Sensitivity: A Good or Bad Thing?

A reader writes: Although sensitivity is usually considered a desirable trait, I find it a hindrance. It’s very embarrassing when in a professional setting my normally stoical exterior is temporarily interrupted by a critical remark that reveals my sensitivity.  I prefer not to cry in front of people, but I often seem to be unable to escape quickly enough to be alone when the emotions strike. As I try to hold back my tears I cannot speak to clarify or defend myself because I’ll cry. What can I do to maintain better control of my emotions?

Actually, it’s not a matter of control. Control implies shutting a lid down on something, or repressing it. Management is different. It implies reasoning with your emotions, or applying facts, logic and thinking to them.

There’s no one technique that will fix this in one fell swoop. What you have to do is internalize and (over time) make automatic the habit of thinking about your emotions. Once you’ve done this long enough, sensitivity will no longer be your enemy. You’ll train your mind to respond this way: “Oh, I’m feeling a lot here. But let’s sit down and think this out.”

Most sensitive people don’t do this. Instead, they vacillate between trying not to feel things at all and letting feelings roam unrestrained and uninhibited. These exhaustive swings back and forth becoming tiring and ultimately depressing.

Let’s be clear about what emotions are. Emotions are caused by ideas, beliefs and assumptions — not by external events. It’s true that the external events may trigger one’s emotions. But it’s the ideas and attitudes about those external events that actually create your feelings.

For example, let’s say someone is critical of you. If you hold that belief that “Criticism is bad, it’s a reflection of who I am,” then you’ll be crushed when someone criticizes you. If you hold the belief that, “Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true,” then you’ll have a different kind of feeling, and different intensity level of emotion, when someone criticizes you.

Sometimes people will tell you, or you will tell yourself, “I’m too sensitive.” Or “He/she is too sensitive.”

This comment really doesn’t tell you much. What matters isn’t the intensity with which you experience the emotion. It’s the ideas, assumptions and beliefs underlying the emotion. Are those ideas true, correct, provable, tenable? Or are those ideas faulty, contradictory, unprovable or grossly exaggerated?

I once talked to a man who felt a terrible stab of anxiety whenever he walked by a homeless person next to the subway stop. I asked what assumptions and views he had about the trigger event — i.e., seeing the homeless person. He replied, “I feel that I’m perfectly content and comfortable, and here he doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from.” I asked him if he believed he had created his own success and comforts, by going to work, planning, saving money, etc. — or if those had happened by chance. He replied that he believed he had created his own success, but it also involved a lot of luck.

So long as he continues to believe that his life is due primarily or heavily to luck, or that the occasional good break matters more than what he chose to do with it, then he’s going to feel guilty for his success. If he believed something different, that he was responsible for his own success and the maintenance of his own comforts, then he would not feel guilty for them — and the sight of a homeless person would not trigger that guilt-laden anxiety.

Sensitivity is a good thing. Sensitivity arises from emotions, and emotions ultimately stem from ideas and beliefs. To say that sensitivity is bad or can be “too much” is like saying one has too many ideas, or thinks too much, or feels too much. Quantity is not the issue. The quality of your ideas and assumptions is.

If you feel that you’re oversensitive, then it’s time to take a closer look at the ideas causing the emotional reaction. Drop the idea that emotions can or should be “controlled.” The more you try to control them, the worse it usually gets.

Think of your own emotions as your own personal friend, or even your child. Calmly and patiently reason with them. Never take them blindly or on faith. But don’t condemn them or try to abolish them, either.

Sensitive people should love themselves for their strong emotions, but also show those emotions the respect and honor that only rational and objective responses can provide them.

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