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. It’s a fact that compared to the majority of people, we are more keenly aware of our own feelings and the feelings of others. We do spend more time pondering the deeper meaning of life. We are more likely to take our time before acting. And in highly stimulating situations, we get overwhelmed more easily than most people.
In short, we are measurably, demonstrably more sensitive than the other 80 to 85% of the population. HSP brain activity even looks different in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan.
This HSP brain activity difference is value-neutral: high sensitivity is simply a different way of processing information, one with legitimate evolutionary survival value.
So, the fact of sensitivity is not inherently problematic. And other people’s judgments about our sensitivity aren’t inherently problematic either, even though they aren’t fun to be around: in theory, we can choose how we respond to other’s beliefs. The real problem arises when we judge ourselves by labeling ourselves “too sensitive.”
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. And 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,” writes Elaine Aron in Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. 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.
Accordingly, in an attempt to belong, HSPs tell ourselves we should feel and act like everyone else. But this has a devastating effect on us. If you are in the habit of telling yourself you are too sensitive, you’ve swallowed a big false belief. If the resulting emotional stomachache isn’t enough to convince you to stop telling yourself you are too sensitive, here are three additional reasons:
1—It’s not true
“Too sensitive” is a judgment. Who decides how sensitive is too sensitive? It is completely subjective. If someone says you are being too sensitive, what they are probably really saying is something like, “You are reacting more intensely to this than I would, and I’m finding that stressful.” Or, “Your reaction is not convenient for me right now, and I wish you would get over it.”
Whatever words come at you, though, the important thing to remember is that they aren’t about you. Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, explains that all of our actions are attempts to meet our needs, and our feelings reflect whether are needs are being met or not met. Understanding this relationship between needs and feelings gives you two options when someone labels you “too sensitive”. One option is to guess what the other person’s unmet needs are. Another is to turn inwards and sense what needs of yours are not met by being labeled this way. Either way, here’s the key point: criticism is disarmed when you remember it is not 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 what I call the “HSP hall of mirrors.”
In this nightmare hall of mirrors, you enter a downward spiral of over-arousal. You judge your response as “to sensitive.” The judgment causes you to feel acutely embarrassed and self-conscious, increasing your level of physical and emotional over-arousal. You become even more flustered, which leads to yet more self-judgment, shame, and overwhelm.
In short, self-judgment about your sensitivity 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 “something” 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. If I’m ashamed to admit I’m in Chicago in the first place, I’ll have a hard time getting where I need to go.
Similarly, it’s going to be challenging to manage my sensitivity skillfully if I’m unable to accept it in the first place. Only when I leave behind 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 good life when you are built sensitive.
We can’t control others, but we can choose how to respond
Sooner or later, someone is going to assert that you are too sensitive: it’s impossible to prevent, since we have no control over other people. If you haven’t accepted your sensitive trait, this criticism will reverberate with your own internal critical voices, landing you in the HSP hall of mirrors. And as you probably know, 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 to respond compassionately to yourself and to others who label you.
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