Emotionally sensitive people are known as compassionate and caring about other people. Their emotionally sensitivity means they are usually particularly aware of the emotions of others. However, sometimes being emotionally sensitive means you are completely off base and sometimes invalidating of others’ feelings.
You Respond Based on Your Own Emotional Intensity
You see, one of the ways people are empathic is by imagining how they might feel in the same situation. Imagine a friend describes an argument with a boyfriend who broke up with her. You would feel incredibly sad if that happened to you. You respond with deep concern and say something like “Oh no. How awful. Are you okay?” Your friend responds in an off hand manner saying, “Of course I’m okay. It’s not that big a deal.”
Her response confuses you and now you are cocerned that she is upset with you when you are only concerned about her. You respond that you guess the relationship wasn’t that important to her. She frowns in an irritated way and replies that it just wasn’t working. The interaction now seems awkward. You try again and say you admire how well she is coping and that you couldn’t handle it as well if you were in her situation. Obviously annoyed now, she informs you that break ups are just a part of life and everyone goes through them. She changes the subject.
The interaction starts to feel tense. You were trying to be compassionate and validating and you know it isn’t working. You might think judgmental thoughts such as how cold your friend is. At the same time the situation seems like you’ve stepped in quick sand and whatever you try only makes the situation worse. You worry about losing your firiend. Your perspective is that she must be hurting and devastated and that is a horrible situation. You want to be kind to her. Her view is that the situation is painful but normal and she knows she’ll get through it. Your efforts to acknowledge her pain are seen as invalidating by her. The intensity of your caring did not match what she was feeling. She says you must think she is completely helpless, which offends her.
How You Imagine You Would Feel is Sometimes Not What the Person Feels
Your daughter, just home from work, calls you to announce she didn’t get a promotion. You are sure her tone of voice is sad. You feel so badly for her. She must be so disappointed. You think about her at night and can’t sleep. You feel so badly and can’t get the incident off your mind. In fact, you quite sad because of how you know she must feel. Later in the week you say something to her. She isn’t clear what you are talking about but when she realizes you are referring to her not getting the promotion, she laughs. She tells you that if you really understood her you’d know she didn’t care about that promotion. With the best of intentions, you’ve invalidated her.
Taking the perspective of the other person can be difficult. Usually the emotionally sensitive are upset by others not understanding their sensitivity. But the emotionally sensitive can misunderstand and invalidate the emotions of those who are not emotionally sensitive as well. Though you can use your internal experiences to know basically how someone might feel in a situation, you also need more information to truly validate and/or be effectively compassionate. To be validating, understanding the perspective of the other person is key.
Survey: I am very grateful for all your help in better understanding emotionally sensitive people. I am currently writing a new book and would like to learn more. If you are emotionally sensitive, please consider taking this survey about decision making. Thank you! If you gave your contact information to be interviewed about being emotionally sensitive, thank you more than I can say. It may be a few weeks but I will be in contact.
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Last reviewed: 6 May 2013