How can I be less sensitive about things I should really expect by now?
December 23, 2013 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I would like tips on how to have a thicker skin when people say offensive things or especially when people defend offensive things. You know how whenever there's a racist incident someone says "but was anyone really surprised?" Well I am that person who is somehow always surprised and I tend to cry a little. I cry over comments on the internet. I don't know anyone else who reacts like this and I'm afraid I'd just be dismissed because there really are more important things going on. I want to respond less dramatically, maybe just shrug my shoulders or say something intelligent but not get so upset.
posted by Danila to Human Relations (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give us a couple examples, both from real life and the internet? It's hard to know if you're overreacting or if the people around you are underreacting or what.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:00 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

It would help to know exactly why you want to have a thicker skin--like what you want to get out of having a thicker skin.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:01 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Asking because maybe you're just a sensitive person, which is a perfectly nice and okay thing to be. But then on the other hand maybe you're crying in staff meetings about crimes you saw on the news this morning on regular basis, which might suggest it's out of hand.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:03 PM on December 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

While I think you probably could train yourself to be more blase about things that affect you, I think in the long run you'll be happier and more comfortable with yourself if you accept that this is how you react to things.

Sure, it's possible some people might dismiss you as TOO EMOTIONAL, but you can't please everyone.

Now, if you get so emotional you can't handle the situation, or you break down at inappropriate times (job interview, etc.), then it's something you need to address.
posted by elizeh at 5:04 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you ever asked yourself what it is that upsets you about these things? Are you crying because of the injustice of it all, because of the level of meanness or anger, or is there something else at play? I cry over these same things because I don't yet feel like I have the words to fight back against it all. Could you be in the same boat?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:15 PM on December 23, 2013

How much cushioning do you have in your life? I find that when I am worn down, physically or emotionally stretched or tired, I have very litte resilience and perspective is much harder to bring to bear. Everything feels more bad more urgent more aggravating. For me, cushioning is things like getting enough sleep, not letting myself get too hungry, getting more of my needs met (emotional, physical, financial). Not everything is within my control. But even if it's not, it can at least help to remind myself that my responsiveness is not just about the hing in front of me but also whatever else is going on in my life. If your life doesn't have enough cushioning, then cut yourself a break on crying to the internet and do what you can to give yourself all the care and comfort you can arrange. Related, things can get pent up - do you have anywhere or anyone in your life to just vent to, without inhibition?
posted by Salamandrous at 5:29 PM on December 23, 2013 [12 favorites]

You know... a lot of the people who make asshole comments like "but is anyone really surprised?" are using callous posturing as a defense against the horror of these things. And I might be projecting but it doesn't sound like the reaction you're having is surprise, it sounds like it's grief. And it is okay to grieve unjust violence or to feel loss when people you know talk about beliefs that make them untrustworthy or dangerous.

The only thing I can think of where it might be a better thing to be less reactive is in situations about other people's oppression-- the "omg, I can't believe it's this bad" can be alienating to hear for people when it's /been/ that bad, when that's a daily reality. OTOH if you're talking about being sensitive around a bunch of racists I don't think you need to worry that your responses are hurting their feelings. (hug)
posted by moonlight on vermont at 5:39 PM on December 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

This might seem counterintuitive, but try to imagine that people are saying these kinds of things all the time. Like right now, somewhere, not in my house but somewhere, lots of people are saying offensive things and I don't even know about it. I can't be upset about these things all the time, 24/7, and there's no way I can stop them all from happening. Just because it happens in front of me from time to time doesn't make it different. That doesn't mean you should let offensive things go unchallenged - if the time and place calls for it, definitely call the person out, but don't get drawn into an argument and sort of leave it at, "well, that's just my opinion."

And don't comment on offensive/racist things on Facebook. It just becomes a peanut gallery.

That's how I avoided a lot of stress around these things, YMMV.
posted by sweetkid at 5:41 PM on December 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure that you can necessarily make yourself less sensitive. However, coping mechanisms can make it easier to deal with.

1. Don't read the comments
2. For those people in your life who have a history of posting things on FB or other sites that you know in advance will make you upset, don't click those links. Hide their posts if you need to.
3. When you can tell you are getting upset IRL, and it's not a "safe" place or person to get upset with, walk away.

Being sensitive can be a wonderful thing - you may be a kind and empathetic friend, you may volunteer or give to causes you care about. But it can be a real drag on you emotionally - so when you find your sensitivity being aroused ask yourself "does this serve a greater purpose?" Avoid internet flame wars or comment sections about the latest scandal, but go ahead and cry with your friend who is hurting.
posted by bunderful at 5:46 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to be like this, when I was a little younger (I'm 35 now).

One thing that really helped me put this into perspective is realizing that most people who make hateful comments on purpose are ignorant, filled with negativity, and probably miserable. People who make inadvertent racist/etc comments are also ignorant, but at the same time they may mean well and genuinely think they are speaking the truth or have a reason for their point of view. These realizations helped me to relate to other people more and not take their vitrol or ignorance personally.

Another thing that helped was to just not linger on, or go looking for, these kinds of comments. There actually are plenty of positive, relatively enlightened people (like on metafilter! I said relatively :). Spend some time around them, whether online or in the virtual world, and things will seem a lot less depressing.

Another thing that helped me was to find an outlet for my emotions- for me this was yoga, but many kinds of meditation, therapy, artistic expressions or physical exercises could work.
posted by bearette at 5:51 PM on December 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

if the people around you are underreacting

No I don't think they are. Other people may react but not by crying. It's the crying I want to stop. Like earlier today, Steve Martin made a tweet that I thought made fun of black people. Other people thought the same thing so I don't think my reaction came out of nowhere. Also, in the grand scheme of things, I know it's a minor thing. But I still got teary-eyed about it and that's what I want to stop.

It would help to know exactly why you want to have a thicker skin--like what you want to get out of having a thicker skin.

When I get teary I avoid people more. I really don't like it when people see me cry. So one way to deal with this is to cry less which is what I want to do so I don't avoid people. I also feel like my crying is very melodramatic because it's a disproportionate response, as evidenced by the fact that whatever it is, it doesn't make anyone else cry.

Have you ever asked yourself what it is that upsets you about these things? Are you crying because of the injustice of it all, because of the level of meanness or anger, or is there something else at play?

I think it's because I'm frustrated and feel powerless and also I take things personally.
posted by Danila at 6:03 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Back in college I was in the fine arts department and I don't wanna generalize, but there were a LOT of people who'd I say were... extremely emotionally sensitive around.

The ones who got over it quickly and remained positive in those situations were the ones who could turn it around into a joke.

"It doesn't surprise you that mugging was in the poor, minority filled part of town? Doesn't surprise me either, they all have the decency to be upfront about robbery down there. Wish the suits in the skyscrapers could be honest about their crimes in the same way."

Dunno if that's a good example, and you don't wanna make jokes that instigate an argument, but even if you don't drop a quip in the moment, looking at things with a good sense of humor is always a good policy I think.
posted by johnpoe50 at 6:11 PM on December 23, 2013

I began writing out a long reply, but this is actually the only part that matters:

Being unsurprised by offensive words and actions is overrated.
posted by duffell at 6:39 PM on December 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Once you start viewing this as a negative thing that must be stopped, it becomes a bigger thing. Like phobias. So it's not really the sensitivity that's the problem, but that you dislike it and feel that it makes you powerless and wrong compared to other people. It would help to reframe your sensitivity so that it isn't a negative (what are all the positive things associated with being sensitive/how can it help you?) and to also do some meditation so that you're more aware of yourself in the moment. Strangely enough, removing a lot of the psychological baggage around your sensitivity may make you react less outwardly as well as allow you to feel more in control of it. There are some significant benefits to being sensitive - you just have to own them.
posted by heyjude at 6:41 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm guessing you're a woman. Crying in response to anger is an incredibly common response in women. Women are socialized that it's okay to show sadness, and okay to cry, but that they shouldn't show overt, direct anger. (Men are socialized the reverse, which is why you so often see men inappropriately express sadness or fear as rage.) So a LOT of women, when they get angry, they feel frustration because they're not allowed to express that anger directly, and especially when they feel powerless to address the source of frustration or anger, cry instead. Your statement that you feel frustrated and powerless makes me think you're angry and don't very often express anger in a direct form. (And I bet that because you don't want to cry, crying itself makes you more frustrated, which feeds the crying, which HEY I KNOW I'VE BEEN THERE. IN FACT I GET MY MAIL DELIVERED THERE.)

So I'd say, first, take a moment to take stock of what you're feeling when this happens -- all of it. Down under the frustration and sadness, is there some anger? Don't worry about changing it or the feelings being wrong; just feel them all and reflect on them and learn something about yourself.

Second, allow yourself to express anger and frustration more directly. This may begin by just saying to the person you're talking to, "I'm sorry, I'm really angry right now, I need a minute to calm down." Hopefully it eventually leads to you being able to say, "When you say shit like that, it pisses me off. Stop." Practice these confrontations in your head; rehearse them and rehearse what you'd like to say and how you'd like them to go. Imagine all the way through the situation, work at it until you find a resolution you're satisfied with. People who are good at expressing themselves in emotional situations have often practiced the conversation in advance. Talking to yourself is underrated as a strategy. :)

Third, empower yourself. If you feel like these are issues you CAN affect, in a more global way, the small incidents may not bother you so much. Maybe that means small activism, like writing letters and calling Congresscritters with an organization that works on these issues; maybe it means something as big as changing your job. I personally have a really hard time coping with stories about crimes against children; working on my school district's bullying policy to make it better and stronger has made me feel really empowered and like I'm HELPING and I can help and things can get better, and those stories don't upset me as much as they did before, because I don't feel so powerless and frustrated.

Fourth, crying. Some physical strategies that can help include biting the inside of your cheek; holding your thumb and first finger as tensely as possible so that you are almost, but not quite making a circle with them (feel like you're both trying to put them together and keep them apart ... this distracts the brain and sometimes helps); looking up at the ceiling; consciously relaxing your body to calm yourself.

But also I want to say that you're not alone in crying about things like this, and a lot of people are sympathetic about it. My mom and I joke that we have "loose tear ducts" and I just accept by this point in my life that sometimes I will cry at inappropriate times and there's not a lot I can do about it; getting upset that I'm crying just makes it worse. Ugh, I have so many stories about inappropriate public crying, but one of the worst when when I was giving a lecture to my students and I started crying because I was emotional about the topic. It was awful. But I just collected myself and said to my students, "I'm sorry; sometimes I cry when I'm emotional about things and I would much rather not. This is embarrassing." They laughed sympathetically and I plowed on, and several told me after class that they're inappropriate public criers too. It never gets less mortifying, but it's like slipping on ice: eventually it's just going to happen and all you can do is pick yourself up and move on.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:46 PM on December 23, 2013 [39 favorites]

Do not read comments on unmoderated boards, especially newspapers. The free-for-all is probably encouraged to increase page views. It has gone on so long, and at such major papers, that it can't be attributed anymore to intertubes naivete.
posted by bad grammar at 8:24 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I could give you some tips about disassociating and compartmentalizing, but I really don't want to. You sound lovely, and human, and immensely sweet. I wish more people were like you, rather than that you were more like other people.
posted by leitmotif at 8:29 PM on December 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Crying over comments on the Internet doesn't do anything for anyone, including you. You want to combat racism, sexism, ageism, whateverist--do something. donate money, volunteer, write op-eds, speak up, campaign, vote--take some action. But weeping over a tweet is a waste of your energy and emotions. When you read something that upsets you, grab a notebook and start making notes. Write down your reactions and start making plans as to how you plan to counter-act this. Deeds, not words.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:31 PM on December 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

I very much agree with Eyebrows McGee. The feelings you're describing sound like anger, and anger is an absolutely appropriate response to injustice.

When Anger Scares You and The Dance of Anger are both excellent books about learning to deal with anger constructively.
posted by jaguar at 9:22 PM on December 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't know if it's any help, but in the grand scheme of things, I think it is better to be someone who is overly empathetic that someone who lacks empathy or compassion. I admire you for having a heart that is so moved by other peoples' plights, even if you don't know them. I'd consider it something of a cross to bear for a virtue that not many people have the benefit to possess at all.

Not that that helps your direct problem, of course. But I wonder if part of the solution is learning how to funnel the emotion more productively rather than not getting upset at all (as please, don't lose it).
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:22 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is how I deal with this sort of thing - and it sounds terribly pretentious & supercilious, but its not meant to be. I actively practice compassion toward the speaker. How many wonderful friendships will a racist person miss out on because of their racism? What stresses they must be under to have to constantly deal with anger and dislike of people for such an irrelevant thing as skin colour? What was their childhood like, if they were taught to despise other people for no good reason? I wonder if they experience more fear of others, more social anxiety when they are forced to mix with all sorts of people. And how many people of their own race reject them, choose not mentor them or love them for their bigoted views. What a sad sad choice they have made, and they can't even see it to change it.

I can make little changes in the world by refusing to be silent. I will gently speak up if my friends or colleagues are maligning a group of people, not in an aggressive way - more to point out that what they perceive to be a truth about, say, our Australia's indigenous people has many more facets to it than they may have considered. I have gently and for as long as an hour, talked to a PhD student in his 70s about appropriate ways to behave professionally around women on campus (staff & students) and (I hope) helped him to understand the consequences of his well meaning but archaic chivalry (and much of my skill in this area is due to the sexism threads on metafilter).

I recommend Jay Smooth (cant link because of device) who talks about discussing what people do - say things that hurt feelings, rather than what they are - racist, because a. You don't really know what is in someone else's heart & mind, you can only comment on their behaviour.

I have seen people on sites as notorious as Fark and Reddit standing up for minority groups, and receiving many up votes and this encourages me. fark for example has an automatic replacement word for the pejorative that is described as the N word. And I have seen a distinct social change between the time Ellen came out on her TV show (and lost her career) and now, over many social media sites, support for same sex marriage and a sharing of happiness in the communities that embrace this.

The world is not and never will be perfect but you can redirect your emotion to celebrate the good changes, and to gently speak out when necessary.
posted by b33j at 11:37 PM on December 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have you ever read any writings by the ancient Greek Stoics? They were masters of the attitude you seem to want to cultivate. Epictetus in particular is good with the "well were you really surprised?" and is amusingly harsh while still inspiring (IMO). He has a story the gist of which is: "if your neighbor broke a clay cup and then became irate, you would think he was overreacting. Things break sometimes. Likewise, if your son is killed, you shouldn't carry on as if the universe has uniquely wronged you. Sons die sometimes." The Stoics lived in a time of war when life was chaotic, and detachment was adaptive. So Epictetus would tell you that you know people are dicks sometimes, and becoming upset doesn't help change it.

You could find Stoic writings in an undergrad ancient philosophy textbook. Mine was Ancient Philosophy, ed. Baird and Kaufmann. You also might find texts online or in books just on the Stoics. If you're not inspired, you would at least gain the perspective that your concern is an ancient one.
posted by Comet Bug at 12:27 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is kind of embarrassing, but part of the reason I am in therapy currently is due to comments on the internet and my reaction to them. I am a lady who writes a website, therefore I sometimes get truly horrible comments directed at me, so I guess "Was anyone really surprised?" would be most people's reaction to that. However, like you, I've had a really hard time with it, despite growing years of experience. My reaction is usually anger instead of crying, however. Although crying has happened too.

Working on this specifically with my therapist using DBT (which means there is a large emphasis on distraction, self-soothing, and then opposite action), here is a system similar to the one I have worked out for internet comments that upset me:

1) If you see an upsetting comment that makes you either want to cry or respond immediately in a disinhibited way, the first thing to do is get away from the website in question for a set period of time. For me, that set period is 12 hours.

2) Take a short break from the computer entirely to do something physical and distracting - sometimes I exercise to sort of work off adrenaline (wall pushups are easy and great for this, or squats, or I go for an Angry Walk), and then do something soothing. Soothing things usually involved engaging one of the 5 senses - smell something awesome (light a candle, burn incense, spray perfume, make tea), look at something visually pleasing (a pretty movie, nature photos, out the window, take a walk outdoors), touch something nice (pet an animal, put on fuzzy jammies or socks, get in the tub, put on lotion), listen to something soothing (nice music, a podcast or radio show whose announcer has a calming voice), taste something comforting (chocolate, favourite meal, a beverage, whatever.)

3) Go back to the computer after a short break if you need to, but continue to stay away from the comment or website itself for 12 hours.

4) Twelve hours later, go back to the upsetting comment. This is actually important, because if you start avoiding these things entirely, your response will never improve. But after twelve hours, if you re-expose yourself to the stimulus, your emotions are likely to be a little less intense just from passage of time. Pay attention to how you feel and where you feel it in your body. You might be surprised. If you still cry, then repeat steps 1 and 2 - go do something soothing for a few minutes, and wait 12 hours until you read the comment again. Repeat this step as many times as you need. It might take DAYS to finally read a particular comment without bursting into tears, and that is okay.

5) When you are finally able to come back to the comment without crying, ask yourself if you want to respond or not. The response, if you choose to make one, should have a clear objective and should be useful in some way. It shouldn't just be wailing and moaning or even saying something sarcastic - it should be the "intelligent response" you mention above. What would be an intelligent, useful thing to add to the situation?

6) After you respond (or choose not to respond, but without crying), reward yourself in some way, maybe by doing something that is happy and energizing. Do something joyful and maybe active, to counteract the impulse to mope or feel sad, like dancing or listening to peppy music or going out with friends or watching some funny video. You can also reward yourself with food or coffee if those things are treats for you. This is your reward for responding in the way that you wanted, rather than being engulfed in tears.

Therapist says that, eventually, I will be able to find empathy and compassion for the commenters and that this is the thing that deals with the root of the problem. But until you can deal with your emotional response, that will be hard. However, it's good to keep in mind that most people are scared on some level - of differences or of being marginalized themselves, most people will lash out at others sometimes in an attempt to make themselves feel better, most people have internalized nasty stereotypes or beliefs from the culture without analyzing them, and everyone disinhibits on the internet. Despite how awful it is to witness, it is a very human behavior.

I printed out a similar plan and have it stuck to a bulletin board above my computer. It is honestly the most helpful thing. Good luck from a fellow sensitive.
posted by Ouisch at 6:36 AM on December 24, 2013 [12 favorites]

OP, I like your style, and think the world would be so much better off if there were more empaths like you. Don't change. The rest of the world is who should change.

"I want to respond less dramatically, maybe just shrug my shoulders or say something intelligent but not get so upset."

One great resource for coming up with intelligent scripts in the heat of the moment when you're confronted with someone else's upsetting isms are the writings of anti-bullying educator Rosalind Wiseman -- in particular her book Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads, which is written for parents, but is also helpful to anyone who wants to learn how to speak truth to power.
posted by hush at 10:11 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Today I am a little more clear-headed and I admit that I don't want to want to cry. I interpret "wanting to cry" as being a baby because babies can't express themselves in any other way. The fact that tears come to my eyes at all leads to internal criticism. It's not that the crying is bothering others (I rarely cry around other people, only at movies).

But all of your answers help me see maybe it's not a sign of being a baby. Anger and grief have a lot to do with it. But also feeling alone in my upset. I don't talk about or vent in any way about these little things that bother me, especially racism, except sometimes when I make comments here. But maybe I should talk about things more when they come up, not as big deals but just, hey here's something I had a thought about or here's something that affected me.
posted by Danila at 11:40 AM on December 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

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