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What’s Really Going on When Someone Seems “Too Sensitive”

Crying Eyes

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ~Cynthia Occelli

The whole time I was growing up, I was told, incessantly, that I was “too sensitive.” These words, when I first heard them, came from the mouth of the person I vowed I would never become.

And yet, as I grew up, these words didn’t stay within the darkness of my childhood home. They began to roll out of the mouths of kids on the playground, boyfriends, classmates, friends.

“Wow, you’re really touchy.”

“You’re so emotional.”

“You’re turning really red. Are you, like, really offended right now? You should take a chill pill.”

“You can’t take a joke.”

Often, my reaction was to a joke—an insulting one. I’ve never liked insult humor, and yet it’s followed me throughout my life. It was (and still is) there in my Eastern European origins and it was there every step of the way when I came to Canada as an immigrant.

They were right. I just couldn’t take a joke.

Each time this would happen, I would own it. Yes, I was too sensitive. It was my fault. I had to try to hide it better. I came up with all these tactics to hide my volatile emotions, but they failed.

Even if I didn’t cry, I’d turn red. Even if I didn’t turn red, my lips would quiver and my body would tense up. Someone would never fail to point it out.

“Wow, you get really red—like a tomato!”

“Hey lighten up, you take things so seriously.”

I left the toxic environment of my childhood when I was seventeen years old, having counted down the days until I could be free. An old journal of mine from around then says: “I’m so glad I’m over the past.” I thought changing locations was the end of the story.

I had focused so much on getting free that, when I got to that freedom, I didn’t know what to do. Slowly, I developed serious mental health issues that grew from not healing. I became more than just sensitive. I became what my ex called “crazy.”

After my first relationship—which quickly turned into mutual emotional abuse—dissolved, something broke inside of me. I became cold, distant, intolerant. I began to make comments about other people being too sensitive when they reacted, because I no longer did.

And you know something? It felt good. It felt so good to, for once, not be the one that felt ashamed of my emotions. I felt powerful. I felt like everything would be okay.

I became everything I had fought so long and so hard against: loveless, distant, cynical. I became the bully I once feared. I began my journey to become the abuser I vowed to leave in my childhood memories.

Thankfully, I had a breakdown. I say thankfully, because those weeks of unbearable pain were nothing compared to a lifetime I could have lived as yet another abuser recreating her past.

As I allowed myself to feel again, I felt a flood of regret and guilt for the people I’d hurt. I felt terrible about shaming those emotions in others that I’d had shamed in me. I used this feeling to forgive the people who had hurt me, realizing that their actions were by-products of abuse in their pasts as well.

I had escaped hurting myself and hurting others by healing the pain of the past, which was only possible by feeling the pain of the past. And I realize now that this was what I was trying to do all those times I would overreact—heal. I was trying to heal.

When we get ignored or put down, it hurts. It leaves a wound. And then, when we’re in a safer situation, that wound tries to heal.

Each time I reacted emotionally to a situation that didn’t seem appropriate, my wound was trying to heal.

Each time I would react to a joke with pain, my wounds were trying to heal.

Each time I’d get this rush of anger or anxiety or self-hatred, triggered by some little thing someone did that reminded me of the abuse of the past, my wounds were trying to heal.

But what did the world say?

When I needed someone to hold me while I cried about being insulted and pushed down, after being triggered by something little and silly, people would say “You’re too sensitive.”

When I needed someone, anyone, to just look at what was happening in my life and listen to me, having no communication skills and able only to start drama, people would say “You’re doing it for attention.”

I came so close to killing myself before I had a breakdown. If I had, wouldn’t they have said, “We didn’t see it coming”?

Abuse has been rampant in my family for generations. In my work, I see every day how rampant emotional abuse is in our society.

Abuse makes people “sensitive.” I put this in quotation marks because there’s a difference between perceiving a person’s sensitivity as a characteristic and perceiving that person as having gaping wounds, which are sensitive because they’re healing.

And our cultural tendency to push down the healing process in those who have been abused is the most silent killer of them all.

As human beings, we need to connect, to love, to belong. We need to feel like we are accepted and respected for who we are. And how many of us had those needs shattered at a young age? If not by our parents, by a group of peers. If not by a group of peers, by a partner.

As soon as we get hurt, we start to heal. This goes for paper cuts as much as it goes for emotions. We can allow that healing, or we can block it.

Those who appear outwardly sensitive and touchy are actually doing something incredibly brave. They are choosing to stay with their emotions, which are pathways to healing, instead of shutting down and joining the abuse statistics.

So next time you hear someone being called too sensitive, know this: there are only enough times a person’s healing process can be repressed before they can’t take it anymore. And the way a person breaks out is either through ending their life or ending their emotional life by becoming abusive themselves.

This is happening everywhere, and we can all do our part to stop it.

Jon Briere said, “If we could somehow end child abuse and neglect, the eight hundred pages of DSM […] would be shrunk to a pamphlet in two generations.”

We can all do our part in this, and the way we can start is by understanding the connection between emotional release and healing, by allowing people to experience emotions in front of us without judging or backing down, and by allowing ourselves to experience those emotions, to heal, and to find people who will allow us to do so.

Like this, we can build a better world together. But we can’t do it alone. We need you. We need all of us.

Crying eyes image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Vironika Tugaleva

About Vironika Tugaleva

Vironika is an inspirational speaker, life coach, and author of the award-winning book The Love MindsetVironika helps people cultivate self-love, heal mental and emotional suffering, develop healthy self-care habits, build deeper relationships, and unleash their potential to change the world. Read more about Vironika here and get a free sneak preview of The Love Mindset.

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  • Sol Sys

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience! You’ve really brightened my perspective on this topic. I think it’s extremely important for people who have felt these feelings to know that they are not alone out there. I also have been told for as long as I can remember that I’m “too sensitive.” I learned to hate myself for it. My attempt to rectify this “character flaw” was to isolate myself. I appreciate learning that the very feelings I have shunned are a part of the process to heal. I hope to grow & in time, own who I am without feeling ashamed or wrong.

  • Melissa Tay

    i read this on a whim. within the first sentence i knew immediately who wrote this article.

    Hello Vironika! 😀 Your words are gentle and wise and loving and thank you for writing this. Again, I am amazed at the timing and how RIGHT your article is for me (in an exactly-what-my-soul-needs way)

    I will connect with you soon! Much love Melissa.

  • Lorrie B

    Beautiful. I remember crying jaggedly when I read Dr. Aron’s book about HSPs (highly-sensitive persons) and recognizing myself and my “unmet needs”… in my family, crying was discouraged. Big emotions became a trigger for my addictions, as I continued to repress and bury my true feelings. Buddhist philosophy helped me sit quietly in self-awareness, to see what I was avoiding, and begin the healing, including an attempt to care “less” about what others think. It’s been a real struggle, but now I welcome the struggle. And I cry every day, with either joy, humour or sadness.

  • Bullyinglte

    And there I am, right on the page you wrote. I call myself an Empath, because my relation to the outside world around me is so strong, that I am easily affected by what is happening. I also had that dark past that I wasn’t letting go of. It is a Yin/Yang idea. All of the different traits we have contain good and bad parts. I am so happy that I can have empathy and feel for other’s pain. But of course that also means that I feel so much more all the time and thee is no way to explain that to someone who doesn’t. Thanks for sharing our community of people who do feel that and your thoughts around it. You are right on the money!

  • Karen Kerr Hardy

    I have struggled with this my entire life. Until I met my husband I never knew what it meant for someone to understand my needs, and even he sometimes doesn’t get me. I have had problems with insult humor and slapstick videos, and I have been told that I have no sense of humor or I am too sensitive. I actually laugh a lot. I love to laugh, just not at the expense of someone’s feelings. I do find myself being overly critical of myself and others and have to watch myself. This has been a struggle.

  • raychil

    Realy great thought provoking article. Thanks 🙂

  • Nancy Vail

    Thanks so much for this article and your honesty. I too have grown into the abuser I experienced in my family and have to work hard to overcome that. Because of the narcissism and selfishness I have to pray hard because I cannot get through this myself…only by loving something greater than me. This is very hard and am grateful for people who support us on this journey too

  • Lapin Bleu

    Your comment is so right on.

  • Nancy- yours is a wonderful insight. I hope you see it. You not just see that you have “grown into the abuser”, but you put a voice to it and owned it. That is a tremendously difficult thing to do and you should be proud of yourself. The author is right on with what she said about “recreating her past”. That is why people stay in abusive relationships, or why victims become abusers. Erik Erikson saw this and said (to paraphrase) that in order one to ascend to the next stage of development, they would need to heal their past, otherwise a piece of them would forever be stuck in that time. We see this all the time with adults who act like children when they are angry or upset. They haven’t let the healing process complete. Now that you’ve had the courage to open up about your flaws, go inside to the hurt and finish healing yourself. When you do, you’ll no longer be the abuser that you never wanted to be in the first place. Best wishes and much success to you.

  • Yep, some people I know used to call me too sensitive as well. And it came from my childhood experiences- things they were fortunate enough to never have gone through so they had no understanding of how that shapes a person. As we got into our thirties, I noticed that their comments didn’t stop and seemingly, they were oblivious to their own faults. I put space between us because I grew weary of the constant criticism and “jokes” and knew that if I was ever going to aspire to what I wanted in life, I needed to surround myself with people and things that would support that kind of growth. Fast forward ten years and I have very little contact with some of those childhood friends. They do what makes them happy and I do what makes me happy. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nice job on this helpful article!

  • Bullyinglte

    Yes, mindfulness activities like Yoga and Meditation really helped me with my HSP stuff. Looking inward is a great activity, Lorrie. You are so right.

  • Lily Argus

    That book changed my life. I realised so much about myself and so many needs that i had that I told myself I didn’t need because I was denied them as a child. I also turned to Buddhism for awhile and still hold those values today.

  • Lily Argus

    I’ve been called sensitive all my life. Once I realised that I was highly sensitive from Elaine Aron’s book, it made me feel free. I finally had the key to all of my emotional turmoil and ‘craziness’. But realising I was highly sensitve also meant that when people called me sensitive, I would own it. I would back down and think of ways to change myself. In the end shut my emotions down. There are too many things in my life that hurt me that I cannot change. So I flicked the switch. But they always emerge in fractured splintered ways that people would call mood swings. I’m trying to find ways to express my emotions and regain touch again in healthy ways. However I know it also means opening myself up to pain again.

  • Aisha George

    Thank you so much for sharing yourself and your wisdom with us.

  • thank you…

  • GodsChick

    I am an HSP. I have heard “you’re too sensitive”. I have toughened up a bit, but I do notice that as I have my heart has developed a coldness. I have tried to distance myself from feelings because others were not comfortable with me possessing them. (Codependent response) It seems in life you really need to stick up for yourself!

  • Beautiful article but I was really hoping for an article explaining the people that are “too sensitive” and just that, not the abuse. I wasn’t abused and am definitely HSP “highly sensitive person” and deal with this constantly. I’m always trying to explain it to others but it’s hard for them to understand. Just a thought an article like that would be great.

  • Such a well-written article; thoughtful and compassionate. I just realized I haven’t been told I’m too sensitive in a long time. I don’t think it’s all because of healing or growth. I cut people out. Anybody that is rude enough to say that to me doesn’t belong in my life. My sensitivity makes me who I am. I realized early in adulthood that I could make that choice about anyone, especially family. I’ve been studying Buddhism for seven years. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that everyone you look at is a reflection of you. They’re showing you who you are or who you used to be. When someone is rude, I stop and say “Whoa, I’d better think about that. Was that me then or is that me now? Do I need to work on something?” I appreciate everyone for your heartfelt comments as well; it’s so important to be vocal and get these topics out of the dark.

  • lv2terp

    Beautiful and inspiring post! Thank you for sharing your story and message! Really powerful call to action for a person to recognize the path to healing, and on the other side, to be empathetic and supportive to people that are “sensitive”. 🙂

  • BASTA!

    FYI: there is a vocalist whose voice is completely free of rejection harmonics. Listening to her feels like being accepted, embraced and kissed on the forehead. Even when there’s conflict in the lyrics, her delivery somehow de-escalates it. She is amazing.

    And she just shared this article on Facebook.

    (I am tempted to name and link, but she shared it on her personal profile rather than her artist profile, so I won’t do that).

  • Kimberly Casey

    I am again excited to find another being expressing their experience which is so like my own, as excited as a child making a first discovery. This shows how isolated and alone I often still feel; to heal out of my behavior patterns has been the most difficult and the most rewarding activity I have applied myself to. Facing the truth about why I have emotional problems has changed me-grown me-into a better version of myself. At every level or depth of healing I have reached, I have often had to learn to tolerate even more intense emotions than the previous level. My doctor described it as ‘learning to tolerate intolerable emotional pain’. I had lived 50 years perfecting my insensitivity toward the entire world and any person I knew or bumped into. At fifty years of age I was completely alone and afraid but for the small voice I could hear that spoke the truth and a doctor I found via the internet…the small voice told me to save myself, get help. ‘…and I? I took the road less traveled and it has made all the difference in the world to me’. I have been scrutinized and ostracized by family and friends for staying on the path I knew I needed to follow, the path of feeling the feelings from those previous fifty years; uncovering, discovering and learning how to accept the truth without hurting, blaming or making another somehow responsible for me any longer…not easy and completely worth every minute and every penny. I am a highly sensitive person and I respect myself for this ability. It is an ability. The world is better when we treat our neighbor as we treat our self: respectfully and kindly. Thanks for writing your story because you have helped me begin to write mine.

  • Zeinah Zaki

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve been trying to articulate this for so long and could never find the words.

  • James Michael

    To all HSP’s.. I totally get it! I’ve suffered from Major Depression most of my 55 yrs. I’ve been in therapy for 13 yrs, different medications, I walk every day, I do yoga, I struggle with meditation. I abused alcohol and drugs and went thru a divorce. My story has a long history of emotional, physical and spiritual abuse. I was abusive as well. My journey has so many ups and downs, I still cry on many occasions, although, the emotional charge has lessoned. I hate my job, I feel like a prisoner there. And I attract partners who have mental health issues themselves.
    My dream is to Love my work and find a partner who loves me for who I am and I love her for who she is. As Teal Swan says.. a vibrational alignment.
    I have had suicidal Ideation for a lot of years. I still hide this, for a lot of reasons. Work, family, insurance, judgement etc. Anyone who hides it, knows exactly what I am talking about !
    I try my best to embrace all aspects of life, good , bad, awkward, tolerable, intolerable, every thing. I hope I am at a point in life, where I treat people the way I want to be treated, with respect and dignity!
    I read a post on Facebook recently, it said… “We are not weak for enduring the traumas of our lives, We are Strong beyond belief for facing these challenges, on a daily basis.
    I Love You All! 🙂

  • Your story is so beautiful, Lorrie. Thank you for sharing it. I know just how you feel, and am a big fan of crying too! Thank you for sharing <3

  • I am so glad that you are learning this! What important lessons. I am learning and re-learning them too. I think the most important thing is to just keep on walking.

  • …And what a story it is, Kimberly! I hope that all of these words of healing within you keep pouring out. Your journey is beautiful and your sharing matters.

  • Thank you for sharing, Mike! I definitely agree that having a supportive tribe is essential to the healing process. And it is so hard to cut out everyone who doesn’t support our process, isn’t it? Even when they are family. I suppose the choices are all our own to make. Thank you again for sharing your story!

  • I know how you feel, Karen. I am just the same. I think that, if you were to meet as many people like this as there really are in the world (thousands), it may be easier. Struggling alone is what is hardest, you know? I hope you find your tribe. ♥

  • I so agree with you about having all the parts dancing together. Without that light, there’d be no darkness, and vice versa. I am glad that you can appreciate both. ♥

  • I am glad that you are walking on the journey of healing, James. I have been on both sides of the abuse fence too, and I think it’s admirable that you are here, still with us, and still trying. Don’t ever give up. You matter. Your voice matters.

  • You are so welcome, Zeinah. ♥

  • You are so welcome! Thank you for your kind words.

  • It is so important to talk about it, isn’t it? And you are so right about having the right people around. I’ve done the same. I don’t know if they always knew they were being rude. I think many people just didn’t understand.

  • Have you ever been bullied, by peers or siblings, Robin? I consider that to be abuse as well. Perhaps a general definition, but pain, to me, is pain. And I think it is so for the mind and heart too.

  • I have done that too. The coldness almost killed me. It’s hard to be assertive and empathetic at the same time. I’m definitely still learning to do this!

  • You are so welcome, Tamara.

  • You’re welcome, Aisha!

  • I am glad you are learning to open yourself up again, Lily. I know how hard that is. I admire your courage. It really is a brave thing to do.

  • I know how you feel about having to love something greater than you in the process, Nancy. Something very similar happened to me. I couldn’t have taken that pain if I kept identifying with my past and personality. I think that’s a very common experience. I am glad you’re on this path!

  • You are so welcome!

  • You always make me smile, Melissa. Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you can pick me out in a crowd. 😉

  • Lorrie B

    Beautifully said. I have become so aware of my own emotions and thoughtless reactions just by looking into that reflective pool…when I was trying to understand “we are all one”, I kept searching for like-minded people to call a tribe. Now, after years of searching, I realize that the search is within, not without. Be the change you want to see.

  • So much truth here, Vironika! I can relate – there is so much shaming around vulnerability – I was always shocked to get this one from men: “wow – you’re really high maintenance!” which is related to the one I heard growing up – “you’re spoiled” – which is all really funny when you realize that the whole issue was being unable to express needs, rather than the opposite. I wish I had been ‘spoiled,’ in the adored and petted sense of the word! And, it is so sad but true, we can only give out what we get, so I also relate to your words about those things we wish we had done differently. Thank G-d for new awareness, for self-love, self-acceptance and self-expression. Its quite a miracle – we have found a way! xo, Reba

  • I should have clarified to say that generally when people are rude, I ignore them. But if they’re saying that, they’re usually saying a lot of other insensitive things too; I have a limit on what I’ll put up with. Another version is when people comment on how much I’ve eaten. “You eat like a bird.” Or “Look, you finished your plate.” People are goofballs. You’re so right, they don’t realize.

  • And then it’s not as much of a search; you attract people with your same beliefs.

  • Marija Rizoska

    Thank you for sharing Vironika!

  • James Michael

    Thank you, Vironika !

  • Beautifully said, Vironika! I, too, have heard those expressions too many times to count…”too sensitive…emotional…you’re touchy…”

    I think I was born this way, linked in to injustice and mean-spirited-ness…all the while my insides were screaming for a world of justice and love and compassion…

    It wasn’t until a few years ago when a friend referred to me as “too sensitive” for the last time. When I spoke up about how I felt, it only made it worse. That’s when I decided that I had the right to be surrounded by loving people and that I didn’t have to expose myself to all those take pleasure in chiding others who understand what a world of hurt means.

    Thank you for your courage to share this story and for your dedication to healing your heartaches. Together we can heal a world of hurt.

    Yours in hope, healing, and happiness,
    ~AE

  • wodiej

    My mother has narcissistic personality disorder. She was very emotional and mentally abusive even into my adult years. I’d only realized until about 3 years ago that my anger and sensitivity was derived from years of brokenness and trying to find a way to heal. It may take my strength for the rest of my life just to manage because the damage is so deep I don’t ever expect to be emotionally “normal.” But I did finally break ties with my mother a few years ago so I can find some peace.

  • wodiej

    thank you Lorrie. I just put the book on hold at our local library and look forward to reading it.

  • Irene Allison

    Sensitivity is prized in some cultures and, unfortunately, not in other cultures. Sensitive individuals have so much to offer the world but in a noisy, extraverted world, that sometimes gets lots. But just think of it. Without sensitive people we wouldn’t have artists, and writers, and poets, and musicians, and caregivers. I use to feel bad about being sensitive. Now I celebrate it because that’s the source of my insight, creativity, and intuition about others. And now, if someone says, “You’re too sensitive”, I say, “Yes, I’m gifted with highly tuned senses”. Finally, I can claim it openly with joy. Yes!