How Do I Stop Being So Freaking Sensitive?

I get my feelings hurt when someone bumps into me on the street and doesn't apologize. It's exhausting to take everything so personally.
Publish date:
March 14, 2014
criticism, emotions, sensitivity, highly sensitive people

I've been trying to join the rec center by my house. I already have a gym membership, but this one is right across the street, perfect for weekend workouts. Plus, they have a pool. And at $150 dollars for a year membership, I can't afford NOT to join!

It's all about as ramshackle as you'd expect for a 150-dollar-a-year gym: a couple of treadmills, an air hockey table and a confusing and inexplicable schedule that makes it nearly impossible to find someone manning the front desk to process my membership.

Last Tuesday, I was working from home and I decided to pop over in hopes of paying for a new membership and getting in 30 minutes or so on the elliptical. When I arrived, gym bag over my shoulder, during advertised gym hours, the front desk was empty and a couple of bored-looking Parks employees seated at a table stared at me for a while before one of them yelled "WE'RE CLOSED."

I thought that maybe the gym was closed but the office was open to process my membership, so I responded, "I was hoping to sign up for a membership?"

"WE'RE CLOSED," she enunciated again, slowly and loudly like she was speaking to an annoying child.

"OK, sorry," I said.

"You can't be in here. You NEED to come back after 6," she responded.

I stuttered for a second, trying to get out a question about what general hours staff would be available to assist me but she was glaring at me so intently I just kind of backed out, apologizing.

And then, I cried. All the way home, through the park, with the sunshine beating down on my shoulders, I sniffled and sobbed and kept my contorted face down to avoid attention from passersby. Partly I was just disappointed because I had been excited to work out and proud of myself as I strode through the park in my gym clothes. But mostly, the lady had just hurt my feelings.

I had stopped sniveling by the time I got home, but the exchange continued to bother me for hours -- why did she have to talk to me like that? How was I supposed to know they were closed during regular business hours? I should have said this, or that.

Even I know how incredibly stupid that is. I mean, honestly, who cares? I don't know this lady, she doesn't know me, and she didn't even say anything that horrible. Why was I letting a tone ruin my entire day?

I'm sensitive. I get my feelings hurt when someone bumps into me on the street and doesn't apologize, or when a store clerk is rude or dismissive. I take everything so freaking personally, and it's exhausting.

As a teenager, I worked a series of customer service jobs (I don't trust anyone who hasn't), which basically demand that you let the public demean you for hours on end. Whenever a customer would be rude or downright mean, it would make me feel terrible about myself. Most of my co-workers got angry when people were dicks; I would cry.

Even worse, I was a telemarketer for a couple of weeks in high school. After a few weeks of taking people's constant abuse, I actually made myself physically ill. I ended up taking the day off for my birthday and never coming back. I just couldn't make myself return to that building, even for 12 dollars an hour.

I'm also a people pleaser who bends over backward to make sure everyone is comfortable. I empathize deeply with people and I can't stand for anyone to feel upset or confused. According to my therapist, this is called caretaking, thinking that other people need me to protect and take care of them, instead of just realizing they're grown-ass people who can handle a little bit of discomfort. Had someone wandered into a rec center where I was employed looking lost, I would have rushed right over to find out how I could help them. I would have apologized repeatedly for the unexpected closure. They would have left with pamphlets or something.

That's probably a stupid way to be, or at least an unhealthy one. Because when people don't afford me the same courtesy, when they're not just undeniably nice, It really shatters me. I start trying to figure out what I did wrong or in what way I'm deficient, instead of just realizing it's about them and their bad day or bad attitude or the fact that they just don't get paid enough to give a damn. It's like my brain is constantly looking for rejection.

In researching sensitivity, I found out that there's an actual name for this besides just "thin-skinned." At first I was dubious that I was actually a "highly sensitive person," but then I found this article: 16 Habits of Highly Sensitive People, and I have to admit it sounds pretty familiar. Like this:

"Highly sensitive people have reactions to criticism that are more intense than less sensitive people. As a result, they may employ certain tactics to avoid said criticism, including people-pleasing (so that there is no longer anything to criticize), criticizing themselves first, and avoiding the source of the criticism altogether ...

'People can say something negative, [and] a non-HSP [highly sensitive person] can say, 'Whatever,' and it doesn't affect them," Zeff says. "But an HSP would feel it much more deeply."

And this:

Highly sensitive people are also highly conscientious people ... Because of this, they're more likely to be considerate and exhibit good manners -- and are also more likely to notice when someone else isn't being conscientious. For instance, highly sensitive people may be more aware of where their cart is at the grocery store -- not because they're afraid someone will steal something out of it, but because they don't want to be rude and have their cart blocking another person's way.

Other traits of highly sensitive people that fit me: I beat myself up over perceived mistakes or "bad" decisions, I cry easily, and I have been known to experience actual grief symptoms while watching a sad movie or reading a sad book. I once cried for an entire day after watching "The Joy Luck Club." I often need to sneak off and sit by myself in a dark room for a while during an extended period of social interaction like a party. I freak out when I'm hungry. I'm also extremely conflict-avoidant, something that has done real damage to my relationships since I continually sweep any problems or issues under the rug rather than dealing with them.

However, there are a lot of other elements that don't fit me, like being sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, and smells, which comes up first in almost every article on the topic. It's possible that I'm not an HSP and my life experiences have just conditioned me to expect rejection and to blame myself when things go wrong.

I'm sure my sensitivity has something to do with my ongoing struggle to feel appropriate anger. When I get mad, the rage sputters up from my stomach and burns futilely in my throat, leaving me frustrated and gape-mouthed, unable to turn an internal emotion external. And without an escape, that anger turns right back around and settles into my stomach as shame. Maybe that's why, when someone is rude to me, it becomes another piece of kindling on the fire of my perpetual self-loathing. When someone hurts me, I automatically turn the hurt inward, where it manifests in depression and sadness.

Honestly, I'm just so sick of it. I so want to be one of those people who just brushes things off, who thinks, "So what, screw them!" when slighted, who doesn't obsess over every slightly negative comment from a stranger online. (In retrospect, Internet writer was an odd choice of career for a thin-skinned person who takes everything too personally.)

I do my best to use logic to talk myself out of my negative thought patterns. I try to acknowledge my feelings and move on. I have found some relief in realizing that "hurt people hurt people" and that most happy, well-adjusted people aren't unkind to others for no reason. I can't control my feelings, but I can control my actions, and I work very hard to avoid becoming defensive or passive-aggressive when I feel hurt. I'm just really tired of feeling so damn much.

I really want to hear from you "nothing bothers me" people -- how do you do that? Do I need to find a different job? The only other thing I can imagine doing is running a farm where I take care of like a zillion foster kids. (In my dream, we have goats.) But if I quit putting myself out there, then my stupid brain WINS. Has anyone successfully overcome emotional sensitivity?