Depression and Hypersensitivity: Why Some of Us Take Things Personally

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We have been talking here recently on MyDepressionConnection about the trait of sensitivity and how, in some cases, it may be linked to depression. My post describing the Highly Sensitive Person or HSP resonated with a lot of you judging by the number of comments.   In a follow up post we generated ideas of how to cope when you are hypersensitive.   In general terms the highly sensitive person is more reactive to sensory stimulation as well as physical and emotional pain. We are the folk who tend to "sweat the small stuff." Part of this super sensitivity may also include the propensity to take things to heart. We may be accused by others of taking things too personally. In some situations this sensitivity can be the fuel for empathy, compassion, and creativity. Yet this same sensitivity can also cause great pain and suffering. In this post we are going to talk about why some of us tend to take things too personally and in my next post we will discuss what we can do about it.

Why do we ruminate, take things to heart, worry excessively about what others think, focus on the negative things people say about us, and drive ourselves batty with an over-analysis of every interpersonal situation?

There are many articles out there giving quick tips on how to "grow a thick skin" by people who are not coping with sensitivity issues. It is like getting tips on overcoming shyness from an extravert. One important factor which is frequently overlooked by those who provide simplistic fix-it lists is the underlying reason for extreme sensitivity. When we take a look at what may be fueling our hyper-reaction to emotional stimuli, it is then possible to make a change.

When we receive interpersonal communication of some kind (spoken word, written word, body language, gestures, tone, intonation, facial expressions, etc.) our mind processes this information through many different filters. One filter is a simple understanding of the content communicated. The phrase, "This is a cat" seems simple to understand. The person talking or writing is referring to a domestic pet. But imagine that this same phrase is uttered by your ten-year old daughter bringing home an art project made of clay which to you seems unidentifiable. After your hesitation, your daughter sneers, "It is a cat" and then stomps away. In this case there is a whole lot more being communicated than the identification of a clay sculpture. The daughter is angry. She is disappointed with you. There are hurt feelings involved. How do you know this? Because communication isn't just about content. It is also about emotions, feelings, and our interpersonal standing with others. We interpret all forms of communication through an emotional filter.

It is critical for us to be able to not only scan communication for content but also for emotions. If we were not able to do this, we would miss much of what was actually being conveyed to us. But what happens if this emotional filter is over-reactive?

For some of us who are highly sensitive, our emotional filtering system has an enhanced feature. Some of us are more wired to detect threats in our environment.

It is my theory that for those of us who are highly sensitive, we sort incoming communication through the following filters:

1. What did the person say? This is the content of what is actually being said. The "face value" of the communication.

2. What is the person feeling? We interpret the communicator's tone, intonation, body language, and other non-verbal modes of communication through an emotional filter.

3. Is this communication a sign of impending danger? We may unconsciously look for signs that we may be hurt by what is being said. For those of us who are highly sensitive, we may add this extra filter as a way to avoid pain.

There is a very good reason why some of us may add that extra filter of deducing the possible threats in our environment. One reason is that we may have learned early on not to trust what is being said but to rely more upon our gut instinct to assess the situation and possible dangers. For those of us who have experienced any kind of trauma especially in childhood, it makes total sense that our filters for assessing a threat is on the high level. If we grew up with any sort of violence for example, we may be more wired to be wary of any signs of trouble. This can include any communication which provokes our fear response.

There is a book which was written some years ago by Gavin De Becker called The Gift of Fear. The author talks about using what we tend to think of as our intuition or gut feelings to avoid dangerous situations such as domestic violence. The author is well known for his consulting firm which has assisted politicians, the CIA, and fortune 500 companies on learning how to predict and prevent violence. De Becker is someone whose early childhood experiences honed his ability to make such predictions. When the author was ten, he watched his mother shoot his stepfather. At the age of sixteen the author then lost his mother, a heroin addict, when she killed herself. De Becker's skill of being sensitive to his environment was probably critical to his survival.

One of the tag lines to The Gift of Fear reminds us that this type of sensitivity can go too far: True fear is a gift. Unwarranted fear is a curse. For anyone suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, these words especially ring true. Sensitivity and intuition are extremely valuable traits to have. But what happens when your filters go into overdrive and you spend an inordinate amount of time assessing the possible threats in your environment? In the extreme, fear can impair your ability to function and sustain any sort of relationship. It can be very hard to unlearn a fear response when we may have depended upon it for our survival as a child or even as an adult.

I don't think any of consciously go about actively looking for warning signs of impending physical danger. But what I do think happens is we get a feeling about what is being communicated which may be familiar. For example if you grew up in a home where your parents fought with a lot of yelling and anger, you may be especially sensitive to tone of voice. If your sensitive radar picks up that someone is using a lower tone of voice than they usually do, you may interpret this as anger. The person may or may not be feeling angry but you may feel that fear response you did as a child to that particular tone. As an adult you may be puzzled by your reaction. This sets off your need to analyze and ruminate about whether or not that person is truly angry and what that means for you. Your physiological response may constantly gear you up for dealing with danger which does not exist. Your mind may be aware that no threat exists in many situations but your body is still reacting as it did when you needed that flight or fight response.

This gut instinct to recognize danger also includes any threats to our emotional well being. Anyone who has dealt with emotional abuse can tell you that emotional scars last far longer than physical ones. We can usually remember with astounding clarity, names we may have been called or bullies who have taunted us. Verbal or emotional abuse from parents or figures of authority can be especially traumatizing for children. The reason is that we are dependent as children upon our parents or guardians for our very survival. Being liked by these people was critical to our continued existence. Some of us learned early on to be super people pleasers to avoid both emotional and physical pain. Being able to read other's communication became a highly honed skill enabling us to make predictions about people's behavior to ensure our physical and emotional safety. If we perceive someone to be hurtful or critical today, we may revert back to that time in childhood when we felt powerless. The problem is that what was true for us as children is not so true or accurate today.

Our keen ability to read others and decipher communication comes at a cost. Some of us have never learned how to trust.

In my next post we are going to discuss ways we can readjust our heightened sensitivity to a more manageable level. It is my belief that sensitivity is a valuable trait which should not be extinguished. I think of it more like a radio dial that we can turn up or down. The problem for some of us is that our dial seems to be permanently on high and this makes us more vulnerable to pain.

We would like to hear your take on this topic. Are you a person who tends to take things personally? If so, why do you think you react in this way? Do you think that early childhood experiences have anything to do with your emotional sensitivity? Keep on talking and sharing. We want to hear your story.