Taking it personally

I’ve always been thin skinned. I’ve been told I take things too personally and that I over-react. This week it struck me that this isn’t a character flaw, it’s a coping mechanism.  I’m probably not alone in this.

If everything is going to be your fault, then being hypersensitive to criticism can help you catch problems before they escalate. If mistakes are punishable offences, you have to be hypervigilant around  criticism. What looks like being over-sensitive about things is an early warning system trying to detect threats before they get out of control.

This could easily become an issue for anyone with an abuse legacy, or who has had to survive in a toxic work environment. That thin skin is because you can’t afford to ignore any kind of negative feedback for fear of the consequences.

It has been a bit of a shock releasing that a large amount of how I respond to negativity is not necessarily who I am, but what I’ve learned to do in order to try and stay safe. I feel immensely threatened by criticism – and most of the time there’s no need. Most of the people I deal with will not punish me for real mistakes, much less ones they have imaged. Who would I be if I could take other people’s negativity in my stride? Who would I be if I wasn’t terrified every time I make a mistake?

It goes with the other coping mechanisms of over explaining and having to justify myself. It goes with having to check everything I do and feel to try and work out if it is reasonable and rational or not – and thus whether it might be permitted. Who would I be if I felt entitled to my own emotional responses and not like I had to be able to defend them?

Often, people who are thin skinned and easily upset are accused of being melodramatic and making it all about them. I’ve seen that one happen to other people as well as to me. I wonder how many other people who are knocked about by criticism react that way because it is a danger sign, a red flag, an ominous portent of far worse things to come?

I’m increasingly convinced that if someone seems to over-react, the key thing might be to focus on trying to make sure they feel safe. If you’re safe, you don’t have to be perfect in very possible way, you don’t have to psychically know what you were supposed to do without being told. When you are safe, another person’s bad mood or shitty day is not a danger sign, it’s just what’s going on. If you are with people who will not use you as a punch bag – literally or emotionally – then you don’t have to be hypersensitive to possible danger signs.

I may be becoming more resilient around this issue, because I have been safe enough for long enough for that to be possible.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Taking it personally

  • potiapitchford

    I’ve become aware of another side to what can seem to others to be overly dramatic that’s linked to autism. It’s pretty well known that autistics have what are usually referred to as problems with social communication and sometimes don’t read other people’s expressions or body language well. Another way these differences can manifest is having what others consider inappropriate emotional responses to situations or what can seem to others to be overly dramatic ones.

    I can’t count how many times I’ve been told I was overreacting to something or being overly dramatic. Most of the time it’s not been intentionally said to disparage me but because others around me genuinely thought I was over reacting or being “a drama queen”. I see the same things happening with my daughter and sometimes others saying similar things to her. I now understand that how I respond emotionally is often more extreme than others would in a given situation. This doesn’t make what I do and feel wrong but does help me understand others can see it differently. I’m trying to help my girl feel free to express herself emotionally as she feels while also helping her understand that others might not understand the strength of her emotions. It’s not an easy thing to explain though.

    • Nimue Brown

      I’ve never really understood why anyone thinks that their emotional response to something is a good measure of how someone else should respond – I find that one deeply confusing.

  • potiapitchford

    Accepting someone’s emotional state and helping them feel safe is still a good way of reacting regardless of root cause.

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