We all have our soft spots—the tender underbellies of our psyche. But to the hypersensitive among us, a gentle poke can feel more like a thwack from a meat tenderizer. Comments don’t slide off of us like water from a duck’s back. Instead, we feel more like a sitting duck.
For example, the overly sensitive among us often react to hurtful comments with defensiveness and anger, which leads to relationship conflict and makes it harder to work or live together. Plus, if you’re in charge, being hypersensitive can lead to an autocratic, overcontrolling leadership style, which stymies your team’s morale and, eventually, performance.
So how can we take things less personally, both to benefit ourselves and others? How can we toughen up without becoming hard-hearted?
One way is to deflate the power of the other person in your own head; we’ll talk about how to do that. But another is to work on ourselves. In part, this is purely pragmatic: we’re the only ones we can work on.
Tip #1: Consider the source.
Would you be as likely to drink water from a mountain spring as from a puddle under a dumpster? Of course not. But why? Aside from the fact that you are a smart cookie, it’s because the source matters.
The same thing goes for criticism. Does the critique in question come from someone you like and respect? Does this person know you well? Or is this someone who is known to shoot their mouth off, has all the subtlety of a brick, and has never had a real conversation with you?
In short, consider the source, which will help you decide whether to take their feedback to heart or with a grain of salt.
Tip #2: Give critics another chance, but not unlimited chances.
People say dumb things. People are awkward. People have no filter. It’s only human to make a mistake and say something critical or insulting, but if it happens again and again, it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s a pattern.
Three strikes and you’re not necessarily out, especially if you still have to work with or be related to them, but it’s definitely time to draw some boundaries.
Tip #3: Note the double-edged sword of “They shouldn’t say that!”
Individuals hypersensitive to criticism often have a strict moral code. Their values run deep, and that’s a good thing. But this is one of the few places where strong values can have a downside. “How dare they say that!” “That’s wrong!” “She can’t say that!” “That’s not how things should be.” All those things may be true, but whatever statement hurt you, it was said.
The fact that the critic “shouldn’t” or “can’t” is moot. It’s as if a dog just deposited a steaming bundle right next to your “Please clean up after your dog” sign. It shouldn’t have happened, but you have to deal with it nonetheless.
Getting unfair or unwarranted criticism is similar. Even if it “shouldn’t” be there, you still have to deal with it. Feeling indignant and offended may be warranted, but it’s not helpful. Remember that even if you walk the line and follow the rules, you can’t control whether others break them. So rage against the unfairness of it all for a bit, but then, crucially, move on to the next thing.
Tip #4: Challenge your perfectionism.
There is a straight line between hypersensitivity and perfectionism. Many of us who take things personally also work really hard to be blameless, flawless, or good enough precisely so no one will criticize us. When we get negative feedback, it blows away all we’ve worked so hard for.
You can reframe this in a few ways. Get better at receiving criticism. Aim higher when it comes to dealing with feedback. Be a high achiever at facing the haters.
It’s really hard for perfectionists to loosen their grip—it feels dangerous, as if they’re at risk of falling into a deep, dark well of failure.
If you were pigeonholed by your parents as being the dumb one, the crazy one, or the problem child, you might have worked your butt off to prove that you’re anything but.
Any critique that brings forth old hurts cuts extra deep, but just being aware that something is a hot-button issue for you is the first step to owning it, and eventually healing it.
Tip #5: Be honest with yourself when playing out scenes in your head.
We’ve all experienced getting bullied or criticized and then coming up with a good zinger hours later. We replay the scene in our head, spinning out what we wish had happened instead of what actually went down.
Now, replaying scenes in your head is a two-sided coin. In some cases, it can be extremely helpful. If you replay the scene and imagine getting what you needed in the moment—feeling empowered, soothed, or safe, it can be a really helpful tool. In fact, when done with a qualified therapist, this is called imagery rescripting and is a cutting-edge tool in treating trauma survivors.
But if you just play the lowlights and wallow in the hurt, again and again, you’re not doing yourself any favors. And the worst is playing out ruminative revenge fantasies. At that point, reimagining crosses the line from empowering to egotistical.
Turns out covert narcissists envision conflict more often than non-narcissists and, in addition, imagine themselves dominating the interaction and controlling the relationship.
So be aware when you replay those scenes in your head. If you’re doing it to soothe and empower yourself, carry on. But if you’re doing it to dominate your imagined enemy, consider trying out a healthier coping strategy instead.
Tip #6: Toe the line between taking things personally and being personally invested.
To wrap things up, we’ll do something surprising: we’ll defend taking things personally.
The opposite of taking things personally is to depersonalize them. And when you depersonalize an action or a role, it quickly loses its value. Taking your job personally means being invested, while depersonalizing it means only showing up for the paycheck. Taking a passion personally means being engaged, while detaching guarantees lackluster results at best.
To take things even further, with your fellow humans, taking things personally means engaging with others at your best. Not taking things personally, at worst, leads to dehumanization and moral disengagement—convincing yourself that ethical standards and other people don’t matter.
So take things personally, in the best sense. Find a balance between being hypersensitive versus caring deeply. All in all, take your work and relationships extremely personally. After all, this messy, imperfect, glorious life of yours belongs to you and only you.