“To be sensitive is fine, but it makes day-to-day living—life—rather painful.” ― Marisha Pessl
I know, dumb title. If we’re sensitive, we’re sensitive. And it’s not a bad thing, to be sensitive, it’s what makes us compassionate toward others.
But, as a sensitive person, I know that it can get in the way sometimes – when I’m over-sensitive it can sour my day, cause problems in my relationships, or make me overreact to trivial stuff.
The good news is that there are ways to rein in our sensitivity so that it doesn’t get in our way:
Don’t take emotional reactions at face value.
Are you mad, sad, or feeling guilty? Sure, there are times when our reactions are warranted, but often as not, we aren’t reacting to our current situation, we’re reacting to our past. If our parents used guilt to get us to do what they wanted, chances are we default to feeling guilty when we’re not doing what others want us to do. If our folks were overly controlling, we can react to innocent suggestions from others as if they were attempting to tell us what to do.
When an emotion hits, take a minute to explore your feelings. Are your emotions familiar, do they remind you of past situations? Or do they seem connected to something else that is bothering you? By digging into what’s at the root of our reactions we often discover a completely different issue, and then we’re able to address what’s really bothering us.
Manage your reactions.
When you feel your emotions becoming engaged, when you feel that wave of anger, sadness or guilt, take it as a signal that you need to stop and regroup. That “I’ve got to do something NOW!” is a clear indicator that you’re in reactive mode and you’re probably not seeing the situation clearly. Take a breath and let your feelings settle before acting and chances are you’ll avoid having to do damage control later.
Understand that it’s not all about you.
I had a friend in high school who, every semester, proclaimed that one or more of her teachers hated her. Sure, a teacher might dislike a student once in a while, but hate? I suspect that what she interpreted as hate was merely disinterest, they didn’t pay enough attention to her and she saw it as active dislike.
When we’re sensitive we often interpret what’s going on around us as being “about” us – someone is grumpy and we wonder what we did to make them mad. But in reality most people aren’t thinking about us, they’re engaged in their own struggle, focusing on themselves – the same as we are. By shifting focus away from your reaction and getting curious about what the other person is feeling, you will most often find that their actions don’t have a thing to do with you.
Protect your feelings.
Sensitive people tend to take on the world’s problems – when we watch the news we feel everyone’s pain. Or our spouse is in a bad mood and we’re upset for the rest of the day. One of the simplest things we can do is to be careful about what we invite in to our lives. I watch enough of the news to be aware of what’s happening, but when they start to delve into gory or traumatic details, I move on. I avoid TV dramas with too much brutality, and shows that play excessively on our emotions.
But what about our co-workers or family members? We can’t switch them off like a TV! The trick here is to, yep, not make it about you. Your husband is cranky because he’s having trouble at work? As much as you love him, it’s his problem, not yours, and you don’t have to fix it, or him. By not taking on other’s problems we’re better able to help them and still enjoy our own lives.
* * *
Being sensitive is a wonderful thing, except when it’s not. There’s a fine line between empathy and taking on other’s issues and for a sensitive person it can be hard to keep a balance between the two. A great rule of thumb is to ask ourselves “Is this about me, or is it about someone else?” If it’s about us, then by all means, we should get in there and do what needs to be done. But if it’s about someone else then our role should be a supporting one, we can help, we can provide a sympathetic ear, we can contribute money or help raise awareness, but we don’t need to take on the pain and emotional baggage that belongs to others.