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Recognizing the Difference Between Sensitive and Reactive

When you were growing up, did you hear criticisms like, “You’re too sensitive; don’t be so sensitive?” Has anyone said this to you lately?

Being human means being sensitive to the people around us. As attachment theory suggests, we’re wired to desire safe, caring relationships so that we can relax into a sense of connectedness.

When someone who’s important to us utters words that are critical or contemptuous, it hurts. Our sensitive nervous system experiences the fight, flight, freeze response when there is a real or imagined threat to our well-being and safety.

Being told that we’re too sensitive is a shaming judgment about us. We then not only feel whatever hurt or sadness that stems from a person’s words or actions, but there’s the additional pain of hearing that something’s wrong with us for having such feelings. If we buy into the belief that we’re flawed or defective because we’re sensitive, then our suffering multiplies.

Need for Boundaries

We have no control over people’s shaming proclamations about us, but we have much influence over how we respond to others’ attacks. If we can affirm that it’s okay to be a sensitive person, then we can recognize that their opinion about us says more about them than us.

When someone claims that we’re too sensitive, perhaps we can remind ourselves of the following:

  • There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive.
  • Being sensitive is not a bad thing. In fact, there are good things about being sensitive. It means we’re alive.
  • Perhaps the person criticizing you is more sensitive than they realize. Maybe they’re reluctant to acknowledge their own vulnerability.

We need sturdy boundaries with people who might judge or shame us. Cultivating an internal boundary allows us to know and affirm ourselves, regardless of how we’re treated.

As expressed in The Authentic Heart:

Until you learn to distinguish your own reality from that of others, you’ll remain painfully enmeshed in your relationships — perhaps without being aware that you’ve let yourself fade into oblivion … Your sense of self becomes overshadowed by how others treat or view you … Boundaries keep you disentangled in a way that supports the healthy growth of love and intimacy.

Sensitive Versus Reactive

There’s an important difference between being sensitive and being reactive. Being sensitively attuned to life is a positive quality. We live with an open, accessible heart. We’re affected by the environment that we’re a part of. But this is far different than the knee-jerk reaction that happens when we get triggered.

For example, if our partner seems to be peering at another man or woman, we might be convinced that they’ve succumbed to a trance of attraction. Perhaps we’re correct, but it’s also quite possible that we’re in a reactive mode based upon our prior history. If we’ve had a partner who strayed or a parent who had an affair, we might view the world through a fearful lens of being betrayed. Instead of simply recognizing that our partner noticed someone, we feel threatened.

In this instance, we’re sensitive to possible rejection. We’re experiencing a reactive sensitivity based upon some painful history.

There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive in a reactive way. But it might behoove us to be mindful of this tender inner place and give it some love. Perhaps we can put our arm around our hurt or fear — or be with it in the same way that we’d be gentle with a hurting child or pet.

Gently attending to reactive places is a way to soothe ourselves when we get triggered. Methods such as focusing and somatic experiencing can help us heal hurt feelings and old traumas.

As we develop a spacious mindfulness around our automatic reactions, we tend to react less. We catch our reactions at an earlier moment and realize more clearly where they’re coming from. An important part of personal growth is recognizing when old wounds are being reactivated and engaging with them in a skillful way, so they can gradually heal. Working with a skilled therapist can help this process.

As old wounds heal, we’re more able to live and love with an openness of being. We become more sensitively attuned to people and life. Hurtful words may still sting our sensitive heart, but we have inner resources to meet the world’s insults.

We can afford to be more sensitive as we develop the inner strength to honor ourselves as we are, including our wounds and sensibilities. We then don’t allow others to undermine the gentle nature of who we are and the integrity of our tender being.

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Frightened child photo available from Shutterstock

Recognizing the Difference Between Sensitive and Reactive


John Amodeo, PhD

Dancing with FireJohn Amodeo, PhD, MFT, is the author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco area for over thirty-five years, has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy, and has appeared on CNN, Donahue, and New Dimensions Radio. For more information, articles, and free videos, visit his website at: www.johnamodeo.com.


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APA Reference
Amodeo, J. (2018). Recognizing the Difference Between Sensitive and Reactive. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/recognizing-the-difference-between-sensitive-and-reactive/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.