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When Narcissists and Enablers Say You're Too Sensitive

How this classic gaslighting routine works and how to handle it.

Shermeee/Creative Commons
Source: Shermeee/Creative Commons

Key Points: People high in the trait of narcissism may work to convince those around them that they are just being overly sensitive when they protest episodes of abuse. This form of gaslighting can play out in a variety of ways, including insisting that they are just kidding or that others are too thin-skinned. One can learn, however, not to take the bait.

Does your partner, parent, sibling, or other family member say you are too sensitive if you point out that they have hurt you or that someone else has hurt you? Here are some other phrases they may use with the same underlying message:

  • You need to toughen up.
  • Can't you take a joke?
  • Why do you take everything personally?
  • You should learn to let things go.

Whatever the wording, you may have taken these messages deeply to heart, especially if they've been delivered by your parent(s). You may have spent years feeling confused and ashamed about why you're so touchy and easily wounded. Perhaps you believe you have good reason to feel upset but can't get out of the cycle of hurt and blame that seems to always leave you on the losing end of the argument.

If you're angry, you have good reason to be. Telling other people they are overreacting when they're being victimized is the most common form of gaslighting that narcissistic abusers and their enablers engage in. Often a person targeted with ongoing scapegoating is labeled too sensitive to discredit them and dismiss their feelings. When abusers reframe their abuse this way, they sidestep accountability and undermine the scapegoated person's sense of reality so they doubt themselves and hesitate to call out the abuse. Others in the family may accept and even participate in the victim blaming to avoid being targeted themselves and win favor with the abuser.

How It Works

As with other forms of gaslighting, the "you're too sensitive" routine is usually cloaked to hide its real intent and position the narcissist as free of responsibility. Here are four common ways this is done:

1. The Reasonable Guise. Taking the stance of the reasonable party allows the narcissist to cast the scapegoated person as irrational, overly emotional, perhaps even hysterical. This is a stance often taken by men toward women that is supported by institutionalized cultural bias. The reality is that the narcissistic personality is by definition hypersensitive, emotionally dysregulated, and delusional. Telling you that you are too sensitive when you react to being belittled, criticized, or attacked is a classic form of narcissistic projection.

2. The Joking Guise. What better way to get away with abuse than to frame insults and ridicule as jokes? As long as the narcissist is "just kidding," he or she is the blameless comedian others laugh along with, while the targeted scapegoat becomes the humorless outsider who can't take a joke. Cruel "teasing" is an all-too-common form of ongoing humiliation in narcissistic families and relationships.

3. The Tough Realist Guise. Narcissists and their enablers love to tell other people they need to toughen up. Playing the worldwise realist, in contrast to the "thin-skinned" scapegoat, makes them feel superior and appear concerned while denying their own oversensitivity and abusive behavior. Adding insult to injury, abusers often frame this gaslighting strategy to the scapegoat as being "for your own good."

4. The Sympathetic Guise. A passive-aggressive strategy common among covert narcissists is acting sympathetic to the scapegoat's "sensitivity" or hurt feelings to appear caring while directing negative attention onto the scapegoat. Often the narcissist will privately target the scapegoat with an invalidating look, comment, or tone and then express concerned bewilderment in front of others when that person becomes upset. Typically the covert narcissist operates within plausible deniability to pivot away from accountability if called out by the scapegoat or others. Children caught in this cycle with a covert narcissist parent may go decades without fully recognizing the abusive manipulation they are entangled in.

How to Handle It

The best way to avoid being abused and gaslighted as too sensitive is to limit or end contact with the person or people abusing you. But if you are currently unable to leave an abusive situation, there are strategies that can put you on better footing.

  1. Stop explaining yourself. The pathological narcissist thrives on exploiting and invalidating others, and your attempts to explain yourself fall on deaf ears. Bottom line: The narcissist does not care about your reasons, feelings, or explanations.
  2. Don't make yourself vulnerable. Narcissists view vulnerability as weakness and an opportunity to exploit or attack. The sooner you stop sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings the more protected you will be.
  3. Don't take the bait. It's difficult not to react, particularly if you've been actively targeted for a significant period of time, but withholding your emotions when you're being criticized or insulted is the best way to disarm the narcissist and his or her enablers. Bottom line: They do it for a reaction, and if you don't give them that fuel, they will look elsewhere for it.
  4. Work on you. If you've been targeted with long-term abuse, you are likely suffering from low self-esteem, confused boundaries, and other symptoms of complex trauma. Seek support and resources to educate yourself about narcissism and the trauma that results from narcissistic abuse. People who genuinely care about you and want the best for you won't dismiss your feelings, even when those feelings make them uncomfortable.
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