You’re too sensitive!
As I think back about my life and my unwitting marriage to a sociopath, a phrase haunts and repeats like an old-time broken record, “You’re too sensitive.”
For decades, I believed that hearing this phrase should trigger self-reflection and attempts at self-improvement. If I’m “too sensitive,” the underlying assumption is that I should work to become “less sensitive.” I believed this because this is what I’d been taught as a child, and it was reinforced through my adult life by two people I loved and respected at the time—my father and my now ex-husband. Yet, now I believe that hearing this phrase repeatedly by key people in one’s life should trigger another type of self-improvement—better understanding the red flags of being in a relationship with a narcissist or sociopath, and establishing appropriate relationship boundaries.
We are born with different levels of “sensitivity” to external stimulation
There are many valid reasons for someone to have heightened sensitivity compared to others. Children are born with a range of sensitivities to external stimulation. Research shows that introverts actually react more strongly than extroverts to external stimuli such as pain and even smells and tastes.
Trauma often results in heightened sensitivity
In addition, people who have been traumatized are more likely to be hyper vigilant and to detect danger in situations, and, therefore are more likely to perceive threats and react physically and emotionally to those threats. As a result, something perceived as threatening to a traumatized individual, may not even register on the radar screen of a non-traumatized person. The traumatized person isn’t at fault for being, “too sensitive,” their sensitivity is a symptom of past and/or ongoing trauma.
Is being repeatedly told “you’re too sensitive” a sign of a positive relationship?
If someone important in your life such as a family member or partner often tells you that “You’re too sensitive” perhaps it is a red flag that the relationship may not be positive and healthy for you. After all, if you are more sensitive than average because that is how you are hardwired or because you have been traumatized, than accusing you of being “too sensitive” is uninformed, at best, and callous, at worse. Either way, is this a positive, empathetic relationship for you? Would it be positive and empathetic for a war veteran with PTSD who is sensitive to the sounds and sights of fireworks to be told that “you’re too sensitive to sounds and lights? Get over it and come with us to the 4th of July celebration.” That’s absurd!
Someone who cared and empathized would understand your areas of sensitivity, support any efforts at healing (if relevant), and not implicitly attack your character. If someone important in your life fails or refuses to recognize how you are simply hardwired or the ramifications of a horrific experience you have endured and will not support you as you try to heal from it, then perhaps that person needs to play a less important role in your life, if not a minimal or nonexistent one.
“You’re too sensitive” may be the calling card of a narcissist or sociopath
Being told “You’re too sensitive,” may, however, not just occur out of ignorance and insensitivity. It may be an actual tool in a narcissist’s or sociopath’s toolkit to gaslight you, discount your reality, and to keep you in the game of “whack-a-mole.” Below is a passage from my book Narcissists, Sociopaths and Wolves that explains how I came to realize that my father used this tool to shape me and how that helped make me vulnerable to being stuck in a corrosive long-term marriage to a sociopath.
“It took being almost undone by my sociopathic ex-husband, the multi-year “dark night of the soul” experience that followed, and reading countless books on the subject for me to realize that I had a narcissistic father, and he and the resulting family dynamic crafted me to be the perfect victim of another narcissist/sociopath.
If I did not do as my father wanted, if I bristled at his criticism, he accused me of being too sensitive or selfish or implied that I was not smart enough to “get it.” He always did it as if it was in my best interest, indicating improvements I needed to make in myself. He acted as if he was just being honest and helpful in pointing my faults out to me. It taught me to discount my own internal warning system, because I was, in fact, not being mentored and encouraged to grow but being bullied emotionally and then told to view my natural warning system, which was signaling that something was wrong, as yet another defect I needed to fix. In other words, I was trained to discount my intuition that something was amiss and that someone did not have my best interests at heart. Instead, this is a skill that children and adults need to develop and perfect rather than dismiss and allow to be crushed.
Identifying names, places, events, characteristics, etc. that I discuss here and in my books have been altered to protect the identity of everyone involved.