Carolyn Hax: For oversensitive people, honesty is the best policy

Carolyn Hax
Columnist August 3, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

How do you handle oversensitive people? I am about to break up with my girlfriend because I can’t take it anymore. I can hear you asking if it’s me — and believe me, it’s not. I’ve never had to deal with this before and everyone in her life feels she has a problem with this. It’s even affecting her work; she got in a snit because her boss put her name last in an e-mail chain a few times; she decided he hated her and she acted in a passive-aggressive manner with him. He was [ticked]. I was flabbergasted when she told me why she was upset.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Trying to gently discuss the issue leads to defensiveness and then a couple of days of moody pouting. I’m ready to bail, but is there any way someone like this can change? I know most of it stems from insecurity about growing up in a family of academics and struggling in school. I’d love to help her, even if we don’t stay together. She’s sweet and loyal but this is causing problems in all aspects of her life, including keeping female friends.

Anonymous

The best way to handle oversensitive people is to do exactly what you least want to do: Be honest. Walk right through the pouty tripwire.


For example (calm voice, not angry): “You acted out at work over your place in the address list of an e-mail? If I were your boss, I’d be [ticked], too. This isn’t a rhetorical question, because I genuinely want to know: What did you think you’d accomplish?”

And: “You think [Friend/Colleague] was being [something terrible], but I think it’s at least possible she [alternate explanation]. Do you think maybe you jumped to the worst-case conclusion?”

And: “When you respond to my concerns with pouting, I feel annoyed and frustrated. It’s affecting the way I feel about you. It also acts as a deterrent: It’s getting to the point where I’d rather not say anything than risk a three-day funk, and how is that good for either of us?”

And: Suggest she try therapy, please.

And: Realize these appeals to logic and self-awareness are a temporary strategy; you’re not the outrage police.

Flip side, you can’t keep doing what you’d rather do: tiptoeing, avoiding, editing everything you say, “trying to gently discuss,” dodging, dodging, dodging. As you’ve seen for yourself, that merely wears you out and props her up — with false assurance at that.

Even breaking up at this point would be a dodge, since you won’t have preceded it by addressing your frustration head-on. If it’s time to break up, then by all means, do it soon — but tell your truth first.

“Helping” someone undergo a personality change is a nonstarter, but the idea of letting someone know that certain behaviors won’t fly — and breaking up when nothing changes? That’s well worth supporting, especially since you’ve already done the hardest part: You’re ready to go.

So, first try those honest responses to her snits.

If you aren’t happy with the result, then break up. Explain that the amount of time she spends upset about things — note the quantitative measure, much harder to dispute — affects your quality of life. Say you’re sorry, you’ve appreciated her sweetness and loyalty — and let her suggest you stay friends.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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