One of the complaints I often hear from people is that their spouses, family members or close friends accuse them of being ‘too sensitive.’ Though it is, admittedly, annoying to hear that from a loved one, is it possible, in fact, to be ‘too sensitive?’
When we tell someone that, what we’re really saying is: ‘I don’t like what you’re feeling.’ This isn’t a statement most of us are prepared to defend, so instead we fall back on the more general, but accusatory notion that the person’s just too sensitive.
But let’s back up a minute. Sensitivity refers to feelings. A feeling or an emotion is a particularly intense form of an idea or a thought—and thoughts and ideas are expressed through emotions and feelings. We tend to think of feelings and thoughts as being different from one another, but in fact they’re just two versions of the same basic mental process: what a person thinks, perceives or believes in a particular moment. So, telling someone they’re ‘too sensitive’ implies that their thoughts are ‘too intense’ or that they are ‘thinking too much.’
I often see this between a parent and a child. The parent will sometimes dismiss their child’s thinking when it seems illogical to them. But to the child, it’s all too real. What these parents miss is that the child needs to be helped to understand her error, not be dismissed. If you repeatedly reject or set aside a child’s emotions and thoughts, she will eventually conclude that her mind is worthless and that her thoughts can’t be trusted or just don’t matter. And we wonder why so many kids have problems with self-esteem!
It’s not wise or fair to tell someone important to you that they’re thinking too intensely. It seems to me that thinking or feeling ‘too much’ isn’t the real issue here. The issue might really be what YOU think of the person’s ideas. It’s an evasion to jump on someone for feeling too much, because by doing so, you are dismissing what he or she is actually thinking without even considering it.
Maybe someone important to you has her feelings hurt. She expresses this to you, expecting a reply. You have one of two choices. You can say, ‘I don’t care what you think’ and walk away, or you can actually try to listen, understand and follow up with a response. Listening and understanding doesn’t mean agreeing; it simply means paying attention. Once you understand your loved one’s point of view, then you can examine it logically and form your own decision whether to agree or not.
The worst thing you can do in such a situation is to say, ‘You’re being too sensitive.’ Even if this is what you honestly believe, it’s the same as saying, ‘I don’t care.’ You can show you really care by taking the time to understand, and then logically analyze, for yourself, what you think of the person’s feelings.
It’s important to remember that feelings are not always accurate or factual. People DO overreact and jump to conclusions. Emotions can—and often do—have little basis in objective reality. After the initial emotion has subsided, the person feeling them will often realize this.
So, in a personal relationship, just as it’s important to not dismiss someone’s feelings, it’s equally important not to pretend to accept them either. In most relationships and marriages, one partner is usually more emotional than the other. A pattern sometimes develops whereby the less emotional partner ‘appeases’ the more emotional one by pretending to agree with every expression of his of her feelings. In this case, it’s not unusual for the more emotional of the two to end up talking to a therapist, saying, in effect, ‘I know I’m too emotional sometimes, and I know I go overboard. But even when he claims he agrees with me—and I know full well he doesn’t—he doesn’t even care enough to consider what I’m really saying—even when I’m wrong!’ Is this any way to treat somebody you claim to love?
Telling someone they are too sensitive is a copout. It’s dismissive, offensive and, as I said before, can be particularly damaging to children. If you don’t care to listen to what someone thinks, then just tell them. It may seem like a contradictory course of action to take with someone important to you, but if you really don’t care enough to listen to and comment on what he or she thinks, then it is the most honest way out. And you should be ready to ‘own’ whatever reaction you might get.
But remember—you have many options before summarily writing off a person’s expression of their feelings. You can say, ‘I don’t follow what you mean. This is why’.’ Or: ‘It sounds like you’re saying two different things. Here’s what I hear—tell me if I got it wrong’.’ Or even: ‘I get what you’re saying. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I can see how that would hurt’.’
The power of communication is almost limitless. We all need to know that our feelings and thoughts matter—especially to somebody we care about. Comments like ‘You’re too sensitive’ do nothing more than dismiss communication. And when you do that, you’re dismissing the one you love.