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Are You Too Sensitive?


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Sarah Mahoney
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
No, we're not picking on you - just trying to make you feel better. Seven tips to help you roll with the punches this season.

There was a carpool mix-up: I thought it was my night to pick up the kids outside the gym; another parent thought it was his. "What happened?" he snarled, shaking his head. "Why are we both here right now?" As chauffeuring snafus go, this was small potatoes. It isn't like we left our boys standing in the snow. So why am I still smarting over his tone of voice — five days later?

I admit, I can take things too personally. It's even worse during the holidays when I'm in high-stress mode and every difficult-to-deal-with relative rolls into town. I spend far too much time anguishing over a friend's remark at a Christmas party, or fretting about what I should or shouldn't have said.

The hamster wheel in my head runs something like this: First, my feelings get hurt. (For example, I think, Why hasn't my sister called in two weeks?) Then I begin to imagine all the reasons she might be mad at me. (Was it something I said? Shoot — I forgot her anniversary and now she's upset.) Next, I get mad at her — and myself. (She always forgets my anniversary! Why am I worrying about this kind of nonsense?) After hours of circular thinking, I usually discover that nothing was wrong: My sister just got busy and didn't have time to call.

I consider myself a sane, logical person, yet I fall into this cycle again and again. What gives? I'm happy to report that genetics may be to blame — scientists report that sensitivity runs rampant in certain family trees. And I'm not alone: 15 to 20 percent of the population is thin-skinned. The upside is that we're highly in tune with people's feelings. We're the go-to gurus when friends are wrestling with a relationship problem or a sticky situation at work.

The downside: By reading too much into what others say or do, we can over-react to innocuous remarks. Some of us lash out, which just compounds the problem, while others (like me) say nothing but endlessly analyze. What's more, brooding, which shrinks officially label "ruminating," is linked to depression. While only a few of us get the "supersensitive" label, it doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't susceptible, too: "We're all more vulnerable in areas that touch on how we define ourselves," says Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in San Francisco and author of The Highly Sensitive Person. So if your self-esteem is connected to your work performance, you'll likely be more upset if a colleague jokes about your presentation than if your mother-in-law mentions your dusty window blinds.

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