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Do you overreact to criticism or uncomfortable situations? How can you be less sensitive?
Sensitivity can show that you’re in touch with your emotions, which is a good thing. On the other hand, being overly sensitive can prevent you from engaging in meaningful social interactions.
Get out of your own way and learn how to be less sensitive with our methods.
What Does It Mean to Be Sensitive?
While almost everyone embodies some level of sensitivity, high sensitivity is a trait that isn’t usually found in the general population, writes Elaine Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person. About one-fifth of people are highly sensitive.
The drawback of high sensitivity, according to Aron, is the tendency to become overstimulated. Highly sensitive people are more sensitive to sensory stimuli, which makes them more susceptible to sensory overload due to overarousal.
According to Aron, arousal is the nervous system’s natural response to stimuli. It affects everyone differently, and it’s not necessarily good or bad. Everyone, highly sensitive person or not, functions best when they’re neither overaroused nor underaroused.
However, stimulation affects highly sensitive people more profoundly than people with a moderate level of sensitivity, leading to more frequent overarousal: people who are very sensitive are more likely to notice stimuli that others don’t, process the stimuli and information more deeply, and have more intense emotions as a result. Stimuli that affect overly sensitive people particularly strongly include strong smells, bright lights, loud noises, large crowds, pain, and hunger.
When experiencing overarousal, overly sensitive people often freeze up and may feel trapped by the overload of stimulation. If it becomes too severe, they may experience a phenomenon called transmarginal inhibition, in which they shut down completely, unable to tolerate the stimulation they’re feeling. People will often avoid situations that might trigger this stimulation, such as parties or other social events.
How to Overcome Sensitivity
As we discussed above, extreme sensitivity can disrupt your life and cause personal distress, especially if you refuse to engage in events that are triggering. But you shouldn’t have to live a life of discomfort and fear.
We’ve outlined four ways to learn how to be less sensitive so you can keep your emotions in balance.
1. Practice Managing Your Emotions
The first way to learn how to be less sensitive is to know and manage your emotions effectively. According to Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, self-awareness is the ability to recognize a feeling as it’s happening to you. Being able to monitor our feelings as they’re occurring helps us understand ourselves and our psychology. The more certain we are about our feelings, the easier it is to overcome sensitivity.
People who know their emotions are aware of their moods as they happen but can be mindful of how they deal with them. They’re more sure of their boundaries since they know how they’ll feel. They tend to have a positive outlook on life since they know they can manage whatever moods are thrown at them. They don’t dwell on bad moods and can get out of ruts faster. They can be mindful of their emotions and manage them successfully.
The goal is to be self-aware about our emotions, but most people deal with their emotions in one of two unhealthy ways:
- Engulfed. People who deal with emotions this way aren’t aware of what’s happening to them. Their moods shift often and overpower them. They do little to change their feelings and feel out of control often.
- Accepting. These people are more clear on what they’re feeling, but they also don’t feel like anything needs to change. They’re either in good moods, so they don’t have any motivation to change their moods, or they’re in bad moods but are resigned to feeling like there’s nothing they can do about it.
Once we’re aware of our emotional responses as we’re having them, we can start to regulate how they influence our actions.
Three emotions are attached to sensitivity and are hard to regulate: anger, anxiety, and sadness.
- We get angry when we feel attacked. The worst thing you can do for anger is dwell on it. Instead, try challenging the assumptions that are making you angry, physically cooling off with exercise or distraction, using relaxation techniques, or writing down your angry thoughts to reflect on them.
- Anxiety is a form of worrying, a kind of rehearsal of what could go wrong and potential ways we might deal with it. Relaxation techniques can help anxiety, and challenge the anxiety by asking realistic questions (like “Does it actually help to go through these thoughts over and over again?”).
- Sadness is usually the mood people want to change the most, but they do it in ways that can worsen the sadness: isolating themselves, or dwelling on the sadness under the guise of analyzing it. Try challenging the sad thoughts to find a positive spin on them, scheduling pleasant distractions, or engineering small successes for yourself.
TITLE: Emotional Intelligence
AUTHOR: Daniel Goleman
2. Don’t Take Things Personally
Sensitivity is most often triggered when you take things personally. To be less sensitive, remind yourself not to take things to heart. It sounds deceptively simple, but so many of us are sensitive and defensive, primed to ward off the negativity the world throws at us.
But if you gain internal strength—meaning becoming more confident with yourself and boosting your self-esteem—taking on this challenge becomes easier. No good comes from taking things personally. In fact, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz says it’s a chain reaction of bad:
Someone says something about you => You take it personally => You’re offended => You defend yourself and your position => You fire back something about the other person => The other person takes THAT personally, gets offended, and says something meaner =>…
It goes on and on. Does this remind you of any arguments you’ve had in the past? When you take things personally, you can resent them and simmer for much more time than is appropriate. You also take what might otherwise be helpful advice and reject it out of anger.
How Do We Go About Not Taking Things Personally?
How do we refrain from taking things personally? Here’s the simple belief to put this into action: Any negative input is about the other person, not you.
Whenever someone says something to us or about us, pause and remember the following:
- Nothing they think about you is really about you. It’s really about them.
- If someone gets mad at you, they’re dealing with their own issues. When you accept someone else’s “emotional garbage,” it becomes yours. And you don’t need it.
- Others see the world with different eyes. They have their own worldviews. You can choose to reject their worldview since you have your own.
- Everyone’s truth is their own.
- When you take things personally, you suffer for nothing – and there’s already too much suffering in the world.
Here’s an example: Someone calls you ugly. This isn’t about you at all. It’s about the opinions and beliefs they have incorporated. Calling you ugly comes from their own wounds. If they were feeling great about life, they’d probably be calling you beautiful. They certainly wouldn’t take pleasure in putting you down.
And whether the other person calls you beautiful or ugly, their input about you is unimportant. The only thing that matters is how you feel about yourself. Whether it’s good or bad, just don’t accept others’ judgment of you. And it’s not just other people’s opinions and judgments that are harmful; you shouldn’t even take your own opinions about yourself personally!
TITLE: The Four Agreements
AUTHOR: Don Miguel Ruiz
3. Expand Your Comfort Zone
Most sensitive people are introverts who might oppose the idea of being in situations they know will trigger their sensitivity. For instance, if you hate criticism from your peers, you might prefer to do individual work instead of group work at school or work.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain suggests expanding your temperament a bit by willingly doing things outside your comfort zone. That way, you’ll slowly get used to triggering events or conversations that are unavoidable in the future.
Our personalities are somewhat like rubber bands, able to stretch but only so far. Introvert Bill Gates can hone his social skills but he’ll never be as gregarious as Bill Clinton—and Clinton will never be a solitary computer genius like Gates. A highly sensitive introvert likely won’t ever be an extrovert, but there’s always room to learn and practice skills to be more comfortable interacting socially.
For example, a sensitive introvert can learn and practice skills to be more comfortable interacting socially. As an introvert, author Susan Cain struggled with public speaking, yet it was something her work often required her to do. To make the experience less stressful, she took a class in public speaking and also taught herself some stress-reduction techniques, such as:
- Treating every speech as a creative project and enjoying the research and preparation, which carries over into the presentation itself.
- Speaking on subjects she’s passionate about enables her to focus on the topic more than on the audience. Also, since she’s interested in the topic, she doesn’t have to project enthusiasm she doesn’t feel.
Don’t Stretch Yourself Until You Break
Stepping outside of your comfort zone and knowing how to be less sensitive in uncomfortable situations is great, but you also don’t want to act out of character for too long. This is because it takes up a lot of energy.
You need to create “restorative niches,” where you can relax and be yourself. These niches can be a physical place—many introverts take a break in the bathroom after giving a speech or during a long social event. While giving a series of lectures to military officers, Little took a walk by himself between lectures, rather than having lunch with the top brass. You can also create restorative niches by giving yourself a relaxing weekend before a big event, taking breaks for yoga or meditation, or replacing a face-to-face meeting with a phone call or email.
You can even create a restorative, or at least a less stressful, niche during a meeting or event by choosing when you arrive, where you sit, and how you communicate. These choices help you establish physical distance and perspective.
Before accepting a job, you might want to consider the availability of restorative niches that fit your personality—for instance, would you have a private workspace or face the constant interruptions of an open office?
In your personal life, you might have to negotiate what Little calls a “Free Trait Agreement” with a spouse or partner, in which you each agree to act out of character on occasion, in exchange for being in character most of the time. For instance, you’ll attend your wife’s best friend’s wedding, but you’ll skip the pre-wedding social activities.
Making these compromises helps you grow beyond your sensitivity, while also staying faithful to your personality. Because of this, restorative niches are one of the best ways to learn how to be less sensitive.
TITLE: Quiet: The Power of Introverts
AUTHOR: Susan Cain
4. Engage in Different Types of Therapy
If your sensitivity is disrupting your everyday life, consider trying different types of therapy to help you be less sensitive.
In The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron describes four types that have been shown to help you understand how to be less sensitive: cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, physical therapy, and spiritual therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the way you think and behave. It may involve getting better at certain tasks like socializing, or it may be focused on helping you learn to relax or get rid of irrational thoughts. These techniques can be done on your own, but it’s usually helpful to have a coach. A disadvantage of this technique is that it focuses on surface-level symptoms and sometimes treats sensitivity like an overreaction.
Interpersonal therapy is based on talking and building a relationship with your therapist or group. It draws from different schools of psychology and focuses on inner work, such as working through feelings of trauma or experimenting with ideas about the future. Aron particularly recommends Jungian analysis because of its focus on the unconscious mind and its incorporation of spirituality. A disadvantage of this approach is that it might be overly appealing to sensitive people because they are so good at introspection, and it may be difficult to leave this type of therapy—which can be very expensive.
Physical therapy refers to any healing technique applied to the body. This can include exercise, diet, sleep, medications, sports, and massage. Aron points out that everything that happens to the body affects the mind, so physical therapy is a great way to help relax or heal the mind. With physical healing, it is particularly important to keep in mind that your body is more sensitive than the average body, and physical approaches can come with a lot of strong stimuli. If you’re already feeling overstimulated, for example, the intensity of a massage might make you feel worse than you did before. Be sure to discuss your sensitivity with anyone who is providing you with physical treatment.
The final type of healing Aron describes is spiritual healing. This includes things like religion, meditation, or connection with a higher power or self. Aron finds that sensitive people respond particularly well to spiritual healing because they tend to look inward and desire to overcome overarousal through reframing, which many spiritual techniques offer.
While these tips are great for those who want to be less sensitive, it’s important to remind yourself that sensitivity isn’t a curse. A moderate level of sensitivity makes you richly empathetic and protects you from danger. But when it prevents you from living your best life, building a thicker skin isn’t a bad idea.
Do you have any other tips that will help others learn how to be less sensitive? If so, leave them in the comments below!
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