What It Means When Someone Tells You 'You're Too Sensitive'
And why it can hurt so much.
Posted May 25, 2016
In hindsight, I realize I was reacting more to my friend’s tone more than her words. But at the moment, all I knew was that I felt hurt and needed to step away and think. Was I right to feel hurt or was I overreacting? She was scolding me, but what she said wasn’t wrong or even particularly cruel, so why was I upset?
After a few minutes, my friend came outside to where I had been brooding. "Oh, come on," she said, with unconcealed exasperation. “Don’t be a weirdo.”
Bam, there it was—a cunningly camouflaged version of an accusation I’ve heard and hated all my life: “You’re too sensitive.”
I’ve long believed that “you’re too sensitive” is what people say when they’ve said or done something unkind and want you to believe that they haven’t. I’ve considered it a form of gaslighting. Still, when you hear something often enough, you eventually consider the possibility that it might be true.
I’m not talking about being a highly sensitive person (HSP), as described by Elaine Aron: HSP is more of a holistic sensory issue. I’m talking about people like me, whose feelings can be hurt by offhand remarks; people who don’t take well to teasing or could be described as thin-skinned.
I don’t know if there’s a connection between introversion and that kind of sensitivity but I can see that it might be possible. First, introverts have an unfortunate tendency to ruminate, which can turn an insult into an infection. We tend not to be quick with comebacks, which, if we were, could help turn teasing into harmless repartee. We might—and this is one of my “problems”—need time to process our thoughts when something strikes us wrong, which other people interpret as sulking.
But even so—is it fair to consider this too sensitive? What is too sensitive? Am I really an overly sensitive weirdo, or am I just ... sensitive? And is that really such a bad thing, or is it just a thing? Should I toughen up? Is that even possible? Or was I right all along in thinking that my sensitivity is protection from people who don’t have my best interests at heart?
I asked three therapists for their thoughts.
Charles Gaby, a therapist in Dallas, Texas, talked about Tomkins’s nine affects (emotions that are hardwired into us), and the emotional scripts we’ve written around them. “People have different scripts around all their emotions, depending on how you were socialized to express your feelings.” If, for example, he learned as a child that big boys don’t cry, “That is scripted: I don’t express my distress." And if his wife is crying? “I may have a tendency to see her as too sensitive. But is she too sensitive or is she just more capable of tolerating the feeling of distress?”
Gaby says that at times, everyone can be overly sensitive to “certain things, certain criticisms, certain fears, based on whatever we’ve experienced in the past. When we experience something that triggers that old fear, we have a tendency to flood emotionally, and what might have been a momentary emotional response can turn into a much longer emotional response. When someone tells me I’m being too sensitive, it’s giving me feedback that my reaction is bigger than the moment deserves.”
Note, though, that Gaby says the reaction is bigger than the moment deserves. Distinguishing between the feeling and the reaction is important, says New York City therapist Ken Page, who says he has heard all his life that he is too sensitive, and bristles at the accusation: “Someone really needs to earn the right to ever say that to me,” he says.
Page, the author of Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Game of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy, says that no matter what anyone else tells you, your feelings are not the problem. “It’s always smart to think that what you’re feeling absolutely has validity because it almost always does, unless you’re psychotic,” Page says. “If I can’t honor my own feelings then I am sadomasochistic and self-loathing, or a pressure cooker that will eventually blow. If I can say, ‘Yeah, this really did happen,’ I can breathe a sigh of relief.”
So go ahead and honor your feelings without worrying about being oversensitive or crazy, he says: “If you’re feeling like something is off, you’re probably right."
And, consider this: Any issue around which you are particularly sensitive is likely to be what Page calls a “core gift”—something about yourself that is precious and essential to who you are. It might even be your sensitivity. After all, what’s really so bad about being sensitive?
In her professional training, Carol Lennox, a therapist in Austin, Texas, learned to use her sensitivity for good. “Gestalt therapists especially do this; we’re very tuned into our bodies when we’re working with a client," she says. "I might say, ‘You look calm, but I’m feeling some fear and anger and I wonder if you feel that too.’”
Lennox has gained enough control over her sensitivity to be inured to casual jibes from others. And she points out that sometimes we overreact to things other people say not because they see us in a hurtful way, but because we see ourselves that way. “If somebody says something that you know is absolutely not true about you, that’s ridiculous, you’re not even going to get defensive; you’re probably going to laugh,” she says. “But if they say something that you feel is true, then you’re going to get hurt and angry.” So if you do find yourself throwing up defenses, ask yourself, “What are they touching that I believe myself?”
Not surprisingly, the therapists agree that getting a handle on your sensitivity requires examining your past, figuring out your emotional scripts, and naming the emotions behind your reactions. That’s all part of evolving into a mature, self-actualized human being.
At the same time, consider this: Maybe you are “too sensitive.” Maybe you do overreact sometimes. But the people who love you understand this, honor it as best they can, and give you room to have your feelings and work them out—alone or together with them, as necessary. If someone ignores or shames you for your reactions, that person might be capable of gaslighting you.
“That’s the person you don’t want around,” says Page.
As it happens, what my friend said was not really the problem. What I reacted to was the emotion I heard behind her words—impatience and anger. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, her peevish tone was sounding the death knell of our relationship. And “don’t be a weirdo” was its death rattle.
This woman no longer speaks to me.
So the way I see it now: I wasn’t too sensitive at all. I was perceptive.