Have you ever been told you’re ‘too sensitive’? People often say this as an excuse for bad behaviour. They do something disrespectful and when you point this out, they respond with ‘you’re too sensitive’ – suddenly it’s you in the wrong.
Don’t believe it. You probably are sensitive, but who decides what’s ‘too’ sensitive? If you’ve told someone their behaviour bothers you, the useful thing for them to do would be consider whether they want to continue this behaviour.
If they do continue, that’s fine – it just means you probably won’t be spending much time with them in the future. It doesn’t mean you’re ‘too sensitive’, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong – it means their behaviour isn’t going to work for you.
Here are some examples of things you might object to which often leads to the ‘you’re too sensitive’ label:
- being made the butt of someone else’s derogatory jokes
- being made fun of because of a belief or habit you have, for example being a vegetarian / animal lover / introvert / late riser / chocaholic, etc
- being spoken to in a challenging or confronting tone on a regular basis, for example ‘how stupid, why would you do that?‘
- being constantly corrected or contradicted about things you say or the way you do things
- being told to ‘lighten up’ or ‘get over it’ when you try to share your feelings about something
- being interrupted and spoken over the top of.
I’m sure you can add more examples to this list. The implication is that if you were tougher, you wouldn’t object to these things and they wouldn’t bother you. Usually the people who don’t object to these things are the ones struggling with self-esteem and assertiveness. Healthy people with any degree of self-respect will not allow these things to go on for too long.
Remember that you have the right to let someone else know if their behaviour is upsetting or harmful to you. Don’t judge the success of your efforts by whether the other person heard and understood you though. The only criteria for success is whether you spoke up respectfully about how you felt.
How Do I Do This?
The best way to do this is to focus on your feelings rather than on making their behaviour wrong. Avoid labels and stick to what you felt and observed:
I felt uncomfortable when you told us we were all doing things wrong.
is more effective than:
You make me feel so uncomfortable when you think you’re better than all of us.
The first example shows someone speaking about him or herself, not about the other person’s motives and not on behalf of other people involved. They have focused on their own feelings and what they observed the other person do.
The second example is all about the other person. This statement makes assumptions about why the other person behaved the way they did, and gives all the speaker’s power to the other person for how they now feel.
Stick to what you’ve observed when sharing your feelings about someone else’s behaviour and avoid criticising the other person. They aren’t actually doing anything wrong (unless they’re deliberately causing harm). They’re just doing what they know to do. In the next example, Toby’s acquaintance thought she was helping by giving advice:
Toby recently shared with an acquaintance that on two occasions when he had wanted to share with her something that had happened in a class he was doing, she had started to tell him what to do, which he didn’t want. He told her this in the hope that she’d then know he just wanted a friendly ear.
She responded by telling Toby what he was thinking and feeling – ‘you don’t like others to be honest’ – something we can’t possibly know about another person since we don’t read minds. She also told him he was too sensitive, which is a handy way to avoid dealing with his request for behaviour change.
Unfortunately when Toby let her know what he really needed she heard this as criticism. This happens often because many of us have experienced so much criticism, we hear it everywhere, even when we’re not actually being criticised. I’ve certainly had to learn what’s criticism and what’s genuine feedback about someone else’s experience of me.
What’s Criticism and What Isn’t?
Criticism can be constructive, especially in the workplace, but in personal relationships it’s often framed as a statement that starts with ‘you’ and is followed by an outline of what we’re doing ‘wrong’. Genuine feedback focuses on the speaker’s feelings – when you did this (observable behaviour) here’s how I felt about it.
If we can get past the feeling of being criticised and hear this for what it is – a courageous sharing of someone else’s experience – we can learn a lot about ourselves and others. This is where true intimacy occurs.
If you do this and you’re told you’re too sensitive, chances are the other person wasn’t able to recognise or participate in this genuine sharing, and that in itself gives you information about how much to expect in that relationship in future.