Is It Possible to Become a Less Sensitive Person?

Apr 19, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Maybe you’ve just come home from the fifth bad first date in a row. Or maybe the annual review you'd hoped to use to ask for a raise turns into your boss launching a surprise vent session because, apparently, you were supposed to read her mind (didn’t you know?). Perhaps you’ve opened your inbox this morning to find yet another rejection for your novel or for that certificate program or another message from your mother oh-so-sunnily informing you about a former frenemy from high school-turned-high-powered attorney and recent newlywed who is now pregnant (“And she wasn’t even trying!”).

When life has given you not just lemons — but, like, a set of lemons that got banged up and bruised under the gallon of milk in your grocery cart — how could you possibly make a lemonade that doesn’t taste like toxic sludge? How do you keep moving forward toward dreams and goals that seem increasingly insurmountable? And is there any way to become less sensitive to these setbacks?

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So much of our culture values stoic models of resistance and resilience — we’re surrounded by magazine covers with edicts about being the “boss bitch” or the #GirlBoss who never cries or cracks at work, breast cancer awareness programs that tell us to “fight like a girl” or images of superheroines who can simply dust themselves off after being punched out of skyscrapers. Sensitivity is conflated with weakness. Yet the path to true, sustainable resilience isn’t always about being an iron-hearted warrior.

For Dr. Mark Benander, the director of graduate psychology at Bay Path University, weathering adversity mean treating ourselves as our own ports in the storm. He describes “ego strength” as “a solid and pervasive sense of who [you are] in the world and the degree to which [you are] a worthwhile person.”

The answer, he tells SheKnows, isn’t “learning to be 'tougher' or learning how to be less sensitive, [it’s] increasing the parts of ourselves that we call ego strength, self-confidence and self-esteem.” We can boost ego strength through meditation and mindfulness activities that rewire our mindset to be more positive and self-forgiving. As Benander explains it, “If I practice a mindfulness meditation that includes statements such as, ‘I am a worthwhile person in the world, and I will not let this bullying situation define who I am,’ then this kind of thinking will become the resilience I am seeking.”

Roberta Taylor, a registered nurse and transition coach for divorced and widowed women, shares Benander’s view that we should question our view of what internal fortitude really looks like. “‘Toughening up’ implies [wearing] armor. Rather, becoming aware of how you react or respond to life events can help build resilience,” she tells SheKnows.

Knowing yourself and understanding how past issues and traumas can impact your understanding of the here and now can help you contextualize your reactions and better understand the situation as it really is — your boss probably doesn’t really hate you, but when she gets overworked, she gets snappy and sarcastic, which reminds you of how your father belittled you when you were small. You can’t manage how your boss responds to stress or change the fact that your father was a jerk — but you can understand that neither of these truths have any bearing on your self-worth or should stop you from achieving all that you want to.

“Resilience is being able to navigate the ups and downs of life, responding to adversity and disappointment through building inner strength and perspective,” Taylor explains. She advises anyone who is trying to build that inner strength and perspective to acknowledge three core truths: “Know that bad things happen to good people. Be aware of your patterns and know your sensitivities. Change your perspective — ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from this and how can I positively affect the outcome?’”

But saying you want to build inner strength and picking up those emotional free weights are two different matters. Scott Dehorty, a licensed clinical social work and executive director at Maryland House Detox with Delphi Behavioral Health, tells SheKnows that cultivating a solid sounding board of trusted friends and loved ones can help you keep your reactions in perspective. “It is essential to take control of your well-being and to not allow others or the world to manage it for you,” he says.

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Dehorty also encourages you to look at resiliency as a process and not an endgame in and of itself — to focus on yourself and make the decision you will be allowed to define who you are or how you feel.

"Negativity from others or negative self-talk does not have to be taken in and absorbed. You can allow it to roll off and stay focused on what is important,” he says.

Learning to embrace your own strength and personal power won’t make your boss nicer or the publishing world or the academic review board appreciate your genius; it won’t send Prince Charming to your door with a dozen roses. But it will give you the wisdom and the inner resources to take that lemon from the bottom of your grocery cart and turn it into something sweet, or at least quenching.

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