Jessica’s friends and family are quick to tell you how caring she is. Whether it is the stray dog that shows up on her doorstep, the colleague from work struggling with a divorce, or her unemployed friend, Jessica is always there—taking in the dog and posting “Lost” posters around her neighborhood, listening endlessly and earnestly to her colleague and throwing in doses of advice, or taking her friend out for dinner to help her get through a difficult time. Jessica is a sensitive soul.

So is Kelly, but in a different way: Kelly’s emotional life is a roller coaster. One minute she is up, the next down, depending on…it’s hard to tell. It may be that she unexpectedly got a day off from work, or her mother is feeling better or worse following her surgery, but it also seems to depend on the weather, the way her boss looked at her during a meeting, or how difficult the report is that she needs to get done. It doesn’t take much to change Kelly’s mood, and it often guides what she does or doesn’t do next.

    Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
  Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W. is the author of 10 books: Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression; Clinical Social Work Supervision: Process & Practice; Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners; Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice, now in its second edition and recently translated into Chinese and Portuguese; Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery; and the forthcoming The Art of the First Session.

Editor:  Nadeem Noor

And then there is Tom. He is easygoing, a laid-back team player, and a considerate boyfriend. But if his girlfriend starts to offer advice about how to talk to his boss or reminds him to call his mother, or his co-worker starts shooting emails about making that deadline, Tom can hit the roof. He hates it when he feels micromanaged or someone tells him what to do.

These are three faces of sensitivity. Each of these people is sensitive in different ways. Here is how it breaks down for each person:


Always caring, always-sensitive-to-everyone Jessica is a rescuer, prone to being codependent, always on alert to how others are feeling. Her motto is "I’m happy if you’re happy." So when someone is in distress—the dog, the colleague, the friend—she is ready to step in. She learned this as way of coping with anxiety as a child. She followed the rules, walked on eggshells, did what she was told, and stayed out of trouble. As an adult, she does the same. She is afraid of conflict and making others unhappy, and tends to be over-responsible to ensure that others feel better because she cares, but also because it reduces her anxiety. On the down side, she is susceptible to periodically becoming resentful, which can result in her blowing up about something small, acting out by drinkingtoo much or spending a lot of money, or collapsing because of burnout. Long-term friends and family will admit that sometimes she is bit too controlling.


Kelly is emotionally driven. As soon as strong emotions flare up—feeling great about the day off, or overwhelmed by a work assignment or gray skies—her emotions set the tone. She tends to believe that she needs to feel better before she can do what she needs to, so those down times derail her as she waits, like the weather, for her mood to change. Those close to her are always bracing for the sudden emotional change that can come at any time and inevitably will come, making it hard and exhausting to be around her at times.


Everyone has an emotional Achilles heel, an emotional wound. While something else might bother Tom's co-worker—feeling ignored by a friend or being criticized at work—for Tom it’s all about micromanagement. This is his sensitive spot, the thing that pushes his buttons, and it was learned early in his childhood. His reaction is often over-the-top, and his girlfriend, who is just trying to be helpful, feels shaken by Tom’s hyperbolic explosions when she thinks they are having a simple adult conversation. When he calms down, Tom apologizes, realizing he over-reacted, but nothing basically changes.

The challenge here for each person is to go where they are not, stop the pulling too far in one direction, and move toward a more moderate emotional center. Here's what each person can do to change:


Jessica’s childhood ways of dealing with relationships don’t work so well in the adult world—too many people, too much to do, too many eggshells to cross. She needs to stop being over-responsible. This doesn’t mean that she can’t be sensitive and empathize with those around her, but she needs to stop overdoing, stop enabling, and stop being a martyr. To counter this, she needs to learn to tolerate conflict, move away from the rules in her head, and shift toward making decisions on what she wants. Finally, she needs to learn to speak up and be assertive in spite of being anxious about doing so. 


Kelly’s rational brain goes offline when she gets emotional. This happens to everyone to some degree, but Kelly has a difficult time realizing that this is happening. Rather than being proactive, she is constantly reacting and waiting for her feelings to subside. Her challenge is learning ways of calming herself down when anxious, or moving forward in spite of feeling a bit down, rather than letting her emotions set the tone. In the long term, she needs to be more proactive in her life and learn to take deliberate behavioral action to deal with problems that arise or act in spite of how she feels. By moving forward, her emotions will often change.


Tom needs to let his girlfriend know how sensitive he is about what seems like micromanagement. With his boss, he needs to have a voice-over in his mind and say to himself that although he is getting triggered, it is old stuff. Like Kelly he needs to use his rational mind to override his emotional one. Finally, in order to heal his wound rather than continuing to aggravate it, Tom needs to stop his angry child-based response, and instead step up and be more adult—not only helping his girlfriend understand how and why he is sensitive and suggesting to her other ways to be supportive—but also having a conversation with his boss about what type of support helps him most when big projects come along.

When it comes to emotions, everyone has triggers and vulnerabilities. Figure out what yours are, stop being a victim of your emotions, and take action. It’s all about learning to run your life better.