“You’re too sensitive.” Has anyone ever said this to you before? Have you ever said this to anyone else? This is a common claim (or accusation), but how can we tell if someone is being too sensitive or if the other person is being insensitive?
I will use two people, Person A and Person B, to illustrate how the claim pops up in normal conversation:
Person A: Says something about Person B or some other person or group.
Person B: Finds Person A’s comment mean, gross, tactless, or inappropriate in some way, and gets upset.
Person A: Tells Person B he or she is too sensitive.
There are other scenarios in which Person A might tell Person B he or she is too sensitive, and I will address that in a moment. However, the scenario above represents one of the most common scenarios in which this phrase occurs.
So, let’s start with this scenario before we examine other ones.
To determine whether Person A or Person B is either being too sensitive or too insensitive in the scenario above, I would like to approach the situation from a slightly different angle.
I propose that in any given situation, the question is not whether a person is being too sensitive or insensitive. The question is whether someone is acting morally or immorally.
Are You Acting Morally?
When we act morally, we act according to a rule, a principle, or a set of virtues that helps us reach a higher goal. That higher goal helps us personally—and as a society—to become better in some way. For example, the higher goal may help us be more happy, reasonable, compassionate, kind, courageous, etc.
There are different kinds of rules, principles, or virtues we might choose as our guiding light, but here are some of the most common ones:
Treat others how you want to be treated.
Show love to yourself and others in all you do.
Don’t make yourself the exception to the rule but act in a way that you could will everyone to act like you do.
Act in order to bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Aim to act according to virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, courage, hope, and compassion in all you do.
We might think that morality is an abstract subject more appropriate for a college class, rather than everyday discussion. Many people like Socrates believe it is one of the most important subject matters in the world and that we should discuss it every day. I agree with him.
What Happens When We Don’t Act Morally?
It is important to try to act morally in every area of our life. If this sounds like an extreme claim to make, consider that if you do not try to act morally, you will act according to emotion, impulse, instinct, blind habit, or biology.
None of these motivators are bad in themselves. But they have the potential to be harmful and even destructive if they are not guided by reason.
For example, if we act solely according to emotion, we might act thoughtlessly from rage or hate. Or we might act from a desire to dominate others and use them to benefit ourselves at their expense.
Most of us act from naked self-interest when we are not guided by moral principles.
And if we act solely according to instinct or biology alone we might, for example, have sex with whomever we want to whenever we want to without regard to the consequences to ourselves or others.
As another example, if we act solely according to blind habit, we could act in a way that is appropriate for one situation but totally inappropriate to another situation.
The point is that developing our best potential as a human being requires that we strive for a higher principle, rather than being guided solely by our emotion, impulse, instinct, blind habit, or biology. Moral and ethical principles are rational principles that help us determine which emotions, impulses, habits, etc. we should act on and those upon which we should not act.
Morality and Sensitivity
Let’s apply this understanding of morality to the question of whether someone is being too sensitive. To do this, we will return to Person A and Person B.
If Person A says something that Person B finds offensive, the most important question is not whether Person B is being too sensitive. The question is whether Person A is acting morally in this situation.
To explain this, I will present an imaginary conversation I have with Person A.
A: I was just talking to B, and he got all upset about something I said. He is being way too sensitive.
Me: Well, what did you say?
A: I just said that he was the dumbest friend I have. I was only joking, but he got all upset. He’s way too sensitive.
Me: Why did you say that to B?
A: I don’t know. I was just joking. I didn’t really mean it.
Me: What were you hoping to achieve with that comment?
A: I don’t know. I guess I was just talking off the top of my head. I was just trying to get a laugh.
Me: You were trying to make B laugh by saying he was the dumbest friend you have?
A: No, Jeff and Chris were there, and I was trying to make them laugh.
Me: It sounds like what you were doing was insulting B in front of your other friends in order to look good. Isn’t that using B to benefit yourself?
A: You sound just like B. Goooooshhhh, why is everyone so sensitive?! It was just a joke.
Me: But why is it right to use someone else, especially in an embarrassing way, to get a laugh from other people? How does that help B? It seems like it just hurts him.
The Point of This Scenario
When we consider A’s joke at the expense of B in the scenario above, it is hard to see any higher principle A is aiming for with this “joke”.
Indeed, it is much more likely that A made the comment from emotion, impulse, or habit. This doesn’t make A person a horrible person necessarily. But it does mean that A needs to act according to a moral standard consistently, as he is solely using other people to benefit himself, which doesn’t help anyone.
One of the best things about moral standards is that they help us understand how to be good to ourselves and also to other people. Most of us need help with this because we tend to think of ourselves much more than we do other people. This tendency causes us to hurt other people.
Is B Too Sensitive?
In the above scenario, B is not too sensitive for getting upset at A’s joke. It is immoral for A to make a joke at B’s expense. B has every right to stick up for himself and to tell A to knock it off. (You can read more about this here.)
It is never moral for us to use people (in a joke or otherwise) at their expense and without their consent to benefit ourselves. And it is also unwise and immoral for us to try to tell other people how they should feel about jokes or comments we make at their expense.
When we do this, we act like we are the boss of other people and that they are our possessions. We act as though we have the right to do with people whatever we want. But no human has the right to treat another human being this way.
Every human being possesses inner dignity. This is their ability to make moral decisions to help the world become a more beautiful, just, and humane place. The more each of us does this, the more we light up the world. Our main goal should be to treat both ourselves and each other with respect in order to encourage our moral capacities.
So, I have bad news for you if you regularly make demeaning jokes about other people. People are not being too sensitive when they become upset over your jokes. Rather, you are behaving immorally and using people, at their expense, to benefit yourself. It doesn’t matter if you think you are joking or not.
This is also the case if people become upset because you regularly tell sexual or scatological jokes. It is immoral for you to force jokes on other people that they find offensive. This is especially true regarding jokes about private, potentially embarrassing, or gross subject matter. This behavior demonstrates vices like selfishness, mean-spiritedness, and unnecessary aggression.
The good news is that even if you have done this, you are still a worthy and valuable person. And you can change. One of the best ways to change is to adopt a moral or ethical standard (see the ones I mentioned above). And then set an intention to live by it consistently in all you do and say.
And by the way, moral standards not only benefit other people. They also benefit the people who adopt the standards. Living consistently by a moral standard improves your thinking, your emotional life, and your relationships with other people.
But is There Ever a Time When People are Too Sensitive?
Usually when someone like A tells B that he (or she) is being too sensitive, the problem is that A acts insensitively or immorally.
Nevertheless, there are indeed cases in which people can be too sensitive.
To help us understand these cases of excessive sensitivity, it is helpful to recognize that most of us go through phases of our life in which we have what I will call a self-centric bias. When we have a self-centric bias, we tend to interpret most words and events as pertaining to us, usually in a negative way, even when they don’t pertain to us in any way.
For example, if we have a self-centric bias, we may believe that a friend who forgets to call us is mad at us. But in reality, the friend just had a bad day and got distracted and overwhelmed by her feelings. In this scenario, we assume that the friend’s action is about us. However, it actually has nothing to do with us. She was just distracted and overwhelmed by her feelings.
As another example, if we have a self-centric bias and we hear a group of people laughing in a room, we may imagine they are laughing at us. We might believe this even though they are just laughing at a harmless joke, and the laughter has nothing to do with us.
As a third example, if we have a self-centric bias and do not get a job for which we interviewed, we might think that the interviewers hate us. However, it could be the case that the interviewer likes us very much but there was someone a little more qualified.
When we have a self-centric bias, it can cause us to be too sensitive. It does this by causing us to become upset about incidences that have very little, if anything, to do with us. If my friend forgets to call me because she is distracted or overwhelmed by her own emotions, it is perfectly understandable for me to be perplexed or even disappointed. However, if I become completely devastated and depressed over this event, I am likely being too sensitive.
In the same way, if I don’t get a job for which I hoped, it is normal to be sad and disappointed. But if I automatically assume I didn’t get the job because the interviewers hate me, I am likely being too sensitive.
However, I would like to point out that even in these scenarios, the descriptor “too sensitive” is probably not the most helpful descriptor.
When people suffer from painful and extreme feelings because of a self-centric bias, it is often because they are going through a developmental stage. In such a stage self-centric biases are normal. Or the people may be struggling with confidence and security issues.
So, rather than telling people they are “too sensitive” in this situation, it may be better to meet them at their developmental level or to help them foster security and confidence. Shaming people for being “too sensitive” is rarely helpful.
In addition, sometimes adults, who consistently struggle with a self-centric bias may need to talk with a therapist. A persistent and overwhelming self-centric bias can create pain people need help resolving.
Compassion for ourselves and others is the appropriate response in this situation.
If you regularly tell people they are too sensitive, it is probably wise for you to consider if you are acting according to a consistent moral principle. If you are not, you are likely using people at their expense to make yourself look good.
And that is why people are upset by, for example, your jokes. Furthermore, they are right to be upset. You are still worthy and valuable, even if you act this way. But you need to stop telling people they are too sensitive. Instead, you need to work on behaving in a morally consistent manner.
If, on the other hand, people tell you that you are too sensitive, one of two things may be happening. You may be upset about people acting in morally inappropriate ways and using you or other people to get a laugh. It is completely appropriate for you to feel upset about this.
On the other hand, you may get upset a lot because you tend to have a self-centric bias. And as a result, you interpret people’s actions or other events in life as pertaining to you, usually in a negative way. If you struggle with this, please know that you are not alone. And please know that most people struggle with this at one point or another.
You may need to work on building confidence and security. Or you may need to visit a therapist to resolve deeper emotional issues with which you are struggling. And there’s no shame in that.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.
And if you regularly tell people they are too sensitive and are wondering if you need to stop, you might find these posts helpful:
If you need to stand up for yourself and others and call out bullies in your life, you might find this post helpful:
If you know that you need to cultivate more security and confidence, you might like these posts:
 Ethicists and moral philosophers debate about what exactly constitutes a higher goal. One way to think about higher goals is to consider the way human beings differ from most other animals. Generally speaking, human beings have a greater capacity than other animals to step back from their instincts and biology and to reflect on ways they can make the world more just, beautiful, noble, and safe.
In the absence of a higher goal, human often still act by instinct, biology, impulse or blind habit. This often leads to painful consequences, both for themselves and others. Higher goals help us act in mutually beneficial and constructive ways.
 When we use people solely to benefit ourselves, it not only hurts other people. It also hurts us. Using people solely to benefit ourselves demonstrates vices like cruelty, selfishness, and a lack of respect and compassion. These vices destroy both our own character, as well as our relationships with others. This only brings pain into our life and the lives of other people.
 Immoral means violating a moral principle.
 Even when we are in a position of authority over another human being, our goal should always be to act as a servant leader rather than as a tyrant. Servant leaders use their positions of authority to benefit the people they supervise. They do this to help others reach their full potential as human beings. This must always be done in relationships marked by respect, dignity, and dialogue.
Tyrants, on the other hand, use their positions of authority to boost their ego, to make themselves look good, and gain fame, wealth, and power. And they usually do this at the expense of the people they rule or supervise. Tyrants act disrespectfully to those they supervise; they crush people’s dignity; and they shut down dialogue. We frequently see examples of tyrants in politics.
 Aggression is the act of forcing yourself on someone else. Sometimes aggression is necessary and morally appropriate. For instance, aggression can be appropriate in instances of self-defense or just war or occasionally with athletes in athletic events. In athletic events, however, athletes have consented to a certain level of aggression—like tackling in football.
In most other situations, however, aggression is unnecessary, and it is a form of violence. You can be aggressive emotionally, intellectually, or physically to someone. And in most cases, aggression is immoral and an instance of people using other people to benefit themselves.
 As far as I know, this term self-centric bias is original with me. I created the term to describe a common perspective that almost all people experience from time to time. Although a self-centric bias could devolve into a pathological preoccupation, it is not necessarily pathological in itself.
 For example, young children tend to exhibit a self-centric bias because developmentally they have not yet formed the ability to look at the world from other people’s perspectives. Their brain has to develop more before they are able to do this. The educational philosopher Jean Piaget researched and wrote about this extensively. You can read about his theory here.