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5 Ways to Deal with Emotional Oversensitivity

Sad

“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron

I’ve never been much of a sun worshipper. I’m a pale blend of Irish, Scottish, and English, so my skin goes from alabaster to boiled lobster in about 20 minutes.

Once when I was a teenager, someone accidentally smacked me on my sunburned back.  I was in tears. She was genuinely sorry, and I said I was all right, but secretly I was angry.

Couldn’t she see how red I was? How slowly I moved? Someone with a sunburn gives very obvious signs, or so I thought. How could she not know I was in pain?

Now I can see how my signs weren’t obvious at all. Most of us are so busy rushing through our own lives that only the most astute person can see when someone else is hurting.

So, when someone accidentally aggravates my injury, who is at fault? Them, for not noticing I’m hurt? Or me, for not alerting them to be careful?

The answer, of course, is that nobody’s at fault. It’s an accident. Any mature person recognizes this and, instead of getting stuck in blame or guilt, takes immediate steps to make amends and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

This is especially true for emotional pain.

A friend used to hurt my feelings all the time. Accidentally. His actions were never overtly malicious. Yet he was as oblivious to my signs of emotional pain as that person who smacked my sunburn had been to my physical signs.

My emotions felt sunburned.

He knew about a relationship from a few years earlier that had left parts of me very raw. But the “clothing” of my naturally gregarious, optimistic personality concealed how sensitive I still was, just like the lightweight summer blouse had concealed the extent of my sunburn.

He didn’t realize that his perfectly innocent behavior triggered deep pain in me.

In my youth, I would’ve blamed him for hurting me. Thankfully, I was mature enough to realize that he wasn’t causing my pain; he was just accidentally irritating a tender spot I already had.

I’ve always been extremely sensitive, emotionally. I often lack the ability to articulate what I’m feeling, or what I’m sensing from others, but I feel it. Oh, boy, do I feel it.

Once I accepted that other people usually aren’t aware of my emotional sensitivities and how easily my feelings get hurt, I quickly developed a way to examine the true cause of any pain I felt.

I use these five questions:

1. Was it intentional?

Putting aside my pain for a moment, I look at the situation from the other person’s perspective.

Did she or he intend to make me feel this way? It’s rare when a good person is deliberately cruel, and it’s obvious when a mean person is bullying. When I trust that others aren’t trying to hurt me, I can take them out of the equation and focus on what I’m feeling.

2. What am I feeling?

When we’re in pain, blaming the person who hurt us is a natural defense mechanism. We project our pain outward as anger, rather than turning our attention inward to heal. Are we accusing someone of making us feel worthless? Stupid? Ignored? Embarrassed? Unattractive? Unloved and unlovable?

Naming the accusation lets us dig beneath it to find the sensitive spot it’s protecting, and see what’s really going on.

3. What’s really going on?

Once I identify what I’m feeling, I want to figure out why I’m feeling it. What am I really struggling with? It’s usually a repeating theme centered around my insecurities.

For example, if someone “made” you feel stupid, maybe you doubt your own abilities and intelligence. If someone “made” you feel worthless, perhaps you don’t accept your own value as a human being.

I often feel forgotten or ignored, because I’m an overachiever who struggles with feelings of inadequacy.

It helps to remember that other people can’t “make” us feel anything. They can only trigger feelings and opinions we already have about ourselves.

4. Where’s the relief?

Once you find where you’re sensitive, an emotional salve helps ease the sting. Maybe you need to be alone for a while. That’s okay. It’s also okay to ask for help. My favorite relief is spending quality time with friends, but I sometimes have trouble asking for that.

I used think that asking for help was a sign of weakness in me. When I helped my friends, I never judged them as being weak. They were simply going through a rough time, and I wanted to help make them feel better.

That’s when I realized that not asking for their help denied them a chance to be my friend. I now feel that asking for help is like giving a gift. I’m giving my friends something they want: a chance to be my friend.

Maybe I need a distraction, and we just hang out together. Maybe I need to talk through what happened, to figure out how to stop it from happening again. It doesn’t matter.  I tell them what I need, they provide it happily, and we both feel better.

5. How can I prevent it from happening again?

Trust your relationships enough to talk with the person who hurt you about what hurts. Chances are, the other person has no idea you’re hurting.

This is the hardest part for me. I’m always worried they’ll think I’m whining or placing blame. Be clear that you’re not blaming them and don’t want them to feel guilty. You simply want to share the fact that you have a sensitive spot.

Together, figure out how to avoid irritating that sensitivity, and make a plan for how to deal with it if it happens again.

We all have our insecurities—our sunburned emotions. Accepting and caring for those oversensitive spots helps protect them until they heal. And they will heal, just like a sunburn does.

Surround yourself with supportive friends and family. It’s SPF for the soul.

Photo by John

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About Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner teaches acting and voice at CUNY's York College in New York City.  She's been on TV, on stage, and on theonion.com.  She also plays the ukulele and gives great hugs.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Anna Puchalski

    What a great article Lisa! I too, am a sensitive person. The article was so very moving and guiding, really well put together. It has been a journey of mine to separate what to take in within myself and how, what to stand up for and how, and what to let go. In a world of bullys, boundary-crossers, and lack of time for courtesy it is an important practice to have that wisdom. Yet, there is also a pretty good bright side…even though sensitive people can take in the bad, when it comes to the good-joy, love, happiness-we experience those emotions in a very beautiful and powerful way!

  • NotLostJustWandering

    Great advice, Lisa. Having just gotten out of a friendly relationship with a sensitive person, I’d also offer the following: be self-aware about what help you need and be aware that even a good friend might not be able to give you ALL of that help. Having MANY caring friends, as Lisa said, is particularly important.

    When my friend asked for help, at first I was more than happy to do so. It made her feel better, how could I say no? However, eventually the help she needed evolved into more than I was comfortable with or able to give. She needed lots of personal attention (me sitting, talking, and holding her for hours, multiple times a week, on her schedule rather than mine), and though it made her feel better, I definitely got the feeling that it helped the symptoms without addressing the root of her distress: it was a regular thing, not just helping her get through a tough spot. Not only that, I am not the type of person who, frankly, enjoys spending that much concentrated time with ANY of my friends. I need my space and my own time. I tried to politely establish boundaries and tell her when I felt overburdened, but they quickly went out the window when she was distressed and “needed to be held”. Since we were roommates, I’d try to make her feel better for the sake of house peace, but it got to the point where I never knew whether my time would be my own when I got home. I felt stressed and as if her peace of mind was my responsibility: if I helped, I got burned out, and if I didn’t, then I felt terrible because she’d cry all night. I pulled further and further away, trying to establish my own peace in the midst of her chaos, and the friendship suffered, as she interpreted that as “punishing her”. I, in turn, felt that she was continually asking for more than I could give, ignoring my boundaries, and prioritizing her own feelings over mine.

    Again, I don’t mean this as a warning not to reach out for help. I just mean it as a suggestion to be very clear with those you reach out to what you’re asking for, to be aware that being willing to help might have limits, and to be gracious when an otherwise good friend can’t give you what you need.

  • Lisa Gardner

    You’re so right! It’s the boundary-crossers and lack of courtesy that give me the biggest problem. For years I wondered if I needed to become “harder”, to resist the energy vampires, but I knew that wasn’t staying true to myself. I’d much rather get my feelings hurt by others if it means I stay more open to the beauty in the world, because there’s so much of it! Thank you!

  • Lisa Gardner

    Oh,you’re SO right! Part of why I have trouble asking friends for help is because I NEVER want to cause someone to feel like your roommate made you feel. My solution is usually to go to the other extreme and completely withdraw specifically so I DON’T impose on others. The balancing act is easy once I respect my friends’ feelings AND respect my own. Thanks so much for the feedback!! :D

  • lv2terp

    GREAT post! Your advice to become aware and introspective, communicate, and ask for help are wonderful! Thank you for sharing your experience of finding your way out of the dark! :)

  • NotLostJustWandering

    That’s it, exactly, and that was always my fear: that my friend would think that she COULDN’T ask for help. It was just that her and my ideas of what friends could ask each other were very different. It’s a hard balance to strike, and there’s a lot of places that it can easily fall apart, but clear communication and respect are key! :)

  • growthguided

    I found that some times we go out looking for attack.

    We are so on defence that our minds almost seek out a way to be victim. Instead of being on the open perspective and allowing for better things to come.

    The strong defence mechanism works against our growth

  • Lisa Gardner

    Exactly! Being that fearful and defensive means one can perceive an attack when none was intended! Again, taking the other person out of the equation makes us look at (and empower) ourselves.

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thank you! Yes, awareness is key. I wasted too many years in reactive mode, just grasping or hiding, but never communicating.

  • Ivan

    Great article! Thanks.

  • growthguided

    =)
    That is what it is all about !!

    Have a great weekend Lisa

  • incognito

    Thankyou for this article. I could relate to it on so many levels. Sometimes, you can call it fate or chance that right things (in this case right words) come to you at the right time :)

  • BikinBuddha

    Excellent, Ms. Gardner,,, I had to understand that letting others help me is also a gift to them a while back… But asking them if they would ‘Like to hang out’ would be a wonderful gift for both of us… You may have added a few more Gardens to my Path, Thank you… <3 B)

  • http://www.siviking.com/ Ragnar

    I used to be really sensitive, not really sure where I stand anymore but maybe a bit more standard these days. And I would definitely fall into the trap of taking offense where none was intended. Even though I had experienced the other side of that. Sometimes it can be really hard so see things objectively.

    But hey look at the bright side, since we’re now great at portraying emotions, we could be decent actors!

  • Helen

    It is a great article and your reply is thought provoking too. I’m glad you have mentioned the boundary-crossers etc. and I agree entirely that we need to learn what to let go of and what to stand up to. I am a sensitive person but I have tended to make excuses for people who have hurt me and thought ‘its not their fault, they act like this because of past events that happened to them’ etc. Those hurtful incidents have stored up in some unknown part of me and caused me to have emotional blocks which need releasing. Someone has recently hurt me with selfish, dishonest and manipulating behaviour and I’m telling myself this time that its ok to be angry because that is what I truly feel and only when I have released that emotion can I start to forgive.

  • Lisa Gardner

    That’s what I LOVE about Tiny Buddha. It always brings me the perfect message at the exact moment I need to hear it! So glad I could be the messenger!

  • Lisa Gardner

    Absolutely! I’ve done the same thing in the past, and thought I was being “understanding.” It was quite freeing when I realized I was allowed to have boundaries and standards and say, “This is not all right with me.” It did not invalidate their feelings but it stopped me from rationalizing away unacceptable behavior and it allowed me to say, “I deserve better,” and then go and seek that!!

  • Lisa Gardner

    I am an actor and a teacher of acting, and it DEFINITELY makes one a better actor, even if it does make our lives a little more……. dramatic. ;D

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thank YOU! Long may your gardens bloom! :D

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thank you for the feedback!

  • greg

    have you tried cognitive behavioural therapy?

    Also the idea introspection or examining your emotions around problems is a good thing is often a myth, often it just stokes the emotion within you.

    Simply trying for a harder skin/a bit of stoicism and not letting yourself dwell on those emotions might help.

  • Tom Fallon

    Great article, however, what do you do when t is a professional relationship?

  • http://www.siviking.com/ Ragnar

    I skimmed your author bio and only caught teacher. Maybe my subconscious managed to process it and that’s why I ended up making the joke? But anyway, it makes perfect sense. :)

    PS: I love the onion… jealous.

  • Lisa Gardner

    Yes, I’ve heard of cognitive behavioral therapy, though I have never studied it. Thanks for mentioning it. I think that’s absolutely a great self-help tool when a person wants to be empowered and grow. Introspection and self-analysis isn’t a myth; it’s merely a useful method for some people and not useful for others. My article is for those for whom introspection works. Stoicism and a thick skin is not an option for me, but I know that can work for others. I have strong emotions, and I need to accept and explore with them without denying them (stoicism) or getting mired in them. It’s a fine line. I seek it constantly, and I hope my article helps others who seek that particular method. Whether it’s shoes or personal growth, one size does not fit all! :D

  • Lisa Gardner

    Good question. I think professional relationships require professional assistance. Maybe the other person has a supervisor you could speak with. If it’s a co-worker, perhaps your HR department can help. Or if all else fails, a personal therapist could give you tools to deal with someone who’s hard to deal with.

  • http://www.vishnusvirtues.com/ Vishnu

    hi Lisa – these are very good tips for dealing with sensitivity. Often, we are more caught up in how hurt we are and how others have upset us that we don’t step back to think it’s us over-reacting or being overly sensitive. I think acknowledgment of our sensitivity is a key step in this process.

    Point # 3 is so insightful – no one else can make us feel anything – only we can feel our own insecurities. If we applied all five points to our life, we can take back a little more control of our life. You’ve developed a great checklist to deal with sensitivity so although you may still feel hurt, you have a quick action plan to fall back on. Reflecting on our pain and exploring our sensitivity can only lead to more peace of mind. Thank you for being so open and these tips we can all use in our life.

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thank you so much for saying that! Taking back control of my life is EXACTLY what led me to examine why I kept getting my feelings hurt. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  • http://rebuildinghayleyjade.wordpress.com/ Hayley-Jade Cass

    This post is exactly what I needed to read. I have always struggled with being emotionally oversensitive and find some of my relationships with close family members difficult for this reason. Following reading this, I can see that it really is just about perception and so will work towards changing my perception in those situations using the helpful points outlined above.

    Thanks for writing this, it could not have found its way to me at a better time and hopefully it will have a significant impact on my life.

  • Lisa Gardner

    My favorite thing about Tiny Buddha is that it always bring me the exact message I need at the exact moment I need to hear it! I’m so happy mine is a message that can help you! Thank you! And yes, it’s all about re-framing our perceptions. We have the power to do that at any moment, so that those healthier perceptions motivate our actions.

  • Izza

    Whenever i’m doubting people around me, or should I say myself, i automatically find myself reading articles here in tinybuddha and like a blessing in disguise, i get here, just on time when i need to know and searching for clarifications or advice.

    Thanks to this :)

  • Heather Allen

    Thank you. I have been stuck with my emotions and feeling as though I keep drowning in them. This is immensely helpful!

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thank you for saying that. That’s why I fell in love with Tiny Buddha and wanted to write for the site: its ALWAYS got what I need when I need it!

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thanks for saying that! My feelings often feel like waves overwhelming me. They’re very watery, aren’t they? “Stuck” is a good word. Talking with others always helps me get unstuck! :D

  • Lily Bernal

    thanks for this post, i really need it :)

  • Motivated90210

    I am late to the conversation but thank you so much for this. I feel completely transformed from this information!

  • Lisa Gardner

    Thank you for that!! Stay motivated!!

  • Lisa Gardner

    :) {{HUG}}

  • Confused…

    I actually read this because I’m on the other end of things. I have a supervisor who is overly sensitive. If I don’t act syrupy sweet like I just stepped out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver she assumes I’m upset or angry with her when in reality I feel right as rain. I’ll also say that I haven’t done or said anything hurtful to this person. I’m just a guy trying to get along with a crazy chick for a supervisor.

  • Stacy L.

    “It helps to remember that other people can’t “make” us feel anything. They can only trigger feelings and opinions we already have about ourselves.”

    I so wish more people understood this.