How can I be less sensitive?
January 20, 2015 4:32 PM   Subscribe

There is no question about it – I am an extremely sensitive person. What I want to know is how can I be less sensitive, or, maybe, if I should be less sensitive?

In asking how can I be less sensitive I am not asking the question vis-a-vis the approval of others; the fact is that almost everything about me is disapproved of by nearly everyone I know with the exception of a select few.

No, what I would like to change is how the behavior, words, and actions of others can have such a significant influence on my mood. If someone is rude to me, it makes me feel so sad and drained, not necessarily angry but really sad. If someone is rude to someone else, it still makes me feel so sad and drained, even though it has nothing to do with me. If someone kills a spider or anything at all (I love all lifeforms and raise exotic spiders, centipedes, scorpions, etc.), it makes me feel even sadder and feel more drained. If someone is more interested in being right than being knowledgeable or informed, it also makes me extremely sad and drained. If I witness road rage, it makes me feel sad and drained, because I think it is unsafe and rude.

I really wish to see a world where people are kinder, love learning, and are helpful to each other, and each day I try to do something positive, whether it be complimenting someone, helping save a frightened spider, helping a stranded motorist, helping an older individual cross the road, or something as simple as waiting a couple seconds so another trucker or motorist can make a turn in heavy traffic. (What a pain in the butt it is to wait forever to make a turn when all it would take is like 5 seconds out of a person's daily commute to slow down and let someone in.)

As much as I would like to see a world like this, I understand that it is a dream that will likely never materialize, but I still feel really sensitive to all the negativity, rudeness, yelling, selfishness, etc. in my day to day life. The only time I ever really feel at peace now is when there is nobody around me because I feel overwhelmed with the negativity of others in my daily life. Often I really feel like I need to hide from everyone.

Working as a truck driver I notice so much what I think to be negative behavior in drivers, like a microcosm of the world we live in – people driving recklessly so as to get ahead, drivers cutting each other off, swearing at each other for a parking space, etc.

My Girlfriend says she loves my sensitive side, and maybe it isn't the worst characteristic to have, but I would really like to learn to better shield myself from the negativity of others.
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
The driving aspect, I wonder if it's about your recent accident? That's 100% understandable, and being super cautious at this time is a sign that you're looking out for yourself.

The rest of may help to change your framing of it. So instead of seeing people as being hurtful, see it as just part of the myriad ways in which emotions can be expressed. People can be angry and rude, but that's a contrast that makes the kindness and laughter that much sweeter. Or you can see yourself as a student of human nature....don't put judgements on behavior, just look at it as it as something that happens.
posted by xingcat at 4:56 PM on January 20, 2015

Read "The Highly Sensitive Person" by Elaine Aron, and you will understand yourself better and get some tips for coping in this world. There's nothing wrong with you- some people are just more sensitive.
posted by bearette at 5:05 PM on January 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

Embrace it, you can't change who you are, so you might as well love yourself for it.

Signed, another highly sensitive person.
posted by lunastellasol at 5:27 PM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Meditation might help, in that it can teach you to notice a thought or feeling without being consumed by it. You're not doing yourself, or the positive work you want to contribute to the world, any favors when you allow all the crappy stuff out there to take up room inside you and suck away the energy you can put to better use.
posted by rtha at 5:31 PM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Seconding "The Highly Sensitive Person." Even as a big husky not-so-feely guy myself, it really opened my eyes. I also recommend finding your Jungian four-letter preference (like INFP or whatever) and using that to reorient yourself to your gifts. You are in this kind of environment:

> Working as a truck driver I notice so much what I think to be negative behavior

And I think just about anybody who's out driving trucks would have a higher probability of feeling hurt by insensitive behavior, but a sensitive person? You may be chronically overstimulated--in a general sense, not as a medical diagnosis or anything. And that feeling just about as raw as it gets.

Best of luck to you!
posted by circular at 5:33 PM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are an introvert who is around people more than is naturally comfortable for you. I don't know how much wiggle room there is in your schedule but if there is any way to add in more "me time" to spend alone recharging, that might help.

Then, cut out extraneous negativity. Reduce your exposure to negative media (news, social media, upsetting TV shows and movies, etc.) and negative people. Anyone you don't HAVE to interact with for work or family reasons should only be in your life if they're generally cheerful and positive people.

I think once you take these steps to have less overall negativity in your life, your reaction to each individual stressor will be easier to process as it comes up.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:44 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I could have written your question almost word for word many years ago; at that point, I didn't even want to interact with people. I would also have said that I was disappointed with people in general (and probably would have cited similar things to your examples).

There were a few things that helped change this point of view for me. Mind you, I still get upset with people, but I don't think that I will ever go back to the same place, so to speak.

One of the things that I think might also help you though, is as follows: Volunteering. So in my day-to-day life, I saw the blatant negativity of people. But when I worked one-on-one with someone for a cause that I believed in (language and math literacy), it helped me develop respect for another person, see the changes in the person from week to week, and I still can't entirely put words to that experience, but I saw positive things in that person and in people. But it reset the way that I saw things. So yes, you will notice the person squashing the spider and honking at people and pushing an old lady on the floor. But what you might not notice is the other people quietly picking up the spider, the 90% of people not honking, and the 2 or 3 people who help pick the little old lady up.

So you mention some things that you are very passionate about - the welfare of other life forms, spiders, etc. What causes are you passionate about? Is it educating people about endangered spiders? Or taking care of abused life forms (ie, dogs, cats)? What about volunteering just a few hours a week in one of these places? You are likely to also meet other volunteers who are also very passionate about this causes/causes and might have a similar shift in how you perceive people.

The other thing that changed for me in retrospect was the job and overall environment (ie, the people I was around 40 hours a week). But to be honest, I never recognized that it was a problem until I left and went to another workplace. But I wonder: Are there things in your environment that you can change? Drive on a tiny road to work where people might not honk? If Bob and Joe at work are rude, not interact with them?

Stay well.
posted by Wolfster at 6:37 PM on January 20, 2015

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy is a self-help book designed to teach you how to change exactly the thing you want to change. There are exercises to do on paper that help you reframe your thinking so that the behavior, words, and actions of others don't have such an influence on your mood. I read an earlier version almost 20 years (!!) ago and I still use techniques from it pretty often.

You won't lose your sensitivity (I still carry spiders outside because I can't bear to kill them) but it won't get in your way so often.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:48 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I recommend reading about Stoicism. It's a philosophy where kindness is seen as natural. A disposition that thinks deeply about the welfare of animals and about how others treat each other would be seen as virtuous -- no need to try to change who you are. It also has techniques for maintaining a tranquil joyful state of mind, which I have found often are successful ( if you have the proper time and focus to devote to them). In another post someone recommended this book to me It's a good introduction to the philosophy. I also like this one, it's nice to keep in your bag everyday so you can read a little bit when you need it:
posted by winterportage at 6:54 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

You might want to consider a shift in perspective. I know this isn't just about driving but I wonder if that's representative of a larger logical fallacy. When you're driving, and see someone acting like a jerk, the fundamental attribution error is going to make you believe that that person is a jerk. And some confirmation bias is going to make you think everyone is a jerk...But really, driving can just be stressful, and it doesn't bring out the best in anyone. It's awesome that you can find ways to be good to others while you're driving a truck. I'm not that nice of a driver. I let people merge into my lane, I guess, but probably not more than the next person. If I'm going straight at a red light I don't wait for the guy waiting to make a left to go first. I often get way too angry when people don't signal. But people being bad drivers is not the same as people being Bad, or Uncaring, or Cruel.

It sounds like you have really high expectations of others. I totally understand wanting people not to be obnoxious or arrogant; no one wants to be around that. But what would it take for you to see their actions in a different light? What would it take for you to give others the benefit of the doubt? "Ugh, Jerry is just arguing for the sake of arguing and because he's being so loud he isn't listening to the other side of the argument...but I know that it's just because he's so passionate about what he believes/he's just been insecure since he got dumped/he's having a bad day since that client yelled at him..." If you could work on seeing some positive in others, it might help you feel less sensitive to their less-than-awesome actions.
posted by violetish at 7:08 PM on January 20, 2015

1) What is it that you think when you see someone being unkind? In that moment, do you believe that is the totality of who they are? But if you think about the people you know well, you'll probably see that they are mostly good people who now and then, on a bad day or when their buttons get pushed, get frustrated or hurt or thoughtless. So when you see someone acting badly, remember that they might be a bad person, but they might be a good person having a bad moment.

2) I used to feel a lot more sensitive to certain types of behavior. Then, when a specific person who had those behaviors was no longer in my life, I became much less sensitive. So if there's a way to distance yourself from people who are particularly negative, it might help you.

3) In codependency literature there's a lot of talk about not taking on responsibility for other people's problems and feelings. If that rings a bell for you, maybe look into it.

This might also be worth a try.
posted by bunderful at 7:28 PM on January 20, 2015

If the other approaches suggested above don't work for you, I'd recommend trying out some books based on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, especially the parts that focus on "distress tolerance". I'm similarly sensitive, although my internal reactions tend to be more angry than sad, and although I've never been able to stop those feelings, I've had a great deal of success learning to cope with them via a ACT/DBT. In particular, I've found the worksheets at this site pretty helpful:
posted by RedRob at 10:38 PM on January 20, 2015

I really wish to see a world where people are kinder, love learning, and are helpful to each other, and each day I try to do something positive, whether it be complimenting someone, helping save a frightened spider, helping a stranded motorist, helping an older individual cross the road, or something as simple as waiting a couple seconds so another trucker or motorist can make a turn in heavy traffic.

First of all, you sound lovely. Please don't change!

Second, the only advice I can give you is to try to channel your desire for the world to be kinder into compassion and love for the people who are making you feel bad, even when they're behaving hurtfully or thoughtlessly. I'm similarly emotionally impressionable, and working on compassion really helps me deal with negativity.

I found it really difficult to do this until I started practicing having more compassion for myself, though. The harder I was on myself, the harder I was on other people, and vice-versa. The way you talk about things, I bet you feel like a terrible jerk if you get in someone's way at the supermarket (I'm the same way), so you judge other people for their thoughtlessness as harshly as you'd judge yourself. It might seem counterintuitive, but the first step is to have some compassion for yourself and cut yourself a break if you accidentally cut somebody off or have a moment of anger. Not excusing yourself, just having compassion for your humanity. It will make it much easier to have compassion for others when they do thoughtless things, and it will help keep you from absorbing their bad feelings.

Compassion is a habit, not just an inborn capacity, and it can be cultivated. Metta meditation helped me a lot with this. Metta means loving-kindness in Pali, and this compassion meditation is a key teaching of Theravada Buddhism. The idea is that you start by focusing on and experiencing compassion for yourself, then a loved one, then a stranger, and then a difficult person, and finally all beings. There are some good tips on techniques for cultivating compassion in that link, and there are many variations on this meditation if that particular version doesn't work for you. Best wishes.
posted by dialetheia at 11:08 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

The answer is not to be less sensitive - it's to be more selective about what you're sensitive about. I struggle with this too.
posted by Diag at 4:26 AM on January 21, 2015

I get irked with people in vehicles too, because so much of driving is about dominance behavior. Driving involves communicating with other people with most of your natural communication instincts blocked. You can't check out the other guy's expression or posture; if you nod or raise an eyebrow he won't see it.

One thing I do is pay more attention to the people who do not cut me off than to the ones who do cut me off. The number of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists who innocently share the road with me is much higher than the number of jerks. If someone is driving with their high beams on in a crowded neighbourhood at night, count the number of cars who are not driving with their high beams on. If someone runs a red light, count the number of people who don't run any red lights at the same intersection.

I know people who are awful drivers. They can end up driving like jerks because of poor reflexes. Keep in mind that people who drive badly may be doing the best they can but simply be bad at figuring out what other people are doing.

Also, I like to think of other people who are driving cars as being afraid. If they are not afraid, they should be. Simply being two feet in the wrong place can be lethal. Two feet is not much when you are driving at thirty miles an hour, let alone at fifty. Isn't the leading cause of death not by natural causes vehicle accidents? So if someone shows discourtesy while driving, they are a bit like the poor panicked souls trying to get out of the water and into a lifeboat.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:02 AM on January 21, 2015

Strive to be more sensitive about the feelings of others while being less sensitive about yourself.

True sensitivity means caring about others and giving them the benefit of the doubt. The minor slights and ignominies you're getting sensitive about may not be what you think they are.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:55 PM on January 21, 2015

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