Why words can pack a punch

I am a sensitive person, anyone who knows me will tell you that. It’s a mixed bag. It can be tricky and emotional at times, but it also means I have compassion, self-awareness, and empathy for others. We need all kinds of qualities in the world. Pragmatism and logic can foster resilience and make amazing things happen. Empathy, compassion, and self-awareness can build interpersonal bonds and help us to support each other. It’s all gravy.

But challenges arise when you fall on an extreme end of the spectrum and it seems as though you are speaking a completely different language to someone with the opposite qualities. I am one such person. There have been a few times I remember being teased and suddenly bursting into tears, or being lightly criticised and feeling the sting of those comments for weeks or even months afterwards. It’s easy to say ‘lighten up’ or ‘have a sense of humour’, but for someone sensitive that’s even more of a criticism and lands like a punch to the gut.

It’s not that sensitive people don’t have a sense of humour or that we cannot take on board constructive criticism or advice. I pride myself on being funny and able to have a real laugh. That has nothing to do with me being sensitive. Sensitivity is often allotted to emotional weakness – an inability to handle everyday occurrences that others would not be affected by. But that is a rudimentary way of viewing it. Rather than a weakness, sensitivity is like being highly responsive to subtlety and to the perceptions of other people.

Think of it more like shining light through a prism. Less sensitive people perceive the light before it enters the prism, as a single white beam. It is simple and strong. Sensitive people perceive the light after it has passed through the prism, split into a wide array of subtle colours. The sensitive folk cannot understand how anyone sees only white light. The less sensitive folk cannot understand what the sensitive ones are on about when they describe the colours. Neither perception is wrong and neither is weak. They just ‘are’. The light is both the single white beam and the wide spectrum of colour at the same time, it simply depends on how you experience it. 

As someone sensitive (who experiences the light post prism) who also happens to be a writer and a communicator by profession, I have become acutely aware of the power of words when interacting with someone from the opposite persuasion. As the old adage goes, it’s not what you say but the way you say it.


Let’s use an example. Sally is getting ready to go out and asks her friend Katie if she looks ok. Katie says ‘I don’t really like that dress to be honest’. Sally shrugs it off and goes to change. As soon as she is out of sight, she bursts into tears and never wears the dress again. Later she admits this to Katie who is utterly baffled and cannot understand how on earth she provoked such an extreme reaction from a superficial comment. She was just being honest and trying to help. Both Katie and Sally feel confused and bury the topic, only to hold onto a slight feeling of awkwardness around the other.

The issue was, at least in part, the words used. Katie was only stating a truth. She was being honest and trying to help her friend make a more flattering choice. She had absolutely no malintent and feels Sally’s response is a complete overreaction. On the other hand, Sally was feeling unsure of herself that night. She rarely feels confident, so when her friend made that comment, Sally was suddenly and inexplicably flooded with a feeling of inadequacy and unattractiveness. She hadn’t been consciously expecting a negative response, so Katie’s answer caught her off guard and amplified her lack of confidence.

Could this have been mitigated with softer words? Let’s replay the scene with different language. Sally asks if she looks ok, and Katie replies, ‘yes, but you know what dress looks really great? That blue one you wore on your birthday’. This time Sally smiles, throws on the blue dress, and goes on to have an awesome night. Because this time Katie’s words evoke a more positive feeling. She still helps Sally to choose an outfit, but her words make Sally feel more confident rather than less confident. There is no ‘gut punch’ moment. No sudden feeling of inadequacy.

When we are interacting with someone on the opposite end of the sensitivity spectrum, our words and intentions can get lost in translation. What we say may not be what the other person hears. Or maybe what we mean isn’t quite what comes out verbally. So it is useful to consider how we use language to communicate thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

I studied Counselling Skills once upon a time, and one of the modules covered how we can use words to resolve conflict without escalating things. There was a big focus on avoiding accusatory language like ‘you made me feel…’ and instead replacing it with more passive language like ‘when xxx happened, I felt…’ The idea is to speak for yourself only – ‘I’ not ‘you’.

Sometimes we need a little help with the translating, so here is a handy guide to spark some thought, and maybe help with those WFT moments:

I don’t like your…Something about me is unlikeableI personally prefer…
I wish you would…I do not meet their expectationsIt would be great if…
You made me feel…They blame meWhen that happened, I felt…
Don’t do thatI feel attacked/ defensiveWhen xxx happens, I feel…
You can do betterI have disappointed themYou have the skill to make xxx improvements
You’re not very good at…I am not good enoughYour real strength is….
Don’t be sensitiveI am weakHelp me understand what you feel
General teasingI am inadequateMake it positive; EG ‘you’re so tidy’ not ‘you’re a neat freak’

The important thing to remember is we are all different and we all have our own way of communicating. Less sensitive people will not always understand the subtle ‘post prism’ spectrum of feelings, and sensitive people will not always be able to curb an emotional reaction. But if we can learn that both ways of being are valid and words are a powerful translator for feelings, we stand a much better chance of meeting in the middle and being able to communicate effectively.