How can I stop being so sensitive?
October 26, 2009 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to be less sensitive to rejection, as well as situations that aren't actually rejection but that I take as such. I've had social anxiety for as long as I can remember (I'm nineteen), and I have only come out of my shell in the last few months. Because of this, I'm incredibly sensitive to what others may think of me, since I've never really had friends and don't want people to dislike me.

An example of this happened yesterday. I was helping my boyfriend with laundry, and because I didn't know where to put his Aunt's clothing I put both of her loads in the drier at the same time. (Something I do all the time at home, and assumed was OK.) She gave me a mini-lecture in an irritated tone of voice, and that was it.

Yet, after that I felt so bad I started crying (not in front of her.) When I told her I didn't know where to put her stuff, she said "that's when you ask," which is when I started scolding myself for having such poor social skills that I didn't even think to ask where her clothes go, then I told myself I was a bad person because I could've cost the family money for a new drier, that she probably hates me now, etc.

Another example would be in lab; I asked for help with an equation, the professor scolded me for not looking it over beforehand, and it was very hard for me not to start crying right there. I ended up giving up and leaving lab early.

I could give plenty more examples, but I think you get the jist of it. I should note that this also happens online - I received a rude response from a customer service rep not too long ago and it ruined my night.

I noticed that most people, when faced with such situations, tend to think, "Wow, that person is a bitch," or "They must be having a bad day." I've tried telling myself this, and even though I can logically say, "Well, this and that happened and it isn't my fault," it never sticks. I always end up internalizing it and feeling terrible. I also blame myself for having poor social skills quite frequently.

How can I overcome this? At the moment I don't have time to see a therapist, although I do plan to do that in the future.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Probably the best medicine for these cases is just experiencing them a lot. When I was younger, the slightest criticism would mortify me for days. Not that criticism never upsets me now, but I've developed thicker skin over time. You will, too. In the mean time: LAUGH. When someone says, "You should've done this" or "Why did you do that?" just laugh and say, "Yeah, you're probably right. Sorry about that." It makes everybody feel better about an awkward situation, including yourself.
posted by katillathehun at 11:05 AM on October 26, 2009

I can see this being a problem in your college/academic future. You will definitely meet professors who respond to your work with much harsher criticism and less tact, and sometimes they will be correct and sometimes they will just be assholes. You should find out if your school has a student counseling office - not just for general therapy, but for trained advice on how best to approach the college environment.
posted by Think_Long at 11:08 AM on October 26, 2009

Another vote for trying to experience these types of things more. I was very much like you in college, and I ended up getting a job in customer service at a major department store, dealing with mostly angry people all day. I decided to stick with it and I did a lot of visualizing of how I would handle the situation. It was tough, but eventually I was able to feel more confident. Don't feel bad if you have a hard time with it, it will be tough starting out and you should allow yourself to fail a few times. The important thing is that you expose yourself to it.
posted by mattholomew at 11:12 AM on October 26, 2009

A great percentage of people will act jerky/arrogant/pompous/irritable a great percentage of the time. Even so called nice people will very often act this way especially if they think they can get away with it and you won't fight back. I have no particular solution to how you feel about this as I often feel the same.

FWIW, you didn't almost break the dryer.
posted by DarkForest at 11:19 AM on October 26, 2009's easy to judge someone from reading a post, but the aunt does sort of sound like a bitch.

Emotional stuff is emotional stuff. I hate this kind of shit. I'm a dude, 34, and I really hate getting scolded. Bad phone calls with customer service can ruin my night too. There's maybe nothing wrong with you other than you think there is something wrong with you?

I'm sort of strong and manly and when my female teacher scolded me in the hallway a couple of weeks ago I thought I was either going to cry or freak out. Sometimes you need to tell people how you feel, sometimes you need to realize that they suck and it isn't going to help for them to know. In the end, I sort of talked around it with my teacher and I think we understand each other better. She didn't apologize, I never really mentioned it but I think things are better understood between us.

So I think there may be nothing wrong with you. Life sucks, in some ways, that's the problem.
posted by sully75 at 11:24 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like others, exposure is really the best way to come to grips with these situations. To put it simply, you're assigning too much meaning to each of these instances. I think most of us do the same thing.
posted by PFL at 11:28 AM on October 26, 2009

Probably the best medicine for these cases is just experiencing them a lot.

A hundred times yes. Don't run away from feeling the anxiety, feel it completely and as quickly as possible.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:29 AM on October 26, 2009

If self-help reading material doesn't squick you out, there are a lot of great books out there with the "Loving Yourself" theme and one that speaks to your belief system might be a great value to you. (One of my favs is You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, but YMMV.)

Just as when someone is being an a-hole it is almost entirely about them, you being very sensitive and easily weepy is mostly about you. If you can find a way to gain confidence in yourself and your ability to handle situations with others, these kinds of crises will lose their emotional power. Therapy would help, experience (as others have said) will help, being introspective and consciously working on your confidence will help.

Good luck!
posted by Kimberly at 11:32 AM on October 26, 2009

Some thoughts I've gathered over many years that I hope you find helpful:

1. Know that you are not alone in this. People vary in terms of how resilient they are, and it stands to reason that many likely have a thicker skin than you (do at the current time.) Still, it's very common for people to take criticism personally.

2. Don't beat yourself up over this. That just makes you another critic of yourself and further depresses your mood and frustrates action.

3. Recognize that a feeling is not a universal truth. If you do something "stupid" and are criticized, that does not mean you ARE stupid. It means nothing more than this: you did something; someone reacted; you feel their reaction was critical; you feel bad about it. Don't confuse this feeling with the notion that in some universal sense you are stupid or inadequate.

4. Consider how imperfect the world is and the value of making mistakes. Even the greatest achievers (by whatever measure) are infinitely imperfect. Making mistakes is part of the road to success and happiness. "To succeed as soon as possible, fail as early and often as possible."

5. Find things that make you feel good about yourself and then find the discipline to do them. Working out. Learning. Helping others. Creating. Whatever it is. You can't readily control how you feel, but you can more readily control your actions. Do these things that build your esteem and you will find a great strength in this.

6. Take pride in action over avoidance. You asked the professor for help with an equation - good for you! Much better to do this and then learn from it (even if the lesson is painful) than to live your life under a rock.

7. Take pride in ethics over aesthetics. You have much more control over what you choose to value than over how you come across. This is very fortunate, because the former is so much more important than the latter!

8. Look up at the sky at night. See all the stars and consider how silly it is to feel bad about what some idiot said to you.

9. Find people and relationships that are nurturing, and hold on to them. There will always be difficult and brash people that you have to deal with, but try not to hang out with them, work for them or marry them!

10. Remember that you do have some control over your thoughts. If you find yourself dwelling on something negative, catch yourself and replace the thought with something positive. Something nice that someone did for you; some way that you helped someone; something fun or fulfilling you plan to do.

As a final thought, you seem very thoughtful and compassionate. Your hypsersensitivity to yourself likely tells of a sensitivity to the world and others. This is a greatness you should appreciate in yourself.
posted by c, as in "kitchen" at 11:42 AM on October 26, 2009 [17 favorites]

This is hard to explain because it sounds harsh but I don't mean it that way and I hope that if you will hear me out about this, it might help:

You are, in your reactions to these situations, placing a lot of weight on your own importance and centrality. Your professor deals with 100+ students a day who are not getting the course work, and thousands throughout the course of his or her career. You are one in a long, long line of many, many students. Ergo, your professor cares much less about this interaction than you do. Something that stands out to you will fade into the background or be forgotten by her almost immediately because you are just not that central to her existence.

Social anxiety is riddled with feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment, partly because you assume the person you're interacting with is carrying around the same memory, feeling about, and interpretation of the event that you are. So two things come out of this for me:

a) If it's someone you'll never see or talk to or hear from again, like a phone rep or a store clerk or whatever, then seriously: fuck it. You are one of a billion people they are shitty to all day and if quizzed about the exchange with you 10 minutes later, they would seriously not be able to remember it. You are not you in those exchanges; you're just a number to them.

b) If it's someone you will interact with again, make an effort to have a positive exchange with that person ASAP. Smile at your professor on the way out of your next lab and say "thanks a lot!" and you will probably get a positive interaction in return. The next time you see the aunt, be friendly and ask her how her day way and she'll probably be perfectly nice to you.

Yes, some people are just curmudgeons, but in those cases it still really isn't all about you. My only other suggestion is this:

c) Get an anonymous blog and record this events every day. Seriously, somehow voicing them out loud in a public way makes them much, much less powerful. I don't why but it really does. I think taking ownership of the experience gives you power over it.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:46 AM on October 26, 2009 [11 favorites]

You have ANTs. Automatic negative thoughts. These are thoughts that pop into your head over and over again in difficult situations. It's important to address them, because they will just keep playing over and over again until you do. One technique to try is challenging and restructuring these thoughts.

For example, your boyfriend's aunt scolds you for overfilling the dryer. You think, "I'm a bad person. ... She probably hates me now."

Let's start with "I'm a bad person." How much do you believe that? You don't really think you're a bad person, but this is a thought that goes through your brain on a loop. So you need to challenge it when you hear it.

"I have some faults, as does everyone else." Now, how much do you believe that?

"I made a mistake." That might be true. It's not the end of the world if it is, though, right? If you have faults and you make mistakes, it's okay. Everyone has faults and makes mistakes. It's not the same as being a bad person.

For what it's worth, almost all of us have the "I'm a bad person" ANT sometimes. It's one of the hardest ones to challenge, because it's so deeply rooted. But keep coming back to it and restructuring it in each situation.

The next thought to address in the laundry situation is, "She probably hates me now." Think hard about that one. Do you truly believe that your boyfriend's aunt will hate you because of one laundry mishap? My guess is that you don't, not really and truly. It's just one of your ANTs going off again. So challenge it:

"She was upset with me at that moment."

The hard part is to catch yourself when you're thinking that you suck, people hate you, etc. It takes a lot of practice. But seriously, sit down when you have a chance, think of the most anxiety-provoking situation of the day, and then write out your thoughts. Don't overthink the thoughts before you write them: put them on paper exactly as they come to you. Then challenge them.

Eventually, with some practice, you'll be able to do this sort of thing right in the middle of a crisis. You'll be able to recognize negative self-talk and challenge it right then and there.

(When you do eventually see a therapist, consider cognitive behavioral therapy -- the above exercise is one of my favorite CBT techniques.)

The above advice to sit with the anxiety and let it be is also good, though I personally have a hard time with it. I always want to change things, and I think that is a feature of anxiety in general and social anxiety in particular.

Good luck. And hugs.
posted by brina at 11:47 AM on October 26, 2009 [13 favorites]

Other people are too busy worrying about what you and other people are thinking about them to spend much time thinking about you.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:29 PM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I sometimes feel a bit like you do. A lot, sometimes. It's getting much easier as time goes by and I've been wondering why that is. I think learning to laugh at yourself is a big part of it. If you're at all literary, read some of Kafka's short stories - his writing is full of these fleeting encounters to which his narrators assign incredible, ridiculous, hysterical significance. I only discovered Kafka recently, but the trick is to read it as comedy (can it really be read any other way anyway?). And then do that to your own internal monologue. It eases the pain of living.

You've also got to desensitise yourself somehow - to build up a tolerance. Customer service jobs are great for this - I once worked as a Greeter at a tourist attraction - best thing I've ever done, despite being absolutely terrified to begin with. Now, whenever I lack confidence, I can look back and say "How would I have handled this in Summer '05?", and then I can act like that. Not because I have faith in myself - I don't need the faith, I've been there and done it. I know I can handle it. If you're not ready for customer service, you can do this even as a customer... Whenever I have a passing encounter with a stranger, a shop-assistant for example, I act as if I'm someone else. Someone who looks just like me, but speaks with a slightly deeper voice, smiles more easily, takes things in stride, and generally gets things done without much stress. The secret is - those people you meet - they can't tell you're faking! I'm not kidding. Try acting in a way that's more confident, or more comfortable than you really are. Get used to acting like that for short periods. And then... as if by magic... you start to actually feel the way you act.

The last thing I'd say is this: Nobody else cares how you feel about these transient dramas. Or even if they do, their level of involvement is so minute when compared to your anguish that it doesn't even matter. No-one will remember this crap except you. No-one can see what you're thinking, even if you stare them straight in the eye. Even if you're blushing, fuck it, just carry on what you're doing. Humans sometimes blush, sometimes their eyes fill with tears, but most of the time you yourself can choose to act in spite of these mechanisms, and so in spite of your own thoughts.

One final thing - just once - when someone tries to humiliate you, or berate you, or criticise, or whatever - don't look away - hold their gaze and relax your body, smile with your lips closed and make a noise that sounds like "hmmmmh" but really means "I see exactly what you're doing and exactly who you are, you are nothing to me, and in this moment I utterly reject you". Just try it once with some professor or aunt or whoever. It might not work, but if you do it right that "hmmmmh" can freeze the blood in their veins. The real secret is that as soon as it's over you carry on being your nice, friendly self. Their bullshit meant nothing to you, so there's no reason to bear a grudge or wear a sulk. If your dog craps on your rug you don't plot revenge or cry yourself to sleep, you say "Bad dog!", clean up the crap, and then you go play fetch.
posted by SebastianKnight at 12:34 PM on October 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding what brina said. I had the exact same problem as you. I think to some degree just getting older helps a bit. But that said, I cannot speak enough about how much Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped me. I started it when I was in college and eventually started attending group sessions with people where we all went over how we were applying the CBT in our lives. The workbook I used that really helped me was Mind Over Mood but a lot of people will also recommend Feeling Good, which also has exercises and worksheets to help you. I also kind of got to the point where I knew I was trying so hard, and despite that if people weren't happy with me, there was no way I was ever going to make them be happy with me. I got to the point where I was kind of okay with this and CBT helped me to get to that point by making me understand that it was not necessarily my fault - and most likely wasn't. Everybody has a million other things to deal with and I rarely fit in on the top of their list.

Anyway, I'm kind of typing this all fast because I have to hop off the computer, but I want you to know that I understand exactly where you're coming from and to tell you that you can find some relief from your obsessive and negative thinking. If you want to discuss any further, please feel free to memail me but otherwise, best of luck to you. Be gentle with yourself. :)
posted by triggerfinger at 12:35 PM on October 26, 2009

I could not agree with katillathehun more; experience and age has made me far less sensitive to petty criticism. I was much like you when I was younger. [Here’s an example: I was about eighteen, and at a patio party at a friend’s house. All of us where chatting and laughing, and I apparently happened to be absentmindedly drumming my fingers on the patio table. My friend’s mother, seated near me, casually leaned forward and with an apologetic smile lightly placed her hand over mine to quiet my tapping fingers. This exchange took barely a second and I doubt that anyone else at the table even noticed it, but I. WAS. MORTIFIED at my shameful transgression. Where most young adults might have laughed, or shrugged a bored apology before reaching for more bean dip, I turned crimson in panic and hurt and did all I could do to avoid crying.] It’s weird for me to even post that, because I cannot imagine feeling like that today. But the fact that I remember this absurd patio humiliation more than twenty years later reminds me how powerful these painful anxieties were and I am sorry you are dealing with them.

Learning to laugh at yourself is immensely helpful. Time has a funny way of showing us that A) we are tough and can survive and accomplish much more than we often think we can, and, B) pretty much no one really gives a shit. Both of these lessons are important and I hope that time brings you the same liberation and confidence it brought me and katillathehun.

Perhaps, though, you could hasten things by increasing your life experiences in a way that will expand your perspective, e.g. travel—see how people get by in different cultures and visit parts of the world that will humble you and show you how arbitrary most of our social codes are anyway. Do you have many responsibilities at school or work? If not, you might consider increasing them—achievements are obvious confidence boosters. Or perhaps it might be easier for you to become more assertive in proxy, for example by becoming an advocate for someone or something that you believe in--Hobbies and volunteer projects offer a great opportunity for you to create and take responsibility for things outside of yourself. Good luck.
posted by applemeat at 1:01 PM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

It might help you to know that, on average, people learn to be thick-skinned as young children; they learn to give, and get, abuse and still get through the day. Think of it as the emotional equivalent of wolf pups fighting.

You perhaps have not had that experience, and like a wolf pup who's never play-fought before, you'll get injured when you encounter criticism that the other (especially older) wolves assume is a reasonable level for someone your age (regardless of whether they're correct in that assumption; after all, some people are just nasty, bitchy people.)

So you're going to have to face your fear, suck it up, and accept that callouses take time to build up. It might help to purposely go into situations where you're likely to be rejected, but don't really have any stake in the real outcome -- sort of like intentionally jumping into a pack of wolves to fight over a bone you don't really care about. Go in knowing you're going to get hurt, and take the strength that comes from knowing you set yourself up for it to help you deal with it. Over time you'll be all right.

In short: you can't develop coping mechanisms without having the experience, and since (for whatever reason) you didn't develop those mechanisms at an appropriate time in your life, it'll hurt that much more, but still be very good for you.
posted by davejay at 1:19 PM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, one more thing: every time you feel rejected like this, write a very short poem about it, letting out all the drama. Then read the poem a week later, when you have proper perspective. Over time, you'll start laughing at how seriously you take yourself in those moment, and reliving the moment later (with proper perspective) will help you learn to cope. Plus, having to focus on rhyming will take your mind off the pain a bit (which, in its own way, is a short-term coping mechanism.)

Then, the day you feel you're really ready to handle rejection, share all of the poems. Online*. Don't say anything about why you wrote them, or that you know they're weak sauce, or whatever. Then invite comments. If you can get through THAT, you're better than most people are at having a thick skin.

*do it anonymously, though; no sense in acting all crazy
posted by davejay at 1:24 PM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I sure was just like you at your age! Boy, can I sympathize. I hope it helps you to know that it is possible to unlearn this degree of sensitivity. It is good that you are aware that you are on the high range of sensitivity. It took me several years, and the process was gradual.

Try to realize that there are certain things you are entitled to, and one of them is to be treated nicely. I'll bet you can think of some people you know who act overly entitled, but I don't think you are in any danger of going that route. You will probably always be a person who is very kind and sensitive to the feelings of others. But if someone is treating you badly, you absolutely have the right to stand up for yourself. And by this, I don't necessarily mean arguing back, I just mean that you can say things like, "Point taken, thanks for letting me know," or whatever makes you feel more like an adult equal.

Let's take some examples. The situation with your professor - the exact same thing happened to me in college, not with an equation, but with a chemical formula. I was chastized for coming unprepared, nor was I given help, and I was mortified. Looking back, I would like to take back her power to mortify me by saying, "You are right, I should have prepared. But if I still can't get it, may I ask you again in a little while?" It's so hard to do, I know. It really is your prof's job to help you, though, and a straightforward response/compromise would be hard for him to deny.

One thing that helped me was the old "fake it 'til you make it," meaning that I would try on a fake personality any time I needed to face such a situation. It would be the persona of someone I admired or thought to be really competent. Sounds cheesy, but eventually I was able to incorporate these more confident, adult responses into my own real personality.

Another thing that helped (really, it did) was to spend more time with people older than me, who I thought of as "adults" (even though I was 18 and up). It was mostly in work situations, and oh, I took a lot of crap from them without knowing what to say back. I learned that most people viewed me a young and in need of their personal brand of direction. They weren't bad people, they were just trying to get their jobs done. I went to as many meetings as I could, because I was fascinated to watch these folks interact with each other and their bosses, and to find that they were nowhere near as powerful or knowledgeable as I was making them out to be in my mind. (I was raised to respect all adults as authorities. What a crock!)

Also remember that most people have no idea that what they are saying to you will have the effect on you that it does. They are probably surrounded with thick-skinned people at work and at home.

Best of luck! You can do it!
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:55 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Very good comments above. One additional thought, along the lines of "people can be rude" -- people can be especially rude & dismissive to teenagers, because often the people you encounter (unfairly) see you as one of many and paint the traits of younger people with a broad brush. So, I think it will get a little better in a year or two, when you will be seen as an individual instead of one of a crowd.
Good luck, and do try to remember that being sensitive is a gift -- I wish more of us in this world were. Seriously.
posted by dreamphone at 4:13 PM on October 26, 2009

Being sensitive is a gift

QFT. It may not always feel great, but it's better to feel too much than not enough.
posted by applemeat at 4:49 PM on October 26, 2009

There are great ideas on this thread. Just a couple of additional thoughts: 1) Rude/critical/harsh people aren't very effective advocates or teachers, regardless of who they are I unloading on. It might make you feel better to replay the event and imagine how you would have done better than they did by taking a different approach; and 2) It is OK, and surprisingly effective, to tell the self critical voice in your own head to shut up.

I too appreciate that you are a person who cares what others think -- but caring doesn't mean you have to accept or agree with the negative things you hear.
posted by bearwife at 5:43 PM on October 26, 2009

As a gently reared woman of a certain age, I would like to complain about the decline in overall civility at every level of interaction.

In general, people you run into nowadays are selfish, lacking impulse control, aggressive, and utterly indifferent to the feelings of others.

In life's journey, you will encounter behavior that is coarse, vulgar, uncouth, vile, boorish and rude, and that's just in Starbucks before class.

Develop thicker skin, but don't surrender your values.
posted by ohshenandoah at 8:15 PM on October 26, 2009

Another idea. My current mental response is a silly "too bad -- the world is stuck with me and this is what I'm going to do!" sort of thing. It's based on this creeping awareness I have that life is really short and you might as well enjoy the hell out of it while you've got it.

E.g., I used to worry about people at work thinking my work was not perfect. Now, my focus is less on being the perfect worker and more on how I'm spending the vast majority of my time at work and so I had better be enjoying it.[1] So, when people say something that makes me think panicky thoughts like "oh, shoot, I screwed that up, they'd probably have done that paper better, I'm terrible, blah blah blah," my quick response to myself is "oh well, hopefully they won't fire me! Because I sure like working here!" (I also tend to think that my perfectionism and defensiveness over mistakes are probably the worst work-related traits I have, and that a more "I'll try my best" attitude actually helps me do better.) In a friendship context, I focus on how great it is to find someone who really accepts me and who can put up with me more-or-less the way I am. So now when I think, "oh god, I was late, so-and-so might not want to be my friend," my new response is, "well, that's kinda who I am, for better or worse. I'll try to be better. But these other people are relaxed about it, so maybe I'll end up being closer to people like that."

The comparison that has put all of this in perspective is that, as bad as it might be to get fired or lose a friend, it's worse to die without having had any fun and to live in perpetual fear and self-criticism. I'd rather live having fun and then occasionally get fired or something.

So, with your aunt, I'd think "oh well, guess she won't let me do her laundry anymore! I hope she'll continue to take my 'happy birthday' phone calls!" And with the phone CSR, I'd think, "they're right, I suck at sending in my bills right on time. I'm three days late almost every month! I bet they enjoy those $15 late fees I send them. Hopefully they won't cancel my phone service!"

[1] "Enjoying it" includes working hard and trying my best, just so you don't think all this talk of fun at work means bowling in the hallways or something.
posted by salvia at 7:34 AM on October 27, 2009

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