and the feelings of others. We spend more time pondering the deeper meaning of life. We seek meaning like plants seek sunlight. We are conscientious and thoughtful, and we are more likely to take our time before acting.
On the challenging side, however, we more easily get overwhelmed and shut down if too much information or stimulation comes at us all at once. Also, as Dr. Elain Aron comments in Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, our deep processing ability “creates a greater potential for being overstimulated and troubled by stressful life events.”
In other words, we can all too easily end up in what I call the “HSP hall of mirrors”— where our thoughts reverberate, becoming more and more distorted. That’s why it is crucial to understand your sensitivity so you can skillfully manage it.
Yes, your HSP brain is different…
Neurobiologically, we are measurably, demonstrably different from non-HSPs. In experiments using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, researchers have observed that areas of the HSP brain light up when viewing images that do not light up when non-HSPs view the same images.
Dr. Elaine Aron describes the differences in Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person:
Biologists now refer to two general strategies in animals, giving rise to two innate personality types with various names, such as bold versus shy (Wilson et al., 1993), hawk versus dove (Korte et al., 2005), or unresponsive versus responsive (Wolf et al., 2008). The former are usually the majority. Their strategy is to move quickly and forcefully if necessary toward feeding and mating opportunities without much prior observation of the situation. Compared to the more impulsive or bold 80%, the sensitive minority evolved a survival approach of avoiding risks by carefully observing the subtleties in a situation before acting. Both strategies—“think first” and “act now” —can be successful, depending on conditions in the environment.* (pp 2-3)
…and the difference is value-neutral
Despite the bias in our society against high sensitivity, these differences in our brains and behavior are in fact value-neutral. High sensitivity is simply a different way of processing information that has legitimate evolutionary survival value, as evidenced by its wide-ranging appearance in animals, birds, fish, and insects as well.
In other words, your sensitivity is not inherently problematic. Being highly sensitive does not make you worse than other people. (Nor does it make you better.) It is neither good nor bad: it is what it is.
Other people’s judgments about our sensitivity aren’t inherently problematic either. You might be surprised to hear me say that, since such judgments can be painful to hear. But the truth is, people think what they think. You have no control over that.
However, you can choose how to respond to other people. Only one thing that can block you from holding on to your own reality in the face of others’ judgment and criticism: your own self-judgment. If you’ve already labeled yourself “too sensitive,” how can you hope to field others’ similar judgments?
Identifying the source of HSP self-judgment
Why would we choose to judge ourselves? Because like everyone else on the planet, we have a deep need to belong. Unfortunately, with our heightened awareness of social cues, facial expressions, and verbal subtleties, many HSPs pick up cues from an early age that we are at serious risk of not belonging.
“Social stimulation—being observed, praised, criticized, loved, or hassled, for example—is some of the most intense,” Dr. Aron writes. She adds,
We are social animals designed to notice every subtlety about facial expression, posture, tone of voice, and physical attributes such as age or height as well as the possible meanings of vocalizations. Remaining a respected or loved part of a dyad or group is essential to survival, so a great deal of anyone’s brain activity is devoted to interpreting these, but this is even more true for sensitive persons.*
In an attempt to belong, you may adopt the belief (conscious or unconscious) that what seems to work for other people around you should work for you. But this can backfire badly. As a result, you may–
- Sleep less than you need to, since others around you seem fine with less sleep
- Book yourself nonstop because others do, then wonder why you feel overwhelmed
- Judge yourself as weird for needing time alone, and not make it a priority
The list goes on. But the long and short of it is this: if you are in the habit of telling yourself you are too sensitive, you’ve swallowed an elephant-sized false belief. If the resulting emotional stomach ache isn’t enough to convince you to stop telling yourself you are too sensitive, here are three additional reasons:
1—It’s simply not true
“Too sensitive” is a judgment. It’s an utterly subjective description, formed in the eyes of the beholder. Who decides how sensitive is “too sensitive,” anyway?” If someone says you are being too sensitive, what they are really saying is something like,
- “You are reacting more intensely to this than I would, so I conclude you are being overdramatic,” or
- “I don’t know how to comfort you.I wish you would just stop being so upset, because your upset is upsetting me,” or
- “Your reaction is not convenient for me right now, and I wish you would get over it.”
Remember, a person’s words are not about you—even though they may sound like it. Rather, their words are an expression of their feelings and needs. Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, explained that all of our actions are attempts to meet our needs. Our feelings simply reflect whether our needs are being met or not met.
Understanding this relationship between feelings and needs gives you two options when someone labels you “too sensitive.”
- Empathize with the other person: Do your best to guess what feelings and needs underlie their words.
- Empathize with yourself: Turn inwards and sense what needs of yours are not met by being labeled this way.
You may have to practice Option Two before you can manage Option One. Either way, though, the judgments you hear from other people, including “you are too sensitive” will be far less painful for you if you remember that they are not truly about you.
2—Shaming and judging yourself only heightens your sensitive reactions
When you judge yourself by labeling yourself “too sensitive”, you exacerbate the very problem you are attempting to solve. You end up in the “HSP hall of mirrors.” In this nightmare of echoing self-criticism, you enter a downward spiral of over-arousal.
Your self-judgment causes you to feel acutely embarrassed and self-conscious, which increases your level of physical and emotional over-arousal. You become more and more flustered, which increases your feelings of self-judgment, shame, and overwhelm.
In short, self-judgment about your sensitivity actually creates a vicious cycle of over-arousal and overwhelm.
3—Calling yourself “too sensitive” impairs your ability to manage your sensitivity
We’ve seen how self-judgment actually makes you more overwhelmed and over-aroused in moments of stress. Now let’s look at a third crucial reason to stop labeling yourself “too sensitive”: if you are busy telling yourself you are too sensitive, you have not accepted “what is.” You are trying to be something you are not. And that makes it really hard to take care of the highly sensitive person you are.
If I’m in Chicago and I want to take a train to Boston, I have to enter “Chicago” in the departure city information field on the Amtrak website. If I’m ashamed to admit I’m in Chicago in the first place, how can I even start my trip?
Similarly, I will struggle to manage my sensitivity skillfully if I’m unable to accept it in the first place. Only when I exit the land of self-judgment can I effectively evaluate what kind of self-care I need…and effective self-care is the foundation of a happy, sustainable good life when you are built sensitive.
We can’t control others, but we can choose how to respond
Sooner or later, someone around you will assert, or at least imply, that you are too sensitive. You can’t prevent this: you have no control over other people. But what happens next is entirely under your control.
If you haven’t accepted your sensitive trait, others’ criticism will set off your own self-critical voices, just like a tuning fork causes the corresponding string on a piano to vibrate. You will land in the HSP hall of mirrors. That is not a fun place to live.
To exit the hall of mirrors, you must learn how to accept yourself and your sensitivity. From a place of self-acceptance, you can choose how to respond when others judge you or label you.
Photo credit: Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
*Aron, Elaine (2010): Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, New York: Routledge.
Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared here on October 30, 2018.