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Women's Health

Are You Too Sensitive?

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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 remarks."

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.

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