How to Cope With Emotional Fragility
This year, my New Year’s resolution was to stop being emotionally fragile. I was determined to be a person who doesn’t let the little things bother me, asserts herself without losing my temper, and doesn’t rely on the approval of others to think well of me.
In case you’re thinking, “Shouldn’t a psychiatrist already be resilient?” In my personal life, like everyone else, I have vulnerabilities. While emotional fragility is something everyone experiences at least some of the time, one of my stumbling blocks is that I fall higher on the emotional sensitivity spectrum than most.
My New Year’s resolution lasted as long as most. Within a few weeks I was excessively asking for confirmation and writing emails that I immediately wished I could retract. It occurred to me that I might as well get “Handle with Care” tattooed on my forehead.
The consequences of seeing yourself as fragile
The good news is that emotional fragility can be prosocial because it helps you be more empathetic and compassionate, which is positively reinforced by society. However, there are also problematic implications of seeing yourself as fragile. If you frequently put yourself in a handle-with-care box, you risk adopting a victim mentality. People then approach you cautiously or avoid all of you, for example by excluding you from conversations or activities that they feel are too difficult for you. They can even become the target of social exclusion.
Being seen as fragile by others can go hand in hand with believing that you are an outsider. If you think you’ve been passed over for a promotion because your boss didn’t see you as part of the team, you could respond by working even harder to prove yourself. However, this can cause you to become annoyed with extra pressure. Alternatively, you might respond to being passed over by acting somber and less engaged. Ironically, either type of response may send an “I can’t handle this” message to your co-workers.
Within families, the opposite trend can sometimes be seen, with relatives becoming overly meddlesome if they are overly seeking approval. They might start making decisions for you and see it as a help, when in reality they are pushing boundaries.
Reshaping emotional fragility through behavior change
In therapy, we sometimes help clients live alongside emotional fragility by helping them interact with others in ways that enhance intimacy and feelings of belonging. For example, we could teach them to communicate emotions effectively instead of avoiding uncomfortable topics. In this way, we can help emotionally sensitive people feel more accepted and empowered.
Returning to our workplace example above of passing a promotion, a client might learn to be more assertive, perhaps by discussing their opportunities for career advancement, rather than relentlessly striving to prove themselves and burning out or in silent resentment bubble. In the example of family relationships, the person could be guided to set boundaries and be more independent.
We also help clients reshape self-destructive thoughts by reminding them that their thoughts do not represent absolute truths.
In the workplace example, a customer might be encouraged to consider alternative explanations for his boss’s behavior. In the example of family relationships, the client might think that a family member’s over-involvement is a manifestation of that relative’s own anxiety. They could be guided to remind themselves that a catastrophic consequence is not as likely as they might imagine when making their own decision.
With practice, you can make progress by practicing skills that involve both social behavior modification and thought reshaping. Here are some examples:
- Embrace emotional sensitivity Feeling fragile doesn’t mean you’re broken. You don’t have to worry about fixing things when you’re feeling down. Own your emotions and allow others to own theirs. This means that it is not the responsibility of others to fix your emotional turmoil, and it is not your responsibility to fix other people. For example, you may hesitate to go out with friends for a long time, not expecting them to change their plans. You can also do things you enjoy without everyone joining in.
- Separate moods from behaviors. Realize that you can choose to separate your emotions from your behavior. Then think about how you would like to behave and be seen by others, or in other words, what kind of behavior you will look back on and be proud of.
- For example, you may be angry with your partner for asking you to walk the dog when it is his turn and you are busier than him at the moment. At the same time, you may choose to verbalize your needs respectfully (meaning that they will help more) to your partner because you want to be seen as assertive and fair rather than helpless.
- Keep moving, but slow down. Don’t let emotionally vulnerable periods distract you from your daily routines or take small steps toward goals. At the same time, recognize that resilient and often successful people have times when they limit their striving for the sake of self-preservation.
- You can start doing the things you normally do, but more slowly, purposefully, and deliberately, which might mean agreeing to make 2 of the 10 calls you wanted to make and accepting that tomorrow another day is
Emotional fragility isn’t so much the issue as the impact that perception has on your behavior. Appreciate gradual progress and remember that all human beings have at least some degree of emotional fragility. Remember that your goal is to mitigate the effects of emotions, not avoid experiencing them. Being open to what and how you feel is the ticket to inclusion with humanity.
Dweck, CS (2017). From Needs to Goals and Representations: Foundations for a Unified Theory of Motivation, Personality, and Development. Psychological review, 124(6), 689-719. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000082
Lynch, T (2018). Radically open dialectical behavioral therapy: Theory and practice for treating overcontrol disorders. New Harbinger Releases.