Overly Sensitive

People with a negative self-image may be exquisitely sensitive. Things that do not affect anyone else may elicit a marked reaction. It’s much like someone who has a severe sunburn: A light touch causes her to wince with pain. The sunburned person knows that her skin is unusually sensitive and does not impart hostile intent to the person who touched her.

But people with a negative self-image may not be aware that they are abnormally sensitive. When someone says or does something that causes them emotional pain, they are likely to conclude that the other person intentionally insulted or provoked them.

A man comes home from work, enters the house, and says, “Hello, everybody. I’m home!” The wife and children are in the den, watching an interesting television program. They respond with “Hi, honey” and “Hi, Daddy.” A person with a positive self-image who knows that his wife and children love him will hang up his coat, go into the den, and embrace his family. Someone who is overly sensitive will say, “Hi, honey? Is that the kind of appreciation I get for working all day to feed and clothe my family? The darn television program is more important than coming out to welcome me. What an ungrateful bunch!”

From that point on, the evening is apt to go downhill. Little love can be generated in either direction when someone is bristling with resentment. The wife and children may have been very happy to have the husband and father home. They may fully appreciate his efforts on their behalf. The fact that they did not leave the television set at a high point in the program and run out to greet him is in no way an indication of their lack of love or admiration. However, because he seriously doubts that he deserves being loved, he interprets their failure to greet him as a confirmation of his feelings about himself.

Constructive criticism can result in improving ourselves. Whether it is an instructor who corrects our work or a friend who makes a legitimate observation about something we say or do, we can learn to avoid mistakes and to do things in a better way. People with a negative self-image, however, may be so sensitive that they react adversely to constructive criticism. Believing that they are inadequate and fearing that others will detect their inadequacies, they may take a critical remark as evidence that their inadequacies have been exposed.

They may respond to a critical remark as though it were an insult, and this reaction may be detrimental to others as well as to themselves. How intensely a negative self-image can affect our response to criticism is demonstrated by a personal experience that may step deep into childhood.