Dear Dr. Bonnie,
I don’t really know where to begin or how I can explain where my head is at, but I’ll give it a try. I think I’m over sensitive, or at least that’s what every body else classifies me as. I believe I take everyone’s jokes literally,I mean sometimes we would all be sitting and someone would burst out with a sarcastic joke which I take to heart, and my thoughts start clouding up in my head between the ‘yes’ they are trying to make fun of you, or “no” they are not and this results in a change of my attitude and mood towards them; it really gets to me. I leave with thoughts such as; did they really mean that in a bad way?Meanwhile others would take it lightly and laugh it off. Why doesn’t everyone else feel offended as much as I do?Even more so I sit and think do they mean to hurt my feelings? After all they are my friends, so why would they, right?
Please help me figure this out, many people are becoming agitated with me thinking that I’m too sensitive and that maybe I should lighten up a bit. I’m afraid people are going to stop interacting with me and stop sharing their laughter and little anecdotes simply because I take it all to heart and then start whining about it.
Dear Mr. Sensitive,
It is horrible to feel criticized and ridiculed by others especially those close to us. It can cause someone to become angry or depressed, to feel insecure and self-conscious, and it can seriously harm one’s relationships. Of course, if you are in a relationship with a friend or another close person who is routinely verbally abusing you, it is good to recognize that and let them know that they are hurting or offending you. However, sometimes we misinterpret other people’s intentions and see a playful comment or a joke as an attack when that was never the intention. This is more likely to happen when we are tired, stressed, or having a bad day, or they may comment on something we are especially insecure about. Some people are just generally more sensitive and tend to frequently misinterpret other people’s intentions in overly negative ways. It sounds like you may be one of these people.
The fact that you recognize that you may be overly sensitive is a very good sign. It would be much worse if you didn’t recognize that and really believed that people were frequently trying to hurt you. Hopefully it comes as some relief that those around you have better intentions than you sometimes fear they do. It sounds like your initial response to ambiguous comments is to interpret them negatively, but then with some reflection you are able to recognize that perhaps no ill will was intended. The trick for you will be in trying to train yourself to have a different initial response or at least to quickly replace those negative interpretations with neutral or positive interpretations. You can practice this and get better at it. The first step is to recognize that you may be misreading things, which sounds like you have already begun to do. The next step is to think of alternative interpretations of these comments. It might help you to keep a journal in which you record the incident, your initial thoughts, alternative thoughts, and your feelings following the incident. This is an exercise cognitive behavioral therapists often prescribe to their clients who suffer from these types of negative thoughts. It can be very effective in changing your thought patterns! Sometimes people are worried to give someone the benefit of the doubt in case that person was trying to be insulting. If you worry about this, ask yourself, ‘sowhat?’ If you decide not to let yourself be offended by someone who is being a jerk what harm is there in that?
Another way to approach this is to think about why you are overly sensitive. Sometimes people who have unrealistically high expectations of themselves, or are overly self-critical or are perfectionists have trouble tolerating any hint of criticism from others. Does this sound like you? If so, it might be helpful to pay attention to the ways in which you are harsh on yourself and work on being more accepting and gentle with yourself. It might do you good to see a therapist to help you with this. Psychodynamic therapy would explore the roots of this tendency to be self-critical. For example, maybe your parents have unrealistically high expectations from you or are overly critical and you have internalized this. A cognitive behavioural approach would help you to increase your awareness of your negative self thoughts, and help you to question them and replace them with more positive thoughts. Both approaches can be effective.
Once you are more accepting of yourself, you will more easily be able to brush off teasing comments from others. Here are a couple of silly examples: Imagine that you have very thin legs, and you are very self-conscious about them and hate them. If someone calls you ‘bird legs,’ you are likely to be wounded and offended by the comment. On the other hand, imagine that you have brown hair. You like your hair and don’t have any problem with the colour. If someone calls you ‘chocolate head’ you are unlikely to be offended. You may even interpret it as a compliment.
I would recommend approaching your tendency to be overly sensitive from both angles described above. First, by directly trying to change your pattern of interpreting other people’s comments, second, by questioning more deeply what it is that makes you so sensitive and work on being more self-accepting. If you can do this you will be happier and your relationships will be healthier. Good luck!