To be emotionally sensitive is to be aware of your own feelings and the feelings of others. Emotional sensitivity is a necessary building block for close, satisfying relationships. But some people are too sensitive. It’s like trying to get close to a porcupine. If you are too sensitive, you have little awareness of the depths of your own feelings except to know that your emotions are powerful and painful. You are particularly aware of how the behaviour of others affects you. If you are too sensitive you take things personally, you often react defensively to other people, you judge others as being hurtful to you, and your primary interest is in your own experience rather than in what the other person is thinking or feeling.
An overly sensitive person is someone who has been hurt in important childhood relationships. There is great difficulty with trust and closeness and an unconscious reluctance to risk that kind of hurt again. Close relationships seem to be dangerous and uncertain, and the anxiety associated with emotional intimacy can be overwhelming. There is a deep underlying fear of not being loved, of being without value.
If you are overly sensitive, you are all too familiar with the feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment in relationships. You are constantly aware of the ways others do not meet your expectations. You are harsh in your judgments of others and, secretly, you are even more critical of yourself.
Being emotionally sensitive can be a valuable quality when it is tied directly to emotional awareness. Your sensitivity is the key to understanding your own emotional experience and the emotional experience of others. But your work must begin with you. You cannot develop emotional intimacy with others until you understand and have become comfortable with your own emotional experience. Your emotions are the signals that identify what parts of you need to be healed.
Here are the steps you have to take if you want to move from being overly sensitive to being emotionally aware. First, you must learn to love yourself and this love must be based on self-knowledge and compassion. Second, you must develop healthy boundaries in relationships. Once you know where the boundaries are, you must be willing to take responsibility for your part of the relationship. And finally, you must learn how to handle the criticisms of others.
If you are going to love yourself, you have to get to know yourself. This means that you must stop focusing on how others seem to be hurting and disappointing you. You must pay attention to your own inner experience, learn to understand the different parts of you, and make friends with yourself. This is not easy to do. You have to be honest with yourself and quit justifying why you are right and why everyone else is wrong. None of us enjoys being confronted with our own bad behavior, our ugly thoughts, or our mean-spirited feelings. But this is the source of your painful emotions and your difficulties with others. Pay attention to your behaviour patterns in relationships. Ask yourself if your way of doing things is getting you what you want or if you are pushing it further away. Sit with your feelings instead of reacting to others and lashing out. Ask yourself where these feelings come from and what is so scary about them.
Working with your inner experience is the only way you can move past your childhood emotions. Look underneath your anger, frustration, and hurt. This is where you will discover what you need to feel calm and safe inside. Realize that you are an adult now, and you are fully capable of giving yourself what you need instead of desperately trying to pull it out of someone else and being disappointed time and again.
The very first things you need to give yourself are love and acceptance. These are basic and essential to emotional growth so don’t be stingy with yourself. Love and accept all of you, even the parts you are not so proud of. This is the essence of compassion – love your humanness. If you keep looking within, you will soon recognize the beautiful parts of you. You will see your kindness, your generosity, your sweet and caring nature, your strength, and your loving self. Consciously appreciate and express these qualities.
We are all a unique combination of good and bad; light and dark; yin and yang. You may be sensitive but you don’t have to be a victim of your own fear, spite, jealousy, insecurity, feelings of inadequacy, or bad temper. Face your fears and you will realize that you don’t have to run from yourself or defend yourself from others. You can feel secure within yourself because when you know yourself, when you know all of the good and not so good, you will be more comfortable in your own skin and you can relax. The dragons of your inner pain will begin to lose their fire.
Knowledge is power. When you know yourself, you can do something about the parts of yourself you are not happy with. You have the power to change your own character, diminish your negative qualities, and change your experience in relationships. Make the development of your character your primary project and you will become too busy to waste time looking for real or imagined slights. More and more you will love the person you are becoming. You will develop a healthy measure of self-esteem and you will be able to truly respond to and connect with others, rather than just react to them.
As you get to know and love yourself, you will be more able to differentiate between your feelings and the feelings of others. Overly sensitive people are confused about personal boundaries; they don’t know where they end and where the other person begins. If you are overly sensitive, you are aware of every fine distinction of word, behaviour, tone of voice, facial expression, and feeling of the people around you. You believe it is all about you – you take it personally.
Establishing healthy boundaries means that you know what thoughts, feelings, and behaviors belong to you and which ones belong to the other person. When you have healthy boundaries, you no longer project your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours onto others. You no longer imagine that you know what other people are thinking and feeling and neither do you try to control the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. You realize that you have more than enough work sorting out your own experience and you chose to focus your efforts on cleaning up your half of the relationship.
A person with healthy boundaries is willing to take responsibility for his or her behavior in the relationship. Overly sensitive people cross this boundary line and centre their attention on the other person’s behaviour. All kinds of negative assumptions are made about the other person’s behaviour and then reacted to as if these assumptions are fact. Overly sensitive people concentrate on this negative interpretation and then search for additional “proof” that the other person is being critical or rejecting of them. Of course, they think they find it and that proves they are right. Sadly, they end up being angry and alone in a false reality they have constructed.
If you are emotionally sensitive, you can be wounded deeply by the criticism of others whether it is real or imagined. Your instinctive response is to defend yourself by using justification, anger, retaliation, or withdrawal. To effectively handle the criticisms of others you must be anchored solidly within yourself, have healthy boundaries, and take responsibility for yourself. We’ve come full circle haven’t we?
If you know yourself and love yourself, you can listen to the criticism of others with some objectivity. You know that you aren’t perfect; you do make mistakes and there is always room for improvement. You can hear what the other person is saying, consider it, learn from it if there is some validity to the complaint, apologize if you have you have wronged the other person, and then let it go.
Criticisms are like zucchini. Sometimes you can use one or two of them; you even appreciate the gesture. If another person gives you more, it’s probably because they have way too many and don’t know what to do with them. Take what you can use and drop the rest or hand them back. You don’t have to accept them; they are not yours.
Don’t allow criticism to undermine your self worth. Stay grounded in self-awareness and self-love and there will be no need to react defensively. There is only choice as to what you will do with the criticism and with the relationship. Your choice will reflect your self-esteem, values, character, and way of being in the world. Remember to take responsibility for your choice with full awareness of the consequences of your behaviour.
Emerson wrote, “We must be our own before we can be another’s”. Make the time and effort to become emotionally healthy within yourself and your relationships will become emotionally healthy. Your sensitivity will then be a valuable and loving asset that will bring others closer to you.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.