“You’re too sensitive,” my boyfriend said last week.
“I know, isn’t it great?” I replied, fully meaning it.
I’ve only recently begun to recognize the sheer strength of my sensitivity. Having been told to “toughen up” my entire life, I used to feel as though there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was somehow born flawed and cursed. While everyone else walked around with thick, impenetrable skin, mine was thin and absorbent. Almost everything affected me deeply, from an unkind word to a neglected animal to a war raging in a far off country.
It wasn’t until I discovered that there were others like me (1.4 billion people, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, leading researcher of the innate trait of high sensitivity) that I started to feel like a part of something larger than me and finally gave myself permission to stop beating myself up for being so emotionally affected.
If you’re constantly told you’re “too sensitive” and need to “toughen up,” chances are you’re among the 20% who are highly sensitive and resonate with the following traits:
- You’re easily overstimulated by loud noises and bright lights
- You need a lot of quiet down time, preferably alone
- Violent movies are excruciating to watch
- You feel everything deeply and cry easily
- You tend to overthink things and take longer to make decisions
- You’re exhausted after being around people and need some alone time to recharge
- You’re often overwhelmed and anxious, prone to bouts of depression and sadness
- You can sense the emotions of those around you
If you relate to any of the above and cringe every time you hear the words “toughen up,” here are three steps to turn the most common and dreaded advice you receive into something positive.
1. Consider the source and intention.
For the most part, non highly sensitive people have good intentions when dishing out those two words from hell. To them, allowing yourself to feel deeply is a weakness because it causes you to get hurt easily, so it’s only logical that you toughen up, stop feeling deeply, and you won’t get hurt. Pain avoidance is not only logical, it’s societally encouraged. But for highly sensitive people, logic is often overruled by the heart. We are led by our hearts rather than our heads, so to “toughen up” from a heart standpoint means to deny the very thing that makes you you. Telling a highly sensitive person to toughen up is like telling sugar not to be sweet. For those who don’t understand the deeply rooted inherent trait of sensitivity, “toughen up” is considered a piece of helpful advice to adjust a mere personality quirk, not an entire identity overhaul, which is how many of us highly sensitives take it.
2. Use your natural empathy to understand the deeper motive.
My boyfriend and I have a saying: he’s the head, I’m the heart. We balance each other out. Being the rational, logical mind in the relationship, he recognizes the importance of our balance and knows there’s only room for one dominant head in the relationship, not two. But even still, there are times when I’m hurt and he tells me to toughen up. Gifted with the empathic ability to sense other people’s emotions and underlying intentions, I not only sense his masculine need to protect me from hurt, I feel his pain and helplessness of not being able to protect me from emotional hurt. He can physically shield me from a knife coming at my chest, but he can’t shield me from a knife cutting my heart from the inside. It’s ironic that his words directed at me could easily be turned back against him. Underneath his motive to save me from getting hurt lies a deeper desire to help me toughen up so he doesn’t have to feel the pain of seeing me in pain, and worse, not being able to stop it.
Once I truly understood the psychological underpinnings behind the well-worn advice, I found compassion for those who told me to toughen up. Now, instead of cringing because I think they’re trying to change who I am, I can see it for what it truly is, an attempt at pain avoidance and a well-intentioned though misplaced piece of advice. Nothing more.
3. Reframe the meaning of “toughen up” from a highly sensitive perspective.
Being highly sensitive, your brain is hardwired to consider things from multiple angles. Use that to your advantage and consider the possibility that “toughen up” could mean strengthening your resolve to embrace and support your sensitivity. Instead of seeing it as a weakness, become curious about it and find ways in which it actually benefits you and those you love. Toughen up your wavering self-doubt and take a stand for your deep feelings. How many times have you felt such intense emotion and come out stronger on the other side? Do you know many others who wouldn’t be absolutely crushed with half the amount of pain you’ve felt, and probably feel on a daily basis? Instead of trying to toughen up your heart, toughen up your determination to see the resilience in it.
The next time someone tells you to toughen up and you feel that initial sting, you can thank them for reminding you of your sensitive strengths. You can immediately reframe their meaning of “toughen up” to your own heart-centered benefit and toughen up your commitment to loving yourself and your sensitivities, recognizing how incredibly and quietly strong they make you.