What Highly Sensitive People Can Teach Us All About Kindness

What Highly Sensitive People Can Teach Us All About Kindness Hero Image

I work with a lot of highly sensitive people, and they often start a session like this:

"My husband teases me a lot, and I know I should just roll with the punches, but it hurts my feelings."

"Why should you roll with the punches?" I'll ask.

"Because I've been told my entire life that I'm too sensitive, and that I should learn to take a joke."

Some other common responses to someone expressing that they don't like being teased are:

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  • "Get over it."
  • "You're too sensitive."
  • "Grow a thicker skin."
  • "Lighten up! You take everything so seriously."

If you're not highly sensitive, you may think that teasing is truly funny, or you have a thick enough skin that you can roll with it. But telling someone who is highly sensitive to "grow a thicker skin" or "stop being so sensitive" is like telling them to change the color of their eyes. Those comments perpetuate a cycle of shame that likely began early in your friend's or partner's life, and if you want to move toward them with a loving response, you would say something like, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize those kinds of comments hurt you."

Like football and hamburgers, teasing is part of the American way; most people view it as an acceptable form of communication. I'm not talking about a gentle poke that originates from pure love. I'm talking about the barbed pokes that originate from a passive-aggressive and, thus, unconscious need to make yourself feel better by tearing someone else down.

Teasing starts early in life, in school and at family dinner tables, continues in adolescent and college friendships, then finds its way into adulthood. It's a pervasive, insidious, negative form of communication that can erode safety and trust in relationships.

One of the primary problems with teasing is that, because we hear it everywhere, we're conditioned to believe that it's normal. We hear it in the media, in sitcoms and movies. We hear it at friends' houses. We witnessed it at home between parents and siblings. And instead of someone responding to being teased with something like that, "Ouch. That doesn't feel good," we witness others laughing or smiling uncomfortably and absorb the expectation that we should do the same.

Why do people tease?

1. It's a way to cover up insecurity.

By tearing someone down or pointing out their "faults," the person doing the teasing feels a momentary sense of superiority and experiences a false boost of self-esteem.

2. It's a way to avoid being vulnerable.

Instead of being vulnerable and saying, "I like you," boys learn to pull braids as a way to get a girl's attention. Similarly, instead of verbally expressing love and appreciation, men learn to poke fun at their girlfriends or wives as way to form a false sense of closeness. Men also tease and poke male friends as a way to create false closeness and avoid vulnerability.

3. It's a cheap way to bond.

When two people laugh over teasing a third person, it creates a false sense of bonding. In fact, triangulating with the third person at the butt of the joke is one of the easiest ways to falsely bond. But even though everyone might laugh, if you peel back the habitual and hardened layers of the heart you would find that the teasing doesn't feel good to anyone.

In our household, where four highly sensitive people dwell, we have a no-teasing policy. We seek to communicate directly and with kindness, and if we hear anyone communicating otherwise, we nip it in the bud. There's plenty of laughter here, but it's clean laughter that makes everyone feel good. If we replaced the subversive and insidious ways that we tear others down — teasing, sarcasm, and barbed humor — with kindness and appreciation, the world would be a different place.

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