How Sensitive Are You? (DE Coast Press)

Closeup of woman's eye with teardrops forming

People sometimes tell me that their spouses, family members or friends accuse them of being too sensitive. I equate that with somebody telling you, “I don’t like what you’re feeling.” That can certainly be annoying, since it isn’t a statement most accusers are prepared to defend. So instead we fall back on the arbitrary notion that the person’s just “too sensitive.”

Sensitivity refers to feelings. A feeling or an emotion is a particularly intense expression of an idea or a thought. We tend to think of feelings and thoughts as being different from one another, but in fact they’re two versions of the same mental process, i.e., what a person thinks, perceives or believes in a particular moment. So, telling someone they’re “too sensitive” suggests that their thoughts are “too intense” or that they’re “thinking too much.”

This can be particularly damaging to kids. Parents will sometimes dismiss their child’s thinking when it seems illogical. But to the child, it’s very real. They’re missing the fact that the child needs to understand her error and not be dismissed for it. If they reject a child’s emotions and thoughts, she will eventually conclude that her thoughts can’t be trusted or that they don’t matter. No wonder 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, when in fact the real issue might be what you think of their ideas. For example, say that someone important to you has her feelings hurt, and she expresses this to you. You have one of two choices. You can say, “I don’t care what you think” and walk away, or you can listen and follow-up with a response. Listening and understanding doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing; it simply means paying attention. Once you understand her point of view, then you can examine it logically and form your own decision whether or not to agree.

It’s important to keep in mind that feelings are not always accurate or factual. People do overreact and jump to conclusions, and emotions often have little basis in objective reality. Interestingly, after the initial emotions have subsided, the person will often realize this.

It’s equally important not to pretend to accept someone’s feelings. An example might include a relationship where one partner is more emotional than the other. A pattern can develop where the less emotional partner appeases the more emotional one by pretending to agree with every expression of emotion. This will sometimes send the more emotional one to a therapist, saying, “I know I go overboard sometimes. But when he claims he agrees with me, and I know full well he doesn’t, that must mean that he doesn’t care enough to consider what I’m saying — even when I’m wrong!” Is this any way to treat somebody you claim to love?

If you don’t care to listen to what someone thinks, just tell them. It may seem contradictory, but if you really don’t care enough to listen, it’s the most honest way out. (By the way, be ready to “own” whatever reaction you might get.)

There are alternatives to summarily writing off a person’s expression of their feelings. You can say, “I don’t follow what you mean.” Or, “It sounds like you’re saying two different things. Tell me if I got it wrong.” Or even, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I can see how that would hurt.”

The power of communication is 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.

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