Are You Too Sensitive?
In evolutionary terms, being sensitive to criticism could be a lifesaver.
"Back when we were hunter-gatherers, being excluded from the group was very
dangerous," explains Aron. "You might've starved, or even gone insane
from being ostracized. We are very social animals." Our sensitivity to the
negative opinions of others is so strong, she says, that we record these
emotional wounds in the same part of the brain as actual physical pain.
Despite this primal instinct, people may be growing less sensitive over
time, says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a psychology professor whose lab at Harvard has
studied traits like sensitivity for decades. "That's because so many more
people live in cities today, which breeds anonymity and insensitivity to what
others think. We have more rudeness in our society than people in the 18th
century could've ever imagined."
I'll say. Today, Simon Cowell is considered a straight-shooting superstar
for skewering performers on American Idol. Internet users and bloggers
routinely lambaste other people's posts for all to read, and road ragers feel
entitled to humiliate people for neglecting to signal a lane change. Hurting
people's feelings has almost come to stand for honesty and authenticity. And
you wonder why I'm so sensitive.
It turns out that my gender doesn't help matters, either. "In general,
women are taught to think about other people's feelings much more than men
are," says Paul Wink, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Wellesley
College, who has researched gender and sensitivity (among other personality
traits). "So while it's OK for men to be blunt, women are often expected to
be warmer, more agreeable, and more invested in relationships. Because they're
more tactful, they're also more likely to overreact to minor problems and
So will I ever be able to get through a week without thinking, Was it
something I said? Yes, says Kagan. "Sensitivity to others' opinions of
us is the most adjustable type of sensitivity," he explains. (The two other
varieties — reaction to external stimuli, such as noise and light, and to
internal sensations, such as heart rate — are far more fixed.) Next time your
feelings get hurt, try these retrain-your-brain strategies.
Find the Nearest Exit
When a comment stings you, breathe deeply several times, and then figure out
a way to excuse yourself from the conversation (even if that means you have to
make something up). Aron says this works because it incorporates the two main
principles of anger management: Focusing on your breath distracts you from the
initial surge of temper that follows a barb, and leaving the situation gives
you time to form an appropriate response. "Most of us make poor word
choices when our pulse goes above 100," says Aron. She's a big believer in
the 24-hour rule — waiting a full day before responding, if at all. "In
some cases, especially at work, revealing that a remark makes you feel
defensive can really hurt you, by making you seem insecure."