Can One Be Too Sensitive?

When I was young I was told I was too sensitive.  I was told this by many, many people.  I cried easily and often.  I didn’t take criticism well.  When scolded I felt awful about myself, took all the words said, mulled them over and concluded I was a terrible child.  I remember wondering how it was that I could be so awful?  Why did I make so many dreadful mistakes and so often?  I believed that I was unusual in this way.  I thought there was something very wrong with me, confirmed by all the things I did that caused me to get into trouble so much of the time.

This thinking caused me a great deal of pain and suffering later in life.  I was not able to step back from what people said to me in annoyance or anger.  Even when they would later compliment me about something I’d done that they approved of, it was tempered by the last admonishment.  I didn’t know how to hold two opposing ideas about me at once and make sense of them.  It never occurred to me that it was my behavior that was being objected to.  It didn’t dawn on me that teachers and adults were talking about things I’d done and that my actions were separate from who I fundamentally was.

This morning I awoke and my child bounded out of their room in an exuberant flourish of happy energy and good cheer.  I urged them to lower their voice as I busied myself with preparing their breakfast and my coffee.  Over the course of the next hour I admonished my happy child to not pound the floor by jumping in gleeful abandon for fear of waking the downstairs neighbors and again to lower their voice for fear of waking their sibling and reminded this joyous child to not slam the door to our apartment (which slams on its own without anyone’s help) and while waiting for the elevator to lower their voice yet again.  And by the time the bus had come to take my wonderful child to school I had tried (I am hoping, unsuccessfully) to tamp down their enthusiasm a dozen times.  As I made my way to the subway I realized I had not shared in their joy for all that was joyful and wondrous.  I had not joined them in greeting this beautiful day with such untethered optimism.  And that old crushing feeling came down upon me like an avalanche.  I felt terrible.  I reflected on all those days when I was a child and how it felt to be hushed and told to lower my voice and how I would try with all my might and yet never could lower my voice enough.

As awful as I felt, as sad as it made me to reflect on all of this, by the time the subway came to my stop I saw how being overly sensitive is highly under-rated.  How can one be “overly” sensitive, anyway?  And what’s the alternative?  Even now in my mid-fifties I still am extremely sensitive, too sensitive, or so people tell me.  I no longer believe I will be able to develop a thick skin as so many predicted I would at some point obtain.  And honestly I no longer strive to.  Besides, if I weren’t too sensitive would I have noticed how I was shushing my child more than was necessary.  Without being overly sensitive I might not have made a mental note to be extra playful and bouncey when I see them this afternoon.  Without being far too sensitive for my own good, I would not have connected my child’s awesomeness with my younger, often exuberant and very sensitive, self.


Joy copy

29 responses to “Can One Be Too Sensitive?

  1. Isn’t it interesting how life comes full circle? In some ways parenthood has helped me heal the wounds of childhood. Just knowing I am doing things differently from how things were done with me helps to heal me. It seems to be working out that way for you too 🙂

  2. “Too” unless defined as “also” is almost always a judgement or opinion. I’m a lifelong member of the “too” club and also took a lot of crap for being “too sensitive”. I think being a man amplifies that particular slur exponentially.

    I’m also too weird, strange, rebellious, angry, difficult, insensitive, intolerant, judgmental, opinionated, silly, ridiculous, morbid, thrill-loving, sexual, sensual, compulsive, addictive, oblivious, depressed, short, scarred, lazy, ambitious, anxious, fearful, courageous, cowardly, belligerent, boorish, charming, nice, nasty, and just plain…different.

    And so what? Does any of it “mean” anything? Who really cares? And if you care enough to judge someone’s “tooness”, if you feel compelled for some reason to air your verdict to the person you’re targeting or the world in general, please be advised if you’re not already aware that your opinion means exactly NOTHING more that the sound coming from your lips.

    Any writer, artist or performer who puts their work out for the world to see has a great big target painted on their head. Because the “too” crowd will be there to inform you that your work is “too” something that they don’t like.

    My favorite one-star review for The Book of Paul came from someone who never finished the book but still felt compelled to give it a one-star rating: “It’s just too…everything.”

    I take that as a compliment.

    • Ha! Love this, love you.
      And by the way – You should take that as a compliment. Your book IS “too”… fabulous, exhilarating, entertaining, thrilling, exciting, mesmerizing, powerful, provocative… 😀

  3. oversensitive? hogwash! i love that u r embracing your gift. ever wonder why you have so many dear friends with autism? we r a picky lot and we choose your keen self. love highly sensitive b

  4. This made me laugh with delight, believe it or not, Ariane:) What does one do when living with a Roger Rabbit, without quelling their exuberance? I have the same quandry with my showman husband, who is often a one man hyper-party, oblivious when I crave silence at times. I am glad he wakes up laughing. I am thrilled he finds joy in everything and wants to chatter with abandon. It is so hard to not feel quilty for wanting him to just put a lid on it! Can one be too sensitive? No. I think each trait that shows itself as being out of the range of the norm also means out of the range of mediocrity. It is both a blessing and a curse, and with maturity we can learn to use it and put it in check when needed, as you have shown in your alway so lovely writing. No, I don’t think you can be too sensitive. You yam wut you yam, and so are others. That’s where the screwball comedy happens, as we duck and cover and learn to love others. I say “Cheers” to your sensitivities, sweet Ariane! Celebrate them as you celebrate the nature of those you love. If you are determined to have your children not feel shame for their nature, you should be just as determined to do the same for yourself. Thanks for making me think about this. By saying this to you, I also say it to myself. Now, back to the screwball comedy here:) Hoo Boy! 💃💃💃

    • Oh thank you Chou Chou! I love your description of Doc!! Haven’t forgotten your comment about loving others, no matter what their views. Holding that one close to my heart.

      • Yes! And some of my husband’s views can surely test my commitment to that philosophy:) Fortunately, he respects my wishes that he direct those conversation to interested others, and NOT me! If I am to be accepted, I must purely accept, and I do. My jaw drops at time at his what he comes up with, but my heart always leap when he enters the room. If that is not love, I would like to know what is! XO!

  5. Ariane, I don’t feel you were squelching your child’s happiness…our role as parents must also instill in our children to be thoughtful of others, such as the sleeping sibling, downstairs neighbor, etc. They need to understand that in everything there is limits to live by…you set them!
    The trip down the elevator can be your loving hug and your kind smile, or something simple that makes her smile. I feel you are much too hard on yourself and beating yourself up because you felt you fail…We have been given precious children…not easy to raise and understand…and there was no book of instructions in my placenta!!!! So we did the best we could, right or wrong, and what was the right thing to do back then, we felt compelled to follow. We worked hard to help her fit in society, use manners, be thoughtful, tolerant of other’s behavior, etc. Whether we did right or not…it’s water under the bridge! However, NOW society has to accept her as she is!
    We can apologize for the wrongs she has internalized and angry about, and pray she forgives us. But on the other side, we have done our best, met her needs and wants, provided for her within our realm financially, and loved her unconditionally.
    In my eyes, you and Richard are the best of the best! Your children will thrive and blessed to have you!

    • Kendall – I just love reading your comments and knowing that you have walked this path before me… Wisdom, my dear, you’ve got lots of wisdom to impart and I feel very fortunate when you toss a little my way. 🙂

  6. I see two sides to sensitivity as you describe it here. One side is the strong emotional responses you feel which caused you to internalize criticism, building it into your sense of self. The much more positive side is the strong self-knowledge and empathy that drives your thoughtfulness towards others. That is a precious gift. (And even when you were asking your child to keep the noise down you were driven by sensitivity to your neighbors and other children. Don’t be too hard on yourself.)

  7. I was and am always told I am over-sensitive as well. It is like the tears can not be restrained at times no matter how hard I try. I feel every wave of life but then as you say, is that a bad thing? It is more exhausting for those who are sensitive but are we not the people who sense other’s pain and joy?

  8. 🙂
    You are such a gem, Ariane.
    I hope you share the points of this story with Em. She wil live all the more!
    “A kindred sensitive spirit”

  9. People have told me that I’m “overreacting.” I was also told not to cry, because it got me nowhere and that I would eventually learn not to cry. Nope. I cry at everything: TV shows, movies, arguments, when I’m happy, when I’m sad, just to name a few. It got to the point where I finally just stood up for myself and said (repeatedly), “Look, I need this cry. When I’m done crying, we can start to figure out how to solve my problem or get back to our normal routines, OK?” And it gets most people to back off. After the 10,000th time or so.

  10. Nothing to do with this particular post but I adore Emma’s sense of style and colorful, flower-ful dresses! Does she like to pick out her own outfits? Have strong preferences as to what she wears as most girls do? Insist upon certain fabrics and textures and colors?

  11. I used to get told that I was too sensitive all the time. It’s only a joke, you’re too sensitive. It’s just teasing, you’re too sensitive. You need to learn to take criticism. You’re too sensitive. You need to learn to let it roll off your back. You’re too sensitive. You can’t let them know it gets to you. You’re too sensitive. They pick on you because you give them a reaction, because you’re too sensitive.

    Over-reacting was another one. I never asked as a kid, though as an adult I’ve been tempted to when my parents discuss how I used to over-react all the time, what the appropriate reaction to daily harassment, assault, and sexual harassment is. Except I know it wouldn’t go over well, so I haven’t done it yet. I may eventually, some day when my anger overwhelms my fear.

    It’s wasn’t just sensitive, though. Sensitive was just the excuse they used to justify not doing anything about the harassment, assault, and sexual harassment that they seemed to think was just punishment for being different.

  12. I had no idea how many women get told this all throughout their youth and childhood until I posted this link awhile ago and got so many responses from so many people. We should all be careful discounting the sensitivities of others. My childhood abuser was so good at this kind of manipulation. But it is such a part of our culture that sometimes we even do it to ourselves as well as do it to other women and children without realizing it.

  13. My son is hypersensitive (or over sensitive)…and when I look at him I realize that I was like him growing up. Very thin-skinned as they say. I hated hearing a cross word, or being teased, or being the prank of someone’s joke.

    Now people tell me that I’m very understanding and very passionate. Well yeah, until I become criticized. Then I brood about for DAYS.

  14. There is no such thing as overly sensitive forget what people say be yourself.

  15. So many times, the world is simply too powerful and the emotions so overwhelming that I can’t think. Those are the times that the sounds and tones grate horribly in my ears and my jacket rubs my forearms like sandpaper. It’s taken a lifetime to control and allow my filter to defend me. It’s taken most of a lifetime to realize, I’m ok and that tomorrow will exist on it’s own. I only have to allow it and… to continue to hope.

    Dum Spiro Spero

  16. Thanks again for your words I too am very sensitive i believe a) I’m autistic and have heightened senses to petty much everything and b) I am hard on myself but without this I would be so very diffrent so it’s a double edged sword nothing is just black and white ( although as I have autism I wish it was!! Lol)

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