Emotional sensitivity

Originally Published: April 27, 2007
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Alice,

As a 21 year old, I recognize that I'm far from being completely emotionally developed. But I also recognize that I'm way behind others my age. I think I am too emotionally sensitive. Things people say or do really affect me. Whether I care about the person or not, I always have extreme emotional episodes after others express their feelings or opinions about me. If what they express is derogatory, I get very upset. If it's positive, I get very happy. And, I absolutely cannot deal with rejection. I want to be able to just ignore what others think and just deal with what I think. How can I achieve that goal?

Sincerely,
Emotionally out

Dear Emotionally Out,

You asked for advice on how to learn to ignore what others think, and you'd rather focus only on what you think. Yet, your friends, family, and acquaintances probably appreciate, to some extent, your sensitivity to their feelings and opinions. They also probably realize that what people say can affect you quite a bit. Knowing this, would it be possible to seek some middle ground? By doing so, you could maintain some sensitivity to others' thoughts and feelings while also learning to focus on what you think.

To do this, think of others' feelings and opinions as a form of feedback. Sometimes feedback is positive in nature (e.g., Great job on that paper!), and sometimes it's more negative (e.g., You used improper grammar in that paper.). Both positive and negative feedback contain valuable messages for us. By recognizing and incorporating lessons from feedback, we can improve ourselves on different levels. After all, nobody's perfect and we all have room to grow.

The trick to receiving feedback gracefully — and effectively — is learning to pay careful attention to your feelings, thoughts, and actions. This way, you can learn to put feedback in perspective. Start by asking yourself some questions each time you get some feedback:

What do I feel when I hear feedback? Has my heart rate changed? Is my breathing getting shallower? Does my body feel colder or warmer? Is my face getting red? Do I feel close to tears? Am I shaking? All of these changes are indications of your emotional arousal at any given time. When you become highly emotionally aroused (i.e., ecstatic, angry, depressed, etc.), you might adopt "blinders." You become overly focused on some aspects of the situation while being unaware of others. It's hard to think clearly with blinders on, but you can learn ways reduce your arousal and prevent the blinders from coming on in the first place. For instance, you might try deep breathing exercises.

What am I thinking? First, do I have blinders on? If so, I'm probably not thinking as clearly as possible. When my arousal is lower and my thinking is clear, I can ask myself some more questions: What are my thoughts about the content of the feedback? Is it valid? Did I ask for it? Is it coming from a knowledgeable source I can trust? Does the source want to hurt me or help me? It helps to have very specific feedback to plan the next steps. Do I want to ask for more specific feedback? How will receiving and incorporating this feedback help me achieve my goals? What would happen if I chose to ignore the feedback?

What am I doing? What will I do? What do I do well? What behaviors could I improve? If I'm participating in a training program, what skills am I trying to develop? What do I do to invite feedback from others? What do I do in response to the feedback? How do I change my actions? Are my actions working toward my goals?

By handling these hard questions, you'll start to see patterns between your feelings, thoughts, and actions. You may begin to see others' expressed feelings and opinions as helpful feedback. As you work toward your goal, you might choose to seek some professional help to work through some of your emotional reactions. If you're a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) by calling x4-2878.

By reaching out here, you've already taken a very courageous step. While you go through this period of growth, it'll help to remind yourself of your strengths. For one, your sensitivity to others' feelings and opinions is in many ways an asset. And, your willingness to work towards a healthy perspective will surely help you begin to recognize feedback for what it is: an opportunity for growth.

Alice