The Top 4 Shaming Statements Highly Sensitive People Often Hear

by | Sep 25, 2022 | HSP | 31 comments

One of the greatest challenges of being a highly sensitive person is NOT the sensitivity itself (which is a gift) but in how your sensitivity was responded to growing up – and even now, as an adult. As I’ve listened to the stories of my highly sensitive clients and course members over the years, it’s quite clear that the secondary layer of shame that grows as a result of the statements we hear explicitly and receive implicitly is significantly more painful than the core temperament of sensitivity.

Let’s elucidate and unpack the top shaming statements that highly sensitive people often hear, and also include the truth about these statements.


#1: “You’re So Intense”

As you child, you may have heard this from parents or other adults when you would express painful emotions – or any emotion other than happiness. While a typically wired kid or sibling may have been able to brush off a hurtful comment, for example, for you that comment felt like a knife and you collapsed into tears.

You may have also heard/absorbed this comment when you strived to do well in school or other activities. Perhaps you were competitive by nature and didn’t take losing very well. Perhaps you tried to be an excellent student and you heard this comment from other kids as they observed your drive and determination.

Personally, I love intense people, but of course the statement “you’re so intense” was said with judgement; the barbs would have been felt acutely and added to the belief that there’s something wrong with you.

Here’s the truth about what being “intense” really means:

You’re passionate.
You’re engaged with life.
You care deeply about things.
You’re determined.
You’re focused.
You feel deeply.
Can you take that in?

#2: “You Think Too Much”

The second statement that HSPs often heard growing up (and may still hear) is: “You think too much”. While HSPs can certainly be prone to ruminating, which doesn’t serve a positive function, we also grapple with deep questions early in life like, “Why are we here?” and “How vast is the universe?” and “What happens when you die?”

The sub-message to this statement is: There’s something wrong with your brain. But the truth is that when someone says “you think too much” what they really mean is, “I’m uncomfortable with your big, deep, and complicated thoughts and your unanswerable questions that I don’t have answers to.”

And the deep, down, bottom-line truth is this: Your brain is a magnificent, fascinating place. Yes, it can cause suffering when it gets stuck on the hamster-wheel of rumination, but the flip side of this same coin is your capacity to drill deeply into the complexities and mysteries of life. I love my clients’ brains. I love the way they think. I love they way they ponder. And, yes, I’m fascinated by the way their brains get stuck, for it’s through bringing compassion to the stuck places that I can help them find their way through the labyrinth of being a wonderfully complicated, highly sensitive human.

#3: “Calm Down!” 

I have no doubt that you’ve heard this statement hundreds of times in your life. You may have heard it as a child when you cried for hours about a lost toy or a hurt animal. You may have heard it as a teenager when you expressed righteous indignation about an injustice. You may have heard it as an adult when a partner became overwhelmed by your emotional response.

The sub-message of “calm down” is, “Your emotions are too much” – which can easily be translated in the shame-mind as, “You’re too much.” And if the person saying this could express the underbelly truth they would say, “I’m uncomfortable with big emotions.”

Because, of course, it was never about you. You are NOT too much. It was about the other person’s incapacity to tolerate their own big emotions and so they attempt to shut down yours.

#4: “Why Can’t You Take a Joke?”

Like “you’re so intense”, the sub-message in this statement is, “You’re too serious. Lighten up. Why can’t you laugh it off like everyone else around you?” Highly sensitive people don’t find jokes with hidden barbs, including sarcasm at your expense, funny. We know when there’s a barb (everyone knows it), and we’re not going to laugh it off. Highly sensitive people are usually straight-shooters, which means we don’t take kindly to an indirect communication, including someone trying to tell us something painful in the guise of a joke.

The truth here is that many people don’t know how to communication uncomfortable thoughts and feelings directly so they fold them into a “joke.” I have countless painful childhood memoirs of someone making a joke at my expense, me crying or getting upset, and the person saying, “Why can’t you take a joke?” If I could time travel back to my young self in those moments I would wrap my arms around her and say to the other person, “Oh, she can absolutely laugh at jokes, but not when it’s not a joke at a all but a passive-aggressive attempts at communicating something mean.”

What would you say in response to any of these statements if you could time travel back to your young self?

 

What other shaming statements have you heard and absorbed throughout your life?

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31 Comments

  1. Thanks for another wonderful blog.

    I find it very shaming when certain psychologists say we should train ourselves out of our thoughts, like Pavlovian dogs or lab rats. I find it shaming when I am told to treat only the symptom, and that the underlying issues either aren’t there or are not relevant. It’s why I’m attracted to the depth traditions, as per the wonderful Lionel Corbett video you shared about a year ago.

    I’ve also lived with having highly anxious parents, and thus constantly feeling the need to protect them from how bad I’m really feeling – a variant on the “calm down” message you mentioned. I’m sure books can and have been written on this.

    Reply
    • Yes to both of these examples of shaming, J. Thank you for sharing.

      Reply
    • Thank you for this insightful article. I suffered under my mother’s narcissistic tongue, especially in sharing my feelings. Wanting to talk about my childhood trauma, she tells me my feelings are “wrong”. Gaslights me, get flying monkeys alias sibblings in alliance, she being the “victim”. Always criticizing, questioning my relationships, controlling, unrelenting standatds, her psycho somatic illness, guilt tripping me all my life. But thanks be to God at the age of 61 I learnt to say no, drew up boundaries, open my shut up mouth to speak my truth. My sisters and I are in unison qbout our mother. For the first time we can just love each other. We do not allow any gossip from her, especially concerning each other. I found autonomy. Thankfully I am still working and dancing, free spirit, loving my kids and one grandchild..
      I try to help my 80 year old mother, with shopping, have tea with her, walking in love, the RIGHT thing to do..

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    • Why can’t you be happy?

      Reply
  2. Thank you for another great post.

    I’ve always been told ‘you’re too slow’ because I wasn’t as witty as my siblings and process information alot slower than most people. I used to find it hard to keep up with long jokes, I’d have to go away and think about what the person had just said! I suppose my brain just works differently, but you do grow up questioning ‘ am I stupid?’

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry you had that experience and formed that belief, BiBi. I’ve come to see that many HSPs do have a slower processing speed because they’re taking in so much information, not just what’s on the surface. And there is NO negative correlation between processing speed and intelligence! In fact, I would venture to guess that, if anything, there’s a positive correlation.

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      • I relate to this too, in fact I tell my 4 year old “Mommy’s a slow thinker.” just to normalize it. Einstein is said to have described himself this way!

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        • Wow I didn’t know that about Einstein! Makes so much sense.

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          • Ah thank you for sharing BiBi and Lailah, I can also relate. And thanks so much for this post Sheryl as I didn’t realise slower processing was a characteristic of HSPs. That’s really validating <3 Dad would often say at the dinner table: 'I've got a joke, but she won't get it,' then point to me. And I always wondered how people listened to a talk or lecture, and ask questions straight away. I needed a good few hours to process it all!

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  3. “Oh, she can absolutely laugh at jokes, but not when it’s not a joke at a all but a passive-aggressive attempts at communicating something mean.”
    Oh if only I could have articulated that as a child!

    Reply
    • All of us! But we can time travel and do the repair now.

      Reply
  4. Shame. What is it? Why do we feel it? What evolutionary purpose does it serve? Does everyone feel shame? Do some people feel shame more than others?

    These are some questions I’ve been pondering of late….

    There are so many varying perspectives on what is considered shameful – it depends on the individual and the culture. We often feel shame because we feel we’ve done something wrong, but who says it’s wrong? Our own inner compass? A parental figure? A spouse? The media? A culture? Where have we decided that certain thoughts and behaviors are not okay?

    For me personally, when I know I’ve done something truly wrong that requires an apology, I feel guilt more so than shame. I only ever use shame to beat myself up, much like others use the statements you’ve mentioned here, to shame us. They are said to us HSP’s to hurt us, to get us to fall in line with the “normal” people, they are said to shame us into action… but it fails at every turn.

    Shame, whether it be imposed on us by another, or by ourselves, is a hideous creature that robs us of self love and compassion. Instead of learning from a mistake, we apply shame and so the learning mutates to avoidance as opposed to loving and excited learning. We feel shame for our thoughts about ourselves, or our partner, rather than seeing these messages for what they truly are. The shame is a blockage. A useless emotion.

    Sheryl – Thank you for sharing a post that once again taps into the collective consciousness 🙂

    Reply
    • Beautifully and wisely aqticuatle, Brent, and it’s always a joy to see you here. I’ve written about shame in my last few posts. Take a look if you haven’t already.

      Reply
  5. I get told “you think too much” all the time. But the fact that I think and talk about things others don’t know how to put into words is why I have a huge social media following and why people want to read what I write. I tend to think “you think too much” is the criticism of a small mind.

    Reply
  6. I’ve heard all of these and unfortunately, I have said some of these same things to my husband especially “you are too intense.” What’s funny is we are both highly sensitive and sometimes we don’t support each others sensitivity even though we’ve had many conversations about what it is to be sensitive and to be on the receiving end of people not understanding us. I usually tend to throw out the “you are too intense” comment when we are in social settings and I witness his passion being sort of misunderstood. Something to work on as I want to support him, not alienate him or shame him. He has said many times, I think too much, but I have told him how it makes me feel and how I need him to just listen to me and know sometimes it is my anxiety at work. We’ve come a long way, yet still, we are a work in progress. Thanks for another wonderful article.

    Reply
    • Ah, yes: we’re all a work in progress, but how wonderful that you can share these places with each other and grow together.

      Reply
  7. My ex told me I was too deep and and couldn’t deal with my heavy emotions. It has stuck with me for a long time. I felt a lot of shame about it and felt like there was something wrong with me. Honestly, sometimes I still do, to this day. This article validates me but also makes me realize the shame I still carry. Sometimes it can get lonely when you are able to carry big emotions for others but they aren’t able to do the same.

    Thank you for putting this article together.

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    • That’s really painful, OT. I’m glad the article helped a bit, and yes it can be a very lonely path until you meet others who are wired in a similar way. I hope the comments here help as well.

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  8. Yes. Wow. Have heard all of these. Another one for me, especially in my young womanhood, was “you’re too sexual/too sexy/a nymphomaniac.” In the clearer wisdom of my late 40s, I see the truth: I was passionate, embodied and yes, thank you Sheryl, engaged with life…comfortable in my skin and with with my sexuality from a young age, in ways that made others uncomfortable. I was not reckless, disordered or compulsive, I was ALIVE! Once I began to know some of these people on a deeper level, I learned they all carried significant shame about their own bodies/sexuality. No wonder my confidence with my own felt like such a threat. I grieve the years I spent believing something was wrong with me for being okay with myself.

    Thank you Sheryl. I wish every young HSP could hear your words.

    🔥 ❤️

    Reply
    • I’m so glad that you’ve been able to embrace your sexuality and aliveness, Donna! ❤️ And yes, I hope one day every highly sensitive child will grow up hearing the truth about who they are.

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  9. Beautiful and touchy post Sheryl
    Thank you 🙂

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  10. Another comment I would add to this list is “You’re such a drama Queen!”
    I have been called this by two of my closest friends, sometimes with rolling eyes or laughter and it feels like such a put down, it really hurts. I simply feel things deeply, am honest and express my emotions and am put down for it by those who are supposed to love me. I have learnt to rise above it and realise it is their problem and not mine. Anyone else had this comment directed at them?

    Reply
    • That’s a really painful things to hear, Kelly, and yes I’m certain that many other HSPs have had this comment directed at them.

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  11. Thank you very much for
    this post, Sheryl.
    I’m often told by my husband that I overanalyze / unnecessarily complicate things by too much thinking about any given matter. Then he tops it up with a sarcastic joke (which I hate) and that’s it 😅
    I definitely am a straight shooter (thank you for putting that into the article, I’ve learned another thing about myself) and often wonder why I dislike the small talk about weather so much. I also hate sarcasm and am constantly communicating to my husband how awful it is for me.
    The biggest challenge for me is (and has been for more than a decade now) learning to like / appreciate and eventually love my high sensitivity. So far, I haven’t gotten there. I dislike it, I don’t appreciate it and wish I could roll more easily with the punches.
    Thank you for this post 🙏

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  12. This is all very relatable! I’ve definitely been told I am “too sensitive” and “need to have thicker skin.” People think I’m serious (I can be) and my husband heard I was “all business” before we starting dating because we have mutual friends who didn’t know me very well. I think it’s funny, because I have a very light side to me; being serious is just how I’m perceived – and judged!

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  13. Growing up I hid my emotions because my mother was already taking up all the emotional space in the house. So I am that person who feels safer to be away from people expressing big emotions intensely. I am the person that feels trapped by others big emotions. (The eldest of 6 with a very explosive and feeling mother) I don’t shame people with big emotions or thoughts- but I do remove myself from the energy. I hope sometime you can address how deal with others who feel too intense and not safe. I get it is my problem- and I do not shame people who are that way, but I am overwhelmed by them. ❤️

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  14. Thank you for another spot-on post, Sheryl. I found myself crying at the end, because I’ve experienced most of these. I was told “you’re too sensitive” and “why can’t you take a joke!” more times than I can count as a child and young adult. I get them less now that I had a long chat with my parents about my sensitivity and what I’ve learned in therapy about myself. I still don’t think that my family members fully understand me and support my sensitivity though, but it’s better than it was. I often visualize “giving back” their responses (their discomfort) to them and letting my emotions pour out around my husband who supports and loves that aspect of me.

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  15. So powerful and beautiful, thank you for sharing this! ❤️

    I think the point that resonates most with me is that when someone wants us to shut down a big emotion or complicated thought, it’s because of their own constraint. Their inability to face it shouldn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.

    I have definitely felt that, and it can lead to confusion or stress around feeling sadness or other big emotions for me

    I wish I could have always thought the way you’re describing and I hope to bring that with me as a reminder when I deal with people like this

    Thank you so much,

    Reply

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