Is It Possible to Be Emotionally Sensitive and Strong?

A reader asks:

For as long as I can remember, people have always told me I’m “too sensitive.” Even though I don’t like this label, I see what they mean. I do seem to have really big emotions—much bigger than other people do in similar situations—and get easily overwhelmed by them. I do wish I was stronger with my emotions. On the other hand, I am also very empathetic, which I think is a good thing and comes from being attuned to my emotions (and other people’s). Is it possible to stay emotionally sensitive and become emotionally strong?

Emotionally sensitive is one of those terms I find mostly unhelpful because it seems to mean very different things to different people.

For example:

  • Does emotionally sensitive mean you experience more emotions than other people or that you have similar amounts and kinds of emotions but feel them more intensely?
  • Does emotionally sensitive mean you are more attuned to emotions and understand them better or that you feel them more intensely without understanding them more?
  • Does emotionally sensitive mean that you’re more easily overwhelmed by your emotions and have a hard time managing them well?
  • Does it mean all of the above? Or maybe a few of these but not one of them?

See what I mean?

When people talk about emotional sensitivity they’re usually conflating or confusing at least a few different things:

  1. Emotional Frequency. How often do you tend to experience emotions in a given time period? Some people might go through an entire morning without reporting any specific emotional feelings. Another person might experience 20-30 specific emotions in the same morning. Or, you might experience 10-20 emotions on Tuesday morning but only two on Wednesday morning.
  2. Emotional Intensity. How strong do your emotions feel? Sometimes an emotion like anxiety can present as very mild nervousness and sometimes it’s a full blown panic attack. Again, there’s considerable difference between people but also within the same person here. What’s more, both the frequency and intensity of your emotions have far more to do with your mental habits—especially your self-talk and how you interpret what happens to you—than any fixed pieces of biology.
  3. Emotional Awareness. How quickly and clearly do you notice emotions? Are you able to differentiate between different types of emotions (e.g. grief vs regret)? Are you aware of smaller, quieter emotions in addition to the bigger, louder ones? Do you label emotions with plain language or intellectualize them? Do you notice emotions as soon as they arise or tend to ignore or suppress them until they’re very big?
  4. Emotional Intelligence. Do you understand how your emotions work and how to work with them in a healthy and productive way? For example: Do you understand the difference between coping with and accepting an emotion? Do you understand the difference between anger and aggression, or between jealousy and envy? Do you understand the difference between what triggers your emotions and what causes them?
  5. Emotional Strength. How well do you respond to and manage your emotions, especially the difficult ones? Do you tend to avoid or distract yourself when you feel anxious or acknowledge it compassionately? Do you overanalyze your emotions and get lost in them, or are you able to let go of them and move on when appropriate? Can you tolerate difficult emotions like sadness or anxiety willingly instead of coping with them or insisting that they go away?

With that context in mind, here’s the core confusion I think people make when they talk about being emotionally sensitive

Being aware of and attuned to your emotions is very different than being easily overwhelmed by them.

Most people assume those are the same thing—that to be emotionally attuned means you will necessarily feel emotions in a bigger way and have a harder time dealing with them.

I don’t think that’s true.

A lot of people who are more attuned to or aware of their emotions struggle with them precisely because they haven’t built emotional strength…

  • They notice their emotions more frequently but they also have a harder time thinking clearly about them and tend to get lost in their emotions and have trouble moving on from them, which makes them overwhelming.
  • Or their emotions always feel big and overwhelming because they don’t realize that their patterns of negative self-talk hugely amplify those emotions and make them far more intense and long-lasting than they need to be.

In other words…

To be emotionally strong you need to be aware of your emotions, but just because you’re aware of your emotions doesn’t mean you’ll be emotionally strong.

So my advice to you would be this: Forget about the term emotionally sensitive, and instead, focus on continuing to be aware of your emotions but work on learning to manage them in a more productive way.

Here are two excellent practices to help you build emotional strength:

  • Emotional Validation. Emotional validation is the ability to acknowledge a difficult emotion as valid and okay despite it feeling bad. Critically, this isn’t just a concept, it’s a skill. It’s one thing to know intellectually and abstractly that it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling. It’s a very different thing to be able to remind yourself of that in the heat of the moment when you’re faced with a strong, overwhelming emotion and your old patterns of negative self-talk are kicking in.
  • Mindfulness Training. Unlike mindfulness meditation which is typically aimed at either spiritual enlightenment or stress relief, mindfulness training is an exercise designed to strengthen your attentional control, which is the ability to manage your focus and attention instead of letting it get hijacked by difficult emotions, beliefs, or thought patterns.