Adult Children Of Alcoholics Are You “Overly Sensitive?”

Have you ever been told that you are “overly sensitive?” Have you ever described yourself this way? Being sensitive means that we feel deeply and are easily impacted by emotion and energy around us. We experience life and our relationships intensely. This is a beautiful quality and also can be used as an amazing guide. The “overly sensitive” comment comes from the fact that many Adult Children of Alcoholics lose control of our emotions at times when we are caught off guard. We will be having a uneventful day when a remark is made that hurts us to the core. (A “normal” person may not think twice about this but sometimes we get knocked over so hard that a depressive episode is triggered and it can take up to a week or more to recover. This is called an “emotional hangover.”) This happens when our reaction to a situation is out of proportion to whatever it was that occurred. Let’s discuss what this sensitivity is all about and how to begin the healing process that will help keep your emotions under your control.

As children growing up with alcoholic parents, many of us were powerless and ashamed about what was happening at home, helpless to do anything about it and afraid of our parent(s) and what might happen next. We were vulnerable and we couldn’t protect or defend ourselves, so we got hurt. Expressing our needs, wants and feelings was not an option. Many of us felt totally invisible. For many ACoAs, if something happens that triggers these old feelings of shame, powerlessness, helplessness and fear, this is a sign that we need healing. It means that we are reacting to current experiences as if they are happening in the past. This is not our fault and it doesn’t happen because we are “damaged.” It’s the logical result of being raised in a very stressful environment where we were not taught how to set boundaries and take care of ourselves. It’s about being afraid to express our opinions and emotions (especially anger) without fear of repercussions. It’s also about low self-esteem that is so common to ACoAs. Without healing in these areas, we will continue to play out our early experiences in the different areas of our lives. Many of us do not assess and address issues as they arise in the moment because our emotions overtake us and we can’t think straight. We immediately feel like we did as children and in those moments we lose our voice. Perhaps you will see yourself in the following scenarios that scores of ACoAs have experienced:

Scene #1
Your friend makes what sounds like a funny joke but instantly your eyes sting. “No, please not now,” you silently plead with yourself not to cry. Before you have a chance to excuse yourself to the restroom, your eyes are filled with tears. Your friend looks puzzled and says, “Are you crying?” You try to play it off but can’t hide the obvious. Then he says, “Jeez! I was only kidding…. you’re way too sensitive!” You’re humiliated and angry at yourself for crying over “nothing.” Again. And now you’re not even sure if you remember what he said!
What just happened? First of all, your friend’s comment really wasn’t funny. In fact, it was hurtful. If his joke was funny you would have laughed! You felt pain immediately because your early life made you highly sensitized to verbal aggression. Your reaction is an alarm going off, telling you loudly and clearly that what was said was hurtful, a signal to you that you need to take care of yourself. Adult Children of Alcoholics can detect “passive aggressive” people in an instant: if someone you are with seems to be smiling and friendly but their actions and words leave you feeling a knife twisting in your gut, don’t second guess yourself. There is a reason why you are feeling this way and it’s not your imagination.

Your so-called friend added insult to injury when he said, “Jeez! I was only kidding…you’re way too sensitive!” An appropriate response would have been, “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry to have hurt you! I’ll think before I speak next time.” Anything other than blaming you for being hurt by his passive aggressive words would’ve been better. If this is a pattern in this relationship, please either address it so that person has an opportunity to change, or if you do not feel that is a good idea for you, please consider adjusting your boundaries with this person and keeping them at a distance that protects you. No matter what you decide to do, I want you to know that if your radar goes crazy like that, there is a problem and your unconscious knows it. Your instinct never lies.

When we are caught off guard in moments such as these, our response may not be in line with the situation. Remember that in your life today you do have power, you are not helpless and you do have a say. My mother used to say, “Keep It Current!” to remind us to address problems with this in mind. In this case, there are two things to address here: your friend’s barbed comment disguised as a joke, and the fact that your emotions overtook you when you didn’t want that to happen.

Scene #2
Your boss called you into her office to discuss the promotion that you have applied for. It’s been a long time coming and you know you are qualified and deserving. You have prepared as well as possible for this conversation and although this interview is expected, your employer’s serious tone caused a flush of panic through your body. You take a breath, enter her office, and sit down. You exchange niceties and then she says, “So, you have applied for such and so position. Can you tell me why you are the right person for this position?” As prepared as you were a few minutes ago, your mind went blank and you began to crumble. “No! Not at work!” you silently reprimand yourself. You feel your face flush bright red. You tried to stay focused and strong, but tears filled your eyes. Looking surprised, your boss handed you a tissue and sat quietly to give you a moment to collect yourself. You couldn’t pull yourself together so she sent you to lunch early – telling you that you will speak later. You slump away, hoping that within that hour you will find a hole to crawl in and live for the rest of your life. You are convinced that your boss thinks you’re crazy and that your career is over. You might be right!

What just happened? This is confusing because your boss’s job is to be in charge and speak directly. Her seriousness is in line with her role. But as the Adult Child of an Alcoholic, your early life may have taught you that a serious tone especially coupled with directness, is confrontation. And for you, confrontation might be terrifying, especially if there was violence and yelling in your household.
Here again, your reaction was so automatic that when your boss’s words left her lips you began to panic before you had a chance to think. In your childhood, that reaction matched the situation. You were possibly helpless and had reason to be afraid. Today, I hope that is no longer the case.

Scene #3
You were invited to a get together at your friend Linda’s house. Her husband and a few other people were going to be there. From the moment you walked in the door, you felt uncomfortable. Linda and her husband Jack were all smiles, but you thought you felt tension between them. You dismissed your feeling because no one one else seemed to notice or care and besides, you always felt weird at social events.

You admonished yourself, “What is wrong with me? Nothing happened!” Nonetheless, your anxiety mounted as the clocked ticked on the wall and you couldn’t wait to get out of there. When the first person said good night you were relieved, because now you could leave too without appearing rude or drawing attention to yourself.

What just happened? Your early experience living in an alcoholic household made you an expert in sensing the energy, the “vibes” of people around you. It was a survival instinct that served you well then but now you question yourself. Linda and Jack may have put on a good appearance for everyone else, but you felt the tension between them and because of your sensitivity to hostility between people, this was intolerable to you. I have no doubt that their relationship is troubled – my money is on you!

What Next?
To begin to move past this way of reacting to current situations as though they are happening in the past, it is important to recognize that this is what is happening and it’s not your fault. As my Mom always said, “You were set up for yourtroubles.” Please don’t judge yourself. You are not broken and do not need to be fixed. You are in an educational process and doing your best to incorporate new information into your life. Experiencing that there is a true connection between your reactions and your past can be an interesting and positive lesson. Try this one minute exercise and you may begin to see that when you are feeling “overly sensitive” you are actually tapping into information that most people don’t have access to!

Rewind and Fast Forward One Minute Exercise
Think of the last time someone said something that “pushed your buttons” and you lost your composure. Now replay that moment in your mind except this time, while you are in that moment, pause. Take time to get in touch with the way you are feeling in your body and emotions. Ask yourself, “What is my earliest memory of feeling this way?” Rewind back through your life until you find your answer. For me, it is usually about four years old. How about you?

Now that you are thinking about your earliest memory of feeling this way, look at the rest of that picture. What was going on in that scenario? How were you being treated? Were you afraid? Were your boundaries violated? Compare that early memory to the situation you now find yourself in. What do they have in common? Chances are that if you tune in to the way your body feels in both past and present, you will see that you feel exactly the same way — your earliest memory of feeling vulnerable, helpless, powerless, ashamed and unable to express yourself, somehow resembles this current moment.

Change Takes Time and Patience
If you are willing to let go of the assumption that there is something wrong with you, you are already well along your path to healing the “overly sensitive” part of yourself. The next time you feel your cheeks flush, your eyes well up or an uneasy or anxious feeling in your gut, don’t ask yourself “What the heck is wrong with me?” Instead, ask “What is my intuition trying to tell me?” Sit with the feeling inside of you