With job uncertainty affecting millions of workers in nearly every field, you may have noticed that your colleagues at the office or your husband or partner are a little more thin-skinned than usual.
Jane Maloney, a New York consultant to human resources executives, says her clients have been increasingly telling her that employees are jumping to conclusions when they get constructive criticism. The employees assume they're getting downsized, Maloney says, and are then less able to relate well to the feedback. "It gets blown out of proportion," she says.
How does high sensitivity differ from other emotional patterns, such as anger, shyness or, for that matter, insensitivity? For all the articles, self-help books and talk shows dedicated to confronting psychological problems, there's a lack of real discussion about those of us who are quick to take offense. An Amazon search turns up less than five books on how not to take things too personally.
Over-sensitivity seems to be the last unexplored but very real social problem.
"It's absolutely painful," says Elayne Savage, a relationship and workplace coach who goes by the tag line "The Queen of Rejection." "When we take something personally, it's usually related to rejection in some way. It goes back to a time when we felt shamed as a kid."
Feelings of rejection then segue into a sense of being judged, criticized and made fun of, says Savage. "At some time when we were growing up, we didn't feel good about ourselves."
I have been called "too sensitive" and "prickly." For me, the feeling of being left out probably goes back to when my sisters and I were young. They are only a year apart and were naturally very close - I was three and four years older, respectively. They shared the same friends and slept so they could see each other at night. I often felt excluded.
Many people don't acknowledge the problem until it affects not just their personal lives, but their jobs. It can come up after a job review, when the employee takes a boss' observation as an attack: "You need to get your projects done more quickly" becomes "You're a slow worker."
Rachna Jain, a clinical psychologist in Gaithersburg, Md., had a patient who grew up poor and didn't have money for nice, well-fitting clothes. One day, she wore an outfit to school that she was proud of. But a student picked on her, and soon the whole class had joined in. "It was embarrassing and shaming," notes Jain.
As an adult, the woman remained sensitive to observations about her appearance. One day she wore a new ensemble to work, and a coworker observed that the shade of blue she was wearing wasn't as flattering as another she had recently worn. "My clothes are my business," she yelled. "Don't comment on my clothes."
Jain says people often have one or two areas of sensitivity. With one couple, the wife felt her husband attacked her over her cleanliness at home. Her mother was strict and had criticized her in childhood for how she cleaned house and she had married a fastidious man. She bristled when her husband said innocuous things such as, "You left a dish in the sink." She heard, says Jain, "You're a horrible slob. There's something wrong with you."
Just about everyone has a zone of sensitivity, but the most burdened are those who have trouble moving beyond the feeling of being attacked or left out. Savage calls it "emotional flooding." Successful executives stem the flood by moving past the feeling quickly. These people were often resilient children.
"The reality is that most of us go around hurting other people's feelings without knowing it," she said. "People who are sensitive about a topic, though, have a net or radar that constantly catches those comments."
I'm slowly learning to deal with my sensitivity. I still hate feeling left out, but now if I hear coworkers chatting excitedly about something, I get up and walk over to them instead of waiting to be invited to join the conversation. Doing something is always better than sitting and stewing.