The message that many people who are emotionally sensitive get is that this is a bad thing and they need to do something about it because it is a problem. Yet being emotional can be a huge benefit that can make life rich and highly enjoyable, but only under certain conditions. In this article I will show you how to stop being so emotionally sensitive and become healthily emotionally attuned.
So are you “too emotionally sensitive”? These are the reasons why someone is considered emotionally sensitive by others:
- You take comments or events too personally and behave defensively
- You see offence where there is none, due to low self-worth
- You need to strengthen your resilience to tolerate certain experiences and/or feelings
- You often felt hurt or sad and cry readily
- You are more empathic and in touch with your feelings than others
- People want you to control your feelings
- Your family weren’t and aren’t comfortable with feelings
- You feel the feelings of others and don’t know where your own feelings begin and end
- You are a chronic appeaser and you absorb the feelings of others like a sponge so become overwhelmed by feeling not only your own feelings but those of others too
If these resonate with you, then this is an overview of how you stop being emotionally sensitive and start to change this ability into an asset:
- Improve your self-worth
- Improve your resilience so as not to take things personally where no offence was meant
- Learn how to set boundaries
- Accept your feelings and allow yourself to feel them
- Resist self-blame and finding fault with yourself as a person
- Take responsibility for your own life
- Express your feelings appropriately
- Learn to comfort and take care of yourself
- Develop self-compassion and be kind to yourself
What does being too emotionally sensitive look like?
To illustrate what being too emotionally sensitive looks like I am going to use the experience of a woman I worked with, whom I shall call Clare. She had come to me because she wanted to be less sensitive as she had been told all her life that her over-sensitivity caused other people problems.
I asked Clare what exactly did being too sensitive look like to her and to her family? She answered that she believed her family’s judgment that she was “too sensitive” was right because she could remember instances where this were true. One such instance was when her sister’s dog died, she had been more upset than her sister – she had cried while her sister hadn’t and her feelings of sadness had lasted longer. She said that when others suffered, she felt their suffering as if it were her own, or even felt more than they did.
She explained that she often also felt slighted by others even when logically she didn’t think they were doing anything wrong to her – in fact it was when someone set a reasonable boundary that she felt offended, though logically she knew she shouldn’t. Her feelings were just too raw and overwhelming, she thought. It was her fault, she believed, and she needed to do something about it – just like her family said. She was wrong to be “too sensitive”, she thought.
Why does a person become too emotionally sensitive?
In the case of Clare, she had grown up believing that she needed to keep other people happy, that she mustn’t offend anyone and didn’t have a right to feel angry or offended herself – no matter what anyone did. She never felt she mattered; other people were always more important than her. Her feelings certainly didn’t matter, she believed, as the dictat in her family was to “Get on with it – you’re too sensitive!” Even when she was ill she was told she shouldn’t complain. “You’ll be fine. Other people have it worse than you,” was the frequent response to any physical or emotional discomfort she expressed.
Clare learned to dismiss her own feelings just as everyone else did. She didn’t think she deserved attention and focused on helping and pleasing others – particularly by not giving airtime to her feelings of distress, sadness or unhappiness, which clearly weren’t wanted by the significant others in her life and were judged to be wrong and unacceptable.
The result was that as a child she had cried alone in her room many a night – when she was ill, when she was sad, when she felt despondent. She had also learned, as she got older, to push away her feelings by busying herself. Keeping busy helped her push the tears down so deep that they wouldn’t come out and annoy anyone. Clare had a well of uncried tears inside her which, in adulthood, began to spill out around other people’s sadness and felt overwhelming to her. Clare’s sadness was not only for them but for herself, but she didn’t at first realise what was happening, which she found frightening and upsetting, setting up a vicious cycle of self-admonishment.
Clare also felt worthless, though she didn’t at first realise this either because she’d hidden it so well even from herself…. the feeling of worthlessness was just too painful to bear so it also got buried under a persistently smiling face and doggedly cheerful, positive demeanour….until the dam walls broke and released the overwhelming sadness, which was becoming more and more frequent and troubling to Clare. In this, as in everything else, Clare didn’t want to bother others and believed there must be something wrong with her if she couldn’t fix this problem and prevent inconvenience or irritation to others, especially the people she loved. What she really feared was that if she couldn’t stop being “too sensitive” she would be rejected or abandoned.
In our discussions Clare outlined many examples of instances when she was labelled too sensitive by her family. Her Mum would often make disapproving comments to her about Clare’s partner. Clare didn’t dare object for fear of annoying her Mum. The few times she had shown any upset she was told she was being oversensitive. Her Dad, meanwhile, expected Clare to drop everything and be available to family members whenever needed – often to attend to the wider family so Clare’s parents didn’t have to undertake this. Clare dutifully undertook this role in the family and no one, including Clare herself, took into consideration that she lived several hours’ drive away. In fact Clare, with her compulsive desire to please and kind nature, seemed to be the general receptacle for everyone’s problems. Clare had never learned to set any boundaries or limits on what she could or would do for others, even when it caused her great difficulty or suffering.
What is the consequence of being too emotionally sensitive?
Again, taking the case of Claire, the subtle message that she got from her family all her life – even if not intentional - was that her feelings didn’t count and that her role was to keep everyone else happy and do what they wanted.
This caused her feelings of worthlessness and, despite her compliance and eagerness to please, Clare often felt as if she was bad and wrong, or felt guilty, for no apparent reason. She therefore expected that others didn’t like or value her. This caused her to be hypervigilant and sometimes imagine that people didn’t like her or that she had caused annoyance, even if she knew logically that she hadn’t.
The need to do whatever necessary for others’ approval can be so strong that it can become a compulsion that is hard to stop. Typically for Clare, as for other highly sensitive people, this compelling urge to please others was causing her stress and anxiety, difficulties sleeping, and a rollercoaster of emotions that regularly overturned her life.
How to stop being too emotionally sensitive?
The work we had to do was for Clare to start identifying when she was tired, ill, or overwhelmed in order to attend to these needs and start to set limits with her partner and family, at first in small ways, to value and take better care of herself.
She also started to treat herself gently and appropriately when she felt sad and upset – taking time out, learning to soothe herself, cutting back on what she expected herself to do on such days, allowing herself to cry and staying with the feeling of sadness until it passed rather than brushing it aside. To her surprise she found that the feeling then passed quicker than it did otherwise.
The more she accepted and attended to her own feelings, the more she started to feel compassion for herself and value herself. As she learned to set limits on the more unreasonable demands of her family, she also came to realise that her feelings were as important as theirs – not more than, or less than, but equally important. Doing their bidding regardless of the cost to herself did not maintain this basic tenet of equality, which is a cornerstone of healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, when you’ve grown up as someone focused more on others than yourself and intent on pleasing others at all costs, you end up emotionally enmeshed with other people. It can then be really difficult to discern where your own feelings, and your own life, begin and end. As Melody Beattie illustrates in Co-dependent No More, when you become used to slavishly taking responsibility for other people, your own life and well-being will be neglected. You may become so entangled in the lives of others that you won’t realise where your own responsibilities begin and end.
We each are responsible 100 percent for our own lives and behaviour. If helping others is done at our own expense, it can become a toxic web of enmeshment. Burnout is one of the results of emotional enmeshment, resentment is another, as is physical and mental illness. Taking responsibility for yourself includes self-care and setting limits. Extending help to others needs to be undertaken with an equal dose of compassion and care for oneself.
How do I start?
It can be difficult to change this behaviour as the payback may be a sense of control – though false – which is otherwise lacking. It also often suits other people to have your compliance, so you may well find that you meet resistance when you don’t run around doing whatever anyone else wants! However, for good health, a balance has to be struck between compassion for others and compassion for self.
Professional support can help you identify the difference between emotional enmeshment that leads to self-sacrifice and resentment, and the genuine, sustainable compassion for others which accompanies compassion for self.
Emotional Education is a powerful way to change our conditioned responses and discover who we can be when we have the powerful and committed support of a team of professionals.
Support can be vital in helping you set limits that honour your needs equally to those of other people. This allows you to move from being emotionally sensitive to emotionally attuned, which is an asset that can benefit others as well as yourself.
Co-dependent No More by Melody Beattie
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers
The Disease to Please by Harriet Braiker
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel von der Kolk