The ‘You’re Too Sensitive’ Retort Should Be Retired
04.20.17
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“You’re being too sensitive” — in the wrong hands — is almost always an insult. While, yes, sometimes an emotional response to a situation may be incommensurate, it’s a sentiment that too often passes as a legitimate argument or, worse, concern. It’s an attempt to at once dismiss your feelings while also turning the tables and making you at blame, guilty for myriad things: for finding fault with another’s actions, for having thin skin, but most importantly, for bothering the offender with your feelings.

Being told that we’re too sensitive is akin to an elbow in the solar plexus. I don’t want to conflate terms — sensitive and emotional are two different things — but often the nuance escapes those quick to use either adjective to dismiss someone as less than. Sensitivity has historically been lauded as one of women’s most most impeding characteristics. For women, sensitivity and rationality are often wedged against each other as mutually exclusive. Blaming someone for being too sensitive dismisses their reality as irrational and immediately paints them as a victim. It tells them how they should feel, too. Most importantly, it turns a positive trait into a personality defect. It is, in my opinion, one of the most pointed and destructive insults you can hurl, which of course gives it so much power.

Once someone accuses you of being too sensitive and you accept the statement as a personal fault, you’re bound to start reassessing your perception of the event in question. “Was that genuinely an upsetting thing, or am I really blowing this out of proportion?” Here’s a term we’ve heard often lately: gaslighting. Named after a 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman, it refers to manipulating someone to the extent that she starts to question her reality. In a way, you’re too sensitive is form of manipulation.

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Throwing the baby out with the bathwater — silencing all emotional feedback for fear of seeming too emotional — has serious negative consequences. After a while, you’re bound to forget how to effectively communicate your feelings. The thing is, ignoring them won’t magically make them disappear. They’ll just be funneled into unhealthy channels, like passive aggressiveness, sudden episodes of blinding anger or emotional numbness. You’ll seem irrational. You’ll seem crazy. Through no fault of your own, you’ll fail to calibrate your feelings because for years — perhaps your whole life — you’ve been told that your feelings are wrong or unfounded.

Being sensitive is not a fault, and rationality and sensitivity can coexist. I’ve written before about the benefits of being a highly sensitive person; studies also consistently find that people with high emotional intelligence make better leaders, friends and coworkers. They’re more self-aware, more empathetic, more motivated and have better social skills.

“You’re too sensitive” is often a benign scapegoat for other, more damaging opinions. It’s “you’re crazy”/ “I don’t respect you”/ “my feelings are more important than yours”/ “I don’t want to deal with you right now”/ “I don’t have the requisite care/love for you to take you into consideration”/ “I don’t care about you” in disguise.

The next time someone accuses you of being too sensitive, read between the lines. Think about the situation and what they’re really saying. Use their accusation to assess the situation; perhaps have an impartial third party weigh in. Don’t immediately internalize their response as an indication that something’s wrong with you and try to avoid censoring yourself. Your feelings, inasmuch as they’re causing a deeply emotional reaction, must be honored. They are telling you something. Listen.

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • Thank you for this “Being sensitive is not a fault, and rationality and sensitivity can coexist”. The person telling me I’m too sensitive is me right now, but you’re right being sensitive doesn’t mean that I’m wrong all of the time or that I’m weaker

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • _lauristia

    Wow Helena, you just have resumed my struggle this year, I’ve come to realize I suck at expressing my emotions in a healthy way, my family tells me that, I know it but I just don’t know where to start fixing myself.

    “silencing all emotional feedback for fear of seeming too emotional — has serious negative consequences. After a while, you’re bound to forget how to effectively communicate your feelings. The thing is, ignoring them won’t magically make them disappear. They’ll just be funneled into unhealthy channels, like passive aggressiveness, sudden episodes of blinding anger or emotional numbness. You’ll seem irrational. You’ll seem crazy. Through no fault of your own, you’ll fail to calibrate your feelings because for years — perhaps your whole life — you’ve been told that your feelings are wrong or unfounded.”

    Who told me that? So many times for me crying or being sad is worst than getting angry.

    I don’t allow myself being “a victim”… you just dropped a hard truth in my mind.

  • Would love to live in a world that considers my feelings to a pleasant degree. Or at least abstains from considering verbal hammers/nails/needles/pliers etc. a legit means of communication.
    But ever since that time in my life when I helped a few people out, only to discover I could not bear their burdens and live my life at the same time, I am not too keen to impose my complex emotional life upon other people. Especially not with those emotionally intelligent enough to understand all/the most parts of it. I prefer dealing with it all on my own, it is easier for me.
    Would really love to live in a much better world, though.

  • IzzyW

    This is such a great article and like a lot of MR’s articles it teaches me to love things about myself that people have criticised me for in the past.

    A suggestion that I would really love is if in future MR posts on subjects like this it would be great to have some example situations on how we approach these things the next time they inevitably come around. So we can learn how to respond and like Helena suggests listen to what they’re telling us when they’re not actually saying it. Perhaps it could even be a dedicated month where MR covers strategy on how to deal with situations so many of us find ourselves in.

  • Jill

    My mother has spent a lifetime telling me this (though no one else really ever has). “Suck it up and deal” was one of her favorite comments when I was a kid. She is completely devoid of empathy. “Everything happens for a reason” is another of her favorite commentaries, and we know what the deal is with *that*, right? There are articles about it. 😉 Some time spent in therapy and…y’know, just growing up and adulting helped me know that I’m not too sensitive at all (though I am very empathetic and tend to “feel all the feels”). My husband sometimes doesn’t know what to do with my emotions, but he’s learned to let me work through them and he actually considers me “practical” most of the time. And now I just don’t listen to my mom on this stuff. Life is good. 🙂

  • I really appreciate this piece. In an era of rhetoric like “snowflakes” and “victim complex”, it’s refreshing to hear a point of view that doesn’t paint sensitivity as a weakness.

    I think part of the elephant in the room here is that people conflate “sensitivity” with femininity, and it’s seen as a traditionally female trait – which is part of why the insult is pointed and destructive. Misogyny has an interesting way of rooting itself into language, and turning positive traits into something you should be ashamed of.

    Winging It

  • Adrianna

    My boyfriend: “You’re being sensitive”
    Me: “You’re being annoying”
    My boyfriend: “Ouch, wth?”
    Me: “What? You’re being sensitive.”

    Hasn’t used that phrase with me since.

  • YES! And I loved your other article on being a Highly Sensitive Person! I have sometimes been told I’m too sensitive when it comes to criticism about my work, and while I do struggle with not taking it personally (note my slightly HSP personality) I often have a problem with how the criticism is given, rather than the criticism itself.

    I agree, when you’re told you’re too sensitive, you are backed into a corner. It’s just easier to blame the other person, rather than take into account that you may have been too harsh.

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Hannah Cole

    Helena, I love your articles dearly. They are always the words I need to hear to remind myself I’m not actually crazy, not actually alone, and actually, these parts of me are fantastic. x

  • Alexandra Queiroz

    Thanks, Helena, this is absolutely perfect. The whole world should read it.

  • offcolor

    I’m an HSP myself and I just wrote about it as well! We need more education about this topic! I’m happy that people share their feelings ~

    x Katrin
    http://www.offcolor.de

  • Great post thank you. My boyfriend dismisses my emotions and doesn’t seem to have the time or need to deal with them. I have started keeping them all in so not to deal with his negative emotional reaction to it. Going to start talking to him about how it’s unhealthy.

  • Itzelo

    What about the opposite? You are too rational???