How Do I Know If I’m Being Overly Sensitive in a Relationship?

Tolerance and standing up for yourself are not mutually exclusive

A reader asks:

How do I know when I am being overly sensitive in a relationship or if I need to stand up for myself and set better boundaries? I have people pleasing tendencies, so I often don’t know when to stand up for myself or when to be a bit more understanding of someone else’s point of view.

If you have people-pleasing tendencies, that probably means you err too much on the side of not standing up for yourself—either by not expressing yourself honestly or not setting/enforcing healthy boundaries.

So, my quick answer would be, try this: for 30-days (or whatever length of time makes sense to you) try an experiment where, anytime you’re on the fence about whether to stand up for yourself or not, you do it. Then see how it goes. Overall, are things better when you err on the side of standing up for yourself or staying quiet?

That being said, I think there’s a bit more nuance to this question worth exploring…

What do you mean exactly by “overly sensitive”?

To my mind, overly sensitive means something like you are assuming something’s wrong without any evidence.

Here’s a simple example:

  • You suggest watching one movie and your partner counters with a suggestion for another one.
  • You then assume they think your choice in movies is stupid, agree to their movie, and spend hours ruminating on this and feeling bad about yourself.

That’s being overly sensitive because there’s no evidence that either you or your partner did anything wrong or disrespectful, yet, because of the story you told yourself, you end up suffering emotionally.

But here’s a counter-example:

  • You suggest watching one movie and your partner rolls their eyes and says: “Fiiiiiine.”
  • So you respond with: “No, actually, it’s a dumb movie… What do you want to watch?” And then end up watching their movie.

This isn’t you being overly sensitive; it’s you feeling justifiably hurt by your partner being rude. But it’s also you not standing up for yourself.

Critically, you can stand up for yourself and be assertive whether or not you’re being overly sensitive.

So, to sum up… If you’re unsure about whether you’re being overly-sensitive or not, ask yourself:

Is there any evidence that my partner has done something rude, mean, or otherwise wrong?

What do you mean exactly by “standing up for yourself”?

In my experience, this usually comes down to one of three things:

  1. Expressing yourself. For example, sharing an opinion or a belief during a difficult discussion.
  2. Asking for what you want. For example, voicing your honest preference about something.
  3. Setting or enforcing a boundary. For example, leaving a conversation if the other person becomes rude or disrespectful.

Part of why it may be difficult for you to stand up for yourself is that you’re not clear on exactly what that should look like. So take a little time to reflect on some previous situations like this and then ask yourself:

If I had stuck up for myself, what form would it have taken? Expressing an opinion or belief? Asking for something? Setting or enforcing a boundary?

You can stand up for yourself AND be tolerant of another’s point of view at the same time

Be careful not to be black and white about standing up for yourself vs being tolerant of others. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Assertiveness means that you communicate in a way that is both honest to your own wants and needs and respectful of the right of others.

Which means you can respect our partner’s desire to watch whatever his movie is AND still voice your preference for another. In this case, you’re being both tolerant of their opinion and standing up for your own.

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