By Dr. Joti Samra, CEO & Founder of the Psychological Health & Safety (PH&S) Clinic and MyWorkplaceHealth
As humans, virtually all of our traits – even the ones we value – can cause difficulties in particular situations. For example, being sensitive and having strong emotional reactions is not in and of itself problematic – these traits also lead us to be high empathy and experience joyfulness and happiness.
However, being high in interpersonal sensitivity can make us more sensitive in our reactions to benign joking or teasing. This can directly impact our self-esteem and our relationships with others (like those doing the joking, for example).
While we may not be able – or even want – to completely change these traits, we are often able to make conscious decisions that help us deal with these situations better.
Where does sensitivity come from?
Any personality trait or attribute exists along a continuum, and we all tend to have a set-point range where we fall along that continuum. The contributing factors are multiple, and ultimately a combination of nature and nurture:
Being sensitive is neither bad nor good, it just is
There are great things that come along with being sensitive – sensitive people are more likely to experience intense positive emotions, tend to connect with others’ emotional experiences on a deeper level, are more attuned to changes in others’ moods, and have a strong ability to empathize with others.
However, there are also downsides to being highly sensitive and emotional. Sensitive people are more likely to personalize things, interpret things with negative intent when it may not exist, and overreact negatively to what may be a perceived insult. They are also likely to ruminate over things that have been said or done by others, have a hard time letting go of the past, and experience deeper hurt when it comes to conflict in interpersonal relationships.
Our thoughts shape our reactions
When it comes to our emotional reactions, the single most important factor that shapes how we react is our thoughts and interpretations about the situation.
If you are walking down the street, wave to an acquaintance you recently met at a party who ignores you, and think “I must have said something she didn’t like when we met” you are likely going to react negatively. If instead, you think (as people who are high in emotional resilience would) “she didn’t recognize me, seeing me here is out of context” or “she looked preoccupied with a phone call she was on” you will probably have little to no emotional reaction.
So, how can we have better control over our emotional reactions, particularly as they relate to emotional sensitivity?
1. Identify the automatic thoughts and interpretations that come up for you in a particular trigger situation. What are you thinking, perceiving and believing? Be as specific as possible.
2. Ask yourself a few key questions:
3. Actively work on replacing the automatic negative/personalized thoughts with thoughts that are more accurate to the situation, based on a review of all of the evidence.
A core part of our life’s work is to continue to build awareness of who we are, recognize the patterns and behaviours we engage in that may be negatively impacting us or those around us, and work to continually improve areas of weakness. The goal is not to do away with fundamental elements that make you who you are, but rather to embrace those attributes in a way that the positives are maximized and the negatives are minimized so that you are living an overall happier life.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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