You’ve always considered yourself a sensitive person, but you’ve wondered whether you’re perhaps too tuned into the way others feel. You’re out with a group of people having a good time, and among the laughter and joking around, you notice that one of your friends has become unnaturally quiet. Thinking back on what everyone was saying, you realize that one of the jokes may have hit too close to home for this individual. Rather than coming off as teasing, the comment seemed to come off as an insult. Were you one of the people who committed the offense? Should you not have joined in on the joke?
Reflecting on the situation, you wonder if you’re making too much out of it. After all, people get teased all the time, and it may almost be a part of the group’s general way of interacting. They can give, and most of them can take. Even so, you would prefer not to hurt anyone’s feelings, even if it’s all in good fun. When it comes to your closest relationship, in fact, you find that being sensitive to your partner’s feelings has proven, more than once, to help stop an argument in its tracks before it becomes hurtful. Your sensitivity to your partner allows you to retreat from saying something you’ll regret later. Maybe being sensitive isn’t such a bad attribute after all. Could it, in fact, be the one aspect of your personality that benefits your relationships the most?
According to a new study by Fuzhou University (China) psychologist Meng Li and colleagues (2020), sensitivity is indeed an important personality trait for helping to regulate the way you interact with the people close to you. If you’re high on this quality, particularly the interpersonal component of sensitivity, you are high in empathy, tolerance, compassion, and consideration. Additionally, you tread lightly in potentially conflictual areas or, to use the words of the Chinese authors, are “delicate.” If you’re lacking in interpersonal sensitivity, you are relatively impervious to the feelings of others and, as a result, lack care and compassion in the way you communicate.
Sensitivity can also apply to the awareness you have of your environment. People who lack what Li et al. call the perceptual form of sensitivity may be the ones who get easily lost because they don’t notice their surroundings. The classic case of forgetting where you parked your car in a large city garage would be an example of a situation resulting from low perceptual sensitivity. On the other hand, if you are high in perceptual sensitivity, it can be difficult for you to concentrate if you’re in a public place containing many distractions. If you’re low in this quality, you can work under almost any conditions, no matter how noisy or bustling.
Finally, there is also what the authors call “will” sensitivity, or the extent to which you can be influenced by others to change your mind. People low in this quality can be suspicious as well as stubborn, and no matter what you say to them, will never come around and see your point of view unless they come to that realization on their own. Unlike the other two other forms of sensitivity, being high in will sensitivity can probably make you more than a little infuriating to your partner.
After testing their three-factor measure of sensitivity on a sample of 173 Chinese undergraduates, the Fuzhou researchers moved on to examine its relationship to emotional intelligence (EI), or the ability to read and respond to the affective state of others. Using a second, smaller, sample of undergraduates (49), the authors tested their prediction that the two concepts would be related. They added a measure of mental health as a control to account for the possibility that, as pointed out earlier, being high in sensitivity could be associated with high levels of depression and anxiety. As it turned out, in keeping with their prediction, Li et al. found that it was only for those individuals high in their measure of mental health for whom interpersonal sensitivity related positively to EI.
Given that EI includes a strong component of empathy and ability to read the emotions of others, it would make sense that those who scored high on the sensitivity scale, particularly the items tapping its interpersonal dimension, would receive high marks on this key feature of interpersonal life. However, remembering that there can be a downside to emotional sensitivity, the findings also showed that its relationship to EI was positive only for those individuals who are generally in better mental health. Returning to the earlier example, if you feel every pain that someone else experiences, you can become overwhelmed with their negative emotions. With your partner, it can be helpful to know how he or she is feeling, but then if necessary, to put a more positive spin on the situation.
The Chinese study is the only one of its kind to examine sensitivity as a multifaceted quality and, although the samples were small and limited to undergraduates, presents some intriguing possibilities for the understanding of relationships. That idea of being “delicate,” in particular, seems to capture the notion that successful relationships involve the ability to treat your partner with the care and consideration you would offer to others you might work or socialize with, but not want to offend. It’s possible that people might be in a teasing mood, and not mind having their feelings tread upon, but it’s better to know this for sure rather than committing an offense for which you’ll have to apologize later. Reading your partner signals to you that “this is not the time” will help you put the brakes on whatever unfeeling remark you may otherwise have made.
To sum up, good relationships require a wide range of skills. Tuning into the inner signals of people’s emotional states might just be the one worth learning how to master.
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Li, M., Fu, B., Ma, J., Yu, H., & Bai, L. (2020). Sensitivity and emotional intelligence: An empirical study with mental health as a regulating variable. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-020-00669-5