Dear Dr NerdLove
Since I was a kid I was always very sensitive, and would tear up or outright cry whenever someone said something even slightly mean about me. I was bullied a lot when I was younger.
I’m 23 now and at least when someone says mean things about me, I know better to laugh it off, or quip something in reply.
However, despite all the advice I’ve read that says to “not take it so seriously” or “not let it get to me”, I just can’t help but feel hurt inside at that point in time (almost similar to me as a kid, just that I’ve gotten better at hiding it). After thinking about it, I realized that I feel the way I feel because of either of 2 things:
1) Automatic thoughts. Sometimes, when someone says something mean about me (no matter how absurd the insult may be) I would still get an automatic thought inside going “Hey, there may be SOME truth to it, no smoke without fire”. This would be quickly followed up with “If you were a better person, they wouldn’t have made fun of you like this in the first place”.
2) Their words unintentionally making me remember a time when I had actually screwed up in a similar manner and thus making me relive the embarrassment/humiliation/etc of that past occasion.
So I would like to ask, the next time I find myself in this situation, what should I do instead to maintain an unflappable attitude?
No More Tears
Before I get into this, NMT, I want to bring up the obvious point: that there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive. The idea that emotions are inherently bad or that responding to things that hurt you with anything other than stony indifference is part of the toxic masculinity package. It’s dead bang in the center of the idea that emotions are the opposite of rational thinking and that showing emotion is a mark of weakness. You see this in the way that conservatives talk about people being TRIGGERED for being vaguely annoyed or offended by something, or how the fact the Parkland shooting survivors are calling for gun control is proof that children are getting pussified.
Hell, the number of insults for men that conflate femininity and weakness (such as “getting pussified”) are part of the bullshit parade that tells people that strength = unfeeling, unemotional asshole Vulcans.
Ironically enough, insisting that men aren’t supposed to be sensitive is part of what makes us so fragile. When you’re not used to dealing with your feels, you lose the ability to do anything with them. It’s hard to separate “mild awkward uncomfortableness” from “earth-shattering grief” when you’ve spent most of your life trying to repress everything that wasn’t stony-faced stoicism.
Expressing yourself emotionally – whether it’s through laughter or tears – is important. And if you’re more sensitive than other people… well, that’s just part of what makes you uniquely you.
Of course, there are caveats to this. If someone is so sensitive – or willing to portray oneself as being sensitive for some perceived advantage – that they can’t function at all, then that’s a problem. And if you’re so tightly wound that even slight criticism is enough to trigger a shame spiral that leaves you up at 4 AM in the morning on the regular… well, again, that’s a problem.
In your case, NMT, the problem is less that you’re sensitive and more just what these feelings trigger in you. And to be clear: these are very common issues. Lots of people – especially folks who are socially awkward – deal with these same thought spirals and and beliefs. So what I think you need is not to be less sensitive but to work on how you process those feelings.
To start with: don’t try to not feel hurt. Trying to force yourself not to feel is just a great way to make things worse. Like squeezing a stress ball or a water-weiner, all not-feeling does is compress your feels and pushes them past your ability to contain them. The harder you squeeze, the more they bulge out elsewhere.
Instead, you should do the opposite: you should let yourself feel the fuck out of your feels. Like the Litany Against Fear: let it wash over you and then past you, then turn your eye to see it’s passing. Part of why these feelings hit us so hard is that we let them occupy our entire consciousness. By letting them just be, we preserve our emotional and intellectual bandwidth for important things, instead of “oh God, what does this mean?” And once we stop devoting brain cycles to those feelings, we realize how quickly the moments pass when we let them. Once you start to get used to the idea that these negative emotions are temporary, they start to lose their impact and you recognize them for what they are: momentary unpleasantness that will soon pass.
Next, you want to consider the source. Part of the reason why insults sting is because we give credence to the opinion of the person insulting us… which is absurd in many cases. The truth is that not all opinions are equal. Some are valid, some are based on bullshit and some are out and out absurd. Ask yourself, for example, how hurt you would be if a four year old came up to you and called you a jerk and they hate you. Probably not very much; the opinion of a toddler is not something most of us worry about. Plus, we know that kids say shit like this all the time; there’s no real meaning or thought behind it. So it is with the person who insults you.
Are they someone who you know is an asshole who enjoys tearing other people down? Then you know that they’re not someone who you should take seriously. It’s not that they have secret insight into your character and see the real you, it’s that they’re assholes and assholes are gonna ass, no matter what. They’re the same ones who’ll find reasons to talk shit about Mr. Rodgers.
To quote Katt Williams: don’t sweat the haters. Jesus was perfect, but he only had 13 friends and one of them was a hater. Make like Skywalker and let roll off you.
Are they a stranger? Then they don’t really know you, nor do you know them. There’s no reason to accept their opinion as meaningful – certainly not more so than friends or loved ones who know you well. And if their behavior is revealing them to be an asshole, like in the previous example? Then there’s really no reason to take anything they say onboard. Let yourself roll your eyes at them (mentally) and keep stepping.
Now, if it’s someone who’s judgement you actually can trust? Then you have reason to ask yourself whether this was something legit or if it’s just someone who’s confused “busting your balls” with “being funny”. But remember: even people you know, like and trust can be wrong or just be dicks at times.
When you do have those thoughts of “what if they’re right?”, then you need to acknowledge the obvious: “but what if they’re not?” What if – and stick with me here – what if this is the opinion of someone with an incomplete idea about who you are or what you’re actually capable of? What if their opinion of your choice, your lifestyle, your whatever is just plain wrong? Even if they legitimately think you did something worth criticizing – even if it’s in as dickish a way as making fun of you – that doesn’t mean that they’re correct. It just means that they disagree with you and are expressing it in a shitty way.
Think this, consciously, every time those “but what if…” thoughts come up. Literally, every time. Automatic thoughts aren’t inherent, they’re a habit you picked up over time. You’ve just been living with it for so long that you’ve forgotten the time when you didn’t think like this. Consciously doubting your doubts not only breaks the habit but programs a new one: recognizing that sometimes people are just wrong.
The next thing you need to ask yourself when you feel those automatic thoughts coming on is: “does this actually help me?” I’m a big believer in “absorb what is useful“, and getting called out on a mistake can be useful… on occasion. But there’s a difference between “hey this thing you did wasn’t great” and “ha ha, look at this asshole”. Recognizing that maybe you phrased something awkwardly? Potentially useful. Now you know not to say it that way again next time. Someone making fun of you because you tripped over your words, like everyone does? Not useful at all, and to be discarded. So if someone’s making fun of you for, say, not being some bullshit ideal? It’s not useful, it marks them as an asshole and you’re free to disregard their bullshit.
But what about those times when it triggers memories of the awkward thing you did 20 years ago? Well, first of all, welcome to the human race; we all do this. Gronk the caveman undoubtedly winced at the time when he was 5 and he mistook a bunny in the brush as a pouncing sabertooth tiger and freaked out, leading Thud and Trog to laugh at him.
Of course, that’s not much relief in the moment. Right then and there, you feel like you’ve been transported back in time so you get the fun of reliving your initial trauma all over again because hey, nothing says “double-edged sword” like the human psyche’s negativity bias. So what do you do when you feel those feelings bubble up like methane farts from a swamp?
You name them. “Oh hey, I feel this old feeling of X”. Be specific. Is it embarrassment? Shame? Mortification? Remorse? The more finely you can name that feeling, the more you’re able to process it. But just as importantly is the way that you name it. Notice how very carefully I said “I feel” and “this old feeling”. These are critical because words have power, and the way we describe things changes how we see them. When you say “I feel embarrassed” instead of “I am embarrassed”, you’re changing the situation. The latter is describing a state of being – you are defined by being embarrassed. Saying that you feel a certain way emphasizes that this is a temporary situation; you feel this way now, but you aren’t defined by it.
Similarly, saying “this old feeling of” reminds you: this is just the echo of an emotion. It’s something from your past, something that is over and done with. You don’t need to let it rule you because it’s your past. It’s there to give you the path forward – being able to do better next time. Even if your current situation brings up those old echoes, that doesn’t mean that they’re valid. It’s just a memory – something that happened long ago and that is no longer relevant. You’ve changed, you’ve grown and you’ve improved. This is just the ghost of your old self and like a ghost, it’s all noise with no substance. It can’t hurt you unless you let it provoke you into doing something stupid.
So: let the feeling wash over you, note it, name it and let it pass you by.
And again: you’re allowed to be sensitive. Some people feel things more acutely than others and that’s fine. It’s not a bug in the system, it’s just part of who you are. Embrace it as part of your wonderful uniqueness. The less you make it a defining flaw, the less it becomes a thing to fight against and the more it becomes simply just a fact about you – not good, not bad, just there… and perfectly, wonderfully normal.