Growing up, I was taught that sensitivity was synonymous with “weakness” and that when I felt hurt, it was because I wasn’t tough. Now, I realize sensitivity is better defined as “awareness.” Sensitive people are highly attuned to their environments and other people, which is why they pick up on problems — as well as good things! — that others often miss.
But people don’t always get this. Some think sensitive people are bothered by what others say or do because they have chips on their shoulders or dislike humanity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When we find something offensive or problematic, we are simply saying what we observe, the same way you might say “it’s cold out today.”
Here are some of the comments we hear the most and what we wish you knew when you said them.
1. “You’re being too sensitive.”
This is by far the most common thing said to sensitive people, and it fails to acknowledge that sensitivity is an innate trait, like someone’s tolerance for heat or cold. If somebody is cold while everyone else is comfortable, you wouldn’t say they’re “being too sensitive” to the temperature. It’s just how they are.
2. “You’re paranoid.”
The same way that a colorblind person may not be able to see red and green, less sensitive people sometimes don’t see how a statement could be offensive or how a story could be disturbing, but that doesn’t mean what we see isn’t real.
3. “You shouldn’t think/feel that way.”
How we think and feel is largely out of our control. That’s not what self-help books will tell you, but it’s the truth.
4. “Offense is taken, not given.”
The fact that some people may find a statement more offensive than others doesn’t mean that the person who said it has nothing to gain from examining what they’re saying and its implications.
5. “Don’t cry.”
Tears are already so stigmatized in our society. If we controlled whether or not we cried in public, we just wouldn’t. We often already feel embarrassed about the fact that water is coming out of our tear ducts, and being told not to cry just makes us feel worse.
6. “Don’t be the PC police.”
There seems to be a correlation between sensitivity and concern for social justice. Sensitive people can see why a statement may be subtly racist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic. We’re not trying to assert our superiority by enforcing politically correctness; we’re just trying to keep other people’s feelings in mind.
7. “Nobody can make you feel anything.”
This statement is sometimes meant to empower us — it can mean that we don’t have to believe everything other people say about us. But it’s also sometimes used defensively, to mean “it’s not my fault I upset you because you are in control of your feelings.” But the truth of the matter is that what you say affects others, and if the listener is sensitive, that’s all the more reason to be mindful of their feelings.