I would describe myself as reasonably sensitive – after all, I’m a psychiatrist and, as such, would think that I am sensitive to other people’s needs. I don’t think that I’m particularly more sensitive than many others, and I know plenty of people who care and show empathy, both to friends and family, and even to people they don’t know. I suspect I sometimes fall down a bit on the latter – I have recently acknowledged to myself that I am socially phobic in situations where I don’t know people, or even the surroundings in which I find myself. I think I am friendly, and even gregarious, with people I know, but I have little idea what to say when I don’t.
For people like me social media has been a great boon. Without it, how would I have written this blog, and had online conversations with people I have got to know online, despite never meeting them? It has opened up the world for me. But there are a few problems. Perhaps it has made speaking in the real world even harder, and I still feel enormous anxiety when interacting directly with people I don’t know. Obviously, there is not the same pressure to reply, but I feel hugely guilty if I don’t.
I think, perhaps, that this is the point where sensitivity becomes oversensitivity. Even now I am worrying about whether one writes oversensitive or over sensitive. Daft, I know, but I am very afraid of seeming stupid. I think this may hark back to my early years at medical school, where I had no real idea what I was doing; but I was always worried about being laughed at, for as long as I can remember. Actually I can remember, and my cheeks are burning as I write. When I was about eight or nine, my mother sent me to a party wearing frilly knickers, and for some reason (who knows what?) I did a headstand. The entertainer carelessly suggested that all my school friends should call me Frilly from then on. I think I had always been shy, but this episode taught me humiliation. I know it is nothing, compared with what many experience, but I was never subsequently comfortable performing in any way.
Mental illness leads to over sensitivity in many, perhaps particularly bipolar disorder due to the way it presents. During an episode of illness, either up or down, sensitivity becomes irrelevant, as the illness is all, and doesn’t allow any concerns about what others may think. But, as it subsides, welcome to oversensitivity, and even humiliation. I was recently treated for depression by people I know, and I am haunted by the fact that I must have appeared so awful and, let’s get really shallow, ugly. They were all enormously kind, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but I cringe still at how I must have appeared. Similarly, any periods of elevated mood tend to cause too much talking, brighter clothes and misplaced belief in oneself, and this doesn’t sit well when looking back.
Even when well I would describe myself as oversensitive, although it’s worse when I’ve been ill. If I say or do something that I regret, or that someone else queries, I can’t stop myself going over it again and again, and imagining that they see me negatively when they probably don’t even think about me again. The problem may be that I mind, rather than whether their view is good or bad. If I didn’t care as much about what they think, then I probably wouldn’t be oversensitive, or worry about it. My partner is the exact opposite – he says what he believes, or thinks is best, and doesn’t seem to care whether he might have upset people. And I don’t mean that he’s insensitive, as this is far from the case, it’s simply that he doesn’t allow himself to worry about what’s done. As he would say, how would worrying make any difference?
I would like to be less oversensitive, but at the same time, I even worry about what I might be like if I was. For example, would I no longer worry about people’s feelings, or offending them, and what would that mean? Would I end up offending people more? It’s an interesting dilemma, the person who’s being oversensitive about their own oversensitivity.
In the end, oversensitivity must, like any other condition, be a combination of nature and nurture – and being humiliated at children’s parties! It could certainly be viewed as part of an anxiety disorder, but for me it’s quite specific. I am an anxious person generally, but this is a particular aspect of it that I’m not good at controlling. I wouldn’t say that I had generalized anxiety disorder – at least not all the time – and I suppose that’s the whole point!
Inevitably in my job (and at my age!) I have become better at dealing with it. There have been times when I’ve really had to bite the bullet and do or say things that I hate, and that I feel terrible about subsequently. Interestingly these rarely involve patients, and I think occur more in situations where I feel vulnerable or exposed. As a patient myself I almost always feel anxious – that I’ll say the wrong thing or come across as stupid. For many years I worried that doctors (and others) would see me as someone with a personality disorder (with all the connotations that can bring). I think I’ve finally, or mostly, put that behind me, but it has a tendency to rear its ugly head when under stress.
I don’t think I’ll ever rid myself of oversensitivity, and I regret this. But I would like to be able to recognise it, and to decide whether to avoid situations (sometimes that’s best), or to meet them head on, accepting that it will make me feel bad. I think I’m getting better at this – in essence standing up to my own oversensitivity, rather than letting it defeat me. This, for me, would be at least as good as defeating it.