What, exactly, does it mean to be hypersensitive? I imagine most of us have seen or been hypersensitive. Someone points out a mistake on your math homework and you fall to pieces. Your friend says, “Well, I won’t try to help you again,” when you suggest a different cleaning product for wooden floors. Or a family member says you forgot to call them last week and then pauses mid-sentence, so you get defensive. All of these are actions of a hypersensitive person.
But what is the psychology underlying this hypersensitivity? Are we simply putting a name to the basic behavior? Or is there some thought system beneath the behavior?
Yang & Girgus (2018) have published a study in PAID in which they drill into this very question. In order to understand how hypersensitivity is defined, we first have to realize that we all differ in how closely our self-esteem is linked to our relationships going well. Some people need positive relationships or else they feel worthless. Others are more relaxed about sometimes being out of favor. But, the more someone believes their self-worth depends on being in good standing with others, the more hypersensitive that person is. That's how psychologists define it.
The researchers go on to show that this view of life, the “I must keep things good with others,” attitude, leads to over-interpreting ambiguous situations as if they are threats.
For example, they asked people how they would feel if someone said, “You have forgotten to call me,” and then paused mid-sentence. Pause now, and think about it. It really could mean a lot of things. Perhaps they were thinking, perhaps they were angry, perhaps they were embarrassed to even bring it up, who really knows? It's quite ambiguous.
What Yang & Girgus found is that the more hypersensitive a person was, the more likely they were to feel judged in those ambiguous situations and also to feel low self-esteem in that situation.
There’s something seemingly counterintuitive here: if you care more about relationships, you are more likely to feel judged in those relationships. And this can hardly have positive effects, it's likely to cause tension in those relationships. But note that the hypersensitive person doesn't have a selfless concern for the relationship, the relationship is crucial for their self-esteem. I’m not throwing any judgment here, I can see how easily hypersensitivity could reflect a history of being told, “You are nothing unless we’re good,” and that’s really painful. But hypersensitivity shuts off conversation instead of listening to others and resolving those ambiguous situations. It jumps to conclusions when slowness is needed.
The main research findings are very interesting. Not only can we define hypersensitivity, we can also see how it plays out in ambiguous situations. Feeling like you’re “only as good as your relationships” is associated with a tendency to feel judged and worthless in ambiguous situations. There’s an underlying psychology to hypersensitivity, it’s not just an action. Perhaps, knowing this, we can stop dealing with our actions, and start dealing with our underlying beliefs. And, the easiest way to do that is probably to stop, slow down, and ask the other person what they really meant, and then to listen and believe, instead of jumping to conclusions.
Yang, K., & Girgus, J. S. (2018). Individual differences in social hypersensitivity predict the interpretation of ambiguous feedback and self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 135, 316-327.