Why Calling Women “Too Sensitive” Makes Absolutely No Sense

Of all the criticism that women endure, the critique I hear most often is that women are “too sensitive.”

Ironically, this phrase, “too sensitive,” makes no sense.

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^Vivian Leigh knows what I’m talking about.^

Now I am not trying to prove or disprove the claim that women are more sensitive than men. I am arguing that, if we are more sensitive, it’s a good thing.

Indulge me, if you will, in a brief exploration of “sensitivity”.

1. Sensitivity makes you more in touch with reality, not less.

Consider the word in any other context. Consider that we are talking about a scale, or a Doppler radar, or a thermometer. Now the purpose of a thermometer is to sense fluctuations in the temperature around it. Let’s say one thermometer can sense one degree fluctuations in the temperature. That’s a pretty good thermometer. But wait; there is another more sensitive thermometer that can register fluctuations down to a tenth of a degree. The second thermometer’s sensitivity does not render it incapable of use, but, in fact, a better thermometer.

Let us apply this reasoning to humanity.

Just as a more sensitive thermometer picks up on more fluctuations in the temperature than a less sensitive one, so a “more sensitive” person picks up on more of the subtleties of his environment than his less sensitive peers. Thus, a very sensitive person is highly aware of his surroundings. To be more aware of one’s surroundings makes one more in touch with reality. This means that more sensitive people are more in touch with reality, not less.

So when people spout off about women being “too sensitive,” they are really saying that women are too aware of reality. What they are really saying is that a certain modicum of oblivion and ignorance makes for a more reasonable person. Such cannot possibly be the case. The more sensitive you are, the more information you have with which to reason. Sensitive people may draw unreasonable conclusions, but their sensitivity is not to blame, their inability to reason is.

2. Emotions make sense.

Typically, discussions about sensitivity go hand in hand with discussions about emotion, as they should. Just as certain sensations accompany a nose’s interaction with a particular smell, or a mouth with a particular taste, so certain sensations accompany one’s interactions with particular experiences.

Emotions are the sensations of the soul, and they accompany our interactions with the world, people, reality. The more sensitive, the more aware, the more in touch you are with reality, the more emotions (sensations) you will have.

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Now we’ve all met people who appear to be crying for no reason, people who are experiencing an emotion that we don’t understand. It is from this particular situation that, I suspect, the “too sensitive” diagnosis arose. There are two possibilities, and in neither of them does the “too sensitive” diagnosis make sense:

 Possibility #1: The sensitive person is picking up on something you can’t sense.

Usually when people confront an emotion in someone else that they cannot understand, they jump to the conclusion that the emotional person is delusional (which may be the case). It is possible, however, that the emotional person is simply more sensitive than you, and therefore picking up on more than you, sensing subtleties in the situation that your limited awareness cannot register.

 Consider a chef with a highly sensitive palette. You may accompany him to the same restaurant, eat the same food, drink the same wine, and yet, have an entirely different experience than him. You may have wholeheartedly enjoyed every bite, while he leaves unsatisfied, and disappointed.

Now you might conclude that he is delusional, or has impossible standards. It is likely, however, that because of the sensitivity of his palette, he picked up on a subtle but telling staleness in a particular ingredient, or a disharmony in a combination of flavors that you can’t even taste. In this case, the chef’s palette is not “too sensitive,” just more sensitive than yours. And it is precisely the sensitivity of his palette that, along with making him a better chef, makes truly great food enjoyable for him to a degree that less sensitive eaters cannot experience.

 So before you conclude that because you can’t sense it, it doesn’t exist, consider your own limitations.

Possibility #2: The emotional person is not actually very sensitive.

Continuing with chef metaphor, no one objects to a chef picking up on too many flavors in a particular dish, but one should certainly object to a chef picking up on flavors that aren’t actually present in the dish. Likewise, no one should object to a person picking up on too much of reality. But one should certainly object to a person sensing something that isn’t actually real. “Sensing” things that do not exist does not make you “too sensitive,” it makes you delusional.

Sensitivity, then, is not the cause of the person’s senseless reaction, but the solution. This person is by definition insensitive, unaware of his true surroundings. He should seek to become more sensitive, more aware of reality, not less.

 So, if you are going to criticize women, don’t criticize them for being “too sensitive,” as there is no such thing. Either you are simply less aware than them, or they are not only insensitive, but delusional. Either way, being “too sensitive” is not the problem. And if you are criticized for being “too sensitive,” take it as a compliment, because your heightened awareness only makes you more in touch with reality. You’re just a little more aware than the average bear. Use it to your advantage.

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19 comments

  1. Great article! I think when people say “women are too sensitive”, they actually mean “women are too expressive” — which makes no sense either. I work in health care and sensitivity is often considered a skill in the industry. Being able to feel what another person feels and being able to portray whatever emotion you are feeling are both useful social skills. After all, we live in a society that rewards social skills above all other ones.

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  2. I think you missed the point of “too sensitive”. Let me try my own analogy. Every one is sensitive to temperature. If it gets too cold we shiver, too hot we sweat. Everyone has a temperature range where they feel comfortable. For me that’s 45 to 80 degrees F. Now imagine someone that starts shivering at 69.5 and sweats at 69.9. There are greater temp variations than this in a very well controlled house. I wouldn’t even notice this difference. Swinging from sweating to shivering with this variation wouldn’t make you more in touch with reality, it would be a disability that requires you to live in a bubble fully disconnected from reality.

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    1. Good point. The person who shivers at 69.5 and sweats at 69.9 certainly has a problem..but that problem has nothing to do with sensitivity. Like you said everyone is sensitive to changes in the temperature. And when the body senses changes in the temperature, it sends signals to various other parts of the body to adjust. If you are sweating at 69.9 degrees and shivering at 69.5, there is a problem with the signals, not your body’s ability to tell what the temperature is. Let’s say two people are in a room together, and the temperature is 69.5 degrees. Yet, one is shivering and the other is having no apparent reaction to the temperature. Then the temperature rises slightly to 69.9. Within minutes, the shivering person begins to sweat, and the other person’s body again has no noticeable physical reaction. This is not caused by the fact that one person’s body senses the change in temperature, and one does not. In fact, it is precisely because the other body senses that the temperature only rose 0.4 degrees that it made such a tiny adjustment, and did not send signals to begin sweating. Both sense the temp change, but one person’s body reacts differently than the others. The sweating person’s body is not “too sensitive to temperature,” it has extreme reactions to the temperature that his body senses.
      Ideally you would want your body to be able to register even the slightest change in temperature, and then adjust appropriately. That’s why the comfortable person above is comfortable, not because he is less sensitive to temperature, but because his body adjust appropriately to the temperature changes it senses.
      This misuse of the word “sensitivity” is precisely the reason I wrote the article. Sensitivity is merely the measure of how much information a particular sensor (bodily or otherwise) is capable of detecting at a given moment. It has nothing to do with how the rest of the tool, body, whatever reacts to the information.

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      1. I think your missing MY point. If you are so excessively sensitive to these variations that you are at best uncomfortable, you are too sensitive. There is a range of “normal” stimuli. If minute differences well within the range of normal causes physiological reactions, then you are too sensitive.

        Let me try a different analogy. It is a VERY long distance between NY and LA. A micrometer is a very sensitive measuring tool. It would be functionally impossible to measure the distance between NY and LA with a micrometer, this tool is just far to sensitive to work. 1/1000 of a mm is irrelevant when talking about the thousands of miles between NY and LA. If your emotions are tuned to the sensitivity of a micrometer, you can’t measure NY to LA, you can’t even measure the distance to the mail box, you are too sensitive to the minutia to see the big picture.

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        1. Possessing the ability to measure micrometers does not imply that such a small, finely tuned instrument should be used in all instances. It should be used in appropriate circumstances.

          In personal conversation, for instance, a high “sensitivity” to the emotions of others and the inferences delivered by the body language and tone of the other conversationalist is very useful in empathizing with and understanding that person. Think of how useful such a skill (even a subconscious possession of this skill) would be for an effective salesman or saleswoman.

          In running an office of 50 sales people, however, such minutiae concerning the overall picture are not only unnecessary, but also hindrances to effective organizing and success.

          Any skill, when it reaches a point of debilitation, is obviously no longer useful or helpful. But being perceptive enough to mentally register minute changes in temperature, or interpret the body language of others, is not unhelpful, or “too sensitive”. It depends on the application of that skill

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          1. I can agree that “Too Sensitive” is situational. Someone with micrometer sensitivities could potentially be a very good trauma counselor. This same person would be far too sensitive to be a good firefighter or public speaker.

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        2. Oops, I’m sorry if I misunderstood. I’ll try again. Let me try to spell out my thought process:
          1. Sensitivity is awareness, a measure of one’s the ability to detect things in their surroundings.
          2. Being aware of something does not mean that you are preoccupied with it.
          3. Having the ability to detect things to a great degree of precision does not mean that you can’t focus on one particular task. If you can’t focus on one particular task, that is an issue with your ability to focus, not with your awareness.
          4. Simply being able to sense something, even to a great degree of precision, does not mean that you will have an particular reaction to it. So you can’t be excessively sensitive to (aware of) something, but you can have inappropriate reactions to what you sense.
          5. Emotions are a response to the things you sense. Different senses lead to different emotions. You can have inappropriate emotional responses to the things you sense, but that is not because you are too sensitive. Just like there are physical responses to your body sensing a change in the temperature, so there are emotional responses to your body sensing various realities. If your body reacts to sensing a 69 degree temperature with sweating then there is something wrong with your body’s reaction, not with the fact that it senses the temperature. Similarly, if you cry uncontrollably for hours on end every time you put popcorn in the microwave, there is something wrong with your emotional response, not with you awareness that you are putting popcorn in the microwave. (Or, as I said in the article, you are delusional and your emotion is a response to a delusion).
          6. Different situations require different levels of sensitivity. If I wanted to measure the distance from NY and LA, even though measuring it in micrometers would actually provide a more accurate measurement, it would be silly to do so because the situation doesn’t require such a precise measurement. But, if you had a car with an odometer that could measure distance to the millionth of a meter, it would have a better odometer than other cars, even though no one needs it.
          7. Just because you have the ability to sense things, does not mean that you have to focus on everything you are aware of at a given moment. You may be aware of both the fly on the wall and the paper you are writing, but you do not have to be preoccupied with one or the other. While you are writing the paper, your awareness of the fly may be useless, but it does not make you worse at writing the paper. The fly on the wall is only an issue if you lack the ability to focus on one thing at a time. So if you can’t focus on one thing at a time, your problem is not that you are too sensitive, but that you lack focus. But sensitivity and focus are two separate things. So one’s ability to sense things to the size of a micrometer does not make them unable to see the big picture, their preoccupation with minutia does. And being sensitive to something doesn’t mean you are necessarily preoccupied with it.

          Does that make sense? I know it’s a lot.

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          1. It makes sense, but it’s wrong. Particularly points 3 & 6.

            So another analogy. Light sensitivity. It is possible to have tools that are VERY sensitive to light. We can detect a single lume of light at the distance of one mile. The tools to detect this light are VERY sensitive. If we take this tool and try to take a picture in normal light 600 lumes at a distance of 2 meters, it will be blind. The light that is normal to you and me is so very bright that the camera couldn’t see anything BUT light.

            If someones eyes are so very sensitive to light that they are blinded by the brightness of a dim room, their eyes are too sensitive.

            A micrometer can not measure the distance between NY and LA, even if you installed on a car. Tidal forces cause the distance to change depending on the tides. (thousands of miles changing by an inch or two) With the distance in constant flux within the measurable tolerance of a micrometer, it would be impossible to get an accurate reading.

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          2. The tool’s sensitivity to light is only problematic because of the tool’s limited range. If you could improve that range of the tool without reducing its sensitivity, it would be able to handle more lumes, and it would be a more powerful tool. Similarly, as I said, a person’s sensitivity to his surroundings is only a problem if the person lacks the metaphorical range to handle what he senses. When it comes to a particular tool, because they cannot improve their own range, your only option would be to reduce the amount of light it is exposed to. But since people are people and can improve their ability to handle/focus on/filter information, we can adjust our range to the amount of information we sense (not our senses of sight, etc… those are limited by the “hardware” we’ve been given”).

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          3. We have all made the mistake of getting too caught up in analogies. Metaphors are useful in the sense that they convey the broad strokes of an argument, but fail to encapsulate an entire argument. No analogy will be 100% “true” (or applicable to a situation) simply because every situation possesses its own unique qualifications.

            Point #1 which is agreed upon:
            Sensitivity is useful.

            What is not agreed upon:
            Whether or not firefighters need to be able to empathize with a fly on the wall in a burning building or the true distance between LA and New York City.

            It is a skill like any others, and the point of the article was that those who cast aspersions on women in general for being “too sensitive” not only do not insult them, but instead articulate a good attribute and skill for interpersonal relations that, if stereotypes are to be upheld, women possess with greater frequency than men.

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          4. Well said. Metaphors always fall short. If they did not, they would simply be the thing the metaphor is meant to explain, and therefore, not be a metaphor.

            Now my point in writing the article was really to say two things:
            1. sensitivity in and of itself is good (though it can be used for bad or good) because it is merely the degree to which you are capable of sensing something.
            2. Many negative outcomes that people often attribute to sensitivity, are not in fact caused by sensitivity, but something else (i.e. lack of the corresponding cognitive ability to focus on one thing at a time, emotions that are poorly calibrated to your senses, poor judgement of what to focus on in a given instance).

            The fact is that people are always sensitive to more things than they necessarily need to accomplish a given task. Right now, as you read this comment, you are capable of sensing the temperature in your room, the color of the walls, the number of tiles on the ground, none of which you need to understand this comment. But your sensitivity to those things is not getting in the way of your cognition of this comment because you are capable of focusing on one thing at a time. If you are trying to empathize with someone, it would help you empathize to be sensitive to that someone’s emotions, body language, etc… It would not, however, necessarily help you empathize to be aware of the fly on the wall or body language of another person in the room. HOWEVER, your sensitivity to other people in the room would not get in the way of your ability to empathize with your friend unless you lacked the ability to focus on one thing at a time. Similarly, being sensitive (aware) to the body language of innocent bystanders might not help a firefighter put out a fire (or maybe it would, I don’t know), but being sensitive to changes in temperature in the room, the quality of endangered people’s screams as they shout for help might certainly help you determine where the fire is, and who needs the most help. That doesn’t mean that the firefighter cannot also possess the sensitivity to detect weird body language in bystanders. In fact, he likely does. Such a skill would only get in the way if he lacked the ability to focus on the info important to the task at hand.

            So I still stand by the assertion that you cannot be too sensitive. However, this thread has brought to light a “third possibility” that I failed to include in the original article. An emotional friend could be having an emotional response that is inappropriate given what his sense are telling him. It’s a question of sensitivity vs. calibration. Just as in the example of the two people in a room whose bodies are both sensitive to the temperature, but one is having an inappropriate physical response, so it is possible that two people could sense the reality of a situation to the exact same degree, and one could simply have an unwarranted emotional response to it. That is pretty much the definition of bipolar disorder. The problem with bipolar is not (necessarily) that victims are insensitive or too sensitive to reality, but that their emotions are poorly calibrated.

            Anyway, that was probably more than needed to be said. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Again, possessing a skill does not mean that skill cannot be left unused. A good salesman can ALSO be a good firefighter, providing he knows when to use which skills. You’re presenting an “Either-Or” argument (either Person A is sensitive or he is not), when in fact there are many more than simply these two possibilities.

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  4. The other day I was called “too sensitive” I find if I see others upset it makes me upset to. Sometimes I cry and I am not sure why. As you say you shouldn’t take it as criticism, but sometimes it’s hard not to. But then again it’s better than being emotionally numb.

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  5. Greater precision entails higher energy requirements, greater time requirements, or both. One can read a 1-degree accurate thermometer faster than one can decipher a reading down to a thousandth. Precision adds information (like decimals) despite representing less information than a whole unit. There is certainly a margin where sensitivity is no longer beneficial.

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