Are You Too Sensitive?
Why Women Are More Sensitive Than Men
But training yourself not to take the bait doesn't mean you should ignore your gut, since strong instincts are among sensitive people's greatest assets. "Sensitivity is an awareness of attitudes, a hyperalertness that you may not even be able to verbalize," says Marianne J. Legato, MD, medical adviser to Ladies' Home Journal and an expert on gender differences.
It's also more prevalent in women. "In multiple studies, women have been shown to be more intuitive, which makes them more sensitive than men," says Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. "Studies also reveal that women show more empathy and patience, whereas men are inclined toward problem-solving and are more comfortable with the language of logic than of emotion. In Western culture, especially, males are taught that it isn't macho to be sensitive and show emotion. Women are given more support to express their feelings than men are."
"It's less that women are more sensitive than that they have more invested in getting along," adds Dr. Legato, the author of Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget. "Women like to bond with others and work toward the goal of mutual cooperation. Males, by contrast, tend to be oriented toward immediate results."
While these "feminine" characteristics may foster deep personal relationships, they can be a hindrance in the workplace. "As a kid, I was always a 'crybaby.' Now, at work, I have trouble confronting people without getting upset," admits one graphic designer from Kansas City. "I hate it that my behavior confirms the stereotype that women are too emotional to compete in a male-driven corporate world."
But the sensitivity gender gap can hit close to home, too -- as a recent tiff I had with my husband illustrates all too well. At the end of a long day, my computer gobbled an entire afternoon's labor as if it were auditioning for the part of the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. I was beyond meltdown as I shrieked for my husband's help.
"What did you do?" he asked me, sounding like a cop shaking down a suspect. "What I always do," I answered, teeth clenched. "I saved the file."
"You must have done something wrong."
"Don't speak to me like that," I replied, tears welling.
That night, after we'd both calmed down -- and the lost file had been retrieved -- he explained that by asking what I did he was simply trying to retrace my steps. But all I heard was that he was calling me an idiot. Which illustrates a basic principle of sensitivity: Sometimes we're reacting not to what people say, but to how they say it. (Another characteristic shared by sensitive people is an almost canine ability to hear certain tones to which others are deaf.)
Was my husband tactless? I believe he was. Did I overreact? Guilty as charged. All of which goes to show that the point at which perceptive awareness ends and oversensitivity begins is an ever-moving target. Who's ultimately at fault? Sometimes it's me, sometimes it's you, sometimes we're both behaving badly.
Sensitive soul that I am, I'll take the rap on all of the above. But, please, be gentle in laying it on me. Otherwise, you'll hurt my feelings.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2007.