You’re Too Sensitive

How many of you have heard those words directed at you, from someone who is supposedly close to you?  A parent?  A sibling?  A Bestie?  A life partner?

I’ve heard that a lot from my immediate and extended family, and from lovers and friends too.  And all it means is that…”You need to grow a thicker skin,”  as my mother would say, when I sat crying over some stabbing remark from a school bully, or a school chum, or a teacher.

A thicker skin, so that their barbs would not penetrate my naked soul.

My excellent psychiatrist reminds me often: “Some people have sensitive stomachs.  Some people have sensitive lungs.  And some people have sensitive brains.”

For what is mental illness but an extra-sensitivity of the brain?

We perceive so sharply, we feel so deeply, that at times it drives us over the edge, becomes intolerable.  Sometimes we see things other people can’t see, hear things other people can’t hear.  Does this mean those things don’t exist?  Or are they scenes and voices of the Other Side of the Curtain that usually separates our present consciousness from what is, in some philosophies, said to be an alternative plane of existence that parallels ours.

Jewish oral tradition teaches that there are many such parallel universes, and that there is a thick curtain that divides our world from theirs.  On the other side of the curtain are angels, demons, creatures that we have no way of understanding.  If that curtain were to weaken so that human beings could perceive what was on the other side, we would instantly go mad, because our brains have no tools for integrating such phenomena, which are completely outside our human capacities.

What if a person’s brain was so sensitive that the curtain, for them, became thin, and they could perceive a tiny bit of what lies behind it?  What if, seeing that this person was so sensitive, beings from the other side were able to see him also?  A collision of worlds would ensue.  The deafening pounding on the Doors of Perception (Huxley) would be intolerable, and might cause what we call illness, madness, insanity.

Even in the absence of such a foray into the mystical, a sensitive brain will perceive subtle nuances that others will not even notice: a tone of voice, a disdainful glance, a rolling of the eyes, a certain walk and posture–all of these have meaning, but not all of us are aware.

Some of our brains are sensitive to the weather.  My mood changes if a cloud briefly covers the sun.  Some are bothered by the cold, others by heat.

Our sensitivity to our own feelings extends into the social realm, especially.  Some of us feel unstable and panicky when alone, and comforted in the bosom of friends and family.  Some are exactly the opposite.  For instance, the first thing I do when going to a club or restaurant when I’m with other people is to identify the rear exit, in case I need to make a quick escape.  I can deal with people one-on-one if they interest me, but if I find nothing to grab onto I will start feeling desperate to get away within a short time.  Likewise with parties, I have made a deal with myself that I will stay for one hour, no more, and sometimes less if the people are too loud for my brain, literally or figuratively.

Sensitive people are the pioneers, the innovators, because “out of the box” is our middle name.  We don’t have to force new ideas out of our brains.  Our brains teem with innovations, inventions, revelations of the intimate structure of existence.  Our main challenge is to put those new concepts into action, because our brains are not always gifted with marketing skills.  Some, like Steve Jobs, are brilliant promotors of their products: I believe one has to have a certain measure of grandiosity to take an idea out of its cradle and present it to the world in a package that is easily understood, a package that fills a void in some way.

For some of us, our extra-sensitivity is nothing but painful.  It is too invasive.  It disrupts every aspect of our lives.  We cannot function with it.  But neither can we get away from it, shed it like some extra (thin) skin, because we were born this way.  At best, we can learn to manage it, often with the aid of medicines and therapy.  At worst, it kills us.

If given a chance, would I give up my sensitivity?  No.  But I would modify it in the Jobs direction, except without the volatile and sometimes unpleasant temperament.  That might be too much to ask, but if given the chance, why not go all out?

Then, would people still say, “You’re too sensitive?”  I doubt it, because “success” makes other people smile and nod and want to get close to you.  The smell of success is sweet.

But if, like me, your sensitivity has been too much, and success in the accepted sense of the world has slipped away, then once again one is liable to hear the old refrain:

“You’re too sensitive.”

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48 Comments

  1. Great post. I’ve written about that phrase, too, this year. Thanks so much for your thoughts and feelings.

    Reply
  2. OMG! I saw your title and instantly went back to just after I was diagnosed with bipolar, 13 yrs ago, and my husband is criticizing the meal I made. I ran from the kitchen to the living room, crying. Trying to stop, but unable. He says loudly from the kitchen, ‘you are so thin skinned! you need to get over it, toughen up. this is no big deal!’ That discussion repeated itself for the next 6 years almost every day, until we finally split up. I still hate it when I hear that phrase, tho, no matter who from or for what reason.

    its bad enough that whatever is going on/being said is hurtful and upsetting, but to then have one of those who are saying/doing those things to also add insult to injury by accusing of being too sensitive, is over the top.

    Reply
    • It sure is. I’ve started calling intensive people “muggles” in my brain. I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan, but that term and the whole idea of having meaningful education for the super-sensitive really resonates with me. I’m sorry you had that experience. I wish your husband had been at least respectful of your specialness, and even better, loved you the better for it.

      Reply
  3. Excellent post, and I’ve always thought of my son, who suffers from OCD, as having a “sensitive brain.” He is incredibly bright, creative, witty, and innovative as well. I don’t know if anyone has ever called him “too sensitive” to his face….I sure hope not. His sensitivity is a huge part of who he is, and who he is is amazing.

    Reply
  4. Thank God you appreciate him. He is blessed.

    Reply
  5. I’ve been called too sensitive. My mother described it as having to “walk on egg shells” when around me. I really related to what you said about us having out of the box ideas but not the marketing skills to present them to the world…that is so me! I am all ideas and no follow through, so much to the point that I have given up even developing my ideas even for myself in the privacy of my own home. 😦 I figure, what’s the point? Not in a pessimistic way but more as a realistic acceptance of my limitations.

    Reply
    • Aww, that’s rough. I know what you mean, though. I don’t do too much other than write anymore, but I never submit anything for publication so how do I expect to get published??? It would be great just to take one small idea and plan out how to do it, and then do it. Just a small thing.

      Reply
      • I’m the same way with writing. I;ve had a few things published but it takes so much time and effort to me for such little payoff (I mean getting published doesn’t change my life in any way) that it isn’t worth it to me anymore.

        Reply
  6. Grrrrrrr Waaaaaaaay too many times. And my son too. It makes things very difficult for us, that’s for sure.

    Reply
    • Yup. I expected you to weigh in on this, because I know you are very sensitive, like a beautiful flower.

      Reply
      • Oh, how do I even begin to weigh on this. I could have written the same post (hey, get out of my head!) 😉

        Painful, yes. Disruptive, yes. Not allowing me to function, yes. It almost killed me too.

        I still don’t know what to do with it or how to manage it. I never grew a thick skin and I am sure I never will. Besides, in a way, I don’t want to cause I don’t want to stop caring. But it is hard and it is so painful that it is debilitating as you know.

        Also, the curtain is definitely thin for me. I can tell you some stories…

        Reply
        • Heh, I bet you could tell me some stories. I’d like to hear them, too. I suspect you’ve gone some places no one else has gone.

          I forgot to mention in the essay that in Jewish mysticism, it is said that the First People were not flesh-and-blood, but Light Beings, thought forms in the mind of God. After they decided to see what happened when you took bad advice and disobeyed your Creator, instead of bodies made of light they got bodies made of flesh, with a thick skin not unlike a reptile. Hmmmm. As it happens, there are two words that are homonyms in the Hebrew language. They both sound alike. The sound is “Ohr.” Well, you can spell “Ohr” with either the first letter of the alphabet, Aleph, or the seventieth lettter, Ayin. “Ohr” with an aleph spells “light,” while Ohr with an Ayin spells “skin.” So we were created as beings of light with an aleph, and fell to being beings wrapped in scaly skin with an Ayin.

          All this is to say that I very much believe that truly sensitive individuals have been given more Ohr with an Aleph, meaning that we are “light beings” subject to brushes with the “other side.” Our tougher relatives and whatnot must have inherited the thick, rough covering of Ohr with an Ayin.

          Reply
  7. Thank you for writing this, Laura. I’ve always been a sensitive soul, and told to ‘toughen up’ or ‘get over it’. It’s only recently, in conversation with my therapist, that I realised being more emotional than others is not a flaw. We are empathetic, great listeners and, like ypu mentioned, observant and creative. Sometimes it does have its drawbacks, however. But it feels good to validate one’s own feelings. To the softies!

    Reply
  8. I believe being sensitive and extra sensitive describe my personality and my sensitivity makes me an innovator and inventor. I read meaning to a lot of things and what a normal human being could regard as not relevant or important may be relevant to me from both the physical and spiritual angle. I read and communicate with my environment based on what I read through books, what I listen to through music,films, and people around me. My being sensitive in all these areas bring s out the best in me. When I’m stressed On the other hand this can make me to be extra sensitive and these gets me into trouble and the only way is medication. Biblical we need to guide our heart and what comes into them because from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and bottled up emotions when not release on time explodes like a bottled wine when corked..
    I love this article Laura because it’s an eye opener and it seems so helpful to me health wise.
    Thanks.
    Emmanuel.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, Emmanuel. You sound like you are using your extra-sensitivity in productive ways, and that you recognize when your sensitivity is getting you into trouble, and what to do about it. I know what it is to need to take medicine for my extra-sensitivity (do it every day), and I can’t help thinking: in a society where sensitivity was valued, I wouldn’t have to medicate this! Think about our Prophets. Think about King David! Where would they have been without their extra-sensitivity? Think about Leah: she had “soft eyes,” because she was able to see the future and she wept about it ceaselessly. And she merited to bear six out of the twelve Tribes of Israel due to her sensitivity! But now our society runs on money and material acquisitiveness, and sensitivity must be medicated lest it get us in trouble. I hope that you will find healthy ways of expressing your thoughts and feelings so the wine bottle doesn’t have to explode!

      Reply
  9. My mother used to say that statement to me all of the time. I think those who say that may just not be sensitive enough.

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  10. I think sensitivity is simply a heightened perception that others don’t have. A big “amen” to parallel dimensions. Obviously it’s in the Bible when God opened Haggar’s eyes to the well that she hadn’t seen before so she and her son wouldn’t die of thirst.

    Haven’t been commenting on last posts, but you can see my “like” and know I appreciate it in one way or another, or even several — because I’m sensitive!! 🙂

    Reply
    • I agree with you 100%. The Hebrew says that God “pakach et eyeneyah”–which literally means “he popped her eyes open” because she had (her internal eyes) closed due to fear, and then she saw the well that had been there all the time but she hadn’t seen it. In fact, most of the rest of us wouldn’t have seen it either because we don’t have that level of, as you say, heightened perception. Great comment! And yes, I do see you there 🙂 dear sensitive friend! How are things with you?

      Reply
  11. You know, this is another one of those things where I feel like retorting with: so what? (when one says such a thing). I mean, these people say these things with such self-righteousness, as if they are somehow perfect. What if we were to, when presented with such a statement from someone, start rambling off THEIR own personality quirks that can be annoying? So what if some people ARE actually overly sensitive? So what? Some people aren’t sensitive enough, so maybe every time that phrase is thrown around as a passive insult (because that’s what it is), we can reply with: why are YOU so INSENSITIVE? It’s stuff like this that really chaps my ass. =)

    Reply
    • Ah, there lies the rub: if you have a thick enough skin, then you can retort. Unfortunately, my skin is too thin to do even that: if someone uses the “you’re too sensitive” or “grow a thicker skin” on me, I disappear quickly and dissolve in tears. One would think my early experiences would have “toughened me up,” but no; I’m still the same delicate flower, like a wild Jasmine, that falls apart when you blow on it. I have no retorts inside me.

      Reply
  12. one more thing: for some reason, many people think that once someone has been diagnosed with a “personality or mental disorder” that somehow gives them free reign to put people down, in their oh-so-fantastic passive aggressive manner. It does not. It’s hurtful and those people are mean and I think it’s time to start calling THEM out on their crap.

    Reply
    • I agree. Now, if only we were healthy enough to call people out on that, it would be a lot easier. But when your self esteem is already non-existent, and you reflexively dissociate when someone puts you down, it’s hard to even be present enough to think of what to say back; and by that time, it’s half an hour ago, so it’s too late.

      Some people have the talent of the “snappy retort,” but that may as well be the moon for me. I was going to say I wish you had been my sister so you could do it for me, but then I flashed on–what! in your house? NO! In my house? NO!! So that wouldn’t have worked out. Pretty funny thing to think about, eh? (Black humor font)

      Reply
  13. Wonderful post.

    The worst part is believing that I am the whole problem.

    It took years to get a correct diagnosis and then it took more
    years for me to get over my disbelief.

    And the fact that a “behavioral health’ psychiatrist at Kaiser was the person who
    sussed it out and gave me the diagnosis of DID has done nothing to mitigate the
    bias in the profession.

    The thing that is so irksome about the diagnosis of DID is that medicine is only now
    returning to what it knew at the turn of the 20th Century.

    That the brain will do what it must to preserve the mind and that the patient’s
    subjective experience is all that matters.

    I’ve also worked in mental health and I know what you mean about “putting down’
    people with personality disorders.

    The worst offenders are the practitioners who roll their eyes at the mention of
    “Borderline Personality Disorder”.

    If we are going to remove the stigma from mental illness we have to start with the
    people who say they want to treat it.

    Rob Goldstein

    Reply
    • Great comment, Rob. I really like your observation that “medicine is only now returning to what it knew at the turn of the 20th Century” about Dissociative Identity Disorder, then called Multiple Personality Disorder. Although I don’t buy a lot of Freudian theory, I think some of his and his contemporaries’ observations were right on. Believing that you are the whole problem is foisted on you by others. If you were not so sensitive, you would not only not believe this, but you wouldn’t have “the problem” to begin with! The real problem is that rather than revering extra-sensitive people, as some “primitive” cultures do, our present culture puts us down and drives us to drink or otherwise self-harm.

      Your last line is epic. Thank you so much for commenting!

      Reply
      • Thank you…

        If you go to the internet archives you will find
        a wealth of information..

        I found a fascinating case study of Multiple
        Personality written in 1906 in which the doctor
        notes that the brain is already functioning at
        autonomic levels of consciousness
        simultaneously.

        He asserts that the brain can adaptively wire
        itself for multiple self representations.

        So as early as 1906 a neurological model was
        proposed.

        https://archive.org/

        The archive has an amazing collection of
        everything.

        Rob Goldstein

        Reply
  14. Yup. Guilty as charged and wouldn’t have it any other way, even though I am certain it has had a negative effect on me mentally and also affected my success.

    My little Emma was told by her teacher a year or so ago that she is “too sensitive”. As I put her to bed that night, I told her I had been told the same thing many times … I then played her “I’m Sensitive” by Jewel (a beautiful song for folk like us). Since then, the criticism has never bothered her quite as much. We both agree that we feel sorry for those folk who are “not sensitive”.

    “I was thinking that I might fly today.
    Just to disprove all the things you say.
    It doesn’t take a talent to be mean.
    Your words can crush things that are unseen.
    So please be careful with me, I’m sensitive.
    And I’d like to stay that way.”

    Won’t post all the lyrics – but make sure you check it out if you haven’t heard it 🙂

    Reply
    • Hmmm. if you hadn’t told me I would never have believed that **you** are sensitive 😛 and it would be impossible for you not to have a sensitive daughter. Now as for that teacher who told her she was “too sensitive”…..grrrrrrr, I would like to get hold of her and give her MY two shekels. Trying to teach little tender ones to be thick-skinned……oh, what a travesty! I’ll Youtube the song.

      Reply
      • Yeah … I hate it when people use the term in a negative sense to explain away someone’s hurt, worry or pain.

        I agree completely with what you say about sensitive people. We live life the hard way at times, feeling so much … but what kind of world would it be without us 🙂

        Reply
  15. The idea of a veil that seperates the most consensus reality from other worlds appears in a number of cultures. I’ve also suspected that the things not everyone else sees or hears may be accidental “blips” where our brains are picking up what’s in these other places beyond said veil.

    And I’ve also suspected that “You’re being too sensitive” is code for “You’re harshing my buzz with your problems and/or your difference of opinion.”

    Reply
    • Jenny! Thank you for hipping me to a new expression that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard 1) because I’m too old, and/or 2) I don’t get out much. “Harshing my buzz.” It makes sense! (Sorry, ancient language geek here, and I do mean ancient–Latin, Hebrew, etc). And you are so right. Being around a sensitive person can take more time and energy, and can be aggravating for people who get annoyed if someone takes something they say to heart, and gets upset or goes quiet or cries. They might actually have to put some effort into the relationship of the moment. Back “in the day” which means in the ’60s and ’70s there used to be “sensitivity training” workshops. People felt that was a valuable thing to attain. It was a good idea, but I don’t think it went anywhere. It seems to me that **now** would be the worst time in history to be a sensitive person.

      Reply
  16. You are so right on! That’s exactly the way I feel so often. Thank you!

    Reply
  17. Thank you. You too. 🙂

    Reply
  18. That article made so much sense. Perhaps that is what my Kaitlyn felt. Though she never seemed overly sensitive, who knows how she really felt?

    I’ve been called sensitive all my life and that I should grow thicker skin. I simply cannot do that no matter how much I try. It’s simply the way I am and changing would be like a zebra getting rid of its stripes.

    Reply
    • Thank you, glad to see you! It’s sad that Kaitlyn seemed to keep it all inside.

      Your analogy of the zebra changing its stripes is so right on. Sensitivity simply IS. It’s not something we can change or modify or get rid of.

      I did pick up something (I don’t know how, I guess it was just time for me to learn it) when I was in “day hospitalization” after my “real hospitalization.” I was stuck into a DBT class for the one day that I tolerated it, while in the middle of a mixed episode….and the instruction for the day was about not making assumptions about other people’s behaviors, like: if someone is coming down a hall in your direction with a grumpy look on their face, it most likely does not mean that they are mad at YOU or that you did something that put that look on their face. Maybe they had a fight with their spouse or a fender-bender this morning or they are thinking of something that upset them in the past. They probably don’t even know you are there watching them because they are absorbed in their own personal bummer.

      That little tidbit has helped me innumerable times, when someone has been pissed off in my general vicinity (and not directing it at me). I can say to myself, “Well, it’s not ME they’re pissed off at.” Too bad I was too ill to take advantage of the rest of the course, eh? I might be “normal” by now LOL.

      Take good care of yourself this holiday season. I know it has to be rough. I’m thinking of you xoxo

      Reply
  19. Reblogged this on theartistryofthebipolarbrain and commented:
    My previous post very slightly pertains to this thought process. I will be posting again soon with more of a tie in.

    Reply
  20. Excellent and thoughtful presentation on a phrase that jars my teeth. It’s the “too” that demeans it into something to be pitied. Sensitivity is creativity, and response to subtle factors and nuances and the toolbox of every artist, or so I believe. If we were all more sensitive the world would be a kinder place.

    Reply
  21. I can really feel this. I have managed to shed -off some of my sensitivity though it grows up again 🙂 and makes me feel bad.

    Though thanks to meditation, i am much better than before.

    Reply
    • Meditation is wonderful, isn’t it? I had a wonderful summer in South India a few years ago, and developed a good meditation habit, which has unfortunately been interrupted–I hope to return to it soon. Sensitivity is a good thing. It makes you a better meditator. There is, of course, a down-side, which is that one is more tender, and able to be hurt. But it also means that you are able to go places that less sensitive people can’t get to, on a spiritual plane, and understand other people more intuitively. Om shanti.

      Reply

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