Living with an Open Heart
The Difference Between Being Sensitive and Reactive
Posted Sep 18, 2015
When growing up, did you hear criticisms like, “You’re too sensitive; don’t be so sensitive?” Have you felt assaulted by such words lately?
It is our human nature to be sensitive to life and to how we interact with others. As attachment theory suggests, we’re wired to want safe, caring connections.
When someone who’s important to us is critical or contemptuous, we're affected. Our sensitive nervous system experiences the fight, flight, freeze response when there is a real or imagined threat to our well-being and safety.
Being told that we’re too sensitive is a hurtful, shaming judgment. Rather than be shown empathy or appreciation for being sensitively attuned to life, we’re attacked for being flawed. If we buy into this assault on our sensitivity, we suffer.
Need for Boundaries
We have no control over people’s shaming proclamations, but we have much influence over how we respond to others’ perceptions of us. If we can affirm that it’s okay to be a sensitive person, then we can recognize that their opinion about us says more about them than us.
If someone claims that you’re too sensitive, you may want to remember that:
There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive.
There are positive things about being sensitive. It means you’re alive rather than asleep.
Perhaps the person criticizing you is more sensitive than they realize. Maybe they’re reluctant to acknowledge their own vulnerability.
We need sturdy boundaries with those who might judge or shame us. Cultivating an internal boundary allows us to know and affirm ourselves, regardless of how we’re treated.
As expressed in The Authentic Heart:
"Until you learn to distinguish your own reality from that of others, you’ll remain painfully enmeshed in your relationships — perhaps without being aware that you’ve let yourself fade into oblivion … Your sense of self becomes overshadowed by how others treat or view you … Boundaries keep you disentangled in a way that supports the healthy growth of love and intimacy."
Sensitive Versus Reactive
There’s an important difference between being sensitive and being reactive. Being sensitively attuned to life is a positive quality. We live with an open, accessible heart. We’re affected by the environment that we’re a part of. This is different than the knee-jerk reaction of getting triggered.
For example, if our partner seems to be staring at another man or woman, we might be convinced that they’ve succumbed to a trance of attraction. Perhaps we’re correct, but it’s also possible that we’re in a reactive mode based upon our past history. If we’ve had a partner who strayed or a parent who had an affair, we might view the world through a fearful lens of being betrayed.
In reality, our partner’s attention may have simply wandered temporarily—a casual noticing of an attractive or interesting person rather than anything we need to feel threatened by. Observing our partner’s attention wander, we may be sensitive to possible rejection. We’re experiencing a reactive sensitivity based upon a painful history.
There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive in a reactive way. But it might behoove us to be mindful of this tender inner place and give it some gentle attention. Perhaps we can put our arm around our hurt or fear — or be with it in the same way that we’d be gentle with a hurting child or pet.
As we develop a spacious mindfulness around our automatic reactions, we tend to react less. We recognize our triggers and catch our reactions at an earlier moment and realize more clearly where they’re coming from. An important part of personal growth is recognizing when old wounds are being reactivated and engaging with them skillfully so that they can gradually heal. Working with a skilled therapist can often help this process.
As old wounds heal, we’re more able to live and love with an open heart. We become more sensitively attuned to people and life. Hurtful words may still sting, but we have inner resources to meet the world’s insults.
We’re empowered to honor our sensitivity as we value ourselves just as we are, which includes recognizing old wounds that might get triggered. The more we validate ourselves unconditionally, the less we allow others to undermine the gentle nature of who we are and the integrity of our tender being.
John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy. www.johnamodeo.com
© John Amodeo