The big question I pose in this article is:
Is hyper-sensitivity or emotional vulnerability innate
and unchangeable, or can even the most sensitive people learn
how to be more emotionally resilient and better at coping
with life's difficulties?
December 13, 2006 saw the tragic death by cardiac arrest
of the much beloved self-help author Richard Carlson, Ph.D.,
who famously titled the first of his many books about keeping
things in perspective and coping with life's pressures, Don't
Sweat The Small Stuff ... and It's All Small Stuff.
Dr. Carlson's catch phrase, "Don't sweat the small stuff,"
is a wonderful, pithy, inspiring mantra, and I like to think
of it whenever I find myself having a particularly frustrating
Of course, now that he is gone, his beautiful messages of
simplicity and love seem even more profound and resonant than
ever. His tragic death also serves as a reminder to treasure
each and every day that we have on this earth with the people
Nonetheless, his elegantly simple approach to coping does
raise a couple of questions. First, what can you do if you
are an easily hurt and super-sensitive person by nature?
Second, how do you cope if the difficulty you are facing
is admittedly a small one, but it just does not feel
particularly small when you are right in the midst of experiencing
I mean, let's face it, sometimes no matter how hard you try
if you are having a downright rotten day, it can be really
hard -- and I do mean incredibly difficult --
not to sweat the small stuff.
Emotionally vulnerable people tend to struggle excessively
with life's slings and arrows.
Here is a fictionalized example of what I am talking about:
A young mother named Mandy has a very negative experience
with a children's librarian who shoots her a mean look, and
then yells at her in front of a large group of people when
her little son and daughter "act up" during a story
On any other day, she probably would be able to laugh it
off. But on this particular day, everything has been going
totally wrong, and she has just been feeling so low and defeated
all day long that the experience in the library hits her like
a ton of bricks.
The incident triggers a whole range of negative feelings:
sadness, humiliation, anger, anxiety and frustration. She
also feels that the librarian has unfairly singled her out.
After all, Mandy's kids are not the only ones running around
and acting up, but for some reason, the librarian has singled
out Mandy to yell at, and no one else.
Mandy also feels that she is being judged very harshly ...
and Mandy despises feeling judged ... mainly because she has
felt harshly judged by far too many people her whole life.
Most upsetting of all, Mandy can't seem to shake these terrible
feelings no matter how hard she tries. If anything, her emotional
pain is getting worse as time goes by. And the more she reflects
on the experience, the sadder, more distraught, more embarrassed
and more enraged she can feel herself becoming.
She has been trying to distract herself with other thoughts
and activities, but that image of the librarian's angry face,
along the equally horrible memory of her harsh words just
keeps popping back into Mandy's mind.
Mandy tends to view herself as an "ultra-sensitive"
person ... and she has always been keenly aware that other
people seem to perceive her this way as well. And her experience
with the librarian only seems to confirm this widely held
perception of her.
Intellectually, she agrees with Dr. Carlson's elegantly simple
concept that it's a good idea not to sweat the small stuff,
and she fully grasps the fact that "in the greater scheme
of things," her negative experience with the librarian
is probably not such big a deal. But for some reason ... possibly
the humiliation factor, or possibly that terrible feeling
of being so harshly judged ... she is having a great deal
of trouble putting the experience behind her.
Emotional Vulnerability versus Emotional Resilience
Doctors, psychologists, social workers and other helping
professionals sometimes refer to our individual sets of emotional
coping skills as our levels of "emotional resilience."
On days when you are feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable,
the slightest little incident may cause you to burst into
tears; whereas on days when you are feeling quite resilient,
emotionally speaking, you probably wouldn't even bat an eye
if not just one but four people were to behave rudely to you,
one right after the other.
Emotionally vulnerable people can learn how to cope
like their more resilient counterparts.
Actually, on days when you are feeling extra happy and super-resilient,
as if nothing can get you down, you might even be able to
laugh off their rudeness and simply let it roll right off
you, much in the same way that water rolls right off a duck's
back. Not only that, but you may even feel a bit sorry for
these rude people. After all, they can't be leading very happy
lives if being rude and obnoxious to everybody they meet is
their standard way of functioning in the world.
Now we have all met exceedingly emotionally vulnerable people
-- people like Mandy, my fictional example, for instance --
who don't just have individual days when they feel emotionally
vulnerable, but who seem to feel this way pretty much all
the time. These are the most tender, fragile souls among us,
and they tend to get hurt incredibly easily. In dealing with
such people, you may find yourself choosing your words very
carefully, so as not to hurt their feelings.
Such individuals may appear to be predisposed or "hard-wired,"
way deep down in the cores of their personalities to be supersensitive
and emotionally fragile. Conversely, there are other people
who may strike you as "hardwired" to be very emotionally
resilient. "When the going gets tough," as the old
saying goes, "they just keep going."
I think that most of us probably fall somewhere in between
these two extremes of personality, in the sense that most
of us have our good days and our not-so-good days when it
comes to emotional resilience. Sometimes we feel like we could
conquer the world, and on those days we find it quite easy
not to "sweat the small stuff." But other days,
almost anything has the potential to upset us, and we'd love
to just crawl back into bed and sleep the day away.
A Promising Scientific Finding about Emotional Resilience
But believe it or not, I have some wonderful news regarding
emotional resilience. There is now solid scientific evidence
that any one of us can improve our individual levels of emotional
resilience. For a look at some of the neuroscience behind
this argument, please read the second half of this
Researchers urge us to think of emotional resilience (or
the lack thereof) not so much as some sort of inborn character
trait, but rather, as a skill, a skill that can be learned,
practiced ... and perhaps even mastered.
If it is indeed true that emotional resilience can be learned
-- and there does seem to be a lot of scientific evidence
to support this idea -- then even people who seem to be the
most emotionally vulnerable must have the internal capacity
to alter -- to "short-circuit", if you will -- their
own emotional "hard-wiring" in order to become more
According to these research findings, one way for vulnerable
people to become more resilient is to try to think and
act their way into believing that they actually can be more
resilient. According to this
MentalHelp.net article, " ... Resilient people believe
they can change their moods, and so they work to change their
moods. The less resilient among us can instead fall
prey to hopelessness."
But there is no longer any need for emotionally vulnerable
people to fall into a pit of despair and hopelessness, because
as it turns out, they can learn
the same techniques for coping with life's slings and arrows
that more resilient people seem to know how to do intuitively.
In other words, it's not that less resilient people are lacking
some kind of "coping gene" or anything like that.
Indeed, they have the power within to become just as resilient
as their more intuitively resilient counterparts, simply by
training their minds to think more positively, and then learning
how to change their behaviors to reflect their new, more positive
For some specific, effective tips about how to "train
yourself" to become more emotionally resilient, I strongly
urge you to read this
very instructive, scientifically based article from the
same website, MentalHelp.net.
To Pick Your Battles
Ways To Deal With Sadness and Grief
of Richard Carlson, Ph.D.
Definition of Emotional Resilience
for Making Yourself More Emotionally Resilient
About The Big Stuff: Finding Life After Death," By Richard