How our words can affect sensitive people

Being sensitive is a mixed bag. It can be painful and emotional at times, but it can also be a strength, fostering compassion, self-awareness, and empathy for others. We need all kinds of qualities in the world. Resilience, pragmatism, and logic can foster strength and make amazing things happen. Empathy, compassion, and self-awareness can create deep interpersonal bonds and help us to support those around us.

The challenge is understanding someone who falls on the opposite end of the spectrum; it can seem like you are speaking totally different emotional languages. To a non-sensitive person, teasing might be a form of affection or banter, but to a sensitive person it can have a harsh sting. 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 cannot take on board constructive criticism or advice. That has nothing to do with 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. Think of it more like shining light through a prism. Some people see the light before it enters the prism, as a single white beam. Sensitive people see (or feel) the light after it has passed through the prism, refracted and split into an array of subtle colours. The light is both the single white beam and the wide spectrum of colour, it simply depends on how you perceive it. Neither perception is wrong and neither perception is weak.

And intentions aside, the words we use can totally change how something is received. 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 Kate if she looks ok. Kate 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 Kate 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 Kate 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. For Kate, she 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 didn’t tell Kate she was already feeling unsure of herself that night. She rarely felt pretty or confident and when Kate made that comment Sally was suddenly and inexplicable flooded with a feeling of inadequacy and unattractiveness. She hadn’t been consciously expecting a negative response, so Kate’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 Kate if she looks ok, and Kate replies, ‘yes, but you know what dress looks really great? That blue one you wore on your birthday.’ Sally smiles, throws on the blue dress, and goes on to have an awesome night. Because this time Kate’s words evoked a positive association. They still helped Sally to choose an outfit, but the words made her feel more confident rather than less confident. There was 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. And maybe what we intend isn’t exactly what comes out of our mouth. So it is useful to consider how we use language to communicate thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

Counselling and conflict resolution emphasise how we can use words to calm tense interactions without escalating things. There is a focus on avoiding accusatory language like ‘you made me feel this’ and instead replacing it with more passive language like ‘when you said that, I felt this.’ 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:

COMMENTWHAT IS RECEIVEDALTERNATIVE
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’ feelings spectrum, and sensitive people will not always be able to curb an emotion. 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.