Being oversensitive is generally seen as a criticism and something to be fixed. But how do you change, and should you even try, asks self-confessed crybaby Corinne Redfern
I’m ten years old, sitting in a too-big chair at a too-big table in my middle-school library. My face is itchy with tears that fell 15 minutes earlier, and I’m struggling to breathe around the lump in my throat. The deputy headmaster, Mr Leeming, sits opposite me. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure this is the end of the world.
‘I know it isn’t fair,’ he says, as my heart beats in my ears. ‘But when people are mean, you have to pretend that your skin is made of steel. That way, their comments will bounce off like this: ping.’ I half nod, half sniff, half choke. ‘Ping,” he repeats. ‘Come on, say it with me: “Ping.”’
Ping. I’m 16, and a girl I’m trying to be friends with just snapped at me in the common room. I make an excuse – I’ve left something in my bag, I’ll be back in a minute – and walk to the toilets with my head down, hair hiding my wet, red, blotchy cheeks, mind in overdrive.
Ping. I’m 21, and according to my colleagues raised eyebrow, I’ve screwed up five minutes into my first (presumably last) internship. I sit on the floor of the fashion cupboard, tilting my head back towards the ceiling, hoping that gravity will keep in the tears. (Tip: It doesn’t.)
Ping, ping, ping. I’m 26, 27, 28 and I’m still overthinking in the office, weeping on the bus, freaking out in the pub. All it takes is a sharp sentence or an ill-timed scowl, and I’m gone – make-up bag in hand, rushing to the loo. I’m happy, I’m not depressed and I don’t have anxiety, but my skin still isn’t steel. It’s not even bloody Bacofoil.
A small consolation comes with the news that I’m not alone. A quick tally in the pub after work has four (out of five) colleagues raising their hands and identifying as thin-skinned (or ‘skinned completely,’ says one). According to Forbes more than half of us struggle with being oversensitive at work, possibly because 76 per cent of negative work feedback given to women includes criticism of our personalities, while only two per cent of feedback given to men references their individual character.* In fact, one in five individuals could even be considered HSPs – or highly sensitive persons – struggling on a daily basis to tune out their environment, and taking everything to heart.
‘It’s not necessarily a matter of tearing up if you’re yelled at,’ explains Imi Lo, a clinical psychologist who specialises in emotional intensity. ‘Sensitivity can manifest as anything from feeling physical aches and pains, right through to anger, or suppressing your own potential, simply because you’ve become so scared.’
Lo believes men are ‘just as likely’ to be thin-skinned as women, but in its traditional, tearful form, sensitivity is ‘definitely’ associated with women. And while that’s partially because we are biologically predisposed to cry more (women’s levels of the tear-producing hormone prolactin are over 60 per cent higher than men’s), it’s also because men have been taught to suppress their emotions.
‘If I had a pound for every woman who comes to me and says, “I wish that I was less sensitive,” I’d be very, very, rich,’ says Anna Barez-Brown, a female leadership expert and founder of shine4women.com, who has spent the last two years hosting ‘empowerment retreats’. She reassures me that my emotional epidermis can be taught to thicken up over time. ‘I meet women and think, “You’re so confident. You’ve achieved so much!” But they overthink everything and that has a huge impact on their self-worth.’
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Communications executive Emily**, 31, fits into that category. ‘I’ve got a great job, work hard and rarely make mistakes,’ she tells me. ‘So the amount of time I spend hiding in the toilets and sobbing into the soap dispenser is hard to justify. But my manger’s emails seem really passive aggressive, and she never smiles when she’s talking to me. Even if I’m not crying, I’m analysing what I could have done wrong; what I should have done different.’ And while a less sensitive person could shrug off a colleague’s bad attitude as the result of a heavy workload or lack of sleep, for emotionally intense types like Emily (and me), it’s hard not to take someone’s personality personally.
For Jessica**, 29, sensitivity isn’t a problem in the office, but it is a problem at home. ‘I live with four mates who I’ve known since university,’ she explains. ‘But if anybody comments on the cleanliness of the kitchen, or the lack of loo roll, I assume they’re making a dig at me. I know I just need to grow up and get a grip, but I’m just terrified of being a rubbish flatmate.’
Jessica says she’s worried that she sounds melodramatic, but I can relate: without over exaggerating, I’m convinced that everybody is waiting for an excuse to hate me. All. Of. The. Time.
Barez-Brown isn’t surprised. ‘Insecurity and sensitivity are obviously linked,’ she reassures me. ‘The more sensitive you are, the more likely you are to feel hurt by other people’s behaviour towards you. But the more hurt you feel, the more insecure you are likely to become.’ Her theory contradicts the idea that sensitivity is something you naturally ‘grow out of’, and Lo agrees – debunking the myth that the more criticism you experience, the tougher you’ll become. ‘Some things can settle as you get older – potentially because of experience, or hormones,’ she says. ‘Life events, such as having children, or a long-term relationship, could change a person’s perspective. But we shouldn’t assume that will happen. Not least because you’re likely to feel even worse about yourself if it doesn’t so it becomes a matter of managing your intensity – rather than waiting for it to go away over time.’
I am about to crawl into a corner and chew my nails off at the prospect of it all, but Lo insists that it’s time to update my approach. ‘There is research that says people who have a higher IQ are generally more emotionally intense,’ she says. ‘Either way, having a thin skin certainly isn’t a defect. The word “sensitive” has so many negative connotations, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t just mean responding to negative situations. If you’re a sensitive person, then your reactions to beauty, joy, happiness and love will all be more intense, too. You’re able to listen to your intuition, be more empathetic, and see another layer of things. And that’s a lovely quality.’
FIVE HACKS FOR THICKER SKIN:
Anna Barez-Brown shares her top tips for breaking free from oversensitivity
1. Think of a recent situation where you took things personally. Then think about how you’ll remember that situation five years from now. Will it matter?
2. Change your thought patterns. Next time your boss snaps at you, instead of thinking ‘She hates me,’ ask yourself if there’s anything going on in her life that could be behind her reaction. For instance, is she tired or stressed out?
3. Try to find the positives. Being rejected from your dream job is horrible, but maybe the next one will be even better.
4. Take yourself out of the situation and try to look at yourself impartially from above. It’s highly likely that things aren’t as bad as you imagine.
5. Ask yourself if it’s within your power to change things. If your friend is short-tempered because she’s tired, can you fix that? No, you can’t.