Hypersensitivity Cuts Both Ways

Can a person be too sensitive to the feelings of others?

Posted Oct 19, 2012

Longtime readers of this blog—particularly my posts on the problems that self-loathing persons and their partners face in relationships—may remember a note at the end of an early post mentioning that I have been asked to write about the positive aspects of being in a relationship with a self-loathing person. If there are positives, they are often double-edged swords, such as the topic of this post: hypersensitivity. Although heightened sensitivity to others is usually highly valued in relationships—one of the positives of being with a self-loathing person—too much inward-oriented sensitivity may not be, especially when that sensitivity is biased against the self-loather him- or herself.

Sensitivity can be understood in two ways: sensitivity oriented toward the feelings of others and sensitivity oriented toward oneself in reaction to others. Both types of sensitivity can be linked to a deep emotional awareness or empathy, which is normally understood as outwardly focused but can also be pointed inward. One reason a person may be particularly sensitive or empathic to others is that he or she may be able to imagine, quite viscerally, being in another person’s situation. (This was called sympathy by moral sentimentalists such as David Hume and Adam Smith.)

In my earlier posts on self-loathing (such as this one), I described how people with intense feelings of inadequacy, like those suffering for depression, often take things said to them in the worst way possible. They process other people’s comments in a way that filters out any positive content or implications, leaving only the negative, which then becomes part of how they think other people see them. This is particularly hard on those who deal with the self-loathing in romantic relationships.

But even the outward-oriented sensitivity that is often valued in relationships can be taken too far, which is again a frequent problem with some self-loathers. They question everything they say and do, double-guessing themselves at every turn and then judgnig themselves too harshly for their perceived wrongdoings. And if—or rather when—self-loathers feel they have done something wrong, they “naturally” assume that their partners will think it’s wrong as well, and they start looking for any sign of their partners’ displeasure. As I wrote in an earlier post, every ambiguous text, every longer-than-usual break in communication, is seen as an omen foreshadowing the end of the relationship. This harsh and unrelenting self-judgment on the part of the self-loathing may stem from sincere concern for their partners, but it will likely end up alienating them, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of the demise of the relationship. They may not have done anything wrong to trigger their anxiety, but in the end the anxiety itself is what will hurt the relationship.

This behavior can be seen as an instance of what philosopher Immanuel Kant called “moral fanaticism.” Ironically, Kant is widely regarded as a demanding ethicist, but actually his ethics are relatively undemanding (compared to, say, utilitarianism), and he wrote in The Metaphysics of Morals that a person

can be called fantastically vir­tuous who allows nothing to be morally indifferent and strews all his steps with duties, as with mantraps . . . Fantastic virtue is a concern with petty details which . . . would turn the government of virtue into tyranny. (p. 409)

This highlights the importance of judgment, particularly in deciding what factors are morally relevant in any particular decision-making situation. For instance, contemporary philosopher Barbara Herman writes in her book The Practice of Moral Judgment that judgment is necessary to provide “rules of moral salience” that allow a person “to pick out these elements of his circumstances or of his proposed actions that require moral attention” (p. 77).

Of course, this understanding of judgment also implies that there are some elements of circumstances or proposed action that do not require moral attention. Self-loathers often lack a fine grasp of this distinction, instead feeling that everything they say or do is questionable. Nothing they say or do is good enough because, at their core, they don’t feel they are good enough—and this is only compounded by interpreting everything their partners say (or don’t say) as implicit criticism. This not only makes relationships very difficult for the self-loathing, but also for anyone who is involved with them.

In conclusion—and shifting gears a bit from Kant to virtue ethics—sensitivity of both types can be considered a virtue, but like all virtues the underlying character trait can be taken too far. Just as too little inward sensitivity indicates a lack of self-respect, too much of it shows a lack of emotional fortitude. Too little outward sensitivity reflects callous indifference, but too much of it borders on a type of benevolent megalomania, holding oneself responsible for all the plights of the world. Perhaps virtue ethics and character can provide us with another way to think about self-loathing (as I tried to do in previous posts here and here), and it may be considered as another aspect of a cognitive approach emphasizing negative thinking. The better we understand self-loathing, the more we can help people combat it or deal with it—including the partners of the self-loathing themselves.


For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing, relationships, and other topics, see here.

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