Sensitivity Is Often Control in Disguise

Let’s assume our friends and family can handle uncomfortable conversations

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
4 min readJul 21, 2020

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Photo: SDI Productions/Getty Images

Sensitivity — what I define to my therapy clients as the ability to detect distress in others — is a foundational part of being a person. It can create stronger bonds and a more equitable society. But as a therapist, I often observe how misapplied sensitivity can weaken or even destroy a relationship: Often, it’s control in disguise.

When we care about people, we are extra-sensitive to their anguish, which can mean avoiding certain topics of conversation. Maybe you don’t bring up money challenges with a friend who has a lot of student loan debt. Or you don’t talk about politics with your family because the discussion gets a little too heated.

But avoiding a topic altogether means making a choice for the other person instead of letting them be responsible for themselves. The more you focus on not upsetting others, the more sensitive you become to their reactions until the slightest hesitation or disagreement can make you put a topic in cold storage.

This is how spouses can go years without talking about sex or how family members can only guess each other’s religious beliefs. It’s what prevents the conversations that make relationships healthier — the uncomfortable, clarifying conversations that clear the air or bring new understanding — from taking place.

Treating people like they’re reactive is a self-fulfilling prophecy

If you want to have more honest conversations with a loved one, you have to ask yourself how you treat them when a difficult subject arises. What’s your default assumption? Do you act as though they’ll start crying? As if they’re going to snap at you or bolt out of the room?

When we treat people like they’re less capable, they tend to become less capable. Any teacher will tell you that treating a kid like they can’t succeed is the quickest way to set them up…

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.