There was a carpool mix-up: I thought it was my night to pick up the kids outside the gym; another parent thought it was his. "What happened?" he snarled, shaking his head. "Why are we both here right now?" As chauffeuring snafus go, this was small potatoes. It isn't like we left our boys standing in the snow. So why am I still smarting over his tone of voice — five days later?
I admit, I can take things too personally. It's even worse during the holidays when I'm in high-stress mode and every difficult-to-deal-with relative rolls into town. I spend fartoo much time anguishing over a friend's remark at a Christmas party, or fretting about what I should or shouldn't have said.
The hamster wheel in my head runs something like this: First, my feelings get hurt. (For example, I think, Why hasn't my sister called in two weeks?) Then I begin to imagine all the reasons she might be mad at me. (Was it something I said? Shoot — I forgot her anniversary and now she's upset.) Next, I get mad at her — and myself. (She always forgets my anniversary! Why am I worrying about this kind of nonsense?) After hours of circular thinking, I usually discover that nothing was wrong: My sister just got busy and didn't have time to call.
I consider myself a sane, logical person, yet I fall into this cycle again and again. What gives? I'm happy to report that genetics may be to blame — scientists report that sensitivity runs rampant in certain family trees. And I'm not alone: 15 to 20 percent of the population is thin-skinned. The upside is that we're highly in tune with people's feelings. We're the go-to gurus when friends are wrestling with a relationship problem or a sticky situation at work.
The downside: By reading too much into what others say or do, we can over-react to innocuous remarks. Some of us lash out, which just compounds the problem, while others (like me) say nothing but endlessly analyze. What's more, brooding, which shrinks officially label "ruminating," is linked to depression. While only a few of us get the "supersensitive" label, it doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't susceptible, too: "We're all more vulnerable in areas that touch on how we define ourselves," says Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in San Francisco and author of The Highly Sensitive Person. So if your self-esteem is connected to your work performance, you'll likely be more upset if a colleague jokes about your presentation than if your mother-in-law mentions your dusty window blinds.
In evolutionary terms, being sensitive to criticism could be a lifesaver. "Back when we were hunter-gatherers, being excluded from the group was very dangerous," explains Aron. "You might've starved, or even gone insane from being ostracized. We are very social animals." Our sensitivity to the negative opinions of others is so strong, she says, that we record these emotional wounds in the same part of the brain as actual physical pain.
Despite this primal instinct, people may be growing less sensitive over time, says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a psychology professor whose lab at Harvard has studied traits like sensitivity for decades. "That's because so many more people live in cities today, which breeds anonymity and insensitivity to what others think. We have more rudeness in our society than people in the 18th century could've ever imagined."
I'll say. Today, Simon Cowell is considered a straight-shooting superstar for skewering performers on American Idol. Internet users and bloggers routinely lambaste other people's posts for all to read, and road ragers feel entitled to humiliate people for neglecting to signal a lane change. Hurting people's feelings has almost come to stand for honesty and authenticity. And you wonder why I'm so sensitive.
It turns out that my gender doesn't help matters, either. "In general, women are taught to think about other people's feelings much more than men are," says Paul Wink, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, who has researched gender and sensitivity (among other personality traits). "So while it's OK for men to be blunt, women are often expected to be warmer, more agreeable, and more invested in relationships. Because they're more tactful, they're also more likely to overreact to minor problems and remarks."
So will I ever be able to get through a week without thinking, Was it something I said? Yes, says Kagan. "Sensitivity to others' opinions of us is the most adjustable type of sensitivity," he explains. (The two other varieties — reaction to external stimuli, such as noise and light, and to internal sensations, such as heart rate — are far more fixed.) Next time your feelings get hurt, try these retrain-your-brain strategies.
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