In last week’s post we talked about my theory on why some of us take things so much to heart. Depression, hypersensitivity, and PTSD can contribute to being wary of things said to us. We may react by over-analyzing, ruminating, and even getting depressed and anxious over interpersonal interactions. For some of us a simple conversation gone wrong can make us feel sick. So how can we stop doing this to ourselves? How can we turn the radio dial down on our heightened sensitivity so that we don’t suffer? In this post we are going to explore some ways to build in some cognitive and emotional buffers so that we don’t take things so personally.
I am going to preface this post by telling you outright that when you take things personally you are not necessarily “too sensitive” or paranoid. Sometimes sensitivity simply means that you are not naïve. While most people are riddled by figuring out people and their motivations, we can hone in and view someone’s core with astonishing speed. And we are usually accurate in our perceptions. (Know that there are times when you do get it wrong and you have to be aware of that too.) Think about it. You are the one who first knew that your friend’s new boyfriend was a snake. You sensed the control freak underneath your boss’s superficial “open to new ideas” public persona. You knew who was going to be the self promoting back stabbing co-worker. You can sniff out fake people and their B.S. a mile away. In a previous post I wrote about how some of us are neither optimists nor pessimists but depressive realists. We possess clarity to see through the layers of superficiality and it can be quite unnerving. It is my personal belief that this is a skill that you should not lose. However, you shouldn’t suffer for it either.
How do we stop suffering for being sensitive and how do we stop taking things so personally?
• Stop giving your power away
When I was in therapy one of the wisest things my therapist asked me was: “Why are you giving your power away?” This was usually in response to allowing myself to get upset by what others might say. The more you allow someone to upset you, the more power you give to them. As a child you have very little power. We are dependent upon our caregivers. If you were in a situation as a child where the adults in your life abused their power, you may still believe that you are helpless even as an adult. As difficult as it may be to believe, time does change this equation. You do have control and power as an adult. You don’t have to put up with a bad situation and you don’t have to give away your power to anyone.
• Limit your interactions with toxic people
Toxic people are quite skilled at personal attacks. You take what they say personally because there is no doubt that it was meant that way. These are the people in your life who drain you of emotional energy. After an encounter with a toxic person you may feel nervous, angry, devalued, or depressed. In extreme situations one solution may be to cut off contact completely. If that is not possible then limiting interaction with the person may be in your best interest. You should never have to forfeit your mental health for anyone. In a previous post I describe in detail how to handle difficult people. In addition, Deborah Gray has written about how to cope with toxic parents.
• Ask for clarification
Instead of ruminating and picking apart conversations to try to understand what someone means, ask the person directly for clarification. It is important that you ask this question in a non-defensive way in order to prevent needless confrontation. Although you may not always get a straight answer back, you have opened the door for open communication. This is almost always better than allowing things to fester and stew in your own head. In a future post we will delve more deeply into conversational interactions and things we can do to promote healthy communication.
• Know what pushes your buttons
Everyone is sensitive to certain topics or issues. Some sensitive areas may be one’s weight, making mistakes, or any perceived faults. You may also be sensitive to anything you were ever bullied for in the past. Being aware of these tender spots and how you may tend to over-react when they come up in conversation. The key is to not allow yourself to get sucked into feeling your old wounds open when these topics are brought up.
• Be aware of mixed messages
One type of communication which can send the best of us into an emotional tizzy is when someone gives us “mixed messages.” They may say one thing at a certain time and then say something completely incompatible in another situation. You may witness the person saying something to you and then going to someone else and saying the opposite. The most harmful type of communication can be what is called the “double bind” message. You can identify the double bind message by the fact that the content of what the person is saying does not match up to the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and other non-verbal modes of communication. The classic example is a mother who says “I love you” to her child but then stiffens up when the child tries to give her a hug. It is not such a bad idea to be wary of the person who engages in giving mixed messages.
• Understand that you don’t have any control over what people say.
You may have had the desire at some point of wishing to control what others say. You can’t. People will think things. They will say things you don’t like. Other people may be mean. You can’t stop that. But you can control how you react and respond. You can choose to be assertive. You can choose to limit your interactions with this person. You can choose to not give this person your power by allowing them to upset you. Focus on what you can do instead of what the other person is doing or saying.
• Realize that some people say stupid things.
When most people talk, they aren’t thinking about you or anyone else. It does take some time, energy, and skill to formulate an intentional dig at someone. In other words, most people are not going to waste their time thinking of ways to intentionally hurt someone. Think of a bull in a china shop. The bull isn’t thinking about the china. Likewise, most people aren’t thinking about you and your sensitivities. There are many people who say hurtful things because they don’t know how to express themselves and they are oblivious to their audience. This is no excuse for rude behavior but at least you know in some instances it is not about you. What people say is always more about themselves than anyone else.
• Use the three strikes rule when necessary.
How many of you have heard this saying before? Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. When someone says something you perceive to be hurtful it may be wise to back off the first time and give the person some slack. Assess whether this is a person is socially awkward, having a bad day, or is just oblivious to what they are communicating. Is there a pattern of this person acting this way with other people? If the person continues to say hurtful things to you the ball is now in your court as to how you wish to respond. I usually go by the “three strikes you are out” rule. If a person is a jerk to me more than three times, I then decide if I am going to call the person on their rude behavior or simply limit any future interactions. Pick and choose your battles wisely. Is this person a part of your daily life or routine? Is this person someone with whom you will have an on-going relationship? If the answer is no, it may be wise to let go.
• Focus on the positive relationships in your life.
You only have so much time and energy right? Why give your precious energy to people who make your life miserable? Stop trying to “work” at bad relationships or fix negative interactions. Let them go. It is not your job to make everyone nice. Move on to focusing on the people who do matter most in your life. These are people who are mostly likely being neglected because you are too busy fussing over jerks. When some interaction distracts you from functioning ask yourself these questions. Is this interaction important in the scheme of things? Do I need to seek clarification? Do I need to be assertive? What do I have to gain by responding or letting it go? Is this the best use of my time and energy?
Being sensitive in a seemingly insensitive world can feel like you are always getting hurt. But you don’t have to suffer. There are things you can do to be less vulnerable. Although I have listed many strategies in this post on how to cope with being highly sensitive, I am sure you all have other ideas. We want to hear them. We greatly value your opinion and your shared experiences. Don’t hesitate to share your story here.
If you are interested in learning more about sensitivity as it relates to depression please refer to the following articles: