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Many of us suspect that we are too sensitive. We frequently find ourselves getting hurt and angry in reaction to other people's behavior. If you often feel as if your self esteem is on the line, take this mini quiz and see if you could use some helpful suggestions on how to become less vulnerable. Answer “yes (Y)” or “no (N)” to each question:

Y N   1. Have you often been told that you are too sensitive?

Y N   2. Are you often disappointed by the behavior of others?

Y N   3. Do others tell you that you expect too much of them?

Y N   4. Is it very hard for you to listen to negative feedback?

Y N   5. Do you frequently feel slighted or insulted?

Y N   6. Do you make scenes in public that you later regret?

Y N   7. Is it hard for you to admit that you do not know something?

Y N   8. Are other people intimidated by your air of self confidence, while you yourself secretly know how really insecure you are underneath?

Y N   9. Is it very important to you that you appear flawlessly perfect at all times because that is your armor against the world?

Y N   10. Are you bored when you are not the center of attention because you find it difficult to be genuinely interested in others?

Add up the total of “yes” answers. If your score is between:

0 – 2    You are probably fairly robust. You may want to read this article to find out why others are so sensitive.

3 – 5    People hurt your feelings more than they realize. You may want to learn some tactics to reduce your interpersonal stress.

6 – 8    Being this sensitive is no fun. Read on to get help and learn strategies.

9 – 10  Social situations are often very difficult for you because you care so much. You will feel much better once you understand more about why you are often so uncomfortable around others and what you can do about it.

If you answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, you have probably experienced what psychologists call narcissistic vulnerability: the awful feelings that come up at times when we are unsure about our own basic self-worth and are trying to shore up our shaky self-esteem by either seeking the admiration of others or by reminding ourselves how much better we are than them. Underneath our attempts to make ourselves feel better is the sense that our self-worth is dependent on how others see us; and we fear that people will reject and humiliate us, if we expose our vulnerabilities to them.

Most people feel insecure about themselves occasionally, but for some people, shaky self-esteem is a way of life. One man I know was unable to make dinner dates in advance because he never knew how he was going to feel on the day of the dinner. He was afraid that something would happen to shake his self-esteem and that he would not be able to get his confidence back in time to enjoy being with other people.

Like him, many people feel at the mercy of the world. When they feel the center of admiring attention, they feel confident and good about themselves; when they are not, they feel worthless. What they lack are internal mechanisms to regulate and stabilize their self-esteem independently of how others see them.

For the narcissistically vulnerable person, their self-esteem is like the mercury in the thermometer. It goes up or down depending on what is happening outside. When it is warm outside (i.e. when others are admiring), the mercury goes up. When it is cold outside (i.e. when others are critical of us or indifferent), the mercury goes down.

  • We Use Other People as "Self-Objects"

When people cannot regulate their own internal states by themselves, they often look to others to do it for them. Psychotherapists use the term “self-objects” to describe how we use other people as extensions of ourselves to calm us, soothe us, validate us, and in general restore our self confidence, poise and equilibrium when some life event has thrown us off kilter. Almost everybody does this to some extent. It can take the mild form of calling a friend when we are upset and looking to them to reassure us, instead of reassuring ourselves; or more extreme forms, such as expecting others to read our minds and give us what we want without our having to tell them what we need and then becoming hurt and angry if they do not.

In its most extreme form, this dependence on others can be terrifying. If we do not know how to reassure, soothe, or validate ourselves, we tend to stay upset until someone rescues us or fatigue sets in and we go to sleep. It is as if we are like a baby who is wet, hungry, and crying. The baby knows she feels miserable, but has no idea what to do about it.

Those of us who feel especially vulnerable, often get in the habit of expecting other people to be perfectly attuned to our moods so that we never have to experience the pain of misunderstandings. When others are unwilling or unable to focus on us in this way, we feel hurt and angry and assume that they either do not care or want to hurt us. There is an implied sense of entitlement. We are easily hurt and do not know how to heal the hurts ourself. Therefore we believe that other people should go out of their way to avoid hurting us, even if this means they have to ignore their own wants and needs. Our's should come first. This can even be seen even in small, everyday transactions that on the surface are not very threatening to anyone’s self-esteem.

For example, my friend Mark hates being interrupted when he is talking, even by a doorbell or someone asking him a question. He says that he finds it difficult to get himself back on track. He believes that if people really cared about what he was saying, they would not interrupt him. Underneath, Mark is insecure about whether he has anything interesting to say. Therefore, when someone becomes distracted while he is talking, he takes this as evidence that he is uninteresting and his sense of self-worth plummets. He then gets angry with the other person and attacks them for being inattentive when the real issue is his wobbly self-esteem.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that when the environment is not supporting us and we cannot support ourselves, people often become hatefully self-critical and drive themselves into a depression. Even seemingly small events can lead to a self-hating depression that is totally out of proportion to the event that touched it off. This happens to otherwise rational and intelligent people.

For example, Susan was sitting with a group of women friends when they started talking about a subject she did not know very much about. She began to compare herself to the other women there and put herself down. “How come I don’t know anything about this and they do? I feel so stupid just sitting here. They must think I’m and idiot or boring.”

As she described the situation to herself in this way, Susan became more and more self-conscious. She found it hard to even focus on what the other women were saying. That night as she lay in bed, she replayed the conversation over in her mind. As she did so, she felt worse and worse and began to hate herself. Eventually she convinced herself that the other women thought she was stupid, did not like her, and had talked about her after she left. The next day she woke up depressed and had trouble getting out of bed. From then on she avoided those friends and they never knew why.

Some people who unconsciously fear that they will be exposed as ignorant and imperfect, develop elaborate conversational ploys that they think will keep them safe. They may pretend that they know more than they do, put someone else down, change the subject to one they feel expert in, or monopolize the conversation so that they feel in control.

  • The Confident Mask

Many people who have these insecurities are gifted at hiding their anxieties from others. They put on what I call their “confident mask”. They cultivate an air of confident self-assurance to protect themselves. Underneath they feel vulnerable and insecure about their self-worth, but no one who does not know them very well would guess their real feelings. Others often admire and envy them and wish they too were as accomplished and confident.

The mask is both a blessing and a burden. It provides a sense of safety, but it also reinforces their fear of exposing their real flawed self to other people’s gaze. The more others are fooled by the mask and admire them, the more they are afraid that something will happen to expose them as a fraud.

If you recognize yourself in the things that I am describing, you may find that as you read this you feel conflicting emotions. On one hand it may be a relief to know others too are like this. On the other hand, you may feel exposed and ashamed that you sometimes feel imperfect and insecure.

What to Do to Feel Better

Whether you feel this way occasionally or often, there are things you can do to help yourself when something triggers your insecurities.

1. Be kind to yourself.  Imagine that a dear friend was in your situation and something had made her feel incredibly insecure and vulnerable. You would probably listen patiently and reassure her in a kindly fashion. You might remind her of some of the positive things that you like about her and that you will continue to like her no matter what. In a similar way, we need to recognize when our insecure part needs reassurance and kindness and be prepared to give it to ourself.

2. Keep a sense of proportion.  Ask yourself: “How important is it really?” In Susan’s situation, for example, how important is it that she contribute to that one conversation in the whole context of her life. Even if these women did think she was boring, of which there is no proof, this still would not affect her life very much. She still would be working at the same job, be married to the same man, and living in the same house.

3. Don’t become a fortune teller.  What I mean by this is do not spin out an elaborate negative fantasy about the future implications of the situation. You will just depress yourself more and probably be wildly off the mark in your imaginings because you are in such a pessimistic and self-critical mood. If you could really tell the future, you would put more money in the stock market.

4. Notice when you are “catastrophizing” and substitute more realistic thinking.  Catastrophizing involves taking things to the maximum and imagining the worst possible outcome.

Janet, for example, once got into a horrible self-hating depression because someone she knew casually did not say "hello" to her on the street. She imagined the woman had snubbed her deliberately. Then, in trying to supply an answer as to why a person she barely knew would snub her, she imagined that the woman had heard something awful about her.

As she mentally reviewed all her secret flaws and any acts she had ever done of which she was ashamed, she became increasingly scared and depressed. She then imaged that this woman would talk to others about her and try and turn them against her too. She pictured everyone she knew talking about her and shunning her. At the end, she pictured herself lonely and friendless contemplating suicide. A week later she found out that the other woman was near sighted and had not seen her at all.

If Janet had not catastrophized, she still would have felt the original puzzled hurt when the woman passed without greeting her, but she could have saved herself the depths of fear and depression that she experienced.

5. Accept that you are not the center of other people’s universe.  They are, and they have interests and problems that have nothing to do with you. The corollary to this is:

6. Most of what people do to each other is not personal. I know it is hard not to see it as personal when it is happening to you and it hurts; but if you can remember that they are probably thinking about themselves and not intending to hurt you, you will probably not get as angry and depressed.

7. Make sure your behaviors benefit you.  For example, imagine that you are taking a new friend to dinner. Your waiter brings you the wrong order, the food is cold, and he puts the check down in front of your dinner guest instead of you. You feel embarrassed and angry and your first impulse is yell at the waiter and demand to talk to the manager.

Before you act on your impulse, ask yourself what you are hoping to accomplish. If your real goal is to have a pleasant evening with your friend, make sure your behavior does not ruin it for both of you. Use suggestion #2 and try to keep your sense of proportion by reminding yourself that all that happened is a bad meal. Ask yourself if there is another way you can get satisfaction in a manner that won’t hurt your goals. In this instance, you might decide to write a note to the manager complaining about the service, instead of creating a scene you might regret later.

8. Try and see the other person’s point of view. Joan was very insulted when she found herself seated at what she considered to be a bad table at a friend’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. She had expected to be seated at her friend’s table. However, when she thought about it more, she realized that her friend had probably had a seating problem to solve and thought that this was the best solution.

She could either choose to support her friend at this important time and let it go, or she could make a fuss and let it ruin their friendship. She used suggestions #2, #5, #6 to make herself feel better emotionally (she kept a sense of proportion, she reminded herself that she was not the center of their universe, and that most things aren’t personal messages to her) and used suggestion #7 (make sure your behavior benefits you) to guide her behavior. As a result, she decided to make the best of her situation and try to enjoy the people with whom she was seated.

9. Remind yourself of all the things that you have accomplished in life.  When we are hurt or feeling insecure, it is easy to lose our sense of perspective about ourselves. If we spend a few moments reviewing our successes (instead of our failures), we are likely to feel better faster.

10. Do something absorbing that you like.  Even though a bad mood feels like it will stay around forever no matter what we do, this really is not true. The minute we become full absorbed in something that we like, our mood changes. This works on the same principle as distracting a crying baby with a new toy.

11. Make a list of mood shifting pleasurable activities.  Spend a few moments one day when you are feeling calm, thinking about things that you can use to change your mood. Many people find that music, a warm bath, being out in nature, and some form of physical exercise help. Make a mental list of things that you like so that when you need help, you can help yourself. It is important to prepare ahead of time. If you wait till you are feeling bad, you will probably be feeling too pessimistic to even remember anything that you like.

12. Avoid situations that trigger your insecurities.  It is also important to get to know the kind of situations that tend to push your buttons and make you feel insecure. When you are feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable and unusually insecure, try and avoid these situations. For example, this may not be the best time to ask your boss for a raise or go to that party where your ex husband and his new wife will be. Or if you have to do something when you are vulnerable, try and prepare ahead of time so you won’t be caught off guard. Review this list of suggestions before the event and do everything you can to increase your feelings of security and self esteem.

Punchline: Everyone feels insecure occasionally.  Once you learn what triggers your vulnerabilities, you can take positive steps to protect your self-esteem. 

Adapted from Chapter 12 in E. Greenberg (2016). Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. NY: Greenbrooke Press.

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