“You take everything personally.”
“You can’t take a joke.”
“You’re so uptight about everything.”
“You’re making a big deal over nothing.”
“You belong in a mental hospital.”
Each of those statements was true, according to Janet’s husband. True beyond the shadow of a doubt. That was why their marriage was on the rocks. His wife was wacko.
He first realized something was wrong with her when they went to the movies together, one day early in their courtship.
He’d picked the movie. It was an arthouse film about World War II, which he hoped would impress her.
Instead, as they left the theater, he noticed Janet was silent. “Are you okay?” he asked. She shook her head. Once they got in the car, he saw that she looked like a mess. She dug for a tissue in her purse and wiped her eyes.
“Are you crying?” he asked incredulously.
She was. And she couldn’t stop.
It was all because of the movie. Sure, it had a dark ending, but it wasn’t anything to cry over.
That was just the beginning. Janet got upset over everything. Whenever she had a conflict at work, she was upset for weeks.
He tried to be patient with her. He really did. But she never got any better. Every single thing threw her into a tizzy. He was beginning to think she needed professional help.
Was Janet’s husband right?
Is being too sensitive a sign something’s wrong with you?
Dr. Elaine Aron is one of the leading researchers on sensory processing sensitivity. Her life’s work is to advocate for highly sensitive people, who are often misunderstood in Western culture.
High sensitivity is not the same thing as shyness, introversion, or neuroticism. Rather, it describes someone who has a heightened response to sensory stimulation, such as loud noises, violent images, hunger, pain, even caffeine.
High sensitives easily get overstimulated. They feel things more deeply and process things on a deeper level. They’re so empathetic they can take on other people’s pain.
Roughly 15 to 20% of the population is highly sensitive. The condition is not a disorder but rather innate. Infants show signs of high sensitivity from the time they’re 4 months old. High sensitivity even exists in over 100 animal species.
It’s most likely inherited. Animals can be bred for sensitivity, suggesting that the trait gets passed down through generations. It may be tied to gene variations that affect the amount of dopamine available in our brains.
None of that made Janet feel any better.
She didn’t want to be so sensitive. Part of her agreed with her husband’s assessment. Living like this was too hard. She didn’t want to feel so affected by everything.
But high sensitivity is a gift.
It just doesn’t necessarily feel like one.
High sensitives are often found in the helping professions, using their highly tuned empathy skills in nursing, social work, non-profits and teaching.
They have an eye for beauty, which helps them excel in creative work like photography, interior design, the graphic arts, or crafts.
Highly sensitive people bring compassion, care, and thoughtfulness to everything they do.
So why is their sensitivity so undervalued?
Janet remembers her mother chastising her as a girl for crying all the time. She was told to stop being so shy, as if it were a choice. She grew up believing something was wrong with her. No wonder she ended up married to a man who thought something was wrong with her, too.
“I do my best to hide my feelings from him,” she said. “Like, if I’m reading a sad book, I do it somewhere he won’t see me cry. But sometimes I miss living alone. I could feel whatever I felt without having to stuff it down.”
Like many women shamed about being emotional, Janet’s answer was to withdraw. She stopped sharing her inner life with her husband. She thought her marriage worked better that way. He didn’t want to know the thoughts and concerns keeping her up at night, anyway.
Could their marriage be saved?
Dr. Aron knew couples struggled when one was highly sensitive and the other wasn’t, so she wrote 2001’s The Highly Sensitive Person in Love.
But situations like Janet’s go further than a misunderstanding of high sensitivity. Dysfunctional patterns take more than a book to understand and repair. When one partner thinks the other partner is broken in some profound way, the very foundation of their marriage is threatened.
Marriages can’t thrive without mutual respect. You may not like everything about your partner, but you accept him as he is. Janet didn’t feel accepted by her husband—and her husband was quite frank about not respecting her.
Being a high sensitive is hard enough without feeling ashamed of who you are.
If you’re in a relationship with a man who sneers at you for being too sensitive, then get some information on high sensitivity. Share it with him. Talk about it.
Maybe he’ll see he’s misunderstood you. Or maybe he enjoys feeling superior to you too much to give it up.
Either way, you owe it to yourself to learn about this special gift. You’re not alone, and you’re not weird. There’s nothing about you that needs fixing. But there are tips and strategies you can learn to make your life easier.
The world needs sensitivity a lot more than it needs insensitivity. The world needs you.