Being sensitive is one of our greatest human traits. So why do we tell people to be ashamed of it?
I wish I could say I remember the first time I was told “You’re too sensitive.” I wish I could recall how my perspective of myself changed. And I wish I could tell you about how much this first incident impacted me personally.
But the truth is, I’ve been told that I’m “too sensitive” more times than I can count, making it impossible to remember when I was first told this. Eventually, it just became a part of my typical existence.
What I can tell you, though, is that those words — “you’re too sensitive” — have caused insurmountable damage. They cut people off from who they are and pathologize one of our greatest human traits. This has had deep, long-lasting effects not only for myself, but probably for all (or most) highly sensitive people.
Unfortunately, the adverse impacts of this damaging phrase are something that highly sensitive people (HSPs) continue to struggle with long-term. Indeed, this is something I hear from many of my HSP clients in my work as a psychotherapist. Why? Well, here are some of the reasons why this seemingly innocuous phrase is so harmful:
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9 Reasons Why It’s Time to Retire the Phrase ‘You’re Too Sensitive’
1. It makes you believe that you need to change and make yourself smaller somehow.
Being told “you’re too sensitive” is essentially being told that your sensitivity is “too much.” And if you believe that your sensitivity is, indeed, too much, then you likely often compensate by trying to change and make yourself smaller for the sake of prioritizing others’ comfort.
This could look like suppressing our emotional expression (such as holding back tears, despite feeling like crying), minimizing our needs, and withholding our true thoughts and opinions. The underlying reason driving this is a fear of being perceived as “too much” by others, and not wanting to make others uncomfortable by our sensitive nature.
However, when we are constantly monitoring and modifying how we show up with others, this further internalizes the message that there is something “wrong” with an inherent part of ourselves. We falsely believe we need to change ourselves in order to be accepted by others, and that others’ sense of comfort is more important than our own and who we are.
2. It disconnects you from your true emotional experience.
Oftentimes, being told that we are “too sensitive” is in the context of our emotions. When this becomes a common response to whenever we express our emotions, or even name what it is we are feeling, we may start to believe that the way we feel our emotions is “wrong.”
This is further exacerbated by the fact that HSPs are in the minority, as we make up nearly 30 percent of the overall population). In other words, we likely have very few others in our lives who feel as deeply as we do.
And when we believe that the way we feel is “wrong,” we will oftentimes disconnect ourselves from our emotional experience. This may look like gaslighting ourselves (by telling ourselves our feelings are not real), invalidating our emotions, or outright repressing (through emotional buffering) and shutting down our feelings. This is dangerous because not only does this make feeling our emotions unsafe, but it also makes it harder to heal our mental and emotional pain. After all, as the saying goes, “you can’t heal what you don’t feel.”
3. It is used to further oppress already-marginalized groups.
The damage of the phrase “you’re too sensitive” is not exclusive to solely HSPs. These same words are also used to dismiss the experiences of people from marginalized backgrounds, which upholds systems of oppression.
This can range from sharing our negative reaction to a joke told at the expense of a marginalized group to sharing our personal experience of how we have been hurt within systems of oppression to calling out these oppressive systems and demanding the necessary changes in order to promote equity.
Indeed, accusing people of being “too sensitive” is rejecting the hurt they have experienced from marginalization, as well as from the overarching systems of oppression. This further perpetuates this harm instead of addressing it with the goal of leading to meaningful change.
4. It promotes feelings of shame.
Others saying we are “too much” of anything is rarely (if ever) a compliment. This is further exacerbated by the fact that what is “too much” is us: “you are too sensitive.” What’s more, this aspect of ourselves that is supposedly too much is an inherent part of who we are. After all, as HSPs, we cannot change our sensitive nature — a natural trait — any more than we can change our height or eye color.
Internalizing these words leads to the belief that this core piece of our nature is wrong, and subsequently, that there is something inherently wrong with us. This is shame.
Shame is toxic, as it entails believing that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with us. Shame is also associated with mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance use (and abuse). Further, shame keeps us stuck, due to the underlying message that we are inherently bad. When we feel shame, we are fundamentally at war with ourselves — we cannot find internal peace or acceptance.
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5. It makes you more susceptible to people-pleasing.
When we are told that we are “too sensitive” by others, we are essentially receiving the message that we are not showing up in the “right” way. Combine this with the high levels of empathy that HSPs tend to have, and it becomes all too easy to fall into the trap of people-pleasing.
More specifically, in the context of being told that we are “too sensitive,” we may come to believe that by naming, expressing, or even having our emotions, we are being bothersome to others. As a result, we might stop ourselves from speaking up, even when we are experiencing a strong reaction, intense feelings, or legitimate concerns, so as to not “bother” anyone.
This can show up in additional ways, as well. For instance, we may feel that we have to wear a metaphorical mask in order to “keep the peace.” Or we may try to convince ourselves that we need to take care of others at the expense of ourselves.
When we believe that our emotions are inherently “bothersome” to others, then we are more likely to not only conceal our emotional experience, but we are also more likely to believe that our needs are less important than those of others, leading to self-neglect.
6. It damages your relationships with others.
Hearing that we are “too sensitive,” regardless of who it is from, is incredibly damaging to how we feel around others. After all, this sort of feedback often comes up as a form of rejection when we express our feelings and thoughts. This often leads us to feeling unsafe when our sensitive nature is on display, which is impossible to avoid when building real, genuine connections with others.
In turn, we may decide to avoid being vulnerable and showing our authentic, sensitive selves in social situations, in order to protect ourselves from getting hurt. Or we may even avoid interpersonal relationships altogether because the risk of getting hurt feels too great. Of course, this will result in isolation and loneliness, which will only further exacerbate those aforementioned feelings of shame.
7. It keeps people in toxic, abusive situations.
People in toxic, abusive situations are often told they are being “too sensitive” by their abusers when attempting to speak up against the abusive behaviors. Indeed, “you’re too sensitive” is a form of manipulation, since it dismisses objections to maltreatment.
Hurt by the constant verbal insults that chip away at your self-worth? That’s on you for being too sensitive; you should grow thicker skin.
Afraid for your physical safety because of violence? It’s not that big a deal — you’re overreacting because you’re too sensitive.
Perpetrators of abuse often tell their victims that they are being “too sensitive” as a way to gaslight them and keep control, making it that much harder for victims to leave.
8. It ignores the real issues at play.
When our attempt to voice our concerns is met with an accusation that we are “too sensitive,” it ignores the very issue at hand. Our initial concern is dismissed, replaced instead with the red herring of our sensitivity. Shifting this focus to our sensitive nature means that the original matter is never addressed, and is, therefore, maintained.
This is especially difficult for us highly sensitive people, as we already have a more difficult time voicing our concerns since this could lead to interpersonal conflict and confrontation — which HSPs typically prefer to avoid).
9. It makes you view your greatest strength as your greatest weakness.
We sensitive ones often feel misunderstood, since the trait of sensitivity itself is misunderstood by society at large. Combine this with being told that we’re “too sensitive,” and it becomes all too easy to start to view our sensitivity as a liability instead of a strength.
The messaging behind “you’re too sensitive” is that something needs to be changed, that there is something “wrong” with sensitivity and being an HSP. Yet, in reality, this is a significant misconception of sensitivity. Indeed, sensitivity is actually an incredible strength.
It is associated with creativity, meaning that much of our favorite stories, music, and works of art are here because of sensitivity. Sensitivity is also associated with being more in-tune with our environment, meaning that we are more likely to notice when something is off, helping to prevent greater catastrophe from occurring. Finally, sensitivity is associated with empathy and emotional intelligence. The world can often be a cruel and bleak place — and if the world had even a little more empathy and emotional intelligence, it would start to become a far better one.
No, You Are Not ‘Too Sensitive’
Dear reader, please listen to me when I tell you that you are not too sensitive. Rather, the rest of the world is not sensitive enough and does not understand how much more sensitivity — your sensitivity — is needed.
Being highly sensitive does not make you too sensitive. Your sensitivity is a personal strength and a gift to the world. I encourage you to tap into the unique strengths of your sensitivity, and to continue to share this trait with those around you. The world needs it.
You might like:
- You’re Not ‘Too Sensitive.’ You’re Being Gaslighted
- Why Highly Sensitive People Tend to Be People-Pleasers — and How to Stop
- How Sensitive Is Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type?
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