How can I stop myself being so sensitive to violent scenes?
November 19, 2013 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Violent or humiliating scenes in films, TV shows, books, news and just things I see and hear day-to-day really upset me, to the point where I can't even cope with seeing them without feeling traumatised. It feels like this is a problem in my life - but I've always been this way and can't seem to desensitise myself. How do I stop being so over-sensitive? [Much, much, much more inside - sorry x]

This is a really hard question for me to write, for some reason! I've been trying to write it down for weeks now, and always end up feeling nervous about posting it. Sorry if it turns out long.

I've never, ever been able to deal with seeing scenes in films or TV shows (and to a lesser extent, reading scenes in books) where a character is harmed, or goes through some sort of visible pain or humiliation. I literally can't watch, and it can be as 'mild' as someone being beaten or shot. There's barely a film or show around that doesn't contain some violence. Shows or scenes where someone is in evident physical and/or psychological pain, they can't control their reactions, they're screaming or crying or begging for mercy, really upset me in an extreme way. I can't watch someone losing control of their mind and body like that - it's so humiliating. Mindless bang-bang-you're-dead action films don't upset me as much, I don't watch them, but I don't feel anything about them, I can just 'ignore' them.

The Hunger Games is what has triggered off this particular question - I thought it was done and dusted, but apparently there are three books, hence three films (who knew?) and it's having the crap marketed out of it at present, it's everywhere. I hate the idea that this is being targeted at children, and I think that part of that is because I don't like the idea that even kids can deal with things that I just can't stomach. The idea of people being forced to kill one another while their parents and loved ones watch on TV is stomach-churning. I felt similar about the latter Harry Potter books and films, too - it went very dark and quite disturbing towards the end, but I feel like a moron because even children can watch stuff I can't.

The rational part of my brain knows that it's not real, and that there's no chance that anyone has ever really been harmed. I don't have general issues distinguishing reality from fantasy; I know they're actors, and when they've finished pretending to be in intense pain, they'll brush themselves off and take a nice, large cheque home for their troubles. But the rational part of my brain is shouted out by this visceral, empathetic reaction - "Someone is in pain! They're being humiliated! They're in intense discomfort!". It's so strange.

I almost feel the pain that the characters are going through, I can't stop thinking about what would be going through their minds as they plead for their lives, or watch someone they love having awful things done to them, and I can't stop thinking about a human life coming to an end, about their hopes and dreams and loved ones and future that's been taken away from them. And I think one of the things that worries me most is that I have to remind myself regularly that the world isn't a dark, violent place full of people who sit and watch people get shot in films and enjoy it, and that life is beautiful and precious and most people are good. Even people who are able to watch this stuff are generally good people, but I sometimes struggle to see that - my irrational side tells me "how are people who are able to sit and watch someone plead for their life without feeling as upset as me good at all?".

So - to stop rambling, and get to the actual question! How do I stop being so over-sensitive about seeing fictional things that upset me happening to people? How do I stop the irrational, empathetic part of my brain from seeing the characters on screen, or on the page, as real human beings and start seeing them as what they are - accessories and props in a tale, tools to move the story on? I feel like I'm about five years old sometimes. I don't want to desensitise myself to this stuff, I don't want to sit and force myself to watch hour upon hour of The Hunger Games until I'm able to watch people pleading for their lives while munching dispassionately on my overpriced popcorn. I just don't want to feel so upset about it all anymore. I feel like the only person who feels as strongly as me about this.

Help? x
posted by winterhill to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The first thought is that, in order to deal with unwanted thoughts or reactions, you might employ the help of a professional. That leads to the old chestnut of "therapy," so I'll just place that there.

In lieu of that (or to supplement it), have you considered watching "behind the scenes" footage or getting involved with a local production of something violent (onstage)? Knowing that something isn't real and actually knowing the mechanics of how to make something fake look real are two different things, and perhaps being able to watch a scene where someone is acting scared and hurt for awhile and then getting up, dusting themselves off, and getting on with their lives might be of value.
posted by xingcat at 6:30 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Apologies for the followup. I stood up from the computer for five minutes and realised I'd forgotten to add something!

It's not just negative stuff, like I've described above, that makes me feel so intensely. I quite often feel overwhelmed by beautiful, positive things, too. Some mornings, maybe once every couple of weeks or so, I'll be driving to work and the sunrise and mist over the wonderful, lush, green rolling hills where I live will be so, so beautiful that I'll have to pull over and cry a little bit at the sheer, overwhelming beauty.

Or, I'll go outside, late on a quiet, cold, still winter night, and just stare into the stars and wonder. I can watch things like the stars for what seems like hours without getting bored. I know it sounds strange, but - I'm just very, very sensitive to my surroundings and to the world around me. I think the two are probably connected, somehow.
posted by winterhill at 6:39 AM on November 19, 2013

Two things.

I echo therapy, not because there's anything inherently wrong with your reactions, but because they bother you so much and you clearly feel like there is Something Up that you can't get your arms around. Whether or not anyone else thinks that's true, it bothers you, and therapy is good for managing things you've tried to adjust and can't.

Second, there are definitely people who are just very, as you say, sensitive generally. I cry easily myself at times -- not all the time, but sometimes. And I powerfully dislike certain particular kinds of violence in movies and on television. Because I watch TV and movies for work, sometimes there's kind of no choice, and you know what I do?

I cover my eyes and stick my fingers in my ears. I know that sounds crazy to some people, but I do it, because I don't need to make myself upset. Don't be shy about looking away from what makes you miserable. Don't feel obligated to make yourself into someone who can watch a scene of a child being killed without feeling affected; I wouldn't ever say being that kind of person is bad, but I wouldn't say NOT being that kind of person is bad, either.

Talk to somebody. It might not take that long; it might be something you could talk through relatively quickly with somebody who gets it.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:44 AM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm just like you, but I have made the explicit decision to feel these things. Although the fiction may be triggering my reaction, the fact is that there are people in reality who go through similar experiences. My empathy for the fictitious characters is a stand-in for my empathy for the real people. I don't want to diminish those people's deserved empathy, so I make no attempt to diminish my empathy for the fictional people. I'm too worried that it'll make me less caring, less human.

If anything, I recommend that you put your efforts into protecting others from this sort of violence, especially children. I've chosen to do that by enrolling my daughter in a Waldorf school which encourages families to protect their children from media violence, so that not only is she largely unexposed to this, her friends are too.

And as far as experiencing joy and awe, there are way too few people who let themselves feel this, and it makes for a cynical and dark world. Please, don't dull these experiences. Please. You're not alone, and it makes you beautiful.
posted by Capri at 6:56 AM on November 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

I like Capri's approach - there's something heartening about hearing that someone finds violence so troubling that he can't look at it. Obviously, as others have said, if it's hampering you in life, it's worth developing coping mechanisms, and given how little we know you, therapy is probably the right move. But don't call yourself oversensitive - violence and humiliation *are* awful and you are, fundamentally, right to abhor them.
posted by Presidente de China at 7:05 AM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I can't watch these scenes either. They make me sick, and I think our society is sick for presenting so many images of them.

I have a totally different attitude towards this as I think it's a positive personality trait. You can't stomach disgusting, horrifying images of violence and torture? You're empathetic to others' pain?

How terrible! What's wrong with you? You obviously need therapy. NOT.

I think you should accept yourself as you are. You don't need to watch this stuff, ever. Fill your world with beauty and love. Watch stories that enlighten and ennoble you. Watch hero stories that involve character development, not brute force. Watch shows about discovering new worlds. Watch stupid reality TV where at least no one gets hurt. Don't watch Breaking Bad or 24.

I wish I lived in a world where people like us were the norm.
posted by 3491again at 7:08 AM on November 19, 2013 [46 favorites]

Hmm. I am exactly like this, and have been as long as I can remember (since I was 3 or 4 at least) and I never considered it a negative; or wanted to change it. More, I (personally) think it kind of a weird byproduct of our age that scenes of intense physical or psychological pain DON'T initiate a stronger response in the majority of people. I think it's a pretty unnatural level of desensitization, to be honest. So yeah, perhaps you and I lie more on the "extremely sensitive" side of things, but I don't see that as a bad thing.

FWIW, I am *not* the type of person who cries at "sad" scenes easily or is generally emotionally malleable, so it's not as simple as that. Even if I know exactly how they staged the scene (per xingcat's suggestion) it still deeply disturbs me, because it triggers the realization/rememberance that stuff like (X) DOES or HAS really happened in the world, that this is an actual human experience that the actors are replicating, and that to me is profoundly disturbing. And frankly, I think, should be.
posted by celtalitha at 7:08 AM on November 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

What happens when you watch upsetting scenes with the sound off? Do you have the same intensity of reaction?
posted by rtha at 7:08 AM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Firstly, as Capri says, don't be afraid of feeling your feelings. The distinction you are trying to force between "The rational part of my brain" and "this visceral, empathetic reaction" may be what's causing you so much difficulty. Both of these aspects of self are part of you, and neither has more intrinsic value. So if your empathy - and it sounds like you are very empathic - is the strongest reaction you get on hearing/seeing certain things then let it be what it is. Don't try to cut it out of you because you think it would make life easier, or everyone else is ok with this stuff, or no real people are harmed. These things may be true, but so what? YOU are a person who cannot tolerate these horrible things and that is OK. Such a high level of empathy can be very valuable in life. Are you the person who just "gets it" when friends have troubles? Are you someone moved to donate or volunteer when there is a disaster? As you say, you recognise the beauty that exists in the world when many people are too busy to notice. These are good things. Empathy is linked to compassion, and this is a positive thing.

You may be interested in doing some reading about the Highly Sensitive Person. It may also be worth talking to a therapist about your feelings. Again, not to "cure" you or make you feel different about these things, but more to think about you and what is happening in your internal world. I notice from your question there are some self-esteem flags being raised - a lot of aplogising for the length of the question or rambling or whatever. You seem to feel that your reactions are somehow wrong or not worthy. Rather than desensitising yourself to things that upset you, it might be better to work towards a place where you can accept your gut reactions and not try and squash them down. So perhaps you could think less in terms of "how do I change what I feel?" and more "how do I learn to accept my feelings?". Take care.
posted by billiebee at 7:14 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think you need to fix anything.

A long time ago, I decided to stop watching crime and police procedural shows like Law and Order and CSI. I really liked these shows before I went cold turkey off of them. It all started with a month long hiatus my partner and I took from tv all together. When we turned the tv back on, I was suddenly astounded by the violence. I work a job where I read about and deal with bad things happening to people all the time. I realized I had been dealing with this stuff at work and then coming home and entertaining myself with the same stories. So I just stopped.

Now, many years later, I don't even have network cable. I stream tv, but only shows I seek out to watch, not whatever's on. So I mostly avoid violent shows. I do watch plenty of movies; some with violence. But I hide my eyes and wait for the bad parts to be over. Usually my partner is around to tell me if it's okay to look again. And if it's a scene with disturbing sound, I just get up and walk away from the tv until it's over.

One thing I know for a fact is that my mental health is much improved since deliberately choosing to sensitize myself to this stuff. My anxiety is much much lower, my startle reflex is less sensitive, and I'm less afraid all the time.

You said in the last line of your post that you don't want to feel upset about it anymore. I think the best way to do that is to make a deliberate choice to keep those images out of your mind and feel good about yourself for doing so. When it starts to feel like a choice you're making for yourself instead of an intrusive negative reaction you'll be able to stop criticizing yourself.
posted by dchrssyr at 7:14 AM on November 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Like others, I think it's a perfectly reasonable choice not to partake of violent entertainment. You may be healthier, and showing better judgement, than most people by admitting how much this disturbs you.

It sounds like the larger problem is that the volume on your own emotions is turned up to the point where you can hardly stand them. If this is so uncomfortable as to be a problem for you, I'm not going to try to tell you it isn't.

Maybe a couple of ACT-related books will help you with the emotional side of things in general. There's "Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life", and "The Happiness Trap". Get those books and do the exercises and see if your emotions aren't easier to live with after that.
posted by tel3path at 7:34 AM on November 19, 2013

I am the same way! I have had to accept that going to movies, in particular, is problematic; being in a dark room with the visuals and audio that are inescapable but also full of violent or emotional or scary happenings--I can't really stomach it anymore. It's too much. I walk out of theaters frequently when the tension gets too much, or stand at the back and watch, where it's less affecting.

Or I just go to movies that are comedies, or quirky, or (oddly enough) documentaries...those don't bother me.

At home, I can move around/check my email/distract myself if there's something I really want to watch but have trouble with.

For things that I know I absolutely cannot handle...i.e, Hannibal, any horror or serial-killer movie...if I want to know what happened, I go to Wikipedia or a spoilers page of some kind. In fact, I find this works well for anything remotely scary that I am going to need to watch/be in the room with; I am not scared when I know what's going to happen. I even like talking about plots of horror movies when they're interesting. But I can't stand even a second of watching them.

I have had to accept this is just how I am. I get funny looks and my husband doesn't get it at all, but that's ok. It's just me. I could probably train myself to deal with it more effectively, but my life is busy enough that being able to sit through a horror movie is not in my list of priorities.
posted by emjaybee at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

For whatever it's worth, I (a 40 yo male) can no longer watch violent movies. As strange as it may seem, for a while I was unable to watch even LotR because I just did not like the violence.

The cure is to not watch violent stuff.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:44 AM on November 19, 2013

I see from your previous questions that you're a guy. This is probably making it harder for you--after all, men are socialized to be tough and not as responsive to violence or beautiful things. I'm a lady, and I'm similar (and now that I'm pregnant and flooded with estrogen can't watch anything violent or unpleasant at all). Some of this might be chemical or hormonal, but it doesn't mean it's bad.

The thing is, this isn't a failure at all: it's a triumph of empathy and experience. Most people lose this as they get older, or try to deny it. The thing is--the point of the literature you're talking about, specifically The Hunger Games is precisely how horrific it all is. If you read the other books, Suzanne Collins very clearly wants people to feel horrified at violence in our media, even against children, the way that citizens are used as tools of war, and so on.

You're not broken. You don't need to be fixed. You're sensitive, and that's a good thing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:05 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

> rtha: What happens when you watch upsetting scenes with the sound off? Do you have the same intensity of reaction?

This is something I've tried with some success, turning down the sound stops me from having to hear reactions like screams, pleading, upsetting lines and other human sounds like gurgling from someone who's had something violent done to them. Sound is a huge part of what upsets me. But I still find myself having to look away, I can't look at the facial expressions in particular. So, with the sound off, and looking away - I may as well not have the show on at all!
posted by winterhill at 8:10 AM on November 19, 2013

First, this question and many of the answers may be relevant to your interests: Why do I think things have feelings?

How do I stop being so over-sensitive about seeing fictional things that upset me happening to people?

Honest question: What are the underpinnings for this desire? Is it because your perception that you are oversensitive makes you feel alienated and lonely, or are you simply trying to eliminate a source of unnecessary pain and discomfort from your emotional repertoire? If it's the former, you are absolutely not alone! If it's the latter, removing or limiting your exposure to painful stimuli will be much, much easier than trying to force yourself to tamp down your feelings about it.

I could have written this question but I've always experienced it as an excess of empathy, not oversensitivity, and while it does get uncomfortable and even quite raw sometimes, I've decided that I would much rather be "too sensitive" than remotely desensitized. I am also easily moved to tears by great beauty, wonder, and mystery (HUDF always does it for me) and psychologically destroyed by even obviously fictional representations of living beings in pain and particularly people begging for their lives (can't even be in the same room as someone playing GTA, for example).

Yes, it's annoying to be genuinely upset when my roommate plays Call of Duty and I catch a stray digitized demise out of the corner of my eye, but as others have already said, my mental health is much improved when I just cut these stimuli out of my life altogether, so that's definitely what I would recommend. Aside from being more unruffled in general, I don't perceive any real benefit to repeatedly exposing my heart and mind to cruelty, torture, or brutality, even the fictionalized kind. (Caveat: I love terrible 1980s slasher movies, but only the ones with hilariously bad special effects and super-duper fake Kool-Aid blood.) So I can't watch Game of Thrones. It isn't the end of the world.

Something that has helped me a great deal with this aspect of life is that before I watch any new-to-me movie or TV show, unless it's something that is obviously A-OK -- Animal Planet's "Too Cute" is always a good one to keep open in another tab if you're reading an upsetting news story -- I run it past and read the IMDB Parents' Guide to see if there's anything I will find distressing. I'd rather be spoiled on a hundred plot points than see something that will leave me gasping and tormented by nightmares for weeks on end.

tl;dr - This is actually a beautiful and beautifully human trait. Please take good care of your soft and gentle heart and it will take care of you, too.
posted by divined by radio at 8:16 AM on November 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think that we can all agree that there is such a thing as over-reaction. Phobias are real, debilitating things. We don't know if OP is overreacting or not. Sure, maybe he's a great, sweet guy who is in touch with his feelings. Or maybe he has a pathological avoidance of conflict. If his reaction to violent scenes is so over the top that he believes he's "the only person who feels as strongly as me about this," then, yeah, perhaps some counseling would be in order.

I dated a woman with Addison's disease, and she couldn't watch previews for violent, action-packed movies without feeling ill. I believe it was a preview of Fast and Furious that almost made her vomit. Something maybe to check if you have unusual skin pigmentation issues or unexplained muscle aches.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:23 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I almost feel the pain that the characters are going through

In some sense, that is often the point. The audience is supposed to feel some reaction to non-gratuitous violence. That said, I agree that your reaction is too severe. For example, the later Harry Potter film were not explicitly violent. There was a very dark tone and people did die, but there were no graphic eviscerations or bloody shows. Generally, they were shot with a magical beam and dropped dead. I think the Harry Potter films were more about the foreboding dread than the actual depictions of violent.

Assuming you want to be able to watch this sort of media, I recommend consuming this sort of media to desensitize yourself. I used to find horror fandom absolutely baffling and now I really like horror films.

I noticed that you cannot even read such scenes in books. Do you find yourself reacting as strongly to print media or this sort as you do to film?

By the way, there will be four Hunger Games movies.

"how are people who are able to sit and watch someone plead for their life without feeling as upset as me good at all?"

I believe that no person is good, so that is the answer to that question.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:25 AM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

So what happens with your overwhelming feelings when someone needs you?

I don't see anything wrong with having thoughts and feelings as you described so long as you aren't passing unfair judgment on others and you can pitch in when someone needs help.

The one concern I'd have for you is that ruthless people could con you with takes of woe and suffering.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:31 AM on November 19, 2013

What do you do when confronted with real terrible things? Actual harm and suffering? When there's a crisis, what do you do? Shut down? Or do you take action, take care of problems, even while feeling upset? I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with experiencing the intensity of the feelings you describe, as long as you can still function. Maybe you can spend some time thinking about what you would do in emergency situations? Take a couple self defense classes, learn emergency procedure? This is the difference between bravery and brashness - feeling scared and doing the right thing anyway.

For the fictional stuff, perhaps it's a bit less that you need the severity of your feelings to change, as you need to be able to process your feelings faster and get back to a capable state. Excuse the cheesy metaphor, but it's kind of like aerobic exercise. You want to be able to get your heart rate up, but then return to resting pulse quickly. You need to practice processing your sadness and anger and upset, not so you can desensitize yourself, but so you can deal with it and return to functional quickly. Perhaps thinking of it like that will mitigate some of the shame that's so prevalent in your question.

I totally agree with the people above suggesting therapy. Not to help you feel things less, but to give you tools to feel things more efficiently. I think these coping mechanisms are probably different for everybody. A professional is going to be able to suggest a lot of things that AskMe won't think of.
posted by Mizu at 8:43 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am like this too, and I don't think there's a damn thing wrong with it. You are not oversensitive, just like someone with 20/20 vision is not "over-visioned" or some damn fool thing.

Read Elanor Aaron's book The Highly Sensitive Person, accept yourself the way you are, and skip the gory parts. Trust me, if you try to knock out your sensitivity to negatives, you'll also loose your beautiful and precious appreciation of positives. This is a gift that you have.
posted by windykites at 9:16 AM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you explain why you want to change this?
posted by headnsouth at 9:29 AM on November 19, 2013

Can you explain why you want to change this?

I think that Lesser Shrew gets at the issue-- you can't go through life being so easily emotionally manipulated, particularly (especially) by things that aren't real. Media is always out to manipulate us, and unless one learns to take a step back and judge the issue rationally, we are going to be vulnerable.

It's not that the solution to avoid certain kinds of media is wrong, but that encountering these kinds of moments where the audience is being emotionally targetted is inevitable, and we have to learn to master ourselves rather than let others make us feel what they want is to feel.
posted by deanc at 9:53 AM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I deal with this by simply not watching those shows and movies. I know that means I miss out on some good art that other people enjoy, but that's okay. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of lighthearted, bland sitcoms and Disney movies to compensate. ;)

I did want to go to the movies last weekend (to escape my kids for a couple hours) and there was literally nothing on the theater I was willing to see. It was all too violent.

I always just tell people, "No thanks, that's too violent for me," and nobody's ever given me guff about it. It's a very normal reaction and people accept it. If it distresses you I think talking to a therapist might help, especially if these thoughts are really intrusive, but really, why not just avoid violence used for entertainment purposes? That's a pretty sick form of entertainment anyway.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:02 AM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I felt similar about the latter Harry Potter books and films, too - it went very dark and quite disturbing towards the end, but I feel like a moron because even children can watch stuff I can't.

Children don't have the same reactions as adults often because they're not capable of the same level of abstract thinking that adults are, and so their ability to empathize is blunted (because you have to be cognitively able to "step into the other person's shoes" to empathize).

So I wouldn't worry about not being as "tough" as kids, you're just an adult with a brain capable of doing things that their brains aren't yet, so you're seeing/feeling things that they can't yet.

For what it's worth, I don't enjoy seeing characters in pain, but watching characters who I identify with go through something painful helps me in thinking through my own feelings about being in pain, in my life. So sometimes when I'm going through something painful or not understanding my own feelings of pain, I seek out TV shows or books or movies where the characters are in pain.

That's a reason why I like horror movies -- I'm female, and I like seeing women protect themselves or escape harm, which happens more in horror movies than in most other entertainment, and I also like that the "bad guys" are literal monsters who are purposefully made incredibly dangerous and/or difficult to empathize with, so I can watch them be defeated without feeling terrible.

I don't like seeing characters be victimized, and I often won't be able to stomach much of that, especially if it's graphic -- I had to stop watching Law & Order because of that. I also have trouble watching very acerbic sitcoms/comedies, because I hate seeing the characters be senselessly cruel to each other and exploit each others' weaknesses. I don't think that's unusual.

Maybe a key to feeling more comfortable in watching painful or emotionally intense scenes is not to *sympathize* so much, but to rather *empathize* more. Connect the characters' pain and anger and other bad feelings to *yourself and your own feelings and your own life,* and see what the characters' feelings/reactions/circumstances teach you about *you.* Get your mirror neurons firing ;). If you can't stomach that, maybe try doing the same for sad or angry music.

For what it's worth, I give you permission to continue to hate seeing characters be callously victimized or martyred though, I have a huge problem with watching that, too, which is why I find The Hunger Games distressing. I have a lot of trouble watching movies about slavery or the Holocaust for the same reason. For people who do feel victimized or who wish they could find a way for their pain/victimization to mean something, though, I think those kind of stories can be very emotionally "fulfilling" (again, the wrong word -- does anybody know what this word should be), and I wish I could watch them, too...but the characters' torments are just too senseless and their world too bleak for me to deal well with them in those cases and I can't.
posted by rue72 at 10:02 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

> Can you explain why you want to change this?

I find it difficult to get by without having to be exposed to this kind of material - turning on the TV to watch a show I actually want to see comes with a significant risk of having to sit through a shouty, action-filled promo for some thriller or drama. I even struggle to listen to my beloved radio, especially around Christmas-time, because of the prevalence of shock-horror commercials for drink driving. There was one last year, where they described in great detail the physical process you'd go through in a car crash and invited you to imagine it was someone you loved. I don't need to be told this stuff, I'm not a moron. When I can't listen to the radio - and I work in radio - I feel like I need to do something.

I can't go to the cinema with friends because I can't enjoy watching something unless I know it's violence-free, and I have to pre-vet everything I watch using the excellent recommendation above of the IMDb parental guide (I've got wise to this too, and I don't even have kids!).
posted by winterhill at 10:04 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm. It sounds like maybe it isn't your sensitivity to these things that is bothering you - but rather, your response. I mean, it's okay to be affected by things - but if your response to being affected is rendering you helpless, then that strikes me as a response thing.

I mean, I can get pretty sensitive too - there are a couple of sappy commercials that can choke me up. But the fact that the damn Folgers' commercial at Christmas affects me isn't affecting my Quality Of Life or anything because the way I manifest that sensitivity is just a few seconds of teary eyes, dispatched by a deep breath and then I go about my day. It'd be if a Folger's commercial made me want to burst out sobbing and then call my mom and tell her I loved her, every time I saw it, that'd be a problem. (Well, maybe not for my Mom, but you get the idea.)

I wonder if maybe instead of trying to "be less sensitive," you may want to change your attention to "MANIFESTING that emotion differently"? You know? You can still go see movies with your friends, and can still get affected by violent scenes, but what "being affected by violent scenes" means for you is that "you scrinch down in your seat and hide your eyes until it's over" as opposed to "you run out of the room" or whatever. Is that more what you're looking for?

(I totally hide my eyes at the scary parts in movies still.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:24 AM on November 19, 2013

I used to be like this. Mr.Getawaysticks is a big horror movie buff, and I would be hiding under a blanket (if I even bothered to watch the movie with him).

I am not like this anymore (the only caveat is violence on animals which has always been a problem for me) and I think I just gradually desensitized myself. For horror movies, I had to keep telling myself "fake, fake, fake" when something gory was going on. I still do duck and cover once in a while if it's really gory, but I can mostly watch things even like The Walking Dead without a problem now.

(And I still get overwhelmed/verklempt at beautiful things sometimes like you said you do, or a song that brings back a powerful memory... I didn't totally desensitize my responses, I can just handle the gore/violence better)
posted by getawaysticks at 10:35 AM on November 19, 2013

I used to be far more sensitive to violence in media. I found that both watching some stuff anyways and doing something else while I watch have helped immensely. In particular, I tend to play cards on my laptop while I watch most things and I tend to stop looking at the television screen at all during really intense scenes. (There are still some things I prefer not to watch and that's fine. But this allows me to watch the stuff that I enjoy, while paying less attention to the parts I don't like.) Have you tried splitting your attention to see if it helps?
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:37 AM on November 19, 2013

Given your comments, I think it might be worth talking to a therapist about this, if only because it's interfering a bit with your everyday life and the things you want to do like go out with friends. I also agree with deanc that it's important to learn to deal with and deconstruct this kind of media, because it's inevitable that you will run into it, even when you do your best to avoid it.

I agree that there's nothing inherently wrong with being sensitive like this, and would instead say there's something messed up about our culture that violence is so normalized in media. I similarly have an issue with being sensitive about this kind of thing, though not as much as you. I deal with it by doing my best to watch things that aren't gratuitously violent. In your examples of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, I find I'm okay with watching or reading them and other things like them because the violence in the stories is being used for a purpose other than shock and titillation. It's not gratuitous, it's part of the thesis of the whole work.

I also find it helps me to be able to analyze the media I watch, to be able to take a step back and look a little more carefully at what the creator intends or what their choices show, and to have my emotional reactions but also to be aware of what is causing those reactions. Sometimes that means the extent of my reflection is, "ugh, that was disgusting because it was gory and needlessly violent," and I go watch Adventure Time as a palate cleanser. Sometimes it means I think, "American Horror Story really upsets me more than it maybe should," and I seek out some commentary/episode reviews/talk about it with other people, and come to some conclusions about what exactly it is that's upsetting me (and stop watching it, obviously).
posted by yasaman at 10:39 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I can't listen to the radio - and I work in radio - I feel like I need to do something.

Thanks for your response - I think since it's interfering with your social life and potentially your professional life, then therapy might be really helpful. Just a short course of it would probably be enough since you have such a specific goal.

I don't watch scary movies or even real-world news videos. I will read the story but even on MeFi I will wait to see the responses in a thread before I click on a link, because I don't want to see clickbait violence-porn video. These are aversions I would like to retain, I wish more people had them. But if it gets in the way of living your life, or if you're as affected by a random commercial/PSA as you are by a torture scene in a horror film, then some therapy would likely be helpful.
posted by headnsouth at 11:16 AM on November 19, 2013

winterhill: "I can't go to the cinema with friends because I can't enjoy watching something unless I know it's violence-free, and I have to pre-vet everything I watch using the excellent recommendation above of the IMDb parental guide (I've got wise to this too, and I don't even have kids!)."

I say to my friends, "I don't think I'd enjoy that movie, you know how squeamish I am about on-screen violence, but will you text me when the movie lets out and I'll come meet you for drinks?" Or I go out to dinner with them beforehand and just skip the movie part. My friends all know I'm very sensitive to screen violence, and they don't mind.

As for the terrible commercials, I have tons of sympathy and no solutions. There's this humane society commercial that runs that I actually have to turn off the TV it's so bad, and it upsets me all evening.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:07 PM on November 19, 2013

I could have written the original post myself (male, late 20s fwiw). I definitely sympatize, but I'm finding it comforting to know others feel the same way I do.

For me, there's just too much actual, real-life misery in this world that I shouldn't have to process and react to fictional/depicted misery too. No thank you.

As such, I tend not to watch very many movies or dramatic tv, instead enjoying my free time listening to music or reading non-fiction that interests me. I don't feel as though I'm missing out on anything.
posted by wats at 7:13 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have similar strong reactions. It doesn't help me at all to say "this is fiction, these people are pretending," because to me it is not a far hop from there to the fact that many real people did endure, are enduring, everything we see as fiction, and worse, and it doesn't end in two hours. I can't separate it from reality, because it's not separated from reality. If anything, I think that people who argue that it is are just comforting themselves.

I am fine with avoiding the stuff. I just don't do it. I used to feel sheepish that I couldn't enjoy stupid horror movies, but I'm over 40 now and I don't give a shit - don't feel obligated to bother with the stuff. I don't really feel I'm missing out. If a movie becomes culturally significant but it's rife with violence, I just have someone explain what's supposed to be so great about it - there's no need for me to see it personally . I don't put myself through it - no need. When I have tried to appreciate some of that stuff, usually I don't find it was worth it - much of what people think of as plot or artistic value only draws its power from the juxtaposition with shock/cruelty/sensationalism. Standing alone as plot, it rarely has much drive.

There is plenty of real pain, misery, torture, badness in the world. I don't need to go looking for it and I don't apologize for avoiding it. It does make me feel better to contribute to efforts for justice, as others have noted, and to adopt the intention to use kindness in daily life to counteract the very shitty things the world includes. I guess some of us use shadow-plays to deal with the idea of this dark side, to minimize, frame, and control it. I can't do that, so I avoid them,and turn my attention instead to things that are real, primarily the good things that are real that face, and work to counteract, the bad things.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, now that I'm reading your followup comments: yeah, I'm sorry that even previews and commercials are treading into this territory for you. I hate these things as well (currently having trouble with my hometown paper publishing a photo of an abused dog that they're trying to rehabilitate). I have become somewhat better at tolerating them because I accept my reactions. There's even a little bit of internal narrative - "here's one of those things I hate because of the sad, uncomfortable feelings it creates. It will pass soon and meanwhile I am going to renew my focus on battling that crap in daily life." I think having a reaction plan - what are you going to remind yourself to do when you run across egregiously cruel/frightening things? - can help you feel stronger and more solid in dealing with the awful spectres these things raise.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on November 19, 2013

I hope you don't interpret "therapy might be helpful to you" as "there's something wrong with you," and therefore "there's nothing wrong with you" as "don't get therapy." I don't believe there's anything wrong with you at all. I do think you're in distress over your own feelings, and you don't have to choose between "ask for help" and "affirm that you're on okay person." You can do both.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 9:46 AM on November 20, 2013

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