What They're Really Saying When They Call You 'Sensitive'

Being bilingual, while beneficial in many ways, can sometimes make it harder to understand subtext. It’s no secret that some words can be maliciously used to hit you right in the heart. To those who are working through their understanding of the world and feel at odds with how they are feeling versus what they are told they should be feeling –this story is for you.

I have always been a bubbly, excitable human. I loved singing and dancing in front of family because it made them smile and laugh. However, I was also labeled as sensitive. Sensitive, a word which when spoken by my parents had many meanings, but none of them kind or caring. Most often it bore the connotation of one who is too easily upset. And since the word faulted me for reacting in such a manner, no matter what happened, they were absolved of entertaining the possibility their wrong-doing could have been responsible for my feeling such an emotion.

But this happened when I was a child, with too many things which were too out of my control for anyone to place rightful blame on me. Could I have been a sensitive kid? Sure, but that label does not absolve anyone of the responsibility of being empathetic.

I missed my mom and got upset when she left me in a foreign country without saying goodbye, I cried a lot as a result– sensitive. I watched Jurassic Park with my mother when I was six and was scared—sensitive. After all, if I wasn’t sensitive, my mother would have stayed away for another year so that she could accomplish her goals, and she wouldn’t have to leave the theatre after paying $6 to see the movie (1997).

As a result, I was growing up with the clear-as-mud message: If you can’t tough it out and if someone has to take care of you, you will be an unlovable nuisance.

In reality, this made me about as tough as a soft-boiled egg: a seemingly hard shell that could crack at the slightest pressure, revealing a soft, dribbling mess on the inside. I came off strong, overly excitable, and “I don’t care if you think I am nuts, because I am definitely nuts and you outta know it” became my long winded, but accurate motto. I was desperate to be liked, so I smiled and acted like a clown, but should you poke at the fact that this was a charade, I quickly crumbled, usually crying and thinking about how I would have enjoyed having the ability to disappear completely. Thus, as an adolescent, sensitive meant: easily offended by the slightest comment.

As a young adult, I stopped being able to pretend I was happy and lovable, because I didn’t feel it at all. The traumatic childhood events and faulty chemical brain structure came together to definitively throw me into a state of depression. It couldn’t be called depression, since such a term would never be acknowledged by my family with anything but purposeful ignorance (meaning: if you ignore it, it’s not a problem). I would have days where getting out of bed was incredibly difficult, days I was just mad for no reason, followed by days when anything could set me off crying and finally days where I felt nothing at all. Thus, sensitive started to mean: someone who can’t pull themselves together.

Photo by  Caroline Attwood  on  Unsplash

The final context for the word came to me after an event at my grandma’s house in Brooklyn. She was showing me something, trinkets and the like when she pulled out a photograph. She was in the middle of explaining that it was one of the few pictures she had of me as a child in Russia when I burst into tears. Burst being used quite literally in this context. At first, I felt warmth and joy from the memory but that was quickly overcome with sadness. I remembered when the picture was taken, the wallpaper, the dishes on the table, the smell of old candle wax as it burned, the hum of the old television set. It was New Year’s Eve 1998 in Russia. I have asked (several therapists) and being flooded by emotions from an image is completely normal, being so overwhelmed with sensory recall from the event that you start to hysterically cry and become inconsolable—isn’t.

If this reaction was a single occurrence, my family would have been more than justified to have brushed this off by explaining my sensitivity to grandma. Teenagers are moody and dramatic, no doubt about it.

This was about the moment that I realized something must not have been correct. I had been mentioning I was not feeling well, and it was starting to feel like the employment of sensitive was a deliberate gesture to further dismiss the notion that I may have been unwell. All of the connotations used to that point came crashing through my mind.

Could sensitive have meant: attention-seeking? I couldn’t even control myself enough to act in such a way to try to get attention if I wanted to. It seemed concerning that no one wanted to help me act normal since my sensitivity had clearly passed regular levels. Think about yourself now, should someone in front of you burst into tears, would you react with empathy or would you walk by? Maybe I am wrong to place such a dilemma out there, but I should hope you would act on the latter.

This post is a very long way of saying: before you blame yourself or call yourself stupid, weak, or sensitive, no matter your current mental health state, consider what these words truly mean. It helps to think about how you came to associate these terms with yourself—was it completely your own doing, or were there enough repeated encounters with people using language as a tool to make themselves feel better about their actions?

Consider what are those people were saying about their feelings towards you. How much effort they put into repeating one word, with the specific purpose of promoting their particular inflection onto it. “That’s a stupid thing to do,” here meaning something occurred without being given much thought. Compared to, “You were so stupid to do that,” meaning you did something thoughtlessly in malice which affected the person you were speaking with.

Here is the official definition of Sensitive from Merriam Webster. You may note that most of the definitions are correct for the situations I described, in which case a connotation was created to insinuate negative meaning. At other times, the word was used completely out of context to help absolve accountability.

I spent too many years blaming myself for other’s mistakes. I hope I can cut down that time for you.


Definition of sensitive

1 : sensory 2

2 a : receptive to sense impressions

b : capable of being stimulated or excited by external agents (such as light, gravity, or contact)

3 : highly responsive or susceptible: such as

a (1) : easily hurt or damaged; especially : easily hurt emotionally

(2) : delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others

b : excessively or abnormally susceptible : hypersensitive

c : readily fluctuating in price or demand

d : capable of indicating minute differences : delicate

e : readily affected or changed by various agents (such as light or mechanical shock)

f : highly radiosensitive

4 a : concerned with highly classified government information or involving discretionary authority over important policy matters

b : calling for tact, care, or caution in treatment : touchy

5 : having or showing concern for a specified matter —usually used in combination


 Cover Photo by Cory Seward on Unsplash