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The Emotionally Sensitive Friend

IMG_6461You might imagine that emotionally sensitive people would be popular as friends. Someone who is tuned in to what you are feeling, your needs and wants would be the perfect friend, right?

Many times it’s true. Your emotionally sensitive companion is often the one who brings soup when you are sick and remembers that you don’t want chocolate cake for your birthday–you prefer lemon. She’s entertaining, witty and caring.

But sometimes you may be shocked that the person you were sure would be the first to show up when you need her is not available. How could such an emotionally tuned-in person be so uncaring?

Actually, the ups and downs of their relationships have nothing to do with not caring.

The emotionally sensitive are supportive and caring and may not be consistently available. When their intense caring is focused on you, there’s no one who can be as supportive and thoughtful as the emotionally sensitive. But emotionally sensitive people can easily become overwhelmed with their emotions and the emotions of others.

They may be triggered emotionally by a movie they just watched, the date on the calendar, someone they see, or another event. Their availability to be comforting to you will vary based on their emotional state or on whether someone else needs them. Just when you are suffering from a break-up with your boyfriend, your emotionally sensitive friend may be experiencing an emotional black out, meaning she is emotionally exhausted and unable to be supportive for you.

The emotionally sensitive may have tough standards for their friends. Often the emotionally sensitive go all out to show support and caring. Some may believe in giving all they can to their friends. At the same time, their expectations of you may be high as well.

If you don’t meet those expectations, the emotionally sensitive may withdraw, interpreting your behavior as meaning you don’t care about them, that the relationship is one-way and they are doing all the giving. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’ve come through for them the past six times. If you don’t come through on the seventh, then they may react in the moment without seeing the big picture.

Sometimes the emotionally sensitive think in dichotomous ways (such as black and white thinking) and when emotions are strong the reaction tends to be about the immediate. Or perhaps she is protecting her vulnerability by being on-guard for your lack of caring about her.

Sometimes this vulnerability is triggered when relationships approach a greater level of closeness. Loss of relationships is so painful for the emotionally sensitive that they tend to protect themselves by pulling back or rejecting you before you can reject them. Even though you may not be thinking of ending the relationship, if they fear you’re doing so, they may react by pushing you away.

Intense emotions can be overwhelming to you. The enthusiasm of the emotionally sensitive friend can be uplifting and exciting. The intensity of her enjoyable emotions adds to every experience.  At the same time her emotions that are less pleasant to experience, such as anger or jealousy, will be just as intense. The ongoing intensity may be difficult for you to manage just as it is for her.

The emotionally sensitive will likely read your emotions well and at the same time may misinterpret situations and your reactions. Emotions can color perceptions and interpretations of interactions and situations. Your emotionally sensitive friend will be in tune with your emotions and may know better than anyone what you are feeling. When they feel secure in the relationship, they are the most supportive and most nurturing people you can imagine.

At the same time, if they are threatened in any way, they may misinterpret the reasons for your emotions. For example, the emotionally sensitive may fear your sadness or disappointment or low mood is about them and may be worried or upset as a result. They may not discuss this with you because they feel rejected and perhaps ashamed, so they may disappear without explanation for a time.

The emotionally sensitive may be delightfully spontaneous and not keep plans.  Less emotionally intense people view plans in a logical way. If they schedule dinner or a movie, they usually go. The emotionally sensitive tend to live more in terms of what feels right at the time. They tend to act according to their mood. It’s called mood-dependent behavior.

Sometimes they are quite spontaneous and playful and the life of the party. At other times, they’ll cancel at the last minute. Or they’ll go with their low mood  and withdraw. They are often ruled by their emotions, not logic, and this makes planning ahead for enjoyable activities more difficult.

If you have an emotionally sensitive friend, you may wish to change some of your expectations. You might wish to learn more about validation. Accepting her as she is and learning skills to cope with the ups and downs and the intensity of her emotions can result in a passionate, lively relationship.


Note to Readers:  Please consider answering the questions on our new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Cliff Nordman

The Emotionally Sensitive Friend

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). The Emotionally Sensitive Friend. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 30 Apr 2012
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