Hypersensitivity Cuts Both Ways
Can a person be too sensitive to the feelings of others?
Posted Oct 19, 2012
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.
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).
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.