This article first appeared on Happify
A casual remark from your boss destroys you. Meanwhile, your friend receives negative feedback about her performance and walks away unaffected. As you beat down on yourself, you wonder, “Why oh why, can’t I be more like her?
Welcome to the world of sensitives. It’s a tumultuous existence at the mercy of other people’s emotions, judgments, and opinions. Negative remarks entwine themselves into our mental fabric and leave us an emotional mess. And even a subtle glance can live on in our memory, growing in size and importance as we stress or fume endlessly. As for the friend who can let everything slide off like Teflon, oh, for the tranquil life they live!
Before you embark on any drastic measures to become less sensitive, it would be worth noting that total insensitivity is no virtue. In fact, it’s the result of inadequate bilateral integration in the brain, where we’re unaffected by other people’s lives, moods, and concerns. And even though it can sound blissful when we’re swirling in external negative energy, it’s unhealthy, both physically and psychologically.
The mental frameworks that spin the stories of our lives are made up of us among other people and other places. There is no me without the other; there is no us without a context. We make meaning of our lives through the people around us, and in the situations in which we find ourselves. Unless we are sensitive to their presence, and aware of the conditions underlying our interactions, our sense of self remains fragile.
The problem arises when certain others live on inside of us, like ghosts whose approval we seek and rarely find—or when certain long-gone incidents hang on in our short-term memory, bearing an eerie similarity to everyday events where no parallels really exist. The reasons for this often go back to our early years. But it’s the adult us who bears the consequences.
We try to win approval by becoming a pleaser, a perfectionist, or both. We apologize for mistakes we didn’t make, and for situations beyond our control. And we let other people’s bad days become our own internal garbage and beat down on ourselves. So what are we to do? How can we pursue the golden mean of sensitivity?
Self-compassion is the best place to begin. It allows you to hold space for your emotions and experience them without judgment. Although this may not sound like much, it’s often all we need—and yet rarely what we provide ourselves. We believe we should be strong, unaffected, and thick-skinned—culturally ordained standards that disconnect us with who we are, and make us reject parts of ourselves that resist majority behavior.
Extend Compassion to Others
From this place of acceptance, you’ll find it easier to reach out to others. As psychologist Kristen Neff says, suffering binds us together and underlies our common humanity. Other people’s negativity is often a sign of their inner struggle, where our role is to help them through it instead of becoming embroiled in it. Often all this takes is removing ourselves from the equation and hearing them out with empathy.
Seek Opportunities for Optimism and Joy
Negative emotions are toxic, and you need to neutralize your environment regularly, especially if the negativity is ongoing. Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows that increasing your ratio of positive to negative emotions is one of the best ways of doing so. Include activities that make you feel joyful, grateful, and inspired. And don’t forget the power of hope in sustaining you and opening you up to possibilities.
You’ll need to buffer yourself against other people’s negativity if it’s extreme, direct, and uncivil. Set clear boundaries and remove yourself from situations that violate your self-respect. Often this can be done subtly, such as not entertaining provocative behaviors. Sometimes it requires extreme measures, such as getting others involved or leaving a job or relationship. Rarely, though, should this be the first line of action. As a recovering oversensitive who grew up idealizing her happy-go-lucky cousin, I can honestly say that healthy sensitivity is a strength we do not nurture enough. It makes us more creative, more aware, and more empathetic. It lies at the heart of being human—a virtue we need more of, not less.