Happy To Be “Too Sensitive”


My mother used to tell me, “You're too sensitive.” It was a repeated refrain, deployed when I cried too long or hurt too much. She said it calmly, without malice, although her words stung me like a slap across the face. I cried a lot. I wept on the way home from school, I cried in class at the slightest criticism. I cried at the kitchen table over dinner and in my bed at night.


There was a lot for me to be “too sensitive” about. My very skin was still under laborious reconstruction from the fire. My face was misshapen and discolored from scarring, leaving me an easy mark for any bully with a cruel agenda. I had been left alone in the hospital for months to fend for myself. I needed help.


I used to feel ashamed of this sensitivity. Why wasn’t I tougher? Why did I cry so easily? Why did I get so upset about things that my mother told me weren’t a big deal?


Jerry, my brother’s old friend, recently told me a story from long ago. It was Christmas time, and I was 9 years old. My parents, brother Marc, his two friends, and I were sprawled in front of the fireplace after dinner. The multi-colored lights of the Christmas tree glowed near by, the air filled with pine. My father produced a joint, which was enthusiastically passed around. Either my father or my mother also passed it to me. (Yes, my parents gave me marijuana at the age of 9. Maybe younger?)


Perhaps the weed uncorked me, allowing me to say what I usually suppressed. The Good Girl in me knew my parents didn't like to talk about the hospital. But the Good Girl was stoned out of her nine year old mind. I began to explain my other life in the burn unit, describing my surgeries and bandage changes. The longer I spoke, the more emotional I became. I zig-zagged from hysterical laughing to hysterical crying. Marc and his friends escaped from the room, while my parents tried to talk me down.


“Too sensitive.”


In the long course of my emotional healing, I realized many things. My emotionality made sense. I had been traumatized, abandoned, and bullied, I lived in a permanently disfigured body, and my parents did not protect me. All my sadness and fear came from real problems, which I had accurately perceived, even as a young child. I was not, in fact, “too sensitive.” My issue was that I didn’t have the coping skills (yet) to manage these issues.


Many times, when we deem people “too sensitive,” we are hiding our own limitations. We may not understand the person’s reaction. Perhaps we don’t want to acknowledge their experiences. We may not be emotionally equipped to handle their feelings. I think this is what my mother meant. She wasn’t engaged enough to see the world through my little eyes, so she didn’t understand my triggers. She lacked the ability, and truly wasn't interested in helping me manage my trauma. But instead of honestly owning her limitations, she blamed, criticized, and silenced me.


Therapy helped me have words for my experiences, so I could communicate with others (not my parents) and receive validation. Once I no longer felt “too sensitive,” once I understood myself and felt understood by others, my emotionality lessened. Receiving this validation from people healed me. I rarely cry now.


Therapy also taught me to convey my feelings more adaptively. Instead of dissolving into tears, I could use language, chosen with increasing precision, to manage my problems. I also learned to remain sensitive to others. I realized that other people have their own issues, and I needed to care about them, even when I was triggered.


Decades later, being “too sensitive” turns out to be… awesome! As a psychologist, I make a good living quickly understanding how clients feel, bonding with them, and guiding them toward a healthier path. Sometimes my sensitive right brain flashes images about my clients, images that seem to pop out from nowhere.


“I’m getting the weirdest image in my mind,” I said recently to a tense and overworked client. “I keep seeing your bare feet in the sand. Does that make sense to you?”


“Absolutely,” he responded, “I love to go barefoot in my back yard, it rejuvenates me. But I haven’t walked barefoot in a long time. I have been too overwhelmed.”


“OK then, I think you need to spend more time in a chair out back, shoes off, toes curled in the sand. That might be grounding right now.”


That is my “too sensitive” brain at work.


Sensitivity has become my superpower. I excel at assessing people and picking friends. I have the kind of friends that anyone would want: stalwart, true, empathic, hilarious. My “too sensitive” brain is highly attuned to goodness but also to negativity. A stranger walks into the room and my whole body shudders, “No-no-no-no-no.” I trust these intuitions. They haven’t steered me wrong yet.


My “too sensitive” brain wrote a great book, and this very blog you are now reading. It also guided me as a parent.


My daughter Anna also came into the world wired for sensitivity. She was the toddler who instantly felt if someone was upset. Her intuition was spot on. But just like me, the slightest criticism or hurtful word would dissolve her into a cascade of tears.


My mother would have thought Anna was too sensitive. I thought Anna was perfect. Because of my own wiring, and the healing work I had done, I was emotionally equipped to raise her. I could intuit when and why Anna was triggered. Because I understood her reactions, I could help her understand them too. She learned words for her feelings and received attuned empathy when she cried. I saw her emotional sensitivity as a great gift, which it has turned out to be. Anna is one of the most emotionally intelligent people I have ever known.


Many people get labeled “too sensitive.” Although that label is almost always hurtful, sensitive people do sometimes need to make changes. Perhaps in their hurt, they lash out with mean words. Perhaps they wail in despair, withdrawing into their bedroom for days. In other words, they are not too sensitive, but their skills in managing their sensitivity need improving.


It helps sensitive people to verbalize their feelings. However, they also need to be able to choose their words carefully, and not fling their emotions at others. Just because they are upset does not give them license to disrespect or hurt others in return. They need to be able to understand and “manage their impact” on the people around them.


We sensitive people have responsibilities. Often, we must learn to regulate ourselves. We can’t improve the world and employ our sensitivity as the great gift it is if we can’t manage our feelings. Happily, emotional regulation can be improved many ways, through increasing self-compassion, meditation, exercise, mindfulness, and hard work in therapy.


Being sensitive is a great gift, once harnessed. Sensitive people paint, write, and compose. Sensitive people heal, teach, and lead others. Sensitive people care for our pets and our children. When looking for the best nanny you can find, I bet you are looking for someone who will care deeply and sweetly for your infant. Those are the people who make our world better, all the “too sensitive” people. Thank goodness for every one of them.


The author, second grade,

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.