Does the slightest criticism leave you uprooted? Then you might have a problem with being too sensitive.
Hypersensitive people tend to take everything to heart, even trivialities that shouldn’t affect them. This can seriously reduce their quality of life.
Fortunately, you can learn how to be less sensitive.
Find out what three factors contribute to hypersensitivity, why it’s not a genetic disposition, and how you can develop a thicker skin.
I was overly sensitive for many years, and still sometimes am. Every perceived slight would leave me rattled.
I remember one particular situation from my early days in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Somebody I had started training with got awarded his blue belt before I did.
This guy was an outstanding person and a great training partner. I should have been happy for him.
Instead, my neurotic brain spun into high gear. Didn’t my coaches see how hard I was working? How I never missed a training session? How I would write down every technique after training?
I was so shaken that I left class early, citing some bogus excuse.
I am embarrassed to tell this story, but that’s how I felt.
And it was not just athletics. My extreme sensitivity was a handicap in every area of my life, from my personal relationships to my effectiveness at the workplace. I acted like a delicate flower and expected everyone to treat me as such.
It took me a long time to find my way out of this self-inflicted dilemma. This article is about what I learned along the way.
The Implications of Being Overly Sensitive
According to researcher Elaine Aron, about 15–20 percent of the population is considered exceptionally sensitive. This is sometimes referred to as a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP); the scientific term is “Sensory-Processing Sensitivity” (SPS).
The idea is that people with high SPS are more emotionally impressionable, which comes with several challenges.
First, you are more easily disturbed by outside stimuli. Too much input — especially negative input — and you shut down.
Highly sensitive people are also prone to anxiety. Overanalyzing endless sets of data will do that to you.
It can be a handicap in the workplace, too. Employers prefer workers who are resilient, not sensitive snowflakes.
As a man, hypersensitivity can even negatively impact your sexual market value. An overly delicate man will rarely be seen as attractive by women.
On the bright side, a person with high HSP is quick to pick up on nuances, e.g. in social interactions.
Some HSPs become so good at reading people that they know what the other person wants before they do. This can be invaluable in fields like sales, education, or psychotherapy.
With their high level of attention to detail, HSPs also tend to excel at creative endeavors, like art, music, or writing.
Highly Sensitive vs. “Regular” People
Here are some of the key differences between an overly sensitive and a “regular” person:
|Highly Sensitive Person||“Regular” Person|
|Easily affected by outside stimuli||Easily ignores outside stimuli|
|Picks up on every little detail||Misses details|
|Deals with criticism badly||Takes criticism well (or ignores it)|
|Overanalyzes everything||More likely to take action|
|Feels easily overwhelmed by noise||Is less bothered by noise|
|Needs a lot of time alone||Needs more social time|
|Feels easily hurt||Is more resilient|
The 2 Coping Mechanisms
There are two common coping mechanisms for overly sensitive people:
- You try to avoid getting hurt.
- You build an emotional armor.
Both are not ideal.
In the first instance, you withdraw from other people. When you only work from home and play video games, you won’t get hurt. But you will also wither. You’ll become like a dry well, bereft of any life force.
Building an impregnable emotional armor for yourself is not much better. The one upside is that you can interact with people. But while you filter out all negative stimuli, you also filter out all positive stimuli like affection and love. Your armor can’t discern between the two.
Biology vs. Culture
Most people who identify as highly sensitive act like this is a natural condition. It is something you will have to learn to live with, they will argue.
I don’t buy it.
Having been overly sensitive my whole life, I am positive it is mostly due to social conditioning, a.k.a., the way I was brought up.
Also, identifying as highly sensitive can become a convenient excuse. I cannot recount how often I have told myself, “Well, I’m a sensitive guy; I am not equipped to deal with this kind of stress.”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t contest that there is something like a hypersensitive condition.
I also don’t contest that the number of people affected by this condition is going up (indeed it feels like being offended is the new default).
But it’s not so much a genetic problem as it is a cultural one.
All late civilizations go through this. Towards the end, they become more refined and ultimately fragile, before they vanish completely. The people alive during this decadent phase — us — are a reflection of that.
However, this is not your lot. Hypersensitivity might be an inescapable cultural trend; but you, as an individual, are free to contradict that trend. You can learn how to be less sensitive if you so wish.
3 Reasons Why You Are Overly Sensitive
On an individual level, there are typically three reasons why you have a thin skin.
1. You Were Raised To Be a People Pleaser
Hypersensitivity is often a remnant of early childhood trauma, as observed by psychoanalyst Alice Miller in her book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child.”
According to Miller, you develop your hypersensitive tendencies in response to a tough acting, but deeply insecure mother. The child’s job is to support her narcissistic equilibrium.
These children become experts at picking up on every little shift in mood, as their emotional survival depends on it.
If they do succeed at reading their mother, catering to her every whim, they get rewarded with affection. But if they fail, there will be a harsh withdrawal of love.
That is what many hypersensitive people are — emotional weathermen. They have perfected the art of predicting turbulences.
2. You Grew up Too Sheltered
Many of us never had to face any hardships growing up.
We never experienced hunger or thirst. We were never subject to harsh criticism. We didn’t have to deal with physical violence.
On the contrary, we got pampered.
That cool toy or that cute dress you wanted? Yours.
You had a bruise? Off to the doctor you went.
Trouble in the classroom? The next day, our parents would run to the principal.
Is it really any surprise that many of us grew up to be overly sensitive?
To become more robust, you have to expose yourself to uncomfortable situations. The more of these challenges you face, the more resilient you become.
But if you were spared all friction in life, the moment you encounter the slightest adversity, you will bow out.
3. You Are Looking for an Excuse
It is ironic how many overly sensitive people will demand you pay attention to their needs, but at the same time ignore the needs of others.
I am guilty of this many times over.
For example, in my first few relationships, I would act extremely sensitive. One wrong word and I was Mr. Grumpy. One stranger smiling at my girlfriend, and I would get mad at her. How could she treat me like this?
But, the other way around, I was more lenient. If I was mean, she could get over it. If an attractive stranger smiled at me, I boasted about it.
These double standards point to a deeper issue. The problem is not that we are so delicate. It is about ego.
By playing the victim card (“I am hypersensitive, I can’t help it”), you get a free pass to act on every whim.
Hypersensitivity becomes an excuse for selfishness.
How To Be Less Sensitive: 8 Strategies
Here are eight strategies to temper hypersensitivity.
1. Realize the Cost
The first step is to understand your “Why.” Why is learning how to be less sensitive important to you?
Most people will cite reasons like “I want to be able to better deal with criticism” or “I want to keep my cool in arguments.”
While these are valid reasons, I think there is a more profound master reason. And that is energy conservation.
If you constantly overreact to trivial events in your life, you will waste a tremendous amount of energy. As a result, the truly important projects in your life will receive little attention.
That physique you dream about, that business you want to build, that attractive person you would like to date — these things are not happening because you get carried away by every minor emotional disturbance in your life.
That is why you should learn how to be less sensitive — to conserve precious energy for the things that matter.
2. Expose Yourself to Stressors
You must expose yourself to stressors, so that, over time, you become more resilient.
What stimuli are we talking about?
The two best stressors I know of to build resilience are combat sports and talking to strangers.
Getting mangled in sparring by an aggressive opponent does away with any notions of delicacy quickly. To not get hurt, you must push back.
Talking to attractive strangers, e.g. at the bar or the supermarket, is another way to go. Dealing with the rejections will toughen you up like few other things do.
Sidenote: If you are in a monogamous relationship and don’t want to sneak around on your partner, try cold-calling prospective customers for your business. It serves a similar function.
Other options to toughen yourself up include:
- Lifting heavy weights
- Any kind of extreme sport
- Public speaking
- Improv comedy
- Starting a business
With all of these, it’s important to not overtax yourself. Start small, then gradually increase the stimulus.
3. Avoid Pointless Stressors
I just said that you should expose yourself to stressors in order to desensitize yourself. However, this does not extend to all stressors.
There are stressors that will do nothing for you, e.g., consuming social media or watching the news. I call these negative stressors.
Even if you learn to be unaffected by these — which is hard, as they are so addictive — you gain nothing.
Compare this to the real skills you develop by exposing yourself to positive stressors like combat sports, talking to strangers, or selling somebody. Here, the gain is obvious.
Stay away from negative stressors. You only have so much energy to spend.
4. Take Care of Your Trauma
If you have experienced trauma, like emotional blackmail or even physical/sexual abuse, you must come to terms with that.
In those instances, hypersensitivity was a survival strategy. It helped you to detect threats early. But now that you are an adult, it has become a handicap.
Revisiting these wounds is hard to do by yourself. That usually means therapy.
If you take that step, don’t go with the first person you come across. Check out at least 3–5 options. Just because someone is a therapist does not mean that they are good at it or that you click with them.
Also, don’t go with the person that makes you feel the most comfortable. Rather, choose someone who seems further ahead. If you feel slightly intimidated by a particular therapist, they are probably the right person for you.
5. Learn Empathy
Overly sensitive people are sometimes closet egomaniacs (I certainly have these tendencies). We want the whole world to revolve around us.
To overcome this delusion, you must learn empathy. You must practice to take up another person’s point of view completely.
But how exactly do you go about this?
What I propose is that you learn marketing.
To sell to somebody, you need to understand them fully. What you think about the world — your values, your needs — doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing that matters is what they want.
Turn this into a fun project.
Create a simple website on Squarespace for a product or a service, put up some Facebook Ads, and create daily content on the social platform of your choice.
Then, talk to your leads. Find out what makes them tick. Eventually, try to sell them.
This makes empathy measurable. You are either selling, or you are not. The numbers don’t lie.
When you feel hurt, meditation will get you back to zero.
In fact, the more emotional turmoil you experience, the more effective meditation is going to be.
I found out the hard way. In 2021, during a painful breakup, I decided to give meditation a go.
What I quickly noticed was how my acute pain pulled me into the now. I became more “permeable;” my normal emotional barriers were suspended.
As a result, it was relatively easy to reach deep, gratifying states of consciousness, a feat that has become much harder to replicate since.
So, utilize that pain when you feel it.
7. Manage Your Sleep
When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.— Attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche
We all become more sensitive when we are sleep-deprived.
So, to be less irritable, practice good sleep hygiene:
- Keep regular bedtimes
- Get enough sunlight early in the day
- Avoid blue light an hour before you go to bed
- Workout to feel tired at night
- Eat a low-carb, high-protein diet to prevent insulin spikes
- Spend time outside in nature
8. Don’t Be Afraid
By learning to become less sensitive, some people might worry about losing their “superpower” — their ability to notice every little nuance.
You can reduce your emotional vulnerability and still be a great observer. The two can coexist.
You will only add to your superpowers, not take away from them.