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I can’t take a joke. How do I control my sensitivity? Add to ...

The question: I’ve always been a sensitive and emotional person. While I don’t think it’s a negative thing, I do find that I take a lot of comments seriously and personally. Often people may be joking, but somehow I interpret their statements negatively. How can I embrace my sensitivity without going overboard?

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The answer: I like that you have established a useful and realistic goal for yourself – to embrace a trait you have that, while not all negative, has some downsides for you in certain situations.

Any personality trait or attribute exists along a continuum, and we all tend to have a set-point range where we fall along that continuum. The contributing factors are multiple, and ultimately a combination of nature and nurture: the personality and genetics we came into this world with; our early childhood environment; and important life events and circumstances (both positive and negative).

Like you, I am high on the sensitivity scale. There are a great things that come along with this – sensitive people are more likely to experience intense positive emotions, tend to connect with others’ emotional experiences on a deeper level, are more attune to changes in others’ moods and, and have a strong ability to empathize with others.

However, as you have recognized there are also downsides to being highly sensitive and emotional. You are more likely to personalize things, interpret things with negative intent when it may not exist, and overreact negatively to what may be a perceived insult. I suspect you are also likely to ruminate over things that have been said or done by others, have a hard time letting go of the past, and experience deeper hurt when it comes to conflict in interpersonal relationships.

When it comes to our emotional reactions, the single most important factor that shapes how we react is our thoughts. If you are walking down the street, wave to an acquaintance you recently met at a party who ignores you, and think “I must have said something she didn’t like when we met” you are likely going to react negatively. If instead you think (as people who are high in emotional resiliency would) “she didn’t recognize me, seeing me here is out of context” or “she looked preoccupied with a phone call she was on” you will probably have little to no emotional reaction.

Identify the automatic thoughts and interpretations that come up for you in situations where you react to others’ comments. Then ask yourself a few key questions: Is the thought/interpretation you are having realistic and accurate? What is the evidence that what you are thinking is not true? What alternative explanations could there be for the comment that was made? Then actively work on replacing the automatic negative/personalized thoughts with thoughts that are more accurate to the situation, based on a review of all of the evidence.

I believe a core part of our life’s work is to continue to build awareness of who we are, recognize the patterns and behaviours we engage in that may be negatively impacting us or those around us, and work to continually improve areas of weakness. And you are right – the goal is to not do away with fundamental elements that make you who you are, but rather to embrace those attributes in a way that the positives are maximized and the negatives are minimized so that you are living an overall happier life.

Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra

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