Ask Dr. Debra
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Dear Dr. Debra,
After reading your article concerning being too
sensitive (see archives) I completely understood the
reasons WHY people (myself included) can be too
sensitive. However, I didn't see where you addressed HOW
to change this behavior. In the 5 steps, you stated
reasons why this may happen, but not HOW to redirect or
change these feelings. Any assistance in the HOW's would
be greatly appreciated!!!!
Dear Ms. Sensitive,
As I said in my earlier article, if you're sensitive,
that never changes. However, you can develop a positive
mindset, refrain from taking things so personally, and
learn to react in a healthier manner. From making these
changes, you'll come to feel better about your
Here are 8 tips to help you better manage your
1. Accept that you're sensitive. You need to believe
that sensitivity is a special gift, not the curse you
sometimes feel it is. Sensitive people are sympathetic
friends, skilled diplomats, loving family members,
intuitive, and creative. Learn to make your sensitivity
work for you. Criticizing yourself for a sensitive
reaction will only make you feel (and perhaps act)
2. Speak to yourself in a positive, encouraging
manner. As a sensitive person, you may have low
self-esteem and a negative mindset. You probably are
also self-critical. Part of becoming less sensitive involves tuning into
your automatic, negative way of thinking and beginning
to change what you tell yourself.
In order to rein in your own negativity, you need to
switch to understanding or supportive thoughts. To do
this, you need to develop a positive mental voice to
combat and overcome the critical or fearful messages in
your head. I describe this voice as that of a nurturing
parent, a cheerleader, or a coach.
It may help to imagine yourself as a young child.
Visualize yourself as you looked at about age six. Can
you see the vulnerability in your eyes? Can you feel how
much you need support instead of criticism? Would you
speak to a child as harshly as you do your adult self?
Often a sensitive six-year-old will need plenty of
reassurance that she is special and loved. She also
needs coaxing and encouragement to baby-step her way
through her fears. Don't punish her for being who she
3. Become a better listener. The lower your
self-esteem, the more you project your thoughts and
feelings onto others. You tend to be a poor listener,
paying more attention to your own responses, rather than
what the other person is actually trying to communicate.
Try to focus on understanding what the other person
is saying, rather than what you're feeling or what you
want to say in response. This will help you hear what's
4. Talk yourself out of taking other people's
words or actions personally. With your sensitivity and
low self-esteem, you also are prone to jump to negative
conclusions, have an emotional reaction (hurt, fear,
anger, shame), then act out (or avoid) your feelings.
When you're sensitive, it's difficult to understand
that others might not intend to hurt you. To you, what
the other person says or does feels deliberate. You need
to take an emotional and mental step back. Find another
way to look at the situation. Tell yourself, "Perhaps
he's having a bad day." Or, "Maybe she doesn't mean what
I think she meant."
5. Become familiar with your false ideas.
idea is a negative subject to which your mind frequently
reverts. Some common false ideas are: fear your
partner may cheat, fear of abandonment, fear friends
don't like you, fear speaking up will get you in
trouble, or fear others won't like your creative
If you know your mental weaknesses, then you will be
more able to catch when your mind jumps to a negative
thought related to that false idea. You'll be able to
recognize it's probably your thinking that's the
problem, not what's actually taking place.
Tell yourself, "This is one of my false ideas." Then
switch your thoughts to another possibility. For
example: Your co-worker, John, doesn't say "good
morning'" to you. You jump to the thought, "John must be
mad at me". Then you feel anxious. This is the point
where you need to catch your negative thinking. Tell
yourself, "This is one of my false ideas. John probably
doesn't even realize he didn't say good morning to me.
He's probably preoccupied with something in his own life
or a problem at work.
6. Ask for clarification. Before you jump to
conclusions about what someone has said or done, take a
breath and find out where he really is coming from. Some
examples: "What I understood you to say was ____. Was
that what you meant?" Or, "When you did ____, I started
to feel ____. And then I thought I should check it out
with you first.
Much of the time you'll find that the person didn't
mean what you thought she said. Or if she may have meant
it in the heat of the moment, but now regrets what she
said. Or there may be other circumstance that he can
elaborate on that takes the sting out of what he said.
7. Learn to speak up. Often, as a sensitive person,
you suffer in silence. Maybe you'll never say anything
about what bothers you. Or you'll store up your feelings
until something sets you off. Then, you erupt, spilling
out all the emotions you've built up over the past
weeks, months, and even years.
Then, of course, you look like you're overreacting.
When you do this, other people have a hard time taking
you seriously. It's easy for someone to blow off your
feelings with the comment, "You're just too sensitive.
" Or, "You're over-reacting." Thus, he won't see (or take
responsibility for) whatever he might have done to
contribute to your reaction.
If someone hurts you, don't tell yourself, "It's not
a big deal." Unless you can actually let go of what
happened, you will need to acknowledge it to the other
person. Just preference your discussion by saying, "It's
not that big of a deal, I just wanted you to know that
it hurts my feelings a little when you_____."
For example, if you were going to talk to your
co-worker, John, say, "I know this isn't a big deal, and
I also know you have a lot on your mind. And, on the
days you don't say 'good morning' to me, I wonder if
something's wrong or if I've done something to upset
you. I'd like us to exchange greetings in the morning. I
think a friendly greeting is a great way to start the
8. Build your confidence. The increase in your
self-confidence comes in three ways: other people's
feedback, positive self-talk, and doing estimable acts.
If you lack self-esteem you will have a difficult
time absorbing and retaining others' positive feedback.
Instead, you'll deflect any compliments you receive. Or
if you do let the words in, you won't savor
them allowing the statement(s) to become a part of you.
The more you speak to yourself in a positive,
encouraging manner, the better you will feel about
yourself. With your own encouragement, you'll be more
able to take risks, which will also help increase your
An estimable act is doing something that makes you
feel good about yourself. Usually this is something you
know you need to do, but have avoided. Or it can be
something you've dreamed about, but have had some fears
about actually doing. Or you might find ways to help
others and make the world a better place. With each
estimable act, you increase your self-confidence,
especially if you acknowledge yourself for doing
something that was difficult for you.
It will take time and a commitment for you to
implement the changes I've suggested. It's important to
be patient and persistent. Eventually, you'll make peace
with your sensitive nature.
Feel free to
write me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist
who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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