“You’re being too sensitive” — in the wrong hands — is almost always an insult. While, yes, sometimes an emotional response to a situation may be incommensurate, it’s a sentiment that too often passes as a legitimate argument or, worse, concern. It’s an attempt to at once dismiss your feelings while also turning the tables and making you at blame, guilty for myriad things: for finding fault with another’s actions, for having thin skin, but most importantly, for bothering the offender with your feelings.
Being told that we’re too sensitive is akin to an elbow in the solar plexus. I don’t want to conflate terms — sensitive and emotional are two different things — but often the nuance escapes those quick to use either adjective to dismiss someone as less than. Sensitivity has historically been lauded as one of women’s most most impeding characteristics. For women, sensitivity and rationality are often wedged against each other as mutually exclusive. Blaming someone for being too sensitive dismisses their reality as irrational and immediately paints them as a victim. It tells them how they should feel, too. Most importantly, it turns a positive trait into a personality defect. It is, in my opinion, one of the most pointed and destructive insults you can hurl, which of course gives it so much power.
Once someone accuses you of being too sensitive and you accept the statement as a personal fault, you’re bound to start reassessing your perception of the event in question. “Was that genuinely an upsetting thing, or am I really blowing this out of proportion?” Here’s a term we’ve heard often lately: gaslighting. Named after a 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman, it refers to manipulating someone to the extent that she starts to question her reality. In a way, you’re too sensitive is form of manipulation.
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater — silencing all emotional feedback for fear of seeming too emotional — has serious negative consequences. After a while, you’re bound to forget how to effectively communicate your feelings. The thing is, ignoring them won’t magically make them disappear. They’ll just be funneled into unhealthy channels, like passive aggressiveness, sudden episodes of blinding anger or emotional numbness. You’ll seem irrational. You’ll seem crazy. Through no fault of your own, you’ll fail to calibrate your feelings because for years — perhaps your whole life — you’ve been told that your feelings are wrong or unfounded.
Being sensitive is not a fault, and rationality and sensitivity can coexist. I’ve written before about the benefits of being a highly sensitive person; studies also consistently find that people with high emotional intelligence make better leaders, friends and coworkers. They’re more self-aware, more empathetic, more motivated and have better social skills.
“You’re too sensitive” is often a benign scapegoat for other, more damaging opinions. It’s “you’re crazy”/ “I don’t respect you”/ “my feelings are more important than yours”/ “I don’t want to deal with you right now”/ “I don’t have the requisite care/love for you to take you into consideration”/ “I don’t care about you” in disguise.
The next time someone accuses you of being too sensitive, read between the lines. Think about the situation and what they’re really saying. Use their accusation to assess the situation; perhaps have an impartial third party weigh in. Don’t immediately internalize their response as an indication that something’s wrong with you and try to avoid censoring yourself. Your feelings, inasmuch as they’re causing a deeply emotional reaction, must be honored. They are telling you something. Listen.
Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.