Sensitivity Is Often Control in Disguise
Let’s assume our friends and family can handle uncomfortable conversations
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.
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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 for failure.
Relationships can work the same way: When we treat people like they can’t handle a conversation, we can end up reinforcing their sensitivity. When you sense that people are walking on eggshells, you may become more anxious or frustrated around them. You can sense that they’re trying to influence your emotions or your behavior, and so you snap at them or shut them down — which, in turn, strengthens their belief that you’re overly sensitive, and the anxious cycle continues.
Treating people like they can’t handle a conversation can involve:
- Avoiding the topic altogether
- Assuming you know how they’ll respond
- Quickly changing the subject when you sense discomfort
- Using phrases like “I don’t want to upset you, but…”
- Texting instead of talking face-to-face
When we don’t talk about hard subjects with those we love, we never have an opportunity to practice managing our own anxious reactions. Topics like sex, money, religion, or politics don’t inherently create conflict. It’s the intensity that we bring to these conversations that causes problems. And oversensitivity to upsetting others is one form of this intensity.
This doesn’t mean that any conversation topic is on the table at any time. We should respect the fact that people have different comfort levels for certain subjects. People don’t owe you an explanation of past traumas or all their private information. And if you’re in a majority culture, people who are marginalized don’t owe you an education about their experiences.
But it’s useful to ask yourself “When do I assume that someone in my life can’t handle a conversation?” and “Is there an opportunity to create space for them to share their thinking if they want to?” If so, create that space.
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of stories from my therapy clients about how they were surprised to find that the other person was more than willing to share their thinking. Each person involved had assumed the other was the hesitant one.
You might be surprised, too, to discover that you can share a story about your family with a friend who has a rocky relationship with theirs or share your Covid-19 worries with a relative who’s focused on other stresses. When we stop mindreading and start giving people (and ourselves) a chance to talk, it’s surprising to see how people will calm down and open up.
Give people credit as if they’ve already earned it
When you treat people like they can handle a tough topic, you dial down the amount of anxiety you bring to a conversation. And when you’re calmer, the whole relationship is calmer. You give the other person a chance to breathe, think clearly, and share what’s on their mind.
Treating people like they’re capable of tough conversations could include these tactics:
- Not avoiding topics that are important to the relationship
- Expressing your thinking about a topic
- Giving people time and space to develop their thinking
- Calming yourself instead of trying to calm the other person
- Staying mature even if the other person reacts immaturely
Notice that every one of these examples involves staying focused on yourself and your reactions. They aren’t about forcing a conversation to happen — they’re about giving important conversations the chance to emerge. They’re also about giving people the freedom to say if and when they’re ready to talk about a tough subject.
You can’t control anyone else, but you can control the amount of anxiety and the amount of maturity you bring to a conversation. There’s always space for sensitivity. Just don’t let it snuff out someone’s opportunity to speak their mind.