“You’re too sensitive.”
It’s devastating to hear, especially when spoken in anger from someone you love. You often don’t even take it as an insult; you simply register it as an innate truth. This is my worst quality, you think, the thing that makes me hardest to deal with. You wear this phrase like a shield. It’s something you have to warn people about. On dates, job interviews, or occasions where you might meet new people, you worry constantly that they’ll “find out” how sensitive you are. You’re always prepared for the moment when it becomes too much for them to handle.
I know this feeling all too well. I spent years thinking I had to keep my sensitivity a secret and pretend to be “normal.” Even when I found people who felt safe and I allowed them into my tightly guarded world, there would inevitably come moments of frustration when they would say: “You’re too sensitive. How will this ever work out if I have to constantly worry that I’m hurting you?”
It’s the worst kind of blow. In loving someone, I’d show them my true self, full of worry and art and silent moments. But instead of recognizing the gifts of my sensitivity, they’d see it as a burden. I’d tire them. After hearing this over and over again, I began to see myself as a prison. I hold people back, I thought. It’s just better if I remain alone.
Whether you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) like me or not, it’s important to take a step back and process why the comment “too sensitive” hurts so badly. Then we can work together to re-embrace the phrase as a positive truth.
Why Calling Someone ‘Too Sensitive’ Is Damaging
HSPs live their entire lives in tune with others’ emotions. For this reason, they experience aching loss not only from their own lives, but also from the lives of family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. HSPs are tough. They’ve been through a lot. Believe me.
Let’s play a little game of make believe: imagine a world where everyone carries their burdens around in a physical bag. You and your significant other live in a peaceful neighborhood with steady, enjoyable jobs. But maybe your father’s health is failing and you’re worried about him. Put that burden in your bag. Your child is being bullied at school, your rent is going up, and you can’t afford a new car right now even though yours is dying. All these worries go in your bag. It’s pretty heavy, but you accept it as just another part of life.
Now pretend your significant other is a highly sensitive person. In their bag, they have all your worries as well as all of their own. That’s understandable, you think. Since you’re a couple, you share worries. When your SO goes to work, their coworker is crying. She tells your SO that she just broke up with her boyfriend of five years. Your SO cries too, despite not knowing this person outside of the office. This worry goes in their bag. On the ride home, your SO hears news of an abducted child nearby. There’s been earthquake on the other side of the globe and the community is experiencing an enormous loss of life. Now there’s a traffic jam with horns honking, sirens wailing, and lights flashing from every angle. This all goes in their bag.
By the time your SO gets home, they need a moment to just be. They want to be able to sit alone or with you and close their eyes for a minute before thinking about anything else. They need time. But you’re tired too, so you say, “You’re too sensitive. Just let it go.”
Your SO probably doesn’t cry. They’ve heard the “too sensitive” comment all their lives. They’ve built a bomb shelter for those words so the ache stays inside. They lug their bag of the world’s worries behind the couch so you can’t see it.
Then they put a little brick in the wall they’ve been building around their true self. They keep you on the other side.
When you tell an HSP that they’re “too sensitive,” you’re degrading an aspect of their essential self: something they couldn’t lose without becoming a whole different person. It’s like telling someone that they’re too short. It’s not something they can change—nor should they.
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HSPs are strong. It’s physically exhausting to carry so much of the world around with them, and they know how to regroup after a particularly trying day. Let them have their moment. Offer a hug or a shoulder, or even just space. That quiet moment of love will help prevent feelings of isolation from creeping in. When you let them know that you understand, a little piece of their bomb shelter is dismantled and the world doesn’t seem like such a heavy place anymore.
Embrace Your Sensitivity as an Attribute Worth Celebrating
I remember the first time I encountered an HSP in popular media: May Boatwright in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. She writes her worries on paper slips and keeps them in a wailing wall. I was a middle schooler who had lived her whole life being introduced as sensitive and shy. It seemed to me that since others felt the need to warn newcomers of my “condition” that I should too. Even though I wasn’t dealing with the severe depression that May battles, I felt connected to another—albeit fictional—HSP for the first time in my life. I even began a “wailing wall” of my own: a little jar of glitter that I kept on my bookshelf and slipped paper worries into. Most importantly though, I knew I wasn’t alone.
As I grew up, I continued to hold dearly to May Boatwright and eventually came to realize that the ability to tune into another’s emotions was a beautiful rarity. I experienced people’s pain with them so I wanted to do all that I could to alleviate suffering. For a while, I thought I should be a social worker since volunteering made me feel satisfied. I took classes and listened to my emotional needs, eventually deciding that I’m most productive as a friend or volunteer. This allows me the opportunity to embrace my true, sensitive self while also leaving me lots of time and space to regroup. We all need different things. You might thrive as a counselor, or an artist or a high-powered attorney. Invest in yourself. It takes time to figure out what you need from this world. Let yourself try.
There aren’t hard and fast rules for blossoming as an HSP, but I’ve made a little list of things to remember:
- Be gentle with yourself. Every new experience is an opportunity to learn more about your own needs. Don’t beat yourself up for being sensitive.
- Attempting to hide the fact that you’re highly sensitive will make you feel isolated and will also prevent others from understanding what you need. Communicate your needs to those around you.
- Make an appointment to see a counselor if you need to. There is never any shame in taking care of yourself. Humans were never meant to survive all on their own.
- Sensitivity is not synonymous with weakness.
The next time someone tells you that you’re too sensitive, remember that they’re saying you love strongly, listen well, and fully experience life. You are a human being connected to others.
You deserve to fill your life with people who embrace the power and rarity of your highly sensitive nature.
You are not broken. You don’t need to be “fixed.”
And always, always remember that I believe in you—you beautiful soul.
Read this: 12 Things a Highly Sensitive Person Needs