Emotional “hypersensitivity” is a relative category, just like various types of sensory sensitivities. Can somebody tell you that you are “overly sensitive” to chili, for example? People are differently sensitive to sounds, smells, tastes – and emotions as well. Different levels of sensitivity have different advantages and disadvantages. For example, I’m very sensitive to sounds. This can create problems for me in cities, as there is always at least one person nearby who enjoys very loud low quality music or something similar. Noise can trigger physiological nervousness for me, even anxiety. On the other hand, this enables a heightened musical awareness, as well as generally more information received through sounds (or, as I was once told, I can hear a mouse snoring at the other end of the village).
Advantages and disadvantages of being highly sensitive
Emotional sensitivity is similar. If your emotions are strong and delicate, you can appreciate books and any kind of art better, you can create warmer and kinder relationships, you can be more creative, have richer inner life or above average inner strength and integrity. On the other hand, as a child you might have experienced emotional trauma more easily, and as an adult, you can have difficult time with rough peopleand uncaring communication. Other people might find your criteria for continuing relationships too high.
A highly sensitive person is likely to perceive other people’s feelings as equally important as his/her own (or even more important, depending if the influence of their early family). This is an advantage from an ethical point of view, but might mean that emotions and words of others are taken seriously even if unhealthy and unrealistic. This can cause self-doubt and reduced self-confidence within such a person, who might also feel offended as a defensive reaction.
A highly sensitive person also needs more time than average to process all the sensory/emotional information coming their way. This is usually more obvious in new or unexpected situations. The benefit is that you receive more information than most people. More information can make your intuition better, your awareness more acute and your decisions wiser. But it can also mean sensitivity to sensory overload, getting stressed and tired more easily than average, and slower reaction time might make you seem socially awkward, and make you wonder if you are less smart than others. There are some theories about autism being an extreme version of sensory sensitivity leading to constant sensory overload. If more people were aware of this, perhaps we could be more considerate to each other.
Excuses for thoughtlessness
“You are too sensitive!“, though, is one of the most common excuses for careless, irresponsible communication. Practically everybody has within at least some need for power over others. This can create pleasant feelings if we can mildly hurt or put other people down in communication. For some people, this happens rarely. Others might find this kind of pleasure one of the essential parts of their communication. Such people usually believe that it’s normal and that because they feel good, it means everything is all right. They are likely to tell you that “you are too sensitive” so that they could avoid questioning their own pleasure in power struggles. (One of possible responses: “People are differently sensitive; what I want to know is what did you hope to achieve with such communication?”)
One’s communication style often depends of family traditions, even regional traditions. A part of my family comes from a region where criticism is a basic and most common form of communication, often even used to express “positive” emotions. My great-aunt from this region used to say: “What’s the point of this?” or “I don’t understand why you do all this” when I would talk to her about my work or my books. (I must say that, lately, she doesn’t say such things anymore; now she says, “I don’t know from whom did you get such a hard-working attitude; this certainly didn’t come from our side of the family!” 😀 )
If somebody comes from such a family or culture, they will be surprised if you comment on their communication style. They will most likely say, “The way I talk is absolutely normal!” It is, for them. Of course, there are highly sensitive people born in such areas, too. Sometimes these are the people who, in such an environment, build the highest walls towards others and learn to reject most of their own emotions and personality. They can adopt rough communication as a defense mechanism and make it even rougher.
Healthy and unhealthy sensitivity
On the other hand, there are people who are overly sensitive in relationships. These are often people who play victim roles, or who feel a need to prove that they are “better” than others through perfectionism in communication. In USA, it’s popular lately to say, “This is offensive!” or, “I am offended!” if you disagree with something another person says. This is often used to avoid responsible communication.
Some indications that you might be truly overly sensitive in communication:
1) you actively seek for something you could criticise or interpret as offensive in other people’s communication
2) you feel threatened by criticism or disagreement even if it’s reasonable and constructively expressed
3) you feel certain pleasure or power if you can accuse others of treating you badly
4) you accuse people of inappropriate communication in order to change their opinions or behavior the way you want
5) you are prone to feeling sorry for yourself.
Some indications that you might be above average sensitive, but within healthy levels:
1) you value respectfulness and warmth in human relationships and actively seek such relationships
2) you are willing to consider appropriately expressed criticism and disagreement
3) you feel hurt and disappointed by rude behavior because of loss of trust and sense of connection that you hoped for, not because of self-pity or feeling better than others
4) you do not feel pleasure or power if you criticize another person’s communication; if you do it, you do it in hope to achieve better understanding and trust in future.
If you are sensitive to communication and emotions, this can be a great advantage. It can motivate you and help you create exceptionally good relationships. On the other hand, you need to accept the fact that the majority of people is less sensitive than you. Avoid blaming people for that. Try not to take their communication style personally or as an indication of a bad character. If you criticize, criticize specific behavior, rather than the whole personality.
On the other hand, keep in mind that it’s absolutely OK to desire and seek pleasant relationships and people who prefer considerate, warm communication. You don’t have to be compatible with everyone. You don’t have to stay in relationships in which communication is too disappointing and you cannot achieve the level of trust and closeness you want. It’s important, if you decide to end a certain relationship, not to do it with an attitude that the other person is bad, but that you are simply leaving to look for something that works better for you.