Do you ever get the impression that you feel things stronger than other people?
Have you been called “sensitive?”
Do you feel keenly able to read others’ emotions?
Or do you distrust your emotions entirely because they seem too out of control?
Emotional Sensitivity and Science
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be someone who experiences emotional sensitivity. Having this quality may have been perplexing at times or caused unique problems due to feeling more quickly and deeply than others.
Scientists have found that certain people have a biological predisposition to higher emotional sensitivity than others. Essentially this means that some people have the ability to feel their feelings, and those of others, more strongly than the average person. This is neither good nor bad in itself. Simply, it is similar to having a trait like red hair or blue eyes.
However, what researchers noticed in their studies is that when faced with intense or provoking circumstances the emotionally sensitive individuals had a higher emotional response on average than the control group and also took longer to re-regulate their emotions and return to baseline.
Again, while it is neither good nor bad in itself, it can lead people who have this trait to feel more intensely than the rest of the population which can be hard, particularly at times when the person has negative emotions. Kelly Koerner, a leading practitioner of DBT, calls this walking around in life without “emotional skin.” Without a protective skin, everything is magnified and feelings are overwhelming.
Emotional Sensitivity and Certain Environments
Now what happens when you put an emotionally sensitive person in a setting where they frequently experience criticism or belittling? What if they are raised in an environment where there is constant chaos or abuse? That can be a recipe for disaster.
In DBT, this is known as an invalidating environment – one where a person feels little support or understanding for who they are or what they think or feel. There are some settings where this invalidation is intentional or premeditated. However, in many cases it can be unintentional and yet still damaging. This happens frequently without us even noticing it.
Some examples of this:
- A parent, trying to console, tells a kid who’s crying, “Stop it! It’s okay, you’re fine.”
- An adolescent who feels heartbroken after a dating relationship dissolves hears his friend, in an attempt to be supportive, say, “You’ll get over it. Your girlfriend wasn’t that great of a person anyway.”
- A coach, trying to get his player back in the game when they seem hesitant because they got injured last game says “I think you’re overreacting. You should be happy that your injury didn’t turn out worse!”
It is likely that none of these responses were intended to be cruel or belittling, which can make it confusing for the person who hears them. They may feel extremely misunderstood, or try to accept it and further invalidate themselves; “I guess they’re right. I feel stupid for feeling this way. Why can’t I just let it go like they do?” This usually results in feeling sadness or shame.
So, when you have an emotionally sensitive person paired with an invalidating environment, it creates problems.
In DBT this process is described by the Biosocial Model, as shown below:
What it Means
If you are an emotionally sensitive person and then are invalidated repeatedly, this can develop into emotional vulnerability. This then affects how we think about ourselves and the world, how we relate to others, and how we behave.
The kid who is told consistently not to cry may begin to believe as they get older that crying is not okay. They may judge themselves any time they cry or feel sad, and feel afraid of expressing that emotion to others which may make them feel isolated. This could cause tension or distance in their relationships or lead them to find unhealthy ways of dealing with sadness, like binge-watching tv, shopping, or drinking.
This is just an extrapolated example, but there are many other ways emotional vulnerability can impact a person.
The point is, if you’re someone who finds yourself relating to this model then hopefully this information might explain dynamics that you may be seeing and provide self-understanding. It’s important to know about these two factors, emotional sensitivity and invalidation, and how they interact because it can help you see the greater picture of what is happening with you. Throughout your life, you may have picked up patterns, gravitated towards certain people, or treated yourself a certain way due to being emotionally sensitive and then experiencing invalidation. For the first time, you may be able to say, instead of “I must be crazy,” that “I make a lot of sense.” This is essential, since the first step to growth or change is awareness.