October 30, 2009


In my work with couples, I’m constantly hearing men tell their partners, “You’re too sensitive”. They often say this in response to the women complaining about how the men are speaking to them.  The women complain that the men are harsh or derogatory in how they speak to them and the men complain that the women are too sensitive.

Ironically, I had to chuckle this morning when I corrected my son about his tone and his response was…yep you guessed it:  “Mom, you’re too sensitive”.  Actually, I would’ve chuckled I suppose, if I weren’t so annoyed by the dismissiveness of the comment. 

Many people believe that if they don’t intend to have a tone, that they don’t have a tone.  Many also believe that if they don’t think they’re being disrespectful or speaking harshly, then they’re not.  Because they don’t agree with the complaint, the problem must therefore be that the other person is too sensitive. 

Telling your loved one that they’re too sensitive when they ask you to lower your tone/harshness is dismissive and damaging to a relationship.  When you’re talking to someone, you’re not the judge of your tone, they are.  They know how it comes across to them, you don’t.  Regardless of whether you meant to be harsh or not, if they hear it as such—change your tone and energy. 

We all have a tone every now and then.  It’s not a big deal to be human & consequently imperfect.  It is a big deal to turn it around on your partner.  Calling your partner sensitive is a cop out on your part.  Instead of worrying about yourself, worry about how your partner is feeling treated. 

There have been very few incidents when the reality truly was that the person was too sensitive.  I’ve worked with hundreds of couples and trust me the odds of your partner being too sensitive versus you having a tone (or the like) are slim.  Just cop to it, apologize, CHANGE YOUR TONE and move on.  You’ll be amazed at how this one shift will change your relationship!

CHALLENGE: Start listening to your partner’s complaints and rather than looking for where they’re wrong—fix the places where they’re right.  Learn the art of owning your imperfections and repairing your mistakes.  It will do wonders for your relationship—trust me!


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I am an HSP myself and also have had low self esteem issues in my past.

From my own perspective, I see 2 sides to this issue:

On the one hand I very much identify with people speaking to me harshly throughout my life and not realising their tone or the derogatory impact of their words. Because of my low self esteem issues I let this go on for many years without indicating how I felt about it. This created a walking on eggshells mentality in me because I was trying to avoid situations in which the harshness might occur.

On the other side as was mentioned in an earlier comment there are some people who always 'blame' their own mental state and emotional reactions on others, and these people have a 'mind reading' mentality, often reading things into what other people say that were actually not there.

From your own experience I would love to know your wisdom to know the difference between whether somebody is 'sensitive' to something that may be subtle but is clearly there, and somebody who is delusionally picking up things that are not actually there?

Dear Simone: Great question! The best indicator of whether a person is making up things that are not there is if they've heard that said to them by several different sources. If several different people say your making things up or are too sensitive, then it's time to look at your sensitivity. On the other hand, if it's only one person in your life who says this, chances are you're right on, not sensitive.
Hope this helps!

I've heard this phrase far too many times, and I've come to realise that "You're too sensitive" is a classic and very common line to hear in an abusive relationship. If I showed hurt by criticism or name-calling I would also often hear "You take things too seriously" or "I was only joking".

The message they're giving here is that "Your view of my actions is irrelevant."

I'm Real real sensitive when it comes to my relationship with my boyfriend. I love him very much and at times I cant believe how harsh he can be. However, at other times he is very nice and shows he loves me. Its just his personality he is the type that is calm and blunt. I realize that I am more sensitive than the average how do I practice change in this???
DEAR SHARON: You practice changing it by being clear your boyfriend's harshness is not okay. You certainly don't practice changing it by learning to accept it. Let him know that his bluntness feels harsh to you and you would like for him to work on this because it's not working for you. If he doesn't listen to your requests, set a limit.
Good luck and don't accept the unacceptable!

While I agree that accusing someone of being too sensitive is dismissive, it is also important to acknowledge that there are people that let everything outside of themselves dictate their emotional state. These reactionary people have a lack of boundaries and blame everyone else for how they feel rather than taking ownership of their feelings. This tends to stem from insecurity or lack of self esteem. These people blame everyone else for "making" them feel bad. So in a sense, these people are objectively too sensitive.

I am dating some one who is real sensitive and has very low self esteem and doubts a lot in our relationship. I have tried to take her side in things and admitted when I was wrong but it seems she doesn't really want to communicate on any thing. I was wondering what advice u could give me?

DEAR JAMES: I would first make sure you are listening to her words and not assuming she's too sensitive. The worst thing you can say to someone is s/he is too sensitive. Take in her message and look for the truth in it. Be honest with her about what you see as her not feeling worthy and how you'd like her to work on that.
Regarding her not communicating--talk to her about how difficult it is for you when she doesn't talk. Let her know this is an important piece for your relationship and you would like her to work on this. Be honest about how it's effecting you and the relationship. If you're thinking it may eventually lead to you breaking up with her--tell her. this way she knows how important it is to you and can decide what she wants to do.

I hear this phrase a lot. "You're being too sensitive; you need to lighten up." And it's always after I have defended myself against attack or justified my actions in a certain situation. I've been instructed to "Just say 'ok' and we can move on." This is a work setting, by the way. What is an appropriate response to being told that one is "too sensitive"? Do I ask, "Too sensitive for what?" or just call my supervisor on the carpet and say that I feel what I feel, and that saying that to me is belittling? This supervisor (who I have to be in a small room with all day) is the living definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and doesn't take kindly to being stood up to. What should I say?

DEAR RACHAEL: When your boss tells you you're too sensitive, he's dismissing you. I would respond by saying, "Regardless of whether you think I'm sensitive or not, I don't like how you're speaking to me. What I would like is for you to (fill in the blank)." Make a direct request of him and don't get into a fight about who's right or wrong regarding the sensitivity issue. Stay centered on what you want him to change and what is and is not okay for you.
Also be careful about justifying your actions too much--read the post on boundaries. Being defensive means that we got triggered about something and as a result we're in boundary failure. If what they say isn't true, don't let it in. if it is true, look at it, hold yourself in warm regard and fix it if it's appropriate.
Hang in there-

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