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I once worked at a social service agency where this subject of emotional oversensitivity 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 related 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. Once you have become 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.
Any time you experience emotional distress, you are also naturally angry at the God who allowed this to happen. So you need to make a conscious effort to adjust your attitude toward Him also, or you will continue to experience distress.
One more point: 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 comment can result in Satan getting a spiritual foothold.
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.
"Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses (Proverbs 10:12 ESV)."
In circumstances such as these, it is generally not a good idea to say something later—unless the person is a close friend, close family member or someone else with whom you have a close personal relationship.
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.
Whenever you are not sure what to do, always bring the issue up to God in prayer right away.
Fourth, for real oversensitivity issues: Here's what you do.
First: "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7 NASB)."
"Be anxious for nothing" is a command not a suggestion. Christians are not allowed to fear anything. And whenever they do, they always suffer.
Instead, just bring the issue to God in prayer, with thanksgiving. Listen to God and surrender the issue to Him. Use Scripture as appropriate. The following principles are particularly important.
Oversensitivity reactions are the result of anger and fear. Address both issues and you will feel better. You may have to put some effort into 'loving your neighbor.' Then go to the next step.
Second: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:8-9 NASB.)."
Focus your mind on good things. Think about five things you can thank God for. And thank Him. Then think about something else. That's all you have to do. I think you'll be surprised how well this works.
This simple process can and should be memorized.
Satan may try to bring the issue back up. If this happens, the best response is simply to ignore the Devil. Or to simply reaffirm your trust in God and then think about something else. Do not dwell on the comment.
You don't have to talk about every little thing that impacts you—unless you give in to fear and think that you have to. Remember that God loves you and has provided what you need to deal with this issue.
Oversensitivity can be a big problem. But I think you'll find that this approach will make things much easier.
Note: It is recommended that you also read my article on How to Cast a Burden.