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"The entrance of thy words giveth light (Psalm 119:130)."
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I once worked at a social service agency where this subject came up as part of our in-service training. The presenter made the following comment: "If you're going to be bothered by every little thing, this isn't the place for you." Oversensitivity can be a big problem—both for people who are oversensitive—and for those who work with them.
For purposes of this article, oversensitivity is defined as being "thin skinned" or overly impacted by the attitudes, feelings, actions or comments of others.
We are all negatively impacted more than we'd like by other people. However, there are ways to reduce this impact.
Oversensitivity is caused by two factors. They follow.
First, the person's behavior is associated with a past hurt. Three examples follow: 1) If your early life experience includes authority figures who were abusive, you may find yourself easily upset by anyone who is even mildly critical of you who is in a position of authority. 2) If you've suffered prolonged emotional abuse by a particular individual in the past, any future offense by that same person will likely elicit an emotional reaction far in excess of what would otherwise occur—even if you've already forgiven the individual. 3) If you were sexually abused, you may find yourself emotionally impacted by situations that would have no effect on other people. Example: A child in a group home once became very upset with me for being too close to him while he was sitting on the floor. He said I was "standing over" him. Later, after he had calmed down, he told me that he'd become upset as a result of having "issues." I knew, from his history, what he meant: He had been sexually abused.
Second, spiritual warfare. When Satan has a spiritual foothold, he has the ability to create emotional distress at times of his choosing. Satan can get a foothold as a result of unforgiveness and/or as a result of fear.
I'll start with unforgiveness. If there is unforgiveness in regard to anyone, Satan can bring emotional distress to bear on you whenever he wants. Thus, the impact of a current event can be exaggerated.
This last point needs to be clearly understood. I've had times when something small impacted me a lot. Later, I came to realize that there was still some unforgiveness in my heart in regard to someone else. And Satan was exercising the foothold. What was really impacting me was largely independent of the current issue which I thought had upset me!
Next fear. Fear also is a sin. The Bible is clear on this point: "Be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6 NKJV)." Fear that you can't handle another person's comments results in Satan getting a spiritual foothold.
On most issues, I like to delve deeply into Scripture. For most issues, that is the best approach. Not for this issue. My suggestions follow.
First, you cannot re-create yourself. To the extent possible, avoid situations that will impact you. For example, if you are easily impacted by criticism from authority figures, see if you can become self-employed. Or look for work situations where you are largely independent—or where you are the person in authority.
Second, if someone does something which, objectively speaking, really is offensive, you should generally say something—even if you don't feel badly upset. The Bible states: "If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him (Luke 17:3 NKJV). "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matthew 18:15 NIV). Just say something like "I really didn't appreciate that." More information on dealing with anger is available in my article on Anger Management.
If someone is abusive and you don't say something—when you should—Satan usually gains a foothold. This is especially true if you spend time dwelling on the issue. I remember one situation where someone was rude to me. I let it go because I wasn't really that upset at the time. Days later, Satan exercised the foothold—and then I was really upset. It took a while, but I finally broke free by forgiving and "loving my enemy." However, this all could have been prevented if I had simply said something at the time.
In circumstances such as these, it is generally not a good idea to say something later—unless the person is a close friend or close family member.
Third, there are circumstances where you can say something—even if another person is not being abusive. For example, I had one supervisor whose response to every question was: "No No No NO! You do NOT do that! She didn't mean to be offensive. But she was really impacting my emotions. I finally said something to her.
Fourth, for real oversensitivity issues: Quickly evaluate if the issue really is oversensitivity—and not one of the other issues that have already been discussed. If it is, there are two approaches you can try to reduce—or eliminate—the impact of the comments others make.
Remember that once you've given your burden to God, there is no longer any reason for you to dwell on the issue. And that whenever you do, you are taking the burden back which is a recipe for emotional distress.
Satan will try to bring the issue back up. When this happens, the best response is simply to ignore the Devil and reaffirm your trust in God.
This is simple. But it will usually work.
You do not have to talk about every little thing that impacts you—unless you think that you have to.
These techniques can also be used to avoid being unduly impacted by the rude remarks of others in situations where it is not appropriate or feasible to say something to the individual involved.
If Satan does get a spiritual foothold, for whatever reason, you will, of course, experience emotional distress. Because you have been adversely impacted, you are naturally angry at the person whose comment has caused you distress—and now you need to forgive to break free (Matthew 18:21-35). This is true even if—objectively speaking—the person did nothing wrong.
Before continuing, I want to mention two applicable Scriptures: 1) "Love your neighbor (Mark 12:31)." Why? 2) “Hatred stirs up dissention, but love covers over all wrongs (Proverbs 10:12 NIV).
If Satan does get a foothold—all is not lost. Just love the person who offended you every time Satan brings up the issue. Love from your heart and pray for the person. Put some effort into it. The foothold will usually give way—often sooner than you might expect. It is incredible how powerful a weapon love really is: "Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8)."
This will usually work—but not always. If it doesn't, go through the steps recommended in my article When Satan Gets a Foothold.