Help for the Emotionally Sensitive: A Q&A with Karyn D. Hall, PhD

Stop being so sensitive. For many of us who feel things intensely, these words are all too familiar, extremely frustrating, and often end up making us feel worse. Now, for the first time ever, psychologist and author of the new book The Emotionally Sensitive Person, Karyn D. Hall offers compassionate, effective techniques to help emotionally sensitive people manage emotions, develop an unshakable sense of self, and strengthen relationships.

What is emotional sensitivity and how does it manifest?

When you’re emotionally sensitive, you experience emotions more intensely than others. Your feelings of love, joy, happiness, anger, sorrow, and fear are stronger than average. If you aren’t able to manage your emotions, you struggle every day to cope. You sometimes don’t trust yourself because you can’t predict how you’ll react in different situations. Too often, your emotions get the best of you, and you act on them in ways that aren’t helpful in making your life better—sometimes adding more anguish and trouble to your life.

Emotionally sensitive people have a deeply sensitive perspective of the world, such as being connected to animals and nature more than most. They are generally attuned to the emotions of others and can exhibit both excessive tolerance and intolerance. Most have rejection sensitivity and can easily perceive rejection in everyday situations, such as an email or text that isn't returned. They’re intuitive thinkers and often can’t verbalize how they know what they know. They have difficulty making decisions, a strong sense of justice, and a fluid sense of identity.

Are there both positive and negative aspects to being emotionally sensitive?

Absolutely. Emotionally sensitive people often love that they’re able to sense how others feel, experience intense joy, and are passionate and compassionate. Passionate people can make changes happen in the world. At the same time, managing sadness, anger, fear, envy, and jealousy can be a struggle. Being different from others in the intensity of your feelings can lead to a negative view of yourself which creates additional issues such as hiding who you are, loneliness, and self-hatred.

I imagine there is some overlap between highly sensitive people (HSPs) and those who are emotionally sensitive. Could you talk a little bit about this?

There is definitely an overlap between emotionally sensitive people and highly sensitive people. The basic difference as I see it is that emotional sensitivity is only about the intensity of emotions a person experiences. As Marsha Linehan has expressed in her biosocial theory, emotionally sensitive individuals have a faster reaction time to emotional situations, experience more intense reactions, and are slower to return to their emotional baseline. They may express themselves with a more intense desire to be heard—though they may not be aware of this behavior. Emotional sensitivity is all about emotions.

What are some of the common ways that emotional sensitivity can get in the way of life, relationships, or even a person’s career?

Emotionally sensitive people react to the emotion they’re feeling in the moment. In many work situations in particular, repeatedly showing emotions is not acceptable, and people who do are judged as being weak and incompetent—when this isn’t the case. Additionally, emotionally sensitive people can sometimes make both work and personal decisions based on their emotion. In that emotion-filled moment, they have difficulty seeing the consequences of their actions in the long run and aren’t able to consider the big picture. Their reactions are emotion-based and not tempered by logic. For example, if they are angry in the moment, they may tell off their boss or end a friendship without considering that this one situation is not reflective of the overall relationship. Reacting on emotions can frequently result in chaotic relationships—both professional and personal.

In the book you talk about decision making as a difficult task for emotionally sensitive people. Can you elaborate on this?

For emotionally sensitive people, just the thought of making a decision may create anxiety that interferes with thinking clearly. To cope with the unpleasantness, emotionally sensitive people often develop different styles of decision making that are not effective in developing optimal solutions. The short-term benefit is that emotionally sensitive people can avoid the discomfort of the decision-making process, but the long-term costs are often significant. In addition to not making a well-thought-out decision, they often see themselves as unable to make good decisions, which only increases their anxiety and makes the problem worse. My book identifies different types of faulty decision making and offers solutions for each.

How can the mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy approaches in your book help emotionally sensitive people stay grounded?

The approaches discussed in the book are specifically oriented to managing emotions effectively so that the emotionally sensitive aren’t controlled or overwhelmed by their feelings. The coping skills are focused on ways to decrease the intensity of the emotion, recover from emotions more quickly, and avoid acting on emotions without thinking.

Can you talk a bit about your own background? What inspired you to write this book?

I wrote the book because I want to make a difference for emotionally sensitive people in a couple of ways. First, I hope to decrease the stereotypes about emotionally sensitive people. Emotionally sensitive people are not weak. They are often therapists, artists, caregivers, teachers, or engaged in some other relationship-oriented or creative work. They are caring neighbors, volunteers, and sensitive parents who often contribute to a sense of community.

Secondly, in my work as a therapist I see amazingly talented and caring people who aren’t able to live the lives they want to live because they’re overwhelmed by their emotions. I’ve seen many emotionally sensitive people struggle with depression and anxiety partly because they and others didn’t understand or accept their emotional sensitivity. I hope to increase acceptance and understanding, as well as offer strategies to those who need ways to better manage their feelings.

I am an emotionally sensitive person, and I want to help other emotionally sensitive people live the life they want to live.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

Being emotionally sensitive can be a gift. It can also be very painful and more difficult than most can understand. If I could communicate one idea, it would be to accept your sensitivity rather than reject it or hate it, and learn to manage your emotions so you can find joy and peace. You may learn to cherish your emotional sensitivity—it can be done.

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