I was a ‘sensitive’ kid, here’s what I’ve learned as an adult.
Growing up I was no stranger to the terms “toughen up”, “lighten up Francis”, and “you need to get past it”. I was considered a sensitive kid — I got upset easily. I was withdrawn, quiet, well behaved, and took criticism to heart. 30 years into life, I’m a successful adult who is still that sensitive kid inside.
Being sensitive doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong.
Emotions are a fundamental part of being human. Just as every human is a unique being, so are our emotions and how we experience them. Some people experience some or all of their emotions more intensely than others, while others feel very strongly one way or another about something.
In either case, it’s not misbehaving or unacceptable to have an emotion. Particularly for children, it can make emotions worse when guilt and fear of rejection are added on top of an overwhelming situation. It’s what we do with that emotion and how we react to it that counts.
One way we can help ourselves is to ask whether our feelings seem extreme, or whether the it’s the situation that does. From there we can use coping mechanisms to deal with whichever’s the culprit.
You can’t “toughen up” a sensitive person, just as you can’t “believe” a deaf person into hearing. You can either assist in finding coping mechanisms and provide support, or become a catalyst for fearful habits, guilt, and shame for sensitive people being themselves.
Sensitivity is sometimes a side effect of other mental struggles.
This includes situations where we’re feeling very strongly about a situation, or we’re reacting to something that feels like a very BIG deal. These are situations where our emotions seem to match the severity of the situation, and in our own mind we feel we’re reacting appropriately.
When we’re told to “lighten up” it’s because we’re feeling very strongly about something that others simply don’t see as significant. In these situations, we can evaluate whether our reaction is proportional and informed. Perhaps that traffic on the I-5 didn’t actually ruin your day, even if it was particularly annoying. And the boss’s criticism of your proposal doesn’t really mean you’re an idiot or in danger of being sacked.
These cognitive distortions, or invasive negative thoughts, are experienced by everyone from time to time. For people who experience distortions and overwhelming negative thinking on a more regular basis, it can be a sign of anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other mental struggle. Working with a trained therapist to evaluate and address these underlying beliefs and behaviours can be highly beneficial to managing and counteracting their occurence.
Whether there’s an underlying issue or not, we can all benefit from thinking through whether any situation is truly as momentous as it first seems. For parents, try asking your child why they’re feeling so strongly. Then help them with realizing whether the situation is truly as bad as they think it is.
Empaths are not sci-fi mutants and don’t have metaphysical powers.
Empaths get a really bad rep, full of skepticism and ridicule of “hocus pocus” and delusion. Unfortunately, this can be really harmful to people who have a sensitivity to the emotional state of others. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is something most humans are capable of doing to a varying degree of success.
While society accepts the undeniable existence of those who lack empathy — the most extreme cases of which present in those who are diagnosed with psycopathic or sociopathic tendencies — there’s far more resistance to the idea of those who feel empathy to a significantly stronger degree (i.e. an ‘empath’). This is most obvious when seeking out a definition of the word online:
Oxford Languages claims ‘empath’ to be (chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.
Meanwhile, the Merriam-Webster definition reads as one who experiences the emotions of others : a person who has empathy for others
While I can claim no official expertise on the subject, it seems undeniably plausible that there are those of us who can empathise with another’s emotions so strongly that it can mix with our own emotional state. For some, this can even extend to complete strangers or fictional characters.
Don’t ignore being drained by the high-emotions of those around you, and always ask yourself “Am I actually in a bad mood, or am I picking it up from around me?” This can work in a positive direction as well, where spending time in a place with happy or energetic emotions can act as a pick-me-up.
For parents, take note of whether your child seems sensitive to the emotional reactions of peers and adults alike or if particular books, movies, or shows have an impact on their overall mood. Empathetic children can withdraw from the exhaustion of others without realizing why they’re doing it, and can often seek out activities and situations where they can control or avoid emotional stimulation.
Learning to separate empathy from our own emotions can be more difficult for sensitive people.
Set up or seek out a quiet place where you can go to be free of overwhelming emotional stimulation. Whether it’s a full room or your favourite seat in the house — turn off the phone, log off the internet, and let yourself decompress. This is especially important if you feel compelled to act in the face of a highly emotional or impactful situation, or if you find that you’re mentally burnt out at the end of the day.
If we can’t get away — it’s helpful to ask ourselves “Do I need to respond to this right now?”. You can verbalize this to others by explaining that the conversation feels tense, or perhaps requires more thought before you can respond. “I don’t know how I feel about this” is a perfectly honest and acceptable response to de-escalate or pause an emotionally charged situation. Take a moment until you feel more sure about your own take on things.
For parents, it can be helpful to observe if your child’s tone is escalating to match your own. This can easily cause an “attitude” or other emotional outburst when dealing with confrontation, without the child realizing they’re doing it. If the argument of “I’m not yelling, you’re yelling!” sounds familiar, try turning things down on your side to see if that helps.
Burnout is very real and very sneaky.
Sensitive people don’t always recognize when they’re under stress, and it can create a spectacular explosion of emotion when all of that pent up stimulation can no longer be contained. This type of burnout can result in irritability, depression, lethargy, mood swings, and erratic scheduling (meals, sleep, etc.) Perhaps even more oddly, it can also make sensitive types rather impulsive.
Personally, I describe it like a toddler overdue for a nap, or an extreme case of PMS. It sneaks up out of the blue and turns the volume of everything up to 11. The world is ending if the sedan at the light doesn’t just GO already. All you want for dinner is pasta, and it doesn’t matter that you’ll need to wash dishes and go to the store at 10pm to make it happen. Your boyfriend left his dirty socks on the couch AGAIN and you’re ready to throw down over it.
Ya, that. We blame it on work, our partners, some planet in retrograde, but we don’t blame it on where it really comes from (hint: it’s us). When we’re emotionally overstimulated, we get warning flags from our bodies in the form of tension, headaches, fatigue, etc. We also promptly take some ibuprofen, drink a coffee, and ignore the hell out of them. The end result is chaotic, draining, and unpleasant.
Listen to your body, and your mind. Take breaks, use your vacation time, say “no” to obligations when you’re not feeling up to them. Self-care for sensitives often means telling yourself it’s ‘ok’ to need it, and following through on delivery.
Sensitivity is not a weakness.
The most important thing I’ve learned about being ‘sensitive’ is that there’s no reason to pretend that I’m not. We’re not stronger, more competent, or smarter by not being sensitive.
On the contrary, we’re able to connect, communicate with, and understand others to a higher degree. We’re more alert and aware than we would otherwise be; an evolutionary ‘win’ for members of any species. Furthermore we get to experience life on a unique level. Love, joy, humour … all of the good stuff that makes life worthwhile comes just as naturally and intensely as the negative.
I’d say that’s a balance worth having.