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Sense and Sensitivity: Why there's no such thing as "too sensitive"

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 sharingour 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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