How to Handle the Highly Sensitive

They tear up at phone commercials. They brood for days over a gentle ribbing. They know what you're feeling before you do. Oh, the highly sensitive. Homepage image: Shutterstock

The 8 Unhealthy Habits of Interpersonally Sensitive People

Why being emotionally sensitive is harmful to your health.

No one likes to experience being rejected, but people high in the quality of interpersonal sensitivity (IS) are particularly vulnerable to fears about being left alone and isolated.  As it turns out, being high on this set of personality tendencies is more than unpleasant. Interpersonal sensitivity can actually be harmful to your health.

In a far-reaching review of published journal articles, University of British Columbia psychologists Teresa Marin and Gregory Miller sifted through a whopping 75 studies in which they examined the negative health consequences of people high in IS. They define IS as a constellation not just of personality traits, but of motivation, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In study after study, the associations that Marin and Miller report were clear: people high in IS have higher rates of illness and death. The most consistent results were found in the area of infectious disease.  High-IS people are more susceptible to everything from the common cold to faster rates of progression if they are HIV-positive. Cardiovascular disease is another potential killer of the interpersonally sensitive.

What is it about IS that might lead people high in IS to be more susceptible to disease? The list of possibilities might seem almost endless.  If you’re a model student of psychology, or just a frequent reader of the blog, you’re thinking that this is another variation of the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” problem.  This particular kind of sensitivity might make people more susceptible to getting sick, but they may get sick because they’re in poor health, which also makes them more anxious in general. It’s also possible that people who are anxious are depressed, and that their negative mood increases their illness susceptibility.  It’s also possible that high susceptibility to such causes of illness and death as cardiovascular disease and cancer are due to such factors over which people have little control, such as social class, gender, and ethnicity.

Other candidates for factors that account for the IS-illness link are hostility (known to be related to heart disease), loneliness and lack of social support, and lifestyle factors such as amount of exercise. Not everyone agrees that IS is as detrimental to health as Marin and Miller claim it is (e.g. Denollet, 2013; Smith, 2013). Either way, it’s clear that this is an intriguing area of research that warrants further research (Marin & Miller, 2013b).

Some of the data that Marin and Miller analyze do make a pretty strong case for the "IS causes illness" argument. The most fascinating were studies in which participants are exposed to a cold virus, and then the researchers wait to see who develops that cold. The high-IS participants were, in the large majority of cases, likely to become the snifflers.  

It will probably never be possible to conduct the perfect controlled experiment on personality and its relation to health. In the meantime, you can benefit from knowing the 8 factors that constitute IS and then learning to keep them from taking over your life. Try rating yourself on each one, and if you think you come out too high, read on to find out how to lower your own tendencies to show this variant of the IS set of tendencies.  

  1. Rejection sensitivity. This is the key element of IS that I talked about at the opening of the blog. People who are high in this quality not only over-react to rejection from others, but imagine that it will happen before it does and are highly attuned to possible and even unintended rejection. To lower your rejection sensitivity, work on taking an accurate reading of the people who are important to you when they seem to be telling you to go away. Perhaps they don’t mean anything but are preoccupied with their own concerns. It’s also possible that if you’re constantly expecting rejection, even slight slights will send your anxiety levels sky-high. Take a more optimistic and trusting approach and you won’t be so likely to make mountains out of rejection molehills.
  2. Social anxiety and avoidance. Being extremely uncomfortable around others is often a matter of fearing that you’ll be criticized. You are more likely to be high on this form of IS if you feel that people hold negative views of even your admirable qualities. As a result, you’ll stay away from those same people, and your fears then turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. To overcome this unhealthy habit, question the thoughts that come into your mind when your fear of criticism is at its peak. Is it true that all eyes are really upon you? Could it be possible that people don’t truly care about your imagined mistakes and embarrassing actions? Sure, when you trip on a step in front of a roomful of people you might imagine that they think you’re uncoordinated. The chances are, however, that they’re just happy that they’re the ones who managed to avoid the stair that caused your own sprained ankle.
  3. Social and psychological inhibition. When it comes time for sharing, you’re always the one least likely to speak up. You’d just as soon that no one knew what you’re thinking or feeling. The problem with this unhealthy habit is that you end up suppressing what might be healthy thoughts and emotions to let others know about. It’s possible that your fear of sharing is due to bad experiences in your past when you were mocked or belittled for letting others into your inner world. You might find that, once you express yourself in a situation that you find safe (as with a few close friends), it gets easier and easier when you’re with people you don’t know quite so well.
  4. Behavioral inhibition. Keeping to yourself isn’t just a matter of not opening your mouth, it’s also a tendency that can express itself in the way you act, especially in new or unfamiliar situations. Think about the small child who retreats into the corner when her parents take her along to a neighborhood gathering with people she’s never met before. Behavioral inhibition in adults, similarly, takes the form of retreating maybe not into a corner but into yourself when you are someplace new. Once in a while, it’s normal to hold back until you’re certain what’s expected of you in a given situation. However, if you’re consistently uncomfortable in new situations, it might be good to test the waters, again when you feel relatively safe, and see what happens when you join the crowd.
  5. Shyness. We tend to think of shyness as an inborn quality. According to Marin and Miller, though, shyness is made up of social anxiety, inhibition, and avoidance. If you’ve always tended toward shyness, you will probably never become completely bold and brazen around others. However, if you break this quality down into its component parts, as we’ve just seen, you can at least try approaching people in a few “safe” situations, question your assumption that everyone’s always criticizing you, and try to be a little bold at least once in a while. You don’t have to be a shy adult just because you were a shy child.  As you get older, you are constantly gaining more experience, and this can help give you the social confidence you need to try to venture out of your personality comfort zone.
  6. Submissiveness. For many people, being behind the scenes is a great deal more comfortable than being center stage. However, in submissiveness, your tendency to stay in the background goes along with following what others tell you to do. This is where, perhaps, socialization plays an important role particularly for women who are culturally conditioned to let men take the lead. However, there are plenty of men who are also easily dominated by others, even if they would prefer not to be. The reason that perhaps this is a particularly unhealthy habit is that people who are submissive may be suppressing their true desires when they let others boss them around. Building up that resentment may create a heightened arousal that takes its toll on your body’s control systems. To overcome this unhealthy habit doesn’t require that you do a complete 180 and start to push everyone around just to make your point. Instead, when you feel that internal pressure build up, let at least some of your personal desires bubble up to the surface. You may find that, much to your surprise, people actually accede to your wishes and, especially combined with #3 above, don’t even get mad at you.
  7. Introversion-extraversion. There’s no particular reason that introversion should be bad for your health. In fact, as many psychologists have shown, introverts have a number of significant personality strengths. It may also seem to you that some of the qualities in this list of 8 are quite similar to introversion. Rather than regard introversion alone as a risk factor for poor health, it might be more accurate to state that it’s only bad for your body when it’s combined with inhibition, avoidance, fear of criticism, and shyness. There may even be cases when introverts have better health habits than extraverts, as they may be more attuned to their body’s internal signals. Therefore, unless you’re the type of introvert who’s constantly afraid of disapproval and worries about rejection, you may actually be able to hang onto your quiet tendencies without putting yourself at risk.
  8. Type D personality. This is a personality syndrome not often discussed, and certainly not in comparison to its infamous cousin, the Type A behavior pattern. People high in the Type D syndrome experience a great deal of sadness, distress, and irritability but, at the same time, avoid expressing it openly.  If you experience these negative emotions, the solution might be, in part, to express them in a more outright fashion (much as is true for #3 and #4, above).  However, when it comes to feeling constant sadness, distress, and irritation, it might be wiser to find ways to delve into the possible causes of your negative emotions.  To do this, you may want to seek treatment, particularly from therapists who work from a cognitive-behavioral perspective on changing your emotions by changing your thoughts. This type of treatment could also be applied to reducing your feelings of anxiety and fear of criticism. Short of seeking therapy, however, you might entertain finding ways to entertain yourself on a more frequent basis. By increasing your diet of enjoyable activities, you’ll be building more positive reinforcement into your life.

In summary, although psychologists view these 8 qualities as immutable “dispositional” factors that we’re more or less born with, there are plenty of reasons to expect that once you know about them, you can start to turn them around. Personality change is possible, no matter what your age, allowing you to improve your outlook and your health.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 

References:

Denollet, J. (2013). Interpersonal sensitivity, social inhibition, and Type D personality: How and when are they associated with health? Comment on Marin and Miller (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 991-997. doi:10.1037/a0033537

Marin, T. J., & Miller, G. E. (2013a). The interpersonally sensitive disposition and health: An integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 941-984. doi: 10.1037/a0030800

Marin, T. J., & Miller, G. E. (2013b). Taking the middle ground, where the path is most clear: Reply to Smith (2013) and Denollet (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 998-999. doi:10.1037/a0033977

Smith, T. W. (2013). Does the interpersonally sensitive disposition advance research on personality and health? Comment on Marin and Miller (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 985-990. doi:10.1037/a0033993

How to Handle the Highly Sensitive