NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

How to tell if you’re ‘too sensitive’

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

“I’ve been accused of being ‘too sensitive’. I’m a pretty emotional person. What can I do about it?”

When people ask me if they’re too sensitive, I often ask them: “According to whom?” because, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. It can be a get out of jail free card for bullies.

The recent political ructions in the US have highlighted that an entire generation, namely “millennials”, have been labelled “snowflakes” due to being too sensitive, and too easily offended. Apparently, if you’re young and offended by hatred levelled at minorities, it’s your fault.

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It is true that there are individual differences in how emotionally sensitive to the world and relationships we all are.

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that temperament plays a role: some of us are just born more tuned in to our emotions, and others.

It’s also undoubtedly true some could do with being more sensitive.

What makes emotionality a problem though is how it’s responded to. For people who do feel things more it can be harder to learn to tolerate strong emotions. And any problems, like trauma for instance, tend to be amplified.

This can set up a feedback loop between being emotional, being invalidated (you’re just “too sensitive”) and getting more upset. Over time this makes things worse because our emotions are us. Our responses, our views, our reactions to people define how we think about ourselves. And if we come to believe that our emotions are wrong, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to believing something is wrong with us.

Passionate, caring, creative and empathic are all positive ways of thinking about strongly emotional people, but when the world wants to keep telling you “you’re too sensitive”, it can be hard to hold on to the positive.

What is true is that while feeling things strongly can be uncomfortable, and can cause problems for some, the solution never lies in getting rid of our responses, or becoming less sensitive. The solution lies in better understanding what we feel and why, and finding ways to validate and honour ourselves through thought, words and deeds.

That doesn’t make us feel less. But it will make us feel better. And don’t underestimate the power of snowflakes. As has been pointed out recently, an avalanche is, of course, a collection of snowflakes.

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